This year’s most blistering debut, Lauren Hadaway’s “The Novice” stands alongside “Whiplash” and “Black Swan” in its assured, relentless study of obsession—though its protagonist’s crucible is the open water, not a performance stage, and she brutalizes her mind and body in the name of athletic transcendence rather than artistic achievement.
Additionally, unlike those films, “The Novice” (now in theaters and on demand) doesn’t require an abusive mentor to send its star player spiraling into madness. All the motivation college freshman Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) needs to turn her school’s rowing team into a physical and psychological hell comes from within. She sets her own tempo, with terrifying results. As Alex advances toward the top varsity boat, alienating those around her, she realizes just how far she’ll go to become the best.
“All the films I've seen [in this genre] usually have this external force,” explains Hadaway, speaking over Zoom alongside Fuhrman. “There's a coach, a mother, they're trying to go to the Olympics, or what have you. For me, my drive and grit are really internal. I wanted to explore that.”
Drive and grit come up repeatedly when discussing the film with its writer-director and ferociously committed star. A day before our conversation, “The Novice” was nominated for five Indie Spirit Awards (including Best Feature, Best Director, and Best Female Lead)—no small feat for a first film, and a testament to the uncompromising ambition and artistry coursing through it, from Fuhrman’s towering performance to the nightmarish atmosphere.
Seeing Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” as a teenager was what first set Hadaway on a path toward filmmaking. And so, after studying business and film in college, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in sound design, determined to work with the director. Just three years later, at 25, Hadaway was in a recording studio with him, serving as a dialogue supervisor on “The Hateful Eight.” Among Hadaway’s nearly 50 sound credits to date: she was sound editor on “Whiplash,” remembered best for its punishing sonic and visual rhythms, and an ADR and dialogue supervisor on both cuts of Zack Snyder’s “Justice League.”
Though successful in this chosen career path, Hadaway set her sights higher. Five years ago, she resolved to write and direct her first feature, drawing on her own experiences as a collegiate rower. A story about destroying yourself in the pursuit of excellence and the self-annihilation that athletics enable and often endorse, “The Novice” proved cathartic for Hadaway, who had spent years addicted to the sport.
In prepping “The Novice,” Hadaway sought an actress physically and mentally capable of taking Alex past the point of no return. Previously best known for 2009’s “Orphan,” Fuhrman won the part after writing Hadaway a letter about a relay race she’d run with a broken wrist. Training for “The Novice” made that endurance test feel like a walk in the park. “It was interesting,” the actress recalls, “learning what it’s like to walk around feeling like you're holding your intestines in your body.”
Hadaway and Fuhrman spoke to RogerEbert.com at length about immersing themselves in the world of “The Novice” and filmmaking as an extreme sport.
Lauren, I was fascinated by the assaultive way “The Novice” uses its sound, its editing, and especially its sound editing to take you inside Alex’s headspace.
LH: The creative challenge is: how do you put something that is very internal on the screen? A sound mentor of mine said a couple things that really stuck with me, going into directing. First, he said, “Good directors always have intention with everything they do.” Second, he asked, “Whatever you are putting in, which sound effect you're using, how does that tell the story?” There's nothing extra that’s there just because it's cool.
99 of 100 audience members don't know anything about rowing, and I hope most people haven't been this level of obsessed about something. So, how do you put them in the headspace of this character? That really dictated the sound choices and the creative choices in how we shot it, of other people's voices and the setting literally falling away.
There’s a romantic B-story, but the real love story is between Alex and the sport of rowing. Isabelle and I talked at length about crafting that. I gave her a playlist with all these 1960s love songs. Every scene is really tracking where they’re at in their relationship, from their clunky beginnings to attraction and falling in love, to the slow and toxic descent. Everything I was doing sonically and visually was really to make it an anxiety ride to the bitter end.
To ask more specifically about the choices you made in terms of sound, how did you find ones that could capture Alex’s psyche while also mirroring the grueling repetition of the rowing sequences?
LH: Some of these moments are written into the script, and some of them — as with any filmmaking — are a discovery process as you're going. At the beginning, we’re showing this character in the scene where she first learns about rowing, where she's listening and the coach is asking, “Why are you here?” She's soaking in this environment. That's very intentional, because she's so in her head. It's that moment when you see someone across the room and know you're going to share the rest of your life with them. Everything else fades away.
