Although there’s lots of bigger and higher profile movies to see in theaters every weekend, it’s not often you get a drama that’s so riveting and intense it leaves you shaken to your core.
In the ’60s-set film, Margaret Qualley (The Leftovers) plays Cathleen Harris, a teenager raised by a non-religious single mother Nora (Julianne Nicholson) who discovers religion while attending Catholic School and decides she wants to become a nun. She moves to the convent of the Order of the Sisters of Blessed Rose for two years of training, where she encounters the brusque and often tyrannical Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo). At the same time, the Catholic Church itself is changing with the advent of “Vatican II,” an edict that will have sweeping changes to the status of nuns like the Roses’ Reverend Mother, who resists the changes and takes out her frustrations on the novitiates.
Whether or not you’ve ever had any interest in Catholicism or nuns or how they connect, Betts’ film has a way of dealing with faith in a way we don’t often see in films.
The Tracking Board sat down with Ms. Betts earlier this week to talk about how Novitiate came about, and she shared with us a hilarious anecdote about Melissa Leo’s dedication to her part, plus lots more.
I did a bit of research beforehand, and I’ve read that a.) you were working on a doc that ended up in some ways inspiring this and b.) you wanted to make a movie that was only women.
Yeah, both of those things are true. I made a documentary called The Carrier that took place in sub-Saharan Africa, and it was about AIDS. So it wasn’t the documentary that inspired this movie but rather that I was traveling a lot and I had picked up a book while working on the documentary that was about Mother Theresa. I didn’t know anything about nuns at all, and this book was really very focused on her love relationship, she was so passionate and so intense. I was reading it and I was reading this really intense, great, but also heartbreaking love story. The notion that nuns were like these passionate extremists and that they were in love with God and married to God in this relationship that felt as intense to me as any love relationship that I’ve ever been in. That’s kind of the thing that sparked all of it.
And she would have been there pre-Vatican II.
I can’t remember if the book covered the novitiate or anything like that because I wouldn’t have been aware of what that was at that point. I haven’t re-read the book since, but it made me then go on Amazon and order all these ex-nun memoirs, because I totally had misconceived who these ladies are. I got them all and what happens with me is I get curious about any given topic, and I will compulsively buy all the things that Amazon has in the suggestion thing. I’m that customer that gets sucked in that way, so I had gone on this sort of manic consuming state on Amazon and bought all these ex-nun memoirs. They were stacked up on my kitchen counter, there’s maybe 20 or something — I bought way too many – because I was like,”Oh my God, Mother Theresa, nuns, this is what I’m into! This is what my life is about!” I always get so angry at myself about it, but they were sitting on my kitchen counter for so long, and I was like “You know, you do the same sh*t every time. You buy up all this stuff thinking that this is going to be the new thing that you’re so obsessed with and then you don’t actually read it.” Then I was like “I’m reading every one of these books,” because they cost a lot of money, so I ended up reading them, and they were so good. I remember that thing where you’re up late at night and your eyes are watering because you’re so tired but you can’t stop, like I just got so into these memoirs of these girls in the novitiate.
How long did it take you to actually write the screenplay after this obsession?
This research process took about four years and it was very on and off. And then I sat together with a research assistant that I’d hired, and we wrote like a 40 page research paper on aspirancy programs, vocation, it just walked you through every aspect of what it means to be a nun. And then we’d have paragraphs like “Chapter of Faults.” That usually happens once a week at a novitiate. The young girls are called together and they have to confess, but then I would put every single quote that I found in any book about Chapter of Faults beneath it, directly from the former nun’s mouth. Then with Chapter of Faults I was reading it over, and I’d read about it so many times that when I looked at all the quotes I was like “Oh my God. They were so traumatized by this.”
I didn’t really get the concept when I was just reading through Chapter of Faults. It’s like, “Okay, they just go in a circle and they say something that they did and then other people accuse them.” I was like it sounds not pleasant, but it doesn’t sound like something that you would have post-traumatic stress from. I realized in the ex-nun memoirs that 20 years out from being in the novitiate, they had dreams, and their recurring nightmare was being called on in Chapter of Faults.
