World-weary and wise and sharp as the crack of a pistol, Lauren Hadaway, after years as a top-shelf ADR artist, set a goal for herself to become a director. During the downtime between looping sessions on Justice League in 2017, she started writing the script for what would become The Novice, a semi-autobiographical film about a driven young woman joining her college crew team and finding in it an Everest she must scale just because it's there. Just because, nay, especially because, it's hard. The resulting film is as sharp and as driven as its creator, every frame composed not just beautifully but to tell a visual story of the protagonist's interiors. It's clear almost immediately that, more than a sports story, The Novice is about finding purpose through ritualized pain--and maybe a little bit or more about Hadaway overcoming self-doubt and enduring an unprecedented global event to see this project through to completion.
I began our interview by asking her about the process of coming through a difficult time.
LAUREN HADAWAY: Making this film was extremely tough, especially the post-production period. I was editing this in my kitchen and still doing another full-time job, and didn't know if there was even going to be any festivals, any theatres to show it if I finished it. And the feeling of isolation... Sort of the blessing and curse of me having a post-production background is I could do a lot of this myself, but I had a sort of "Alex Dall 2.0" experience in the making of this film and hit some dark places. Not being able to escape the house for me when those lows hit was really rough. Doing all this to myself was really rough on me. It all feels worth it in hindsight, but...
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: The end of your film has Alex learning how to step away.
Yes, I had to do that with this film, too. To go through all this stuff and then--and this is a lesson I'm continuing to learn--learning how to step away and be satisfied with what you've accomplished. I had that moment with this film. I found a place where I could be content and let it go and maybe move on to the next thing.
The way you shoot Alex vs. the way you shoot everything else, tell me about the visuals as expressionism.
That was exactly the conversation I had with [DP] Todd [Martin]: how to really play with juxtaposing highs and lows spatially on the screen and how best to pair that with the sound design to express different places in Alex's emotional life. We had these expansive, cold exteriors contrasted, brutally, punch-to-the-face, against the claustrophobic interiors that are sickly-green, jaundice-y feeling. We have these scenes of her rowing outside that are really meant to capture the beauty of rowing, and it's truly beautiful, but we get right up to her face and everything falls away and we get into her headspace.
How did you manage that effect?
So much of this is accidental--making a film, I mean. Todd and I had this discovery as we were doing the make-up test: Isabelle [Fuhrman] put her face up right into the lens and we noticed when we did that that the background of the lens got weird. The lens was actually broken. And instead of getting a different lens or fixing it somehow, we decided to lean into it as, "This is the 'Crazy Alex' lens." Like we'd say, oh, this is a "27" moment, so we'd bust out the "27" and say, "Oh, we gotta use this"--leaning into that element of her claustrophobia. I think anyone who's been in that obsessive state--with work, with sports, with romance--can relate to the world closing in and narrowing down into that tunnel vision.
Ritual and repetition.
For me it's so important--I don't know who said this, but I ascribe to the notion that you "must sit at your desk every day so the muse knows where to find you." That's how I feel. I get nerdy about the neuroscience of all of it, but essentially I need stability in my life to function. I need a solid and familiar foundation to be able not only to have these creative moments, but just to make decisions. When I'm working on a creative project--writing, directing, whatever--I'll eat the same thing. I sleep until I wake up, I walk to the cafe, I write for four hours until I burn out, I go home. And because I'm doing the same thing every day, I find I'm able to be creative. I mean, I hear all these things about exploring and doing this and that, but at least for me, I find this to be true that humans have actually very limited attention spans and if we don't have rituals and repetitions, it's hard to build.
Akin to athletes hitting benchmarks through repetition.
The first day you're weight training you can't squat 400 pounds, but you go in and you slowly, slowly build up to that goal. I approach everything that way, with that idea that you can build resilience, you can get to where you need to be, but that takes coming back every day and doing the same things that lead to that point. I think the thing that most separates people who make it and people who don't is that some people keep walking and some people stop. We're all facing challenges, and setbacks and we all want to quit. We're all suffering and experiencing hardships. But what I've noticed in my life is that for better or worse, perseverance is what separates the people who cross that line and people who don't.