The film has a repetitive nature. We recorded the ADR voiceover in my living room in a fort of couch cushions — very high-tech ADR we did on this film — because, with rowing, the reason I don't think it's ever really been captured on screen properly, aside from the scene in “The Social Network,” is that it's so repetitive. How do you make that cinematic? Every rowing scene is very different but, leaning into the repetitive nature of rowing, it is [paced] like a metronome: legs, body, arms, arms, body legs. That rolls over, but we're using sound as a transition between scenes to really carry us forward.
Think about the first row that she's doing, where she's falling in love, just hearing every click of the chain. When you're in these moments so powerful with emotion, everything slows down, and you want to hear every little detail. There's a haunting moment where she is splashing, all these ravens are flashing on the screen, and there's a double click. That gets her to turn her head; the sound is starting to leach out into her world. Everything at first feels very separate and clean. And, as we dial in, everything just gets fucking messy.
Isabelle, you trained extensively for this role. How did that feed into the experience of playing such a driven character?
IF: I felt like I had two perpendicular storylines: Alex's storyline and mine. It's this obsession with the sport, for Alex. For me, it was an obsession with telling this story. Though you could say these things are one and the same, to me they felt drastically different. It made my reality feel like it was blurred constantly. You're waking up at 4:30 in the morning to learn this sport. Why am I, Isabelle, doing that? I'm doing that because this is what the role requires.
I rowed the entire movie. I was training for six hours a day, rowing on the water, and then four times a week I would be seeing a trainer. Lauren gave me her old ergometer [or rowing machine] that she pulled out of her garage and showed me how to do my first strokes. That machine was in my room every morning, staring at me, and I would use it when I came home in the evenings.
In the six weeks leading up to the shoot, I really was obsessed with getting to a certain place physically, because I knew that would help my performance. Physically being able to row was an imperative part of why Lauren cast me. I wrote her a letter about how I ran to Vegas [for a 60-mile leg of a 344-mile relay race that started in Santa Monica.] I set the bar pretty high, and I was like, “I have to be able to do this. I have to be able to show up on the day and sit in the boat with actual rowers from this college and look like I fit in.”
Tell me about the first week of filming, which I understand was very rowing-heavy.
IF: The first day, we filmed this beautiful, foggy row. I was in a single, and I had rowed for so much in my training in a single, and I felt so good. Then, later that day, I was in a boat with three other girls, and I couldn't set the boat right. I was messing up the shot. We were filming in the rain. And I remember being like, “I just have to trust Lauren, trust what we're doing, keep my head screwed on straight, and not kill myself right now — because that's not where my performance is supposed to be. I can kill myself next week.”
That first week was incredibly intense. With most of my script work, I like to prepare before I go on set. That's where I've found a really great groove, I think because I've done theater before. I pour over the script, I take tons of notes, I really work on it, and then I try to memorize my lines basically 100 percent. I look over them the night before and come to work open-hearted, with the ability to be present and know that what I have prepared might not coincide with what my other actor and co-star has prepared.
But so, we finished the first week. On Sunday, I woke up at 4 a.m. to go to the gym. And I remember feeling so exhausted, and my hands were killing me. My blisters had broken and were bleeding. And I remember just being like, “Wow, I feel like anything could set me off. I could cry at any moment. I feel so depleted in every possible way.” And I remember thinking, “This is where I have to be for the entire movie, in order for this to work.”
Lauren, the erratic nature of the editing and other abrasive elements — like text scribbled on screen — coexist with a sensuality to the way you shoot water and the training sequences. Tell me about striking that balance.
LH: I wanted things to bleed into each other. With the scrawling on the screen, I hand-wrote all those titles. I even tried to hand-write the end-credits. My producers wouldn’t let me. That existed all the way from the beginning, with the lookbook. Alex is obsessively keeping a journal, which bleeds into these elements of — in non-diegetic film-school terms — the outer world that’s supposed to be invisible. I don't want to be fucking invisible. This is not a subtle film, and I think some people will be turned off by it. But I want to punch people in the face.
The first time the spotlight shines on Alex, she closes her eyes, and the song “Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You)” [by Brenda Lee] plays. The editing there is very soothing and slow, because I wanted to film a love scene, almost like a sex scene. One of my producers kept saying it was too jarring. And I said, “That's exactly what I'm going for here. For you, it's a criticism. For me, it means it's working.”
Isabelle, having been so immersed in Alex’s headspace, I’m sure you felt a certain way about what was going on in there. How did your perception of Alex change when you saw the film’s final cut?
IF: When you read a script, it's very different from how you film the movie. And it's very different from how the final cut ends up. And what I loved about watching the movie evolve — from the first assembly to the cut that we have now, the movie that we have and the story that we've told — is that we really take the audience by the hand and put them on this roller-coaster ride with Alex.