So you still had questions after doing all that reading and decided to meet with some real nuns…
Yeah, you get the structure of it all but it’s hard to figure out how people felt. You know, people would describe prayer in this kind of very… it was just something I couldn’t understand until I talked to somebody. You’re in this state that you get in, when it works for them and they’ve been in that sort of meditative prayer state for long enough. There’s like a transcendence. They enter into a different kind of consciousness. It all sounded so beautiful and fascinating and stuff. There was one woman who I talked to a great deal whose name was Deborah Larsen-Cohen, she was an author, and then we had a tech advisor nun, former nun on set whose name is Marion Weekly. They’re both women who wrote books about their experiences and then did public speaking.
They were both old enough to have been around in the days before “Vatican II”?
They were in the convent during that time. I didn’t talk to any current nuns. I only talked to former nuns who had been in the convent in the ‘60s and were teenagers when “Vatican II” came. Another thing is a big part of “Vatican II” was returning to the original intention of some of these rituals and the original liturgy. It was like on the one hand modernizing, but at the same time so many people had adapted or conformed the prescription to the faith to kind of fit, just stuff gets adapted over time. For example, in the 1700s when they first came up with the notion of being a bride of Christ, they weren’t thinking about these 1950s weddings. But in the 1950s the nuns kind of realized that a young girl who always dreams of being married, she wasn’t dreaming of the husband she was dreaming of the wedding. So give them a wedding. You know what I mean? But that was just an adaptation, so “Vatican II” was like get rid of all of this stuff that everybody has been modernizing but also going back to the original intentions.
Was it hard to find a producer or financer who understood your interest in this subject?
It was hard to communicate what I had in mind because I knew that I wanted something that had a much richer, lush feel and was sort of like almost glamorous looking, the way A Nun’s Story is. I think that it’s really hard when you’re reading a script like this to not think that it’s just going to be this heavy, uninviting, gothic, cold, cold, cold, cold, cold-feeling world. I had something in my head that was like super-vibrant, kind of energetic, and that picked up on the youthful energy of the young girls a lot. The look was… even though it’s a monochrome world, you’d feel a sense of color, you’d feel a sense of warmth and invitation into the world. That was really hard to communicate and people were just like … “Nobody is going to want to go watch a movie about a convent,” and I’m like, “No, I want to make it feel like the place to go.”
As I was hearing about the movie at Sundance, I was in that camp where I read the description and was like…
Hell, no. I wouldn’t have gone. I wouldn’t go based on the description of a movie about nuns, but yeah, so the point is that it was hard for me to convey to people how lush and inviting I wanted to make it feel.
How did you go about casting the novitiates including Margaret Qualley?
I went around to all the agencies and I told them I was looking for a really impressive ensemble of up and coming young actresses that are sort of fresh faces. Emma Roberts is a great young actress, but her face would have been too familiar to me, and I don’t audition. So I had maybe like 40 or 50 different meetings either via Skype or for anyone who was in New York, I would go and have coffee and meet them in person.
And I just really intuitively… first of all, the notion of who could you really believe would choose to be a nun as opposed to having boyfriends and hanging out in that age group, so I was looking for girls that were a little outside the norm, that were a little odd, that seemed a little isolated as people. I was looking for girls that had apple-shaped faces because I really believe that people look different now than they did before, than they did in the ‘50s or ‘60s, whatever. I think that the big change in it has to do with working out so much, so people’s faces are much more like … we live in a workout culture where girls start going on the treadmill every day at 13 or something. I wanted them to look so innocent and kind of all-American, so when you see a young girl that age, with that kind of chiseled model-y face. If you look at all the girls in the movie except for one, they all are sort of very full-cheeked, just looked more ‘50s to me. So there was also physical look that I was looking for.
It was a little hard to tell who was who because once you put the habits on them, as they start to look the same.
Totally, yeah. I love it when people are like “Oh, that’s who Dianna Agron was. I had somebody say they didn’t know it was Melissa Leo until after, and I was like, ”You should have known that…” She definitely blends into whatever her role is, but I was surprised that this person was like. “And then I looked it up and I was like oh, that was Melissa Leo…” They obviously don’t know her that well.
