‘Novitiate’ Director Maggie Betts on Female-Dominated Sets, Dramatizing Vatican II

Maggie Betts Novitiate
Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP/REX/Shutterstock

In the midst of a crowded awards season, there are inevitably worthy films that have been largely overlooked. That’s the case with “Novitiate,” a religious drama about a group of perspective nuns undergoing a grueling initiation into a life of service and faith. Despite strong reviews, the film hasn’t factored into the Golden Globes or SAG awards.

Hopefully that gets corrected. Maggie Betts makes a startling narrative feature film debut with the movie. “Novitiate” deserves to get some serious Oscar consideration, both for her directing and screenwriting, as well as for Melissa Leo’s searing performance as an imperious mother superior.

Betts previously directed “The Carrier,” a look at the AIDS crisis in Africa. She tore into the research for “Novitiate” as she worked to dramatize a key turning point in the history of the Catholic Church, the introduction of the Vatican II reforms. These are credited with ushering in a new era of openness into church teachings, allowing Mass to be celebrated in English or any other contemporary language rather than Latin, but they also were imposed on a generation of nuns, who had little say in the overhaul.

Betts spoke with Variety about leading a female-dominated set, her faith, and this fraught period in religious history.

What inspired the film?

Seven or eight years ago I picked up this biography of Mother Teresa called “Come Be My Light,” kind of accidentally. It wasn’t like she was a super interest of mine. I thought it would be a more generic overview of her good works and her life. It ended up being more of a compilation of all these letters and writings she’d sent to confidants and friends. Very intimate stuff. Most of it was consumed with her love relationship that she had. It’s a relationship that’s so intense and so volatile, up and down and just emotionally draining. It was like reading “The Beautiful and the Damned” or something, where you think this couple is so dysfunctional and yet they can’t get away from each other. I was just riveted.

She keeps referring to her husband, which surprised me, but it dawned on me that she was talking about God. That he was her husband. Having not grown up religious, I knew the intensity people felt about God, but I didn’t know that relationship could be romanticized, and feel so familiar. That it could be like one of those difficult and complicated love affairs that I’ve had and my friends have had.

So how did the film develop from that early brush with Mother Teresa?

That book gave me a curiosity about nuns. When I went on Amazon I was exposed to this whole canon of memoirs written by former nuns, the majority of whom had left the church during or because of Vatican II. So many of the memoirs were focused on the authors’ experiences in the novitiate.

In the film the young women talk about Christ as almost a romantic figure. Did you want to dramatize a sort of teenage infatuation?

Absolutely. These very young girls are falling in love for the first time and they saw Jesus as a matinee idol or like Elvis Presley. He was their Ryan Gosling. They projected an image of the ultimate boyfriend, the ultimate husband onto the idea of Jesus.

Why did some nuns react so negatively to Vatican II?

It was mostly about the sexism of it. It was a huge smack in their face that the nuns were diminished in Vatican II. Their status was no longer elevated. Given the sacrifices they made, it was offensive. When you look at how difficult it is to train to be a nun. For a lot of women they didn’t feel like this was the right lifestyle for them and then Vatican II gave them a reason to leave.

I always thought that Vatican II was a liberalizing movement. Is that incorrect?

Vatican II is considered by and large a good, progressive step in the right direction for a church that was very medieval. But there were downsides. History is really interesting to me and world history is really a story of great change and societies and institutions being forced to adapt or evolve and progress. We study moments of change so much, but we rarely examine the casualties, even when it’s positive changes.

This is your first narrative feature. What was the biggest challenge?

The most intimidating thing was working with actors. This is a performance heavy actors. The bulk of the people I was working with were 20, so I didn’t know if I’d be more like a camp counselor, but they were amazing. I just over-prepared. We had a week of nun camp. I didn’t give people line readings. They came ready to work and I mostly just sat there like a fangirl.

What did nun camp consist of?

We had this really wonderful former nun, and she ran a camp teaching everyone how to walk, how to hold their eyes, how to eat, how to sit. The most moving thing I observed was when she taught them how to pray. I thought you just put your head down and closed your eyes. She showed us how active prayer really is. There’s so much going on. It’s such an engaged activity. You’re constantly reaching and pushing and trying to make that connection. Prayer is as draining mentally as going for a long run is physically.

Are you religious?

No, my mom is quite religious, but I didn’t grow up going to church. I’m Christian, but it’s not something that’s a part of my life. I tried for the film to not have any view point on it.

You wrote the film and directed it. Most of the cast is comprised of women, as is the crew. At a time when most movie sets are male dominated, did you go out of your way to change the gender dynamic on “Novitiate”?

Talent should be the determinant, not gender. There’s nobody that I hired only because they were a woman. We had an all female crew with the exception of our set designer. I hired the most talented group of women. I like working with women, so I asked for a lot of resumes of women.

It made the film better. We knew we were this group of women, a sort of sorority, and we all supported each other. The set almost mirrored a convent. We were a massive self-governing group that was all striving to do something together.