Audiences go through the same romance that she does with the boat, with the obsession that she has for it. And in the same way that you watch Alex be the hero of her story, and you're striving for her to succeed, when the table turns and she becomes the villain of her own story, you find yourself caught in this back-and-forth of wanting her to succeed but also wanting her to sit down.
The agony and ecstasy of rowing, the explicitly psychosexual dimension of it to Alex — Lauren, you mention bodies “rippling in chills, on the edge of exercise-induced orgasm” in your director’s statement — heightens “The Novice” in a unique way. What do you remember most about channeling that state?
IF: 2k erging. There’s nothing quite as horrible and incredible as that feeling. I don't know if I'll ever do that again, honestly. The first one I did, I wanted to try it to see how it would go. I was like, “Oh, this isn’t so bad.” And Lauren said, “That’s because your form’s all wrong.”
Weekly, I’d try to do one to two, to try to see how much better I could get. And it’s so hard to improve on it. You get to a point where your ass is so tight. Your legs are burning. You’re huffing, and you can’t even breathe. I’m just sitting on a chair, but it’s killing me. The moments that you have, where you look at the time and it's better than the one you had last time, that's what's so masochistic and beautiful about sport.
When you improve for yourself, and you can see on a weekly basis how much better you're getting, it's incredibly gratifying. I think there are very few areas in life like that, where you can see your consistency change on a weekly basis. You get to watch yourself grow. And you get addicted to this feeling of constantly getting better.
LH: For me, I got into this headspace, especially with the assembly edit that I cut, where I knew that I would crash. The shoot was intense. I got home, I immediately started editing, and I didn't take days off. We did six days a week of shooting; on the day off, I would edit, because losing momentum was the worst thing. I got back to LA, I edited at a cafe 28 days straight, from basically the cafe opening to closing. Then I would go home and watch the movie on loop, like Howard Hughes, like a crazy person, sitting on my living room floor, drinking a beer, just watching the film over and over, obsessing on it and trying to get into the moment.
I was trying to just be totally immersed, because I think that's what it takes to really shave off the elements of a story and hone in to what it is. The process of making this film, especially post-production for me, felt very poetic in the sense that it was mirroring what the character was going through on screen. Now, it's the moment at the end with the smile, the “Graduate” moment. You've done it, but now what? It's bittersweet.
“The Novice” never directly answers that question that was on my mind throughout: Is this worth it, for Alex? You both committed intensely to this project, so I wanted to ask as well how receiving awards attention for “The Novice” feels, given the film’s focus on competitive drive.
IF: For Alex, I have no idea what the answer is. I didn’t have an answer, playing her. You can’t really think about that when you do anything in life, so that was my approach while making this movie. For her, it's overcoming a challenge. When this script landed in my lap, and I read it, I remember being like, “What a challenge! Can I do this?”
I did literally give everything to this role. It’s funny. Nothing is what it seems, at all. The night before the nominations yesterday, my credit card was declined, and I couldn't put gas in my car. I’m standing there, crying, looking at my card bill, being like, “How the fuck am I gonna pay for this?” And then I just remember being like, “I really hope tomorrow is a good morning, because I need to figure something out.”
I'm so happy with the movie, and that we got nominated for five Indie Spirit Awards. I feel like people are finally going to start to see it and talk about it. And that's all that I hoped for. When I look at it, was it worth it, to me? Yeah. I learned so much. I loved working with Lauren, and with this cast. I loved the challenge of playing this character. Of course, you want recognition. You want people to go, “Yeah, you killed yourself. That's amazing.” I don't know what it is about human nature. There is some nugget of Alex that, it's not necessarily that she wants the big outcome and goal, for everyone to turn toward her and go, “Oh my god, you're incredible.” But it's really being able to tell yourself, “Yeah, I did that. And people noticed, and they respected the work that I put into it.”
LH: I haven’t felt the level of exhaustion Isabelle was describing in training for the film. But making this film was how it felt, basically, when I was a rower. This was a long process. In post-production, I was moonlighting, finishing post on this film at night and working full-time on the Snyder Cut by day. I was putting in 100-hour weeks.
We didn't know if there were going to be film festivals, if anything was going to exist. Everything was closing, there was a pandemic, and it was an indie. We have no money. So, it really was stepping away from a very successful career to basically devote myself to this. It was a lot.
“The Novice” is now in theaters and on demand.