Since you already had a script ready when casting, how did you decide which one of them would play which character, and were you bouncing between which roles each actor might play?
Yeah, almost each of them I thought could be one or the other, this one or this one. To be honest, I actually catered the parts a lot to them and worked with them doing that. Once I was like “Okay, Morgan, so you’re going to be Sister Evelyn,” then I could go, “Let’s work on this girl, like who is she?” Morgan, all of the girls, read almost all the same books that I did, so I gave them, sent them all books and they joke around about it. I was like here is your little bibliography, and they were like “Ugh.”
The publishers must have been excited about the sudden interest in their books.
I know, what’s going on? They hadn’t sold one book since 1985. So, I sent them all the books. These girls are really hardworking, really studious. I didn’t worry for a second that they would show up and be like “Oh, I never got a chance to read that one.” You know, they were really into it.
All of them had been working for a while as actors, too.
Yeah, but you know with these — I won’t call them teenagers — but you’re a little older. The other thing I noticed in some of my meetings was you kind of got a sense of who might be more into boyfriends and drinking and hanging out. I mean, I guess that’s like which one would be a nun and which one wouldn’t, but you kind of got a sense of which girls are like “Yeah, I’d love to do this movie,” and then like … it was clear from the start it was going to take a lot of movie. It wasn’t the type of movie that you could show up on set and be like “So, what am I doing now?” It was going to take from the moment you’re cast, you need to be constantly prepping this character because it’s so far outside of you.
So also, in casting, I tried to intuitively pick up on who is by nature a super-hard worker, and all of those girls are super hardworking, very disciplined.
Let’s get into Melissa Leo, who I think is the epitome of a hardworking actor. She can literally show up on screen and raise the level of your movie. What was it like working with her and did she actually stay in character the whole time?
Yeah, she’s quite a bit in character, she stayed in the convent. This is my first movie and she’s a pretty big person, so I just kicked myself that we were able to get her, and then everything made me nervous about her, so I got really involved in like what hotel room she had, you know, with production, I was like “Make sure she has a little stove, and does she have a nice view?” So she shows up and two weeks later she wanted to move into the convent after I killed myself to find the nicest accommodations possible for her. She moved into a room that was basically the size of this room and stayed there the whole time.
That kind of makes sense though, because I don’t think any of us can imagine being in the same place for 40 years. It’s almost like being in prison, I’d imagine.
You have to do it, yeah. It was so funny, the day that it snowed… so she’s from upstate New York, and I guess she just regularly has a shovel in the back of her car. Oh, she drove there, too. She drove from New York to Nashville. She says she likes to road trip to get the sort of solitude, gets her going on a character. But so she had this… so she happened to have a shovel in the back of her car, and there was one day that we had to cancel the day, the night before we heard there was going to be this major snowstorm in Nashville. Nashville doesn’t get snowstorms. Highly unusual, there were two while we were there, and so Nashville shuts down. They don’t have street salt, and they don’t have the infrastructure to deal with snow. Myself and the producers, we made the decision when we heard about the snowstorm coming, “Let’s just cancel Friday, we’ll have to make up this day elsewhere.” Melissa was staying on campus in an actual dorm room within the convent, and I was staying in a small house that was also on the grounds but a little further away. And like, myself, and I can’t remember who I was with, we were kind of trudging through the snow. We were going to get coffee or something like that, and we look and we see this figure of somebody shoveling the walkways. And we were like “What the…?” And then I think it was my producer was like “I think that’s Melissa.” And I was like “No, that can’t be Melissa.” So we approached her, and we’re literally like “Hey, Melissa, I think there’s some grounds people we can call. You don’t have to shovel the snow yourself,” and she’s like “When the postulants get back here on Monday, I don’t want them getting the bottom of their habits wet and messing up the floors.” And we kind of looked at each other and we were like “Did she mean that as Melissa Leo or did she mean that as Reverend Mother?” Then we’re like, “What the hell? Somebody go get her habit and call the AD and get the camera and let’s just shoot Melissa shoveling snow in her habit.” And you see one shot just of her walking, we just went and grabbed a camera. it was this blistering snowstorm, myself, my DP, and the AD, we didn’t need sound. We didn’t need anybody else. We’ve got the key to the, because the costume designer wasn’t there, so we got the key to the costume designer’s wardrobe room and just went and found her habit.
