Staying Afloat: Obsession in The Novice

The Novice lead Isabelle Fuhrman is no lightweight in the acting department. 
The Novice lead Isabelle Fuhrman is no lightweight in the acting department. 

Writer-director Lauren Hadaway on finding the balance in life, escaping the culture of American student debt, and learning from the best in the business.

Whether they drum, ice skate, play chess or gamble for a living, obsessive characters make for deeply anxious, endlessly interesting cinematic studies. One of this year’s best obsessives is The Novice’s Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman), a queer college freshman who will do whatever it takes to get ahead on the water in her university’s rowing team. Lauren Hadaway’s debut feature made our Tribeca best-of list, where it also won the awards for best US narrative feature, best actress for Isabelle Fuhrman, and best cinematography.

Hadaway’s “existential anthem” arrives in cinemas—up against holiday-season heavy-hitters like Nightmare Alley and Spider-Man: No Way Home—with five new Independent Spirit nominations (best feature, director, editing, female lead and supporting female, for Amy Forsyth). It’s a huge vote of confidence in Hadaway, who was once put off the idea of becoming a director by the machismo culture she encountered at college.

Alex (Isabelle Furhman) aims for the swing during a team run on the water.
Alex (Isabelle Furhman) aims for the swing during a team run on the water.

Instead, the filmmaker had bootstrapped her way into the business from her beginnings in a small Texas town (with no arthouse theater in sight) by stacking her résumé with work as a sound editor and dialogue supervisor. Her no-turning-back moment had come when she saw Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 at the age of fifteen, inspiring her to make a fan film for Kill Bill: Vol. 3.

Later, Hadaway’s work in sound departments—on films as varied as Pacific Rim, Whiplash and Zack Snyder’s Justice League—put her in the orbit of legendary film artists. She absorbed wisdom from directors like Guillermo del Toro, Ava Duvernay on Selma and even Tarantino himself on The Hateful Eight before heading out on her own.

Hadway mined her own life for her debut feature, drawing on her experience as a college rower to bring audiences into Alex’s world in a frighteningly involving way. The Novice examines the ways in which we give life our own meaning, and the rocky road that gets us there. As Claira puts it in their review: “I never wanted it to end, and yet, I couldn’t help but let out a deep exhale of relief when it did.”

To put us in Alex’s headspace, Hadaway uses the full camera, sound and editing spectrum of her craft background to create the intense psychology of her highly perfectionist protagonist. Think Whiplash, with oars.

We chatted with Hadaway about her cathartic writing process, the film’s unique utilization of sound design, and its American identity.

Independent Spirit-nominated actresses Amy Forsyth as Jamie and Furhman as Alex. 
Independent Spirit-nominated actresses Amy Forsyth as Jamie and Furhman as Alex. 

I saw that Zack Snyder got a quote on your poster, but given your career’s launching point and the close comparisons with Whiplash, I felt that could have been Damien Chazelle’s slot to pitch.
Lauren Hadaway: People always ask me when I’m working on a film [whether] it’s good, but I don’t fucking know because the sound isn’t done yet. If you watch a film without the finished sound effects, it is not the film, it’s this incomplete skeleton, in my opinion. But Whiplash was the one film where I watched the cut straight out of Avid and I was like, ‘this is brilliant’. Fast-forward to making this, and our mixer [Craig Mann] actually won the Academy Award for Whiplash, so it felt like full-circle in a way. We’re indie and there’s not a lot of money, but I really fought to get those guys on board because they’re my people. I don’t know if Damien has seen it yet.

I worked on every iteration of Justice League and I was working on the Snyder Cut in the second half of last year when I was finishing The Novice. By day, I was cutting sound for Zack, and by night I was cutting sound for my own film. I had to take a week off for mixing, and when he found out I was doing this whole thing, he asked to see the film and he’s been a big supporter. That was lovely.

As it’s such a personal film, what did you learn about yourself while making it?
Writing this was a catharsis in a lot of ways. When I was younger, I definitely didn’t prioritize my relationships with people. I didn’t prioritize good food, good company, living well. It wasn’t until I started getting [into] relationships with other people who did value these things that I saw how they could live a rich life.

When you’re with another person, whether it’s romantic or a friendship, even mundane things suddenly have more meaning because you’re having a shared experience, and that’s something I learned in my late twenties. Alex is a proxy of my younger self, but Dani [Alex's girlfriend and TA, played by Dilone] is everything that I learned when I came to appreciate that balance. She’s trying to talk to my younger self in a way: you can be ambitious and driven, and still be a human being.

Alex works to keep her ergo in check. 
Alex works to keep her ergo in check. 

How did you go about directing Isabelle Furhman when you’re taking her to such extremes?
She’s extremely full of life and a nice, jovial person and that ended up being so important, as her energy was contagious. My first week as a director was our water week, where we were shooting all the rowing scenes, and I didn’t really have time to get to the nitty, gritty details with Isabelle.

The director of photography [Todd Martin] had rowed for two months in freshman year of high school, but no one else knew anything [about rowing], so I had to do the logistics and I barely could give direction. I was screaming and worrying about the boats and where the cameras were, [but when] I watched the monitors [I saw] that Isabelle was bringing this sensitivity to it. We had met and all that, but it’s not like we rehearsed or anything, so it was a huge fucking gamble and I didn’t really have time to think about it.

