After graduating from Southern Methodist University, Texas born and raised writer-director Lauren Hadaway went on to forge a career as a dialogue and ADR supervisor, working on movies like Justice League (both cuts), The Hateful Eight, and Whiplash. Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-winning film proved particularly impactful on her, and she describes her intense, utterly gripping debut feature The Novice, released in theatres and on demand on Friday December 17th, as “Whiplash with shades of Black Swan set in the college rowing world”.
Her semi-autobiographical film world premiered at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival in June, where it won multiple awards including Best US Narrative, Best Actress for Isabelle Fuhrman, and Best Cinematography for Todd Martin. This week it was recognized with five Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best Feature, Best Director, Best Actress for Isabelle Fuhrman, Best Supporting Actress for Amy Forsyth, and Best Editing for Hadaway and Nathan Nugent. As a 2018 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Fellow, Hadaway’s film was the U.S. Centerpiece selection at August’s Outfest LA LGBTQ Film Festival, where the filmmaker was a Spotlight Artist.
At the heart of The Novice is a compelling tour-de-force performance from Isabelle Fuhrman as queer college freshman, Alex, who becomes razor-focused on making it to the top varsity boat, despite the intense physical and emotional toll. Perhaps best known for her breakout role as the haunting young girl, Esther, starring opposite Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard in Jaume Collet-Serra’s 2009 horror Orphan, Fuhrman recently reprised her role in the upcoming prequel, Orphan: First Kill. Her other screen work has seen her star in the indie drama TAPE, which tackles sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, alongside Uma Thurman in the thriller Down A Dark Hall, opposite Samuel L. Jackson in the Stephen King adaptation Cell, as well as roles in the rom-com 1 Night, the first Hunger Games movie, and Showtime’s acclaimed series Masters of Sex. On stage she starred Off-Broadway alongside Abigail Breslin and Alex Wolff in Erica Schmidt’s coming of age drama All The Fine Boys.
Ahead of the release of The Novice, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Isabelle Fuhrman and Lauren Hadaway about their experience of making the film, their approach to the central character’s sexuality, and what sparked the passion for their chosen professions.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: congratulations on the film and on the reception that it received when it premiered at Tribeca this summer. What did that mean to each of you?
Lauren Hadaway: “It was great because I had a successful career that I walked away from to pursue writing and directing, then I spent a year in the pandemic in my kitchen doing post-production on this thing in the dark by myself, totally isolated, as the world was ending, having no idea what was going to happen. So to finally have people see the film and to have it received like that, it was huge. This was a big gamble, a kind of all-or-nothing thing, and it seems to have paid off so I’m pretty happy!”
Isabelle Fuhrman: “I was so excited just to see the movie on a big screen, especially since Tribeca was one of the first in-person festivals. It felt like this really special moment. We premiered the movie on the water by all these boats and I remember being like, ‘What a beautiful night’ and then I flew back to LA. Then Lauren called me and was like, ‘You just won best actress, and I just won best narrative, and Todd just won best cinematography!’ And I was like, ‘Wait, what?!’ I was honestly shocked and so happy and proud.”
Isabelle, you got into acting very young, looking back was there something that made you think, ‘Oh, I want to do that’?
Isabelle: “I am a younger sibling and everything that my sister did I copied and did as well. My sister was constantly doing sports and all sorts of stuff, but I remember the first thing that I chose out of our extracurricular activities was singing. My parents worked full-time and needed to put us someplace in the summer and so we did musical theatre camp. That’s how I first got into musical theatre. Weirdly enough, my career just kind of happened, things fell into place. A casting director saw this play I was in. I was just in the ensemble, but she told my mom, ‘Your daughter has a lot of talent, you should get her an agent’. My mom was like, ‘No way in hell, this is ridiculous!’ My sister really wanted to go to this audition for an agency in Atlanta and so my mom took us and they ended up signing me out of thousands of people.”
