Director Maggie Betts talks ‘Novitiate,’ depicting Catholic institution

One of the breakout films from the festival circuit this year was the unexpected narrative debut from Maggie Betts (who received high praise for her documentary feature The Carrier in 2010). Novitiate, which screened this year at Sundance and Toronto, received high praise for its delicate, nuanced and empathetic look at a world of cloistered nuns in the 1960s. Specifically, at the dawn of Vatican II, the 1962-1965 council the Catholic Church engaged in to address and adjust to the modern world. But this council excluded the sisterhood of the church and forever altered their status and led to their mass exodus.

Betts weaves this historical moment in time into the fictional story of Kathleen (Margaret Qually), a teenager beginning her training under the eye of a strict Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo). Featuring an impressive ensemble of women in supporting roles including Julianne Nicholson, Dianna Agron, Liana Liberato, Eline Powell, Morgan Saylor, Maddie Hasson, and Ashley Bell, Betts’ provides an intimate look at this mysterious world of devotion and sacrifice.

Lesley Coffin: I understand that you read the Mother Teresa biography and that was kind the initial inspiration to make this film.

Maggie Betts: Yeah, probably going back six or seven years ago I was at the airport and picked up the book Come Be My Light. And I assumed it would be a more generic overview of her life, a more traditional biography. But it consisted of all the letters she’d written over the course of her life to confidants and friends. And they were all just consumed with her love relationship with God. And they were so revealing and so moving. The relationship she was describing was filled with all these ups and downs, love and torture, insecurity and self-doubt. And I’ve been through everything she’d gone through, but she’s talking about her relationship with God. And that really opened my awareness to this world of nuns, the idea that they were these very romantic, passionate women who put themselves through hell for their love.

Lesley Coffin: Before you’d read that biography and then while conducting the research you did for the film, what concepts and pre-conceived ideas about nuns did you have to let go of?

Maggie Betts: It’s actually exactly what I wrote in the voiceover at the very beginning. Kathleen says “I’m sure people could never understand how someone so young would want to give it all away to God. When they think of nuns today all they see are a bunch of repressed old women.” And that’s literally the image I had of nuns. Maybe not repressed, but I certainly grew up thinking of nuns of doughty, fussy, old ladies who smack kids on the hands with a ruler when trying to teach good penmanship. It never occurred to me that they were these passionate extremists. That’s their physiological personality type, a regular romantic relationship isn’t good enough. If they were guys, they might join the army because they need that rigor and discipline. And part of the reason for that is when I grew up I rarely saw nuns, because Vatican II had sort of irradiated them. But I never would have considered those women to have that psychological makeup. 

Lesley Coffin: The voiceover in the film that introduces the audience to the film is quite long, but then you don’t use voiceover throughout the rest of the film, which is a kind of unusual choice for a movie like this which spans some time. Why introduce the film that way, and then drop it entirely?

Maggie Betts: Originally, the film had a lot of voiceover. And the voiceover has the stigma around it that I fall prey to. When you’re workshopping a script or ask for feedback, people always say to get rid of the voiceover. But I love a lot of the films of Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malik, and they are full of voiceover, often very creative, funny voiceover by unreliable narrators. But as we were doing the edit, before we recorded the voiceover, we saw the scenes without the voiceover so many times and had an opportunity to ask ourselves if we needed any voiceover. Does the audience need that information to understand the scene? And most of the time we felt they didn’t. And I also just thought that there was something about Margaret Qually’s interpretation of Kathleen which is, she isn’t self-aware. She’s this kid in so much pain and kind of lost, but really believes what she’s doing is the best thing for her. So for her to be explaining herself any more would suggest to the audience that she knows herself and her reasons for doing these things. And the saddest, most tragic thing about Kathleen’s life is she doesn’t understand herself and voiceover gives a character authority she didn’t have at the time?

Lesley Coffin: Do you think the fact that the script had that narration affected Margret’s performance, because she played it with the narration as a kind of internal dialogue?