I have a friend who teaches a writing course up here who tells me that it's not talent that's in short supply, but stick-to-it-iveness.
I grew up a redneck in a small Texas town and had this image of everyone working in Hollywood as some kind of genius or something and you could never do that. But the more you meet your heroes and work alongside them in trying to find their movie, the more you realize that while there are a couple of creative geniuses, most of them are just putting in the work. More than that, you realize that a lot of these people are frankly just idiots. You see that and it gives you the confidence that you can do this. And again, like the repetition, the more you do it, the easier it gets to accept that you deserve to be here--doing this interview, for instance. That you deserve it. And you build the resiliency you need to make it through it despite what your impostor syndrome might be whispering in your ear. No one has it figured out.
I thought I would by now.
Yeah, like holy shit, being an adult. Being an adult you realize your parents who you thought had it all together--they didn't know what the fuck they were doing. Still don't. No one has the answers. That's anything. If there's a problem in a movie, it's the editor who notices because they're fucking neurotic and I love that, but you learn that you know this happens on every movie and your energy is contagious. If you freak out, find a room by yourself and freak out in there. We're all just figuring it out as we go. People are people. It's okay to make mistakes and to admit it. I think the biggest mistake we make is pretending we have all the answers, that we're smarter than we are, that we know everything. Anyone established in their career who's giving a young person the time of day, they know you don't know a single goddamned thing. So your approach to them can't be that you know it all already, it's gotta be, oh, can you fucking explain that? Can you walk me through it? Because they see right through you. I'm going on a tirade.
"When you stop trying to fit yourself into someone else's expectations, the interesting thing that happens is that people start to trust you more--to open themselves up to you more, respond to you more. You attract the right people and repel the wrong ones and life starts to feel more authentic and real."
Talk to me about the "ecstasy" of your film as the thing to which Alex aspires.
This film is my existentialist anthem. Very crudely put, I believe that life has no meaning other than that which you ascribe to it. You have to do it yourself, which is both terrifying and liberating because you can do whatever the fuck you want to find meaning, but you're on your own to figure out what that is. I feel like a shark because you know a shark, if it stops swimming it dies, and for me, I have to keep doing things, learning things, pushing, or I'll slip into depression.
You keep moving to manage your depression.
Yes. I have to have a purpose--I have to have a light at the end of the tunnel. It took me years and years to figure that out that I have to have points on the horizon, I have to have something I'm working towards. I have to be very active and purposeful, whether it's romantic relationships, self-growth, career, writing, language-learning, whatever it is, you have to be building building building. I find the physicality of sports, anything... When I first moved to Paris, I ripped out all the carpet in the place I was going to live and I sanded all the floors. Just the physical act of getting on my hands and knees and hours and hours of scrubbing and sanding... There's something. I think that's the reason a lot of people have sex, right? Something very grounding and in the moment. It's about getting out of your fucking head. The physicality of things is a release. It takes the skin contact, that sort of thing, that's the only time I can get out of my head. To be a truly great athlete, I think you have to be able to access a place through your physicality. That you check out of your head, out of your intentionality, that there's a kind of ecstasy that you're asking about in stepping outside of your body through the abuse of it. It's a love/hate thing--you can't see, you can't hear, you're in the midst of this exercise-induced orgasm where you're going to piss yourself or throw up. The difference between exhilaration and fear is how you were raised. It's the same thing, it's just... Pain and pleasure, too, trigger the same response--it's all stimuli for the body, but how you internalize that and process it is based on something else.
When Alex looks up into the sky in your film, what is she seeing?