That’s such an interesting story. When I interviewed Sissy Spacek a couple years ago, she was telling me how on Badlands, she was carrying paint and everyone was helping with everything.
Yeah, yeah, Melissa’s very like that. The crew will be doing something and she’s like “Do you need me to help you?” And they’re like “No, we’re good, thanks.” But she’s all about it.
I feel like that’s a regular thing in moviemaking now due to the unions and everyone having to have their own job.
Yeah, I’ve seen those Badlands interviews and there’s something so romantic about being able to make a movie in that way. Now, with unions, you could never… I mean, people who are making really scrappy, super independent, non-union movies, I think it’s really like that. I think the actor’s holding the boom above their head.
Were you able to find a single place to film the entire movie and do everything that needed to be done?
Thank God we found one. We shot it at this place called the Scarritt Bennett Center, which is in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s actually in the heart of the city on the Vanderbilt campus. It was built in the ‘20s, and it used to be a former women’s Methodist college, but it was also built by this architect who built tons of convents around that time. So, architecturally, it had all the same sort of attributes and details. So it used to be women’s Methodist college and then it no longer was. It’s rented out for conferences and stuff like that. It’s a 13-building complex, various sort of gothic, boarding school feeling in the middle of the Vanderbilt campus, and they rent it out for various stuff.
The funniest thing is that while we were shooting in the dining hall, a wedding could be going on in the chapel, or when we were shooting in the chapel, in the dining hall they were having some writers’ conference that day. The funniest thing was these people would show up for their weekend retreat for their company, and they’d see all these nuns walking around and they were like “What?” Nuns were constantly walking back and forth between base camp and shooting, they’re kind of walking along, laughing, smoking, eating chips or whatever.
I want to ask about having Christopher Stark do the music. I couldn’t find any other film credits to his name, and I was amazed by what the music brought to the film.
Oh, he’s great. My music supervisor has every kind of degree and PhD in music, and he’s a good friend of Christopher’s and recommended him, and he was just totally awesome. He won some grant, and he’s a composer, but he hadn’t done a soundtrack. So much of the stuff that he gave me, at first, you know he’d like score for a scene, and then he’d give it to me and I would be like “Yeah, but you’ve got to make the quiet parts when they’re talking.” The music, if it gets bigger, it has to get bigger in between when they’re speaking and then it has to drop down. The thing has to be totally catered to the (dialogue), and he was like “Oh, that’s how they do it.” So funny, and then he came back and he would give me this score and it was like perfect.
Did your music supervisor friend find a lot of the music that was combined with Christopher’s score?
Yeah, I’m a huge fan of that type of music, I’ve just always liked it, that choral music, and I love John Tavener, who we use. I love Arvo Part, who’s a little more of a modernist. We used Gabriel Faure, so I’ve always really, really liked that stuff. It’s so weird, but part of the allure of shooting a movie about nuns was that I’d always loved that music, and I’d always felt that music was meant to film stuff to, so that was even a part of why I really wanted to make a nun movie, because I could use all my music.
I’ve heard a lot of composers can be very precious, like precious artists or sensitive artist types with needs. I was very scared when I first brought Christopher on, because there was so much score that I need for this movie, and I was like “I think you’re brilliant, but it can’t compete with the other stuff. The score needs to be the underbelly, the through-line of the movie, and it can’t seem like you’re trying to compete with Arvo Part.” I was really scared it’d be like some kind of really precious artist that would just walk out of the room and be like, “I’ll never work with you again,” but he was like, “That’s cool.” I love every piece of music. He’s brilliant, like he can do anything. But, I mean, you know, the difference between the score that he did for Reverend Mother’s character versus the score for Cathleen’s character, he’s really, really good, and he’s such a nice man. He’s a very sweet guy.
Do you know what you want to do next after this, do you have any thoughts?
I’m working on two things but I don’t really talk about them because I don’t want to jinx them, but definitely doing features now.
Novitiate opens in New York and L.A. Friday, Oct. 27.