Maggie Betts: It’s definitely possible. Because when we read the script through, we read it with that voiceover. And even when we shot the film, she knew the voiceover that we planned to record. So in a broader sense, the voice over gave her a sense of the character’s arc and where she was at that point in the story, that the dialogue and stage directions don’t. voiceover tends to explain what a scene means to the audience, so the character has that as well. I know that if I were making another film, well I am writing two more right now, but if I were considering using voiceover again, I would just write it into the script because it provides information to an actor they can use in their performance, whether or not we ever record it. It tells the audience something about where I’m going with the scene in connection with the overall story.

Lesley Coffin: I wanted to ask about the sound design in the film both the music, which you use very minimally, and the ambient sound, which tends to be very dominant?

Maggie Betts: Well, the environment lends itself to that approach. The movie is very dialogue heavy, but we’re still talking about an environment where women spend half of their 24 hour day in silence. If you were around at those times you’d hear nothing. And we say that upfront, Reverend Mother says at the beginning, we have regular silence and grand silence. But then the audience will see a lot of talking. So I needed to pull out the soundtrack’s music and amp up the ambient knows. The bells ring louder, the shoes on the cement we exaggerated, all these sounds you’d hear a little louder if you were in complete silence. When you’re in a really silent place and someone clears their throat that sounds so much louder than if you were in a crowded, noisy place. As for the music I selected, I sought out the super feminine pieces that were tender and emotional. I didn’t look for the music that lined up with the ritual on screen, I wanted music that fit the thematic moments in the story best.

Lesley Coffin: You make a point to show the difference between cloistered nuns Kathleen plans to become, who live in convents and never leave, and the nuns we see at the beginning who put themselves out in the community by opening the school Kathleen attends. Why was it so important for include both worlds in a film like this?

Maggie Betts: Well, two reasons really. I knew I was telling a story set in the 1960s which had a lot of harsh elements. The Reverend Mother character is very harsh, and their lifestyles won’t survive because human beings can’t exclude human comfort and affection from their lives. That showed up in a lot of the memoirs I read about nuns or women who left. And I knew setting it in a cloistered convent would provide great drama. But, as a woman, I also had to understand the difficult situation these women were put in. They came over at the turn of the century, the least represented group within their church. And nuns built the Catholic school system we have today in this country. They have been healers and built hospitals. They have established communities and charities around the Catholic Church for so many cities and towns. And anyway I could, I really wanted to show that not all nuns are hardcore, harsh and intense women like the Reverend Mother. They didn’t all choose to live the completely isolated lives, that’s just where I choose to set this story. But I wanted to include that side of history, the incredible achievement, service, and charity they provided. There were amazing women. And on top of that, I was really interested in how the individual has this intense, personal relationship with God, but the institution is there to try to regulate that relationship. Which I find kind of crazy, which is the reason I believe in spirituality more than organized religion, but every time I say that I remember how much good, and bad, organized religion has given society. It can provide a sense of community, it can unite people in time of need. So I felt the need to show both sides of this institution. I needed to include the side that would show up and give a poor kid a scholarship to their school, but also the side that would make her crawl on the floor and repent.

Lesley Coffin: And it’s interesting that Kathleen’s a character who isn’t raised in the Catholic church, but turns to it because of something she gets at the church at school she isn’t finding in her own home. Why focus on a character that seems like such an outlier?

Maggie Betts: Well, I decided she wouldn’t be raised Catholic, which is a leap of faith for the audience. There are a lot of steps she would have had to go through if she hadn’t been baptized in the church that we don’t show. But the reason I made that her backstory is to make her faith feel like it comes from an entirely pure place. Some of the other girls even say that there were nuns in their family they wanted to be like. Morgan’s character says her family believed one child from a Catholic family should be offered to the church, something I read repeatedly. There were women who may have been committed, but it came from familiar obligations of being raised Catholic, rather than the pure love Kathleen has for God. It just totally came from within herself, and her mother even tries to discourage it.

© Lesley Coffin (10/30/17) FF2 Media

Featured Photo: Writer/Director Maggie Betts (far left) with cinematographer Kat Westergaard.

Middle Photos: Melissa Leo as Reverend Mother and Rebecca Dayan as Sister Emanuel

Bottom Photo: Novitiate Cast Ensemble

Photo Credits: Mark Levine, Sony Pictures Classics

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