EXCLUSIVE: Filmmaker Maggie Betts, Actress Margaret Qualley Speak Up on ‘Novitiate’

Left to right: Chelsea Lopez as Sister Charlotte, Margaret Qualley as Sister Cathleen, Eline Powell as Sister Candance, Liana Liberato as Sister Emily and Morgan Saylor as Sister Evelyn in NOVITIATE. ©Sony Pictures Classics. CR: Mark Levine.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—The late Mother Teresa’s published private correspondence is proving to be a fount of source material for movies about nuns. There was 2014’s “The Letters,” that starred Juliet Stevenson as the beloved charity-driven nun who secretly harbors doubts about God and her chosen vocation. Now, comes “Novitiate,” a fictional drama about an American order of nuns dealing with the tumultuous changes brought on by Vatican II reforms in the early 1960s.

The film is the first narrative feature by documentarian Maggie Betts, who shed light on the plight of an HIV-positive pregnant Zambian woman in her 2011 work, “The Carrier.”

The native New Yorker and non-Catholic admits she never imagined making a film about nuns until she came across “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light,” which intimately delved into the holy woman’s turbulent relationship with her spiritual “husband.”

“I didn’t know before this that nuns are married to God,” says Betts. “I didn’t know they literalized the relationship so intensely and completely.”

So, for four years, Betts researched Catholic nuns. She became particularly intrigued with the period of change that occurred 50 years ago with Vatican II, a series of edicts from Rome that brought reform to the Church. Though regarded as progressive and necessary, the new rules didn’t sit well with the Church’s nuns, who were left out of the decision-making process. Many of them left the order to serve their communities in other way while others left the Church altogether.

Betts spoke with many women who had been young at the time and were directly impacted by the changes that took place in the 1960s. “Novitiate” centers on one young woman, who enters the order in hopes of giving herself to God after years of indoctrination in the Catholic school system. Cathleen (played by Margaret Qualley, whose previous credits include the Ryan Gosling starrer “The Nice Guys,” and Gio Coppola’s “Palo Alto”), along with a half-dozen or so other young women undergo a difficult training process, which includes both physical and emotional sacrifices in order to show their devotion to God, under the tutelage of a tradition-bound Reverend Mother Superior, played by Academy Award winner Melissa Leo. The female-dominant film also stars “Glee’s” Dianna Agron, Julianne Nicholson and Morgan Saylor.

The fictional drama was shot in and around Nashville, with Vanderbilt University’s Scarritt Bennett Center, a former women’s Methodist college, standing in for the cloistered monastery, where these young women are subject to conforming to specific rules of behavior and deprived of even the slightest physical connection to another human being. They have only a few years to prove they are worthy of devoting the rest of their lives to Christ.

Writer/director Qualley sitting alongside her film’s star Betts, spoke about tackling the provocative subject matter and working with a largely female cast and crew.

Q: Maggie, you’re not Catholic, so why did this subject matter interest you?

Betts: I came at it from a completely different angle. Like, being interested in the context of nuns and religion is the backdrop, but there were so many bigger, universal themes that came up from just the most tertiary study of nuns, and that’s what made me really excited about the world. How this very niche, specific environment actually could lead you to super universal ideas about women, about how women love, about individuals versus the institution, just so many things. It was never meant to be a religious movie.

Q: The Reverend Mother is angered about the changes coming through Vatican II and is reluctant to enact the reforms she is given.

Betts: Yeah. It’s like my father used to always say to me when I was growing up, “Your principles or your beliefs only really matter when they’re challenged.” For example, for me, as a feminist, it’s easy for me to be like, “Yay, Gloria Steinem” or whoever. But at the same time, in this situation, this woman actually has this school that she’s running that is basically the most backward, 1950s sexist training for these young girls to be in this subservient role to their quote/unquote, “husband” Jesus. I mean, there couldn’t be anything more anti-feminist than what the Reverend Mother is doing, but at the same time, that’s where your principles are most challenged, because nevertheless, nobody should be making a paternalistic decision for her about what she should do with her life. It was like the conflation of those two things made it more interesting than if the woman was a really rah-rah feminist, fighting the good fight.

Q: This film takes place between 1962-1965. Did you speak with a lot of nuns? I doubt there are too many nuns from that period that are still alive.

Betts: The majority of women I talked to were women who had been in the program during those years and left. I didn’t speak to any contemporary nuns, only a couple on the phone, but their experience is so different and it’s a different world. It would be like talking to a soldier in the Army today serving in Iraq and asking him to tell me what Vietnam was like. It just is not applicable. The women that I talked to that had been trained to become nuns during the ’60s and left were now much, much older women.

Q: Is Sister Cathleen (Qualley’s character) based on somebody you spoke with or kind of an amalgam?

Betts: It’s a total amalgam. To begin with, something sort of pushes the boundaries of reality. Just the fact that she’s not Catholic, that’s like asking the audience to, there’s a fiction aspect to that. You could certainly become a nun. You’d have to be baptized and all that kind of stuff. But it’s kind of a leap of faith with the purpose being for the audience to see her as that pure, religious, protégé. There’s no reason for her to be there. There was nothing in her background. In fact, everything in her background was keeping her away from God, and so I wanted the girl to not be Catholic or from any religious background, because that was the best way to look at what pure faith might be like.

Q: For you, Margaret, what was it like delving into Cathleen and trying to come up with this persona for the film?

Qualley: I actually related to her in a lot of ways. I grew up dancing; I was really serious about ballet. The ballet world isn’t entirely dissimilar, actually, from the life of a novice, in that there’s a lot of discipline and focus and overwhelming desire to be perfect. So, I related to that feeling of feeling like I wanted to have certain steps that I could follow in order to make myself better. That’s something that Cathleen really desired.