“I was taping auditions just for fun with my dad and my mom in my living room, talking to my dog, and somebody saw an audition tape and wanted me to come to Los Angeles. My mom was changing her career path at that time and so we came for a month and then I ended up staying for three because I was working so much. Then we came back to Atlanta as if we were just going to forget it ever happened, but I really loved it. I loved playing pretend and I loved being on a set, so I made a deal with my mom that we’d go to LA for a year and if nothing happened I would wait until I was 18. Then I booked Orphan. That was the first time I realized that this was a job, that I could do this forever, because I was working with adults who loved it. Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard really took me under their wings and offered me so much advice and were like parents to me on that set. I know it sounds crazy, but from the time that I was 10 I was like, ‘This is what I’m going to do’. So I’ve done it ever since and I’ve had the kind of mentality of, ‘Why would I do anything else? I love this so much’.”
I think that’s exactly the mindset that you need to succeed in it isn’t it?
Isabelle: “Yes, and I feel for Alex in The Novice in that sense too because she is semi-haunted by the naturally gifted. I’ve been working in this industry since I was a kid and I’ve seen people come out of nowhere and all of a sudden amass this incredible amount of what you perceive on the outside as success, working with all these incredible people, but I feel like I have an incredible amount of resilience and I know that it’s going to happen because I’m just going to keep fighting for it. I’m still here.”
Writing The Novice, Lauren I know that you put a lot of your own personal experience into it, but I wondered whether when it came to actually making the film, did you see a parallel there in Alex’s story and the determination and endurance that’s required to get a film like this up on the screen to the point where you can show it at Tribeca?
Lauren: “I say that I took my four years of collegiate experience and compressed it down into a year, but I was also double majoring; I was doing honors programs; I was working; I was interning; I was in the film club; I was volunteering; I was in the vegetarian club; I was extremely overextended and I was so exhausted! My senior year I would wake up in tears at 5am. I woke up at 5am, six days a week for four years. Never once pushed snooze. I would cry driving to practice saying, ‘I just want to fucking sleep!’ I would take 20 second power naps in the boat when it wasn’t my turn to row and then I would go to my internship and close one eye. My boss would sit to my right, I would close my eye towards the wall, thinking maybe I could be like a dolphin and get some sleep like that! I was just trying to count down to graduation to survive. I could not wait to be done because I couldn’t quit, I had to make it to the finish line.”
“I did not experience that level of exhaustion again until making The Novice. Then it was 20-hour days, for me at least, with shooting, prepping before, and getting everything done after. We shot six days a week, but on the days off I would be editing the film. Then there was the resiliency required going into post-production in the pandemic and just going at this as an indie. We didn’t have a lot of money and I started editing out of necessity. I was doing a lot of this work that on a bigger budget film you’d have a whole team to do, but it was me in my kitchen with my laptop doing this stuff. So whatever resiliency I picked up in my school years I definitely think I carried through and this is the blood sweat and tears investment that hopefully I never have to do again at this level. But as a director, as a writer, whatever I’m working on, I have to be willing to cry in the fetal position on the floor or I’m not going to do it, because it’s inevitably going to end up there.”
My experience of rowing at high school was very brief. I said, ‘I’d like to row’ and the instructor said, ‘Okay, well, you need to come in every day for the next two weeks at five in the morning and go on the machine’, and I think I only made it for two consecutive days and I didn’t even make it out on to the water!
Lauren: “It’s brutal! When people say, ‘Oh, I love rowing. I get on the machine at the gym’. I’m like, ‘You don’t really love it!’ You haven’t really experienced rowing if you’re saying, ‘Oh, I love it, it’s so fun!'”
When it came to giving us a sense of how physically and psychologically demanding rowing is, what did you want to convey and how did you go about doing that with your brilliant sound design and cinematography?
Lauren: “The challenge for me was that there aren’t a lot of films about rowing and a lot of the ones that do exist don’t capture it, except for the scene in The Social Network, that’s brilliant, but that’s only one scene. How do you do an entire film about rowing? 99% of the people who watch this film don’t know anything about rowing, they’re the people who are like, ‘Oh, I love rowing, rowing is great!’ So how do you make the audience feel what the character is feeling?”
“Something that’s always stuck with me is a lesson that I learned from a sound supervisor who I worked with in my first career. He said, ‘Whatever sound you’re putting in, everything needs to be telling the story and needs to be adding to the story’. So approaching the rowing scenes really became about how to evoke what the character is feeling to the audience, so it’s not so literal about capturing rowing and making it look cool and shooting it like a commercial, but it’s about getting into the emotional experience of the character, getting very subjective. So it meant using the sound design to get into her head and everything else falls away.”
