Documentary filmmaker Maggie Betts has written and directed her first narrative feature “Novitiate,” a riveting, captivating look at the life of a young girl who becomes intoxicated with Catholicism and decides to devote her life to God. Under Betts’ sharp direction, Margaret Qualley gives an outstanding performance as the young postulant in training to become a nun at the Order of the Sisters of Blessed Rose. The convent is run with an iron hand by the Reverend Mother, played chillingly by Melissa Leo, who tries to defy the radical changes in the religion as put forth by Vatican II, lifting many of the rules that guided nuns through the ages. Without taking an editorial position, Betts skillfully unveils the harsh, often inhumane realities of devoting one’s life to God, and at the same time illuminates the young postulant’s human desires of sexuality and physical contact.
For the roles of the nuns, Betts assembled an incredible cast of mostly unknown actors, each of whom gives a stirring performance. They include: Lisa Stewart Seals, Alyssa Brindley, Chelsea Lopez, Liana Liberato, Morgan Saylor, Eline Powell, Rebecca Dayan, Hannah Renee Jackson, Angela Fox, Neva Howell, Ashley Bell, Dianna Agron, Maddie Hasson, and Marshall Chapman. The rest of the excellent supporting cast is comprised of Eliza Mason as 7-year-old Cathleen, Sasha Mason as 12-year old Cathleen, and Peggy Walton-Walker as the nuns’ teacher. Rounding out the cast is Julianne Nicholson as Cathleen’s mother who gives an outstanding, heartfelt performance of a mother struggling to understand her daughter’s chosen life’s trajectory. Special kudos to Director of Photography Kat Westergaard, who is responsible for the intimate, gorgeous look of the film.
Maggie Betts and Margaret Qualley recently sat down with your journalist for an exclusive interview, which has been edited for content and continuity for print purposes.
What was it about the book on Mother Teresa that motivated you to write and direct “Novitiate?”
Maggie Betts: I thought the book would be a biography – kind of an overview of Mother Teresa’s accomplishments. It was actually a collection of letters that she had written over the course of her life to friends, confidantes, and family members. They were super painfully intimate letters that were consumed with her love relationship with her “husband,” which was God. That was way more interesting to her than anything else in her life. It was torturous, filled with highs and lows and very intense. For example, she would write a paragraph about this orphanage we’re doing in Calcutta and then spend another paragraph about how I’m feeling lonely because God isn’t talking to me today and I’m really sad. I love him so much. She focused on love as that apparently was the most important thing to her. I only read this one book so I don’t want to appear as an expert. But, it seemed to me that love consumed all her energy and was the thrust of her life. I was mesmerized that the woman could have a non-physical relationship like that with God.
Do you have any thoughts on the fact that all these nuns are “married” in a non-physical relationship with God?
Betts: But it’s literal. It’s literal like taking the body of Christ is literal. It’s their literal husband.
Do you think it’s more of a symbolic husband than literal because literal would mean reality vs. fantasy?
Betts: It’s not symbolic. It’s difficult for us to understand and I don’t understand it entirely, but I feel like I got closer to it. How could it be literal? I’m not saying that I think God is in a relationship with the nuns and he exists in their day-to-day lives. But one of the tenets of Catholicism is that there is this lateralization of certain things. For the nuns, it’s suppose to be taken as reality and that’s the context that I’m using. Margaret beautifully depicts that aspect of her character as she is in a constant conversation with this entity, or this boyfriend, or this lover, day in and day out.
Did you ever love someone like these women love God?
Betts: I was so in love with my first boyfriend and was completely obsessed with him. I projected a lonely, sad, desperately needing love young girl and everything revolved around him. This guy had to fill all of that for me. After the relationship was over, in looking back years later, I realized the guy had none of the qualities I projected onto him. He was actually a loser but was like God to me because I put everything into him and it was literal.
How long did it take you to write the script?
Betts: Writing the script did not take long. The first draft, which is always total crap, was not good. But it had pages 1 to 50 and it took about four to six months, but the research took five to six years. I wrote a 40-page research document for myself that had everything that was interesting to me. By the time I got to writing the script, I knew there would be certain scenes including the wedding scene. I knew exactly what was going to happen in that scene. I knew it was to start with Cathleen as a young child in school, so I followed that arc. Ultimately, it wasn’t hard to write the script because I saturated myself with the research.
Did you have an easy time getting financing for the film?
Betts: No. Not an easy time. No. It went up and down. You think you’re going to get money and then you’re not. I think making an independent film is like a marathon endurance test. You have to be able to pace yourself through endless let downs and disappointments and just stay determined to get your film made. You have to just keep going or it won’t get done. Did you get any opposition or assistance from the Church and you did have any advisers on set? Betts: We didn’t get any resistance from the Church, but we did have a priest and a former nun on set that served as tech advisers.
How did you find the very talented Margaret Qualley to play the central role of Sister Cathleen?
Betts: It was like finding a needle in a haystack. I had contacted different agencies and told them we were looking to cast a new face – someone who is comparatively unknown and somebody who has to possess special qualities because the role is that of a nun in the 1960s. The agencies were very excited about the project and did everything to facilitate us finding that individual. But, a lot of girls in the character’s age group were in their teens and not getting heavy dramatic roles. The agencies were very helpful, almost overwhelmingly so as there was a period of months where I was Skyping or meeting with another young actress each day. I met with so many incredible young women, but I hadn’t found exactly what I was looking for. It was a Wednesday and I had already talked to six girls that week and was not in the mood for one more audition. I had watched a little bit of Margaret’s reel on “Leftovers,” which was good and it was clear that she was very talented. But that character was very angsty and kind of like sarcastic, angry teen and as far away from the character of Sister Cathleen that I was looking for. That character is completely un-ironic, has no sarcasm, is pure, and is totally idealistic. So I didn’t want to do this Skype with Margaret, but felt it was unprofessional to cancel. We got on Skype together and it was like oh my God this is the girl.
What did you see that set her apart from all the other actresses?
Betts: People have asked me that question many times. Margaret is incredibly beautiful. Margaret is incredibly intelligent. Margaret has a natural magnetism that will even jump through a Skype screen. That said, I can’t identify one particular quality that made her stand out. But, she knocked me over and I knew she was who I was looking for. When I got off the phone, I started pacing down streets in New York. I couldn’t believe she had dark hair because I always pictured the character as blonde. Not that I have any preference between blond or brunettes but I had spent years and years with this image of this character in my head and I thought, “Ain’t that something;” she has dark hair. When I was done pacing the streets for a half hour, I then called my casting directors and told them I found the girl.
That haunting love scene between the two novices clearly depicted Sister Cathleen’s need to be touched which overrode momentarily her devotion to God/husband. Was that one of the most intense scenes for you?
Qualley: The scene where the young novitiates confess their flaws was actually more intense because we shot for three days on our knees and listened to confessions. The whipping scene was also intense. Over my director’s objections, I used a real whip because I wanted to experience what it felt like. My back was covered with welts and bruises.
After all those years of Sister Cathleen being devoted to Catholicism and determined to become a nun, beginning as a young child, why did you choose that ending?
Betts: In the script, it was resolved and you knew what happened to her. It was Margaret’s idea to push for that ending in the film and she was 100% right. What would you like the audience to take away from this film?
Qualley: There are a lot of things you can take away from the film. One of the things that hit home for me is the overwhelming desire to be perfect. All these young girls are trying desperately to be perfect and are very hard on themselves. I’m not religious at all, but one of the things that was exciting about this film was to have a love story with Jesus, which sounds insane. I think it’s a testament to how much you can project onto somebody and how much we live in our imaginations and then at a certain point, that is not enough.