Nothing. Everything. Right? She's taking it all in, allowing that moment, zen. I think for people that are very driven, like me or like Isabelle, when you find those moments where you can let everything go and see things as they really are, it's bliss. You're seeing everything for the first time. You're hearing the birds, you're feeling the texture of the sky against your skin, even the humidity is beautiful, an ideal of mindfulness and being in the moment. That's something I really struggle with. Just being still in the moment. So those scenes with Alex on the water where she's bleeding and sweating and torn up, that to me is ecstasy, that little moment of escape from yourself. It's fucking Heaven on Earth. That's so rare for me. It's Heaven on Earth.
The opening image of the boat spinning like a compass needle, or a clock hand.
This is a subtle thing for me in my way of being, this embracing of how we're all going to die, we all have a limited amount of time. People think I'm fucking twisted when I talk about this. (laughs) Perception of time is relative to intensity of experience. If you experience something really traumatic, everything slows down. If you're knocked out of your ritual, if you're lost and searching for something while you're driving--I mean, people turn down the radio so they can read the street signs better, because all of your senses, including your sense of time, are heightened in those moments, slowed. That's just your brain. So my way of approaching life is to find those moments of discomfort. If you can live in challenge then your life is richer and paradoxically longer. I'm trying to live as much life as possible in the limited time we have left.
What role does music play in transcendence?
I'm really neurotic. I'll find a song and listen to it on repeat for days--hundreds of times. It's that repetition. For me, listening to something over and over can put me in a space. The music was written to the script. I was listening, neurotically, to mostly like oldies music, and this playlist recommended for me, this Connie Francis song, the entire first scene of the film came into my head. It's really a romance between Alex and the sport of rowing. I gave everyone a playlist, I talked to the music supervisor, everyone about this, about how this is that relationship: the initial chemistry, the first attraction where Alex is stroking the boat, time slows down, sparks fly. It's like being in love, being in lust. She has fallen in love, and the first love-making moment with her and the boat is scored with "Someday (You'll Want Me to Want You)," and this is the scene I shot 500 frames per second. I told Isabelle, this is it, this is your '90s sex scene. I'm going to objectify you. She's covered in sweat and in love, in bliss, you can't sleep, can't talk, can't anything. And then the slow toxic descent into the inevitable breakup.
Peggy Lee's "I'm Sorry."
Yeah--that scene towards the end and taking that song and fucking with it, stretching it, time-pitching it, warbling it to get into that state of being, that headspace where time stretches because of trauma, using that by chopping up the music. I think that music for us is the life force for love, heartbreak, despair. That was important for me from the get-go, to really get to that breakthrough that I wanted. And all credit to my producers who, you know how expensive music rights are, but they understood how crucial these specific songs were to me to express what I wanted to express.
They're all these intense, sometimes wordless, laments.
I think as much as Alex is very independent and doesn't care what other people think, you know, she also does. We all do. When she's told that no one respects her, I think that touches on her defense mechanism of, you know, "I know I won't be accepted anyway for the way that I am, so I'm going to be very combative from the outset in how I approach people and the world." But to hear that fear confirmed, of course it's very cutting. What hopefully happens at some point in your own personal development is that you hit a point where you actually, truly, don't give a fuck about what other people want or expect you to be. When you stop trying to fit yourself into someone else's expectations, the interesting thing that happens is that people start to trust you more--to open themselves up to you more, respond to you more. You attract the right people and repel the wrong ones and life starts to feel more authentic and real. For me, growing up, I was a lot more clinical and didn't value relationships as much as I should have... You have people in your life, but they're not the right ones. The challenge for Alex, for me, for a lifetime, is to be ourselves and not change our personalities, to censor ourselves just to be acceptable to people. You learn that if you need to do that for the approval of some people that those are the wrong people.
Where are you on that journey?
The most important thing, the biggest thing for my fulfillment the last couple of years, was finding my tribe. Finding the people I could be weird with and authentic with even when it was hard, to talk shit with and have this profound and intimate platonic relationship--people I could have real discussions with about career, and life, and romantic relationships. No single other thing has enriched my life more.