“When you’re rowing your tunnel vision is going, you’re solely focused on it, so it meat shooting it that way with spotlights and being very subjective with what we’re experiencing and framing the rowing as a relationship between Alex and the boat. It’s almost like a love relationship. There’s the ‘B story’ queer love story in this, but the real love story of the film is Alex and this boat, from the first attraction to the clunky beginnings, the first time making love at 500 frames a second, sweating and glossy, to falling in love, the beautiful fog and the sun is rising and there are birds flying across the camera, to the slow toxic descent of losing control and the relationship crumbling and her crumbling. So it was a case of thinking about that emotional space when it came to what we were putting on the screen and what we were putting in the speakers.”
You mentioned the queer aspect and one thing that I loved about that is that she’s not othered for being a queer character and it’s not an essential part of the plot. In fact if this character was straight then we wouldn’t need to comment on the fact that she’s straight, which kind seems obvious, but in some ways it’s kind of revolutionary that we’re getting these queer characters now where it’s just, ‘Yeah, she’s queer, so what?’
“Yeah, you hit it completely. I didn’t want a message narrative attached to the queer aspect of it. The message narrative is that there isn’t a point. There isn’t the moment where she’s questioning her sexuality or the moment when a teammate finds out she’s dating a woman and calls her slurs. Fuck that. In my experience as a queer person, yes, we all have our moments of things going down, but for the most part I’m just living my life and I think we do need queer stories about oppression and the challenges that queer people have overcome, but what we are severely lacking in my opinion are stories where the queer relationship just is, because that to me is important too. I want 18-year-olds to watch this film and not have every representation of queerness be so intense, and be about coming out and their family’s reaction, there’s more to it than that, you’re just a fucking person. Being queer, it’s part of me, and being a woman, but these aren’t my identity. I’m not like, ‘I’m a woman, I’m queer!’ Those are me, but that’s not everything about me. So I really wanted to just have that and not comment on it, exactly like what you’re saying.”
How about for you Isabelle, what did you make of the way that Lauren had written it?
Isabelle: “I agree. Now that I think of it I don’t think I’ve read a script before or since where the romantic relationship is between two women or two men and it’s not a topic of conversation within the film. I really loved that because Lauren told me that when she wrote the script she originally wrote the Dani character—just because of all this preconditioning we have—as a guy. Then she was like, ‘Why am I writing this as a guy?!'”
Lauren: “I’m not even straight! It felt weird. I was like, ‘I don’t even like this character’ and then I was like, ‘No wonder!’ The way that compulsory heterosexuality overtook me as I was writing this personal story is ridiculous.”
Isabelle: “What I really love about it is that Dani is an androgynous name and Dani is who Alex loves and I thought that that was such a beautiful part of the story in the way that it doesn’t have to be a question, it doesn’t have to be an issue, it doesn’t have to be something that people are discussing or talking about, or like Lauren said, the girls in the locker making slurs or anything, it’s just a part of Alex and who she is. I love that she’s comfortable in her own skin. I think that it’s very rare to see a queer character in a film that is comfortable in her own skin and not necessarily having to overcome something at the same time in that relationship. Working with Dilone was a dream. I remember saying to Lauren, ‘This is who you cast to play my love interest in the movie?! She’s so gorgeous and so smart and so cool’. I was so flustered when we first met.”
Lauren: “You’re getting all flustered now!”
Isabelle: “I get really flustered around her. I have such a crush on her! I love her. She’s so cool. It really was a beautiful relationship that we got to form doing our scenes together and we developed a really close bond. We were crying on the floor of the bathroom after we filmed that breakup scene—Lauren, our DP Todd, Dilone, and I—in the fetal position, huddling, and just sobbing. That’s how you know that you’re capturing something authentic and real.”
I found the experience of watching it exhilaratingly intense from beginning to end. What was your experience of inhabiting Alex? I know that you’re a runner, but I guess rowing was a different demand physically?