Q: You had a sizable contingent of female crew and cast.

Betts: There are three men in (the cast) and there are 86 speaking roles.

Q: What it like working with all these women?

Betts: I felt bad for the guys when they showed up on set. (She laughs.) No, it was awesome. I’ve never worked on a crew of all men so I can’t say for the difference, but women are super collaborative and there wasn’t a lot of power-jockeying on our set, like, “My department is more important than yours” or “My idea of what we should do here is more important than yours.” With the actresses too, it was a very sort of a free environment. A lot of times, they would say, “I don’t want to say this. I just don’t think she would say that.” I would say, “O.K., then what do you think she would say?” and usually it’s better than what I had thought. There weren’t power structures on set.

Q: Were you able to stick to your schedule and not go over too many days?

Betts: Yeah. I remember when I made my documentary, my editor was a woman and midway through we had a disagreement or something and she said something like, “It’s so much better working with a woman.” She said, “We’re going to work this out.” She was like, “We got this.” Like we’re just two women putting this movie together kind of thing. Nobody’s anybody’s boss. Nobody should be wielding authority over another. Let’s just make the best thing we can together.

Q: There’s some really tough scenes in this, especially when you the young novitiates are in the circle confessional scenes. It seems like it might have been difficult to shoot and really challenging to act. Can you talk about those scenes that really make the audience feel uncomfortable watching because they are so intense and emotional? What was it like shooting that?

Qualley: Good, I’m glad to hear that. The days leading up to shooting that, most of the novices, we all stayed in the convent and we just lived by the rules that our characters would have had to. The “custody of the eyes” (not making eye-contact). The scenes with the grand silence, refraining from any human touch, anything like that. To spend time together while doing that was really special because when you remove all the extra stimulation that we have in our lives, like cell phones and television and music and all of that, you become aware of different things and you aren’t usually so present. So, it was a fun experiment to sit together and eat dinner in complete silence, and the little things became massive.

Q: Can you give an example of that?

Qualley: Morgan Saylor, one of the actresses, I remember she peeled a clementine (tangerine) and passed out pieces to everybody, and that was the most exciting thing that happened that night. All the tiny nuances in life that aren’t usually brought to our attention became big deals.

As for the grand circle, the actual shooting of it, was pretty intense. Even just being on your knees for 12 hours makes you feel a certain way. Because it takes a lot longer to shoot the scene than the scene actually is. For two days, we were on our knees for about 12 hours a day.

Betts: I think it was closer to three days. They had breaks in-between and kneepads on but they were wobbly. It was hard on them. There’s a lot of coverage where you can kind of see them, particularly with (Qualley). For me, what was hard was when to stop it. It started to get really, really real. It became so real. Also, Melissa (Leo, who plays the Reverend Mother) was so intimidating to them, particularly when their eyes are down and she’s just circling them like a vulture, like, “Who’s next?”

Morgan’s (confessional scene) was the first one we shot and she did that whole monologue. That monologue was half or maybe a full page of dialogue. I didn’t want to break it up. I just wanted her to do the whole thing. Each time, she was weeping. After the third or fourth take, I started to feel very badly. I started to feel very sadistic or cruel. I was like, “I feel like I have it.” I feel 95 percent sure that we’ve got it, in terms of her coverage. In any other scene, I would like to have one more just to have it, but I do feel like I got it. That was the only thing that we didn’t shoot the master (shot) first. That was the only thing that we shot the close up first to get that out (of the way).

Q: Melissa Leo is so fearsome in this. In casting her in that role, did she come to you and say how do you want me to play this, or did she come in with her own ideas on how she wanted to play this character?

Betts: You don’t tell Melissa a lot. She’s really thorough. She knows what she’s doing in every single line, every single moment. She’s definitely somebody that you can trust her choices. There were questions about how big she should be. There were moments, mainly in that scene where she was screaming “Silence” (to one of the novitiate’s who’d broken the rule) that was the turning point where it was like, “Well, how big should this be?” I was like, well this woman’s been in the convent almost 40 years. Her entire way of life is being threatened. Her “marriage” is crumbling, and she just got off the phone with the Archbishop who literally just reamed her out.” I was like, “I think you could be pretty big. I don’t think you need to worry.” And I said, (the Reverend Mother) “has the emotional maturity of a 16-year-old,” because she’s been in there since she’s 16 and the way that we develop emotionally and psychologically is through relationships, but this woman hasn’t had a relationship since she was 16. She has had tantrums. She’s like a 16-year-old child inside. I was like, “Yeah, I think you can be pretty big.”

Then, when I was sitting behind monitor, I almost ran home, I was so scared. (She laughs.) I was like, “Wow, that was really big.” I loved it, but when I said “You can be as big as you want,” I did not know that that was going to be that big. It was amazing. I can remember wanting to go in the bathroom because I was so scared.

Q: Margaret, did you and your co-stars avoid Melissa Leo until you had to your scenes with her?

Qualley: If we were doing an in-character experience, it wouldn’t have been appropriate to be eating with her. She did, however, wake us up in the morning at five, knocking on all of our doors. It would have been like a Reverend Mother. She woke us up.

Q : How was it shooting at the Scarritt Bennett Center, which is this beautiful stone structure at the Vanderbilt campus?  Is it still used for religious purposes?

Betts: No. When we were shooting the church scenes and stuff, we had to break down the set by 3 p.m., on Fridays, and then they’d come in and (prep it for a) wedding over the weekend and then we built our sets again on Monday. The center was actually being used for weddings (and conferences). We’d be shooting some crazy chapter vault stuff and the girls would step out for a breath of fresh air and there would be people with nametags who would be doing some writer’s retreat or whatever it was.