When we moved to shoot everything after water week, I was really nervous because it wasn’t just survival mode in the trenches anymore and ‘let’s just make it through this alive’. Now I’m in a room with two actors. The first scene that we shot, she brought this emotionality to it, and I got over my fears pretty quickly and had so much fun with her. It wasn’t just me directing, it was very much a collaboration, and we were discovering things together and building our rapport and our friendship.

Part of it too is that you want to be able to tell someone “no”, or if she does something and it wasn’t in my head—and I’ve had this in my head for three years—I never imagined it that way, but we roll with it because it was brilliant. We had this trust [that] developed naturally and after that initial day of my first scene directing actual dialogue, it felt kind of effortless, quite frankly.

I was working on the Snyder Cut in the second half of last year when I was finishing The Novice. By day, I was cutting sound for Zack, and by night I was cutting sound for my own film.

—⁠Lauren Hadaway

The soundscape contributes so much to the way you get into Alex’s headspace. Can you give us some technical insight into how you achieved this sensory effect?
I’ve noticed I am conscious of the tone of voices and I think I’m drawn to it. Isabelle has a deeper voice and I like that in characters, there’s a richness to it. The real creative challenge of this film is how you make an audience, where 99 percent of them have never rowed or been obsessed over something, feel this subjective experience. Trying not to be so literal with everything and get into the head of the character is the fun part of it for me.

When we were shooting, we had eight different microphones, [including] the lavalier microphone that’s getting her breathing, and we got in there and fucked around with them so it’s really heightened. We pulled the higher frequencies away until it’s muffled and we threw on some reverb so it gets all twisted and warped. We did something similar with the 1960s love songs, which subverts what you expect from a film like this. I was telling our composer, Alex Weston, that this is our Beasts of the Southern Wild moment because that soundtrack for that film is fucking incredible and intense.

[The songs] frame this film as a love story between Alex and the sport, from the first initial attractions to clunky beginnings to falling in love. When we get towards the end of the film, when the relationship is crumbling, we took those same songs and fucked them up so the pitch is getting warped and you’re getting into the head of the character that way. Everything sonically has to be adding something to the story and nothing is done because it’s ‘cool’. Why is this bird going in? Why is this dog barking? There has to be a fucking reason for it.

Alex’s obsession leaves her questioning the shell of her former self.
Alex’s obsession leaves her questioning the shell of her former self.

While Coach Pete is not exactly your Fletcher in Whiplash, he is the opposing force and somewhat patriarchal figure for Alex, telling her what she doesn’t want to know. What was important for you in your approach to his character?
It’s funny you call him the patriarch, because he’s actually the matriarch of the film. He’s the Mother Goose and he’s sweet and calm, and he takes on a role that normally a mother might have. There’s another female coach and she’s kind of hard-line and traditionally ‘masculine’, but I wanted to subvert a lot of expectations. He’s inspired by my novice coach who was very nurturing and goofy.

I think there’s something interesting about having this character who’s a little oblivious. I would tell Jonathan [Cherry] to dial down the sexiness: “Coach Pete is not supposed to be sexy, you’re supposed to be a dweeb.” I wanted this warmth to him in the same way that Dani is in the normal world. They are the humanizing forces and these are the people who see Alex and are trying to tell her to take a fucking breather, but she doesn’t want to hear it. I think we all know that we can’t change somebody, they have to decide to change, and you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped.

For me, the film reads as distinctly American. There’s the college culture, the sense of hierarchies, the speech about the ego of the Moon landing. But ultimately, it’s pointing out how that self-destructive, American-dream work ethic of literally giving 110 percent can bend and break people. What’s your opinion on the American identity of the film?
I have noticed this brought up in reviews and I’m like, ‘huh, I guess it is, this is the most American thing you could possibly make’. You have this character who’s such an individualist in a team sport and she’s trying to get ahead. I didn’t intend to make a commentary on this American culture, but [it happened] by nature of me being American and having lived this myself.

In my twenties, I was very clinical, very ambitious, very calculating about everything I did. I didn’t care about relationships, I didn’t care about friendships, I didn’t care about any of that shit, and it wasn’t until I got to my later twenties that I saw people who did prioritize those things. I was someone who felt if you don’t want a career, and you care about family and a white picket fence then fuck you, you’re basic. But now I’m like, well shit, I want that too. I want the warmth. As I’m getting older, I’m trying to find that balance.

Lauren Hadaway on the set of The Novice.
Lauren Hadaway on the set of The Novice.

I actually live in France now. I fled America for some of those reasons, perhaps. I learned French as a pandemic hobby and moved to Paris in April. It’s such a different cultural thing, especially now with the culture of American student debt. We were raised to think that everyone needs to go to college, everyone needs to get a four-year degree. Get your Bachelor’s degree, then you’re gonna have a real job, then you’re gonna be able to buy a house, then you’re gonna be a success.

A lot of my friends live at home and are unemployed or underemployed with a four-year degree. Now they have hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt and they’ve got no fucking job that’s worth what they’ve paid. That’s really fucked up and it changed my way of thinking. I don’t think everyone needs to go to college, I don’t think it is the be-all and end-all. I would say this wasn’t an intentional portrait of America, but it certainly did capture something, you’re not wrong there.

The Novice’ is in theaters and on digital platforms now, via IFC Films.

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