Isabelle: “I’m incredibly uncoordinated. Lauren hauled her old erg machine out of the back of her garage and was showing me how to row. Then I got out on the water in a single, which like it says in the movie, is very easy to flip. The amount of times I went in the water at five in the morning in Marina del Rey! I really had to learn the sport and it became similar to running in the sense that it’s cyclical, it’s the same movement over and over. I would grow in leaps and bounds from when we first started, but even now when I watch the movie, I’m like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I should have been better at this!’ I see little issues that I have with my own physical performance.”
“Really diving into rowing was such a huge part of how I got into character. I was waking up at four thirty in the morning like Alex. I was rolling out of bed with my clothes already pre-opened on the floor, immediately putting them on so I didn’t have any chance to get back into bed. I was climbing into my car in the freezing cold and driving to get to the marina. I was getting on the water for three hours, watching the most beautiful sunrises I’d ever seen every single morning, and then sleeping for 15 minutes and stuffing food in my face before I was back on the water for another three hours. I gained 12 pounds of muscle for the role and I was incredibly sore, my hands were bleeding, I had blisters all over. Some mornings my alarm would go off and I was like, ‘I can’t move!’ But looking back, I loved every moment of it because it really was the easiest way for me to get into this character.”
“As Lauren said, the essential love story in the movie is between Alex and her boat and I really got to fall in love with the sport of rowing. It became my life for six weeks and then for the two months of us filming. All I was doing was living and breathing the sport. It put me in this exhausted mental and physical state that I think really helped my performance. In acting, people call it ‘the emotional pocket’ and it’s when you have nothing left to keep at bay, when you’re emotionally raw, and I felt like I was there for the entire shoot. I was so lucky because Lauren cast such incredible people that I got to come to set every day and be so present. I was living and breathing what Alex was living and breathing and I was emotionally in this place where I felt like I had to be the best on set. I felt like I had to prove myself every single day. I remember when Amy says to Alex, ‘Nobody respects you’, that felt like someone had broken a twig, a frayed piece of wood, that’s what it felt like in my heart because because I was there at that place. I was so there with Alex every step of the way and Lauren was the one who facilitated that by being adamant that I row the entire movie, that we didn’t have any doubles, that it was as authentic as it could possibly be from beginning to end, and I am really grateful for that.”
Earlier I asked Isabelle about getting into acting, and I believe the spark for you Lauren was watching Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. What was it about that film that ignited your passion for the idea of becoming a filmmaker?
“My whole life I’ve always been writing stories and if you would have asked me when I was seven what I wanted to be when I grew up, I wanted to be an author. Then there was that classic thing when I found my parents VHS camera and I was making slasher horror films with my friends when I was 10-years-old. My parents were pretty good about movies, they were always important in our household. Friday night was movie night and we would rent two movies, and we’d go to Sunday morning matinees, but my parents would not let me watch R-rated movies. If there was a sex scene in a film we had to leave the room and then we’d come back in when it was over.”
“I have an older brother and he’s a nerd. Him and all his nerdy friends were going to go see Kill Bill and I knew it was about this white woman doing Kung Fu and I was like, ‘That sounds so stupid!’ I was about 14 at the time. Then fast forward to a year later when it was out on DVD, my mom was taking a nap and my dad put Kill Bill into the DVD player and immediately passed out in the chair before it had even started. I was like, even though this movie sounds stupid I’m going to watch it because it’s rated R and I might not have this chance again. So that Sunday afternoon at 2pm, I watched Kill Bill and it blew my mind. I’d never seen anything like it. The lack of subtlety, and obviously Tarantino’s known for this, it being so in-your-face and there were these female characters who were badass but kind of fucked up and twisted. Then there’s the emotion, there’s the fun, there’s the adventure, there’s all of it. It totally shattered my view and at that point my parents gave up trying to stop me and I watched that film probably one hundred times that year. I was 15 and I was watching all of Tarantino’s films, I started watching all of Scorsese’s movies and the whole R-rated thing just went right out the fucking window! I knew from that moment that I wanted to be a filmmaker. So maybe it was good that my parents didn’t let me watch anything R-rated, because then when I saw this thing it was a slap to the face!”
By James Kleinmann
Lauren Hadaway’s The Novice starring Isabelle Fuhrman opens is in select theatres and released on demand on Friday December 17th.
Watch our full interview with Lauren Hadaway and Isabelle Fuhrman below: