How ‘The Novice’ Director Lauren Hadaway Turned Her College Rowing Obsession Into a ‘Black Swan’-Style Thriller

The Novice
Tribeca Festival

When Lauren Hadaway was working on “Justice League” in the sound department, she had time to kill between arduous reshoots on the gritty superhero adventure.

With years of experience finessing sound and dialogue on a range of blockbusters and indies, including the jukebox musical “Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again,” Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash,” Quentin Tarantino’s Western thriller “The Hateful Eight” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” she’d put out enough fires for top-shelf auteurs to have the confidence to spearhead her own feature.

So she spent her downtime during production by putting pen to paper, heeding the age-old aphorism to write what you know. It became a cathartic experience that helped her work through the trauma and moments of triumph that came with her background as a college athlete.

The result is “The Novice,” a gritty, twisted coming-of-age story that draws inspiration from cerebral thrillers like “Black Swan” and “Whiplash.” Starring Isabelle Fuhrman, recognizable to audiences as the creepy girl from “The Orphan,” the film follows Alex Dall, a college freshman who joins her school’s rowing team and obsessively pushes herself physically and psychologically past her breaking point.

Following its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Festival, Hadaway spoke to Variety about the near-unhealthy drive that fuels collegiate athletes and how working with directors like Tarantino and Chazelle influenced her inaugural feature film.

How did your background in sound design help you get into directing?

I had been writing my whole life. I wanted to be a writer-director when I went to college, and I had the classic imposter syndrome and got a little bit overwhelmed. I got into post production, and I fell in love with sound. It’s this limitless world. I went into sound when I got to L.A., and then after five years of working with some of my heroes — actors, directors, editors, sound people — I realized that not everyone is a creative genius like you think. Not everyone has it all figured out. “Kill Bill” was a film that got me into filmmaking, and then I worked with [Quentin] Tarantino when I was 25. That gave me the confidence to think, “You know what? I can write and direct.”

Why did you pursue rowing in college?

I grew up in a really small podunk Texas town. I had no idea what rowing was. Before going to college, I got a flyer in the mail for the [Southern Methodist University] women’s rowing team. It sounded a little bit harder than intramural sports, and I like a challenge. I’ve always been drawn to the water, and this seemed different. I arrived at SMU and walked onto the novice rowing team. Within days or weeks, I was obsessed. It consumed the next four years of my life, and I ended up getting full scholarship from it at some point. My entire life revolved around it. We were rowing 20 hours a week, throughout my entire college career.

Do you still row?

Oh, I stopped. I’ve dabble a little bit here and there, mostly to get my feet wet for the film. But my senior year, it felt like a test of survival. I remember the last semester of my senior year, I would literally wake up crying, so fucking tired. I would just be thinking, “I cannot wait to go to bed.” I was counting down the days for it to be over. It consumed my life because I really did push myself. This movie is sort of my catharsis.

The film’s main character Alex describes her work ethic by saying she may not be the best but she can work the hardest. Do you relate to that mentality?

I’m somewhere on the bell curve of average, I like to think. But the thing that can set me apart from people is my sheer grit and willingness to suffer through things. Sometimes it bites me in the ass. There’s the cliche of, like, “If I’m not going to be good at it, I’m going to quit.” No, everyone sucks. What separates you from someone else that you’re just willing to come back day after day after day. And eventually, maybe if you’re lucky, you move out of the bell curve. My philosophy with Alex in this movie is she’s a Honda, and Jamie, her frenemy, is like a Ferrari. A Honda can beat a Ferrari on the highway if the Honda’s willing to pedal to the metal, give it its all and blow up engine while the Ferraris is just coasting. That’s something I really believe in.

Is Alex’s pressure to push herself internally or externally motivated?

The desire is very internal. A question I got a lot in the script stage is: “What drives Alex Dall?” It’s so frustrating because people [tell] me, “I don’t understand what drives you sometimes.” And I don’t fucking know. This film is my existentialist anthem. I’m not religious and in life, you have to create your own meaning. What I’ve discovered and thereby Alex, who is a proxy of me, is that I am happiest or thrive when I have a challenge. For Alex, too, it’s some kind of obsession, and maybe it’s a mix of nature and nurture. Rowing, I never thought I was going to the Olympics or anything like that. It was never about that. It’s this internal, inexplicable thing.

Did you initially know you wanted to make a psychological thriller? 

When you’re watching rowing in the Olympics, it’s not inherently super adrenaline-pumping. You’re literally going backwards, doing the same motion over and over. So stylistically, the movie became a question of “How do you make each rowing scene feel different?” It became focused, not on the actual rowing, but more on the emotional journey. To me, this is really a love story between Alex and this boat. I framed it as an entire relationship from this first attraction to the clunky beginnings, the first time making love, to being in love and everything’s all happy, hunky dory, to a slow descent into the toxic breakup that starts happening between her and her sport.

How did you cast Isabelle? 

As with many indies, we had a lot of false starts and stops. I didn’t think the movie was going to happen. I had started to mentally check out, and my producer was like, “OK, you’re flying to Toronto to location scout.” The person we had attached, we lost them at this point, they had been cast in another film. So we had to hold auditions for Alex’s part. Isabelle’s audition came through, and this one scene, she really nailed it. [In other people’s auditions,] it was hit or miss, 50-50 that people either interpreted it right, or they were really wrong. There was no middle ground. She wrote me this letter and described this experience of running from L.A. to Las Vegas. She just had this very Alex Dall energy and drive to her, very above and beyond. We met, and she had this fucking binder with all these little tabs.

I imagine there were some intense days on set, especially when Alex is physically harming herself. How did you get into that headspace before filming? 

Isabelle is super obsessive, and she was like, “I don’t have anything to reference. I’ve never been in this situation.” I talked with her to describe what it’s like to be hurting yourself and the rage that comes up. Men, as a stereotype, destroy outward. They punch, they destroy other things. And I think for women, as I’ve experienced myself, we turn inwards and destroy ourselves. I was describing to Isabelle, “This is very much a rage and a frustration, and you need to destroy something so you’re turning to yourself.” That scene was tough.

You’ve worked with a lot of big-name directors. What did you learn from them?

This wasn’t from a director I worked with, but I saw a Q&A with David Fincher [about “Gone Girl”], and he said when he casts someone, he really likes to know who the actor is at their core. Because at the end of a 15-hour day, that person isn’t going to be a superhero. They’re going to be Ben Affleck, they’re going to be whoever, they’re going to be fucking tired. So who are they? That really stuck with me.

What are some other movies or directors that influenced you?

“Black Swan” is one of my favorite films. Darren Aronofsky’s movies have these sort of addictive, obsessive personalities. They’re dark, fucked up and twisted. I love that. “Kill Bill: Vol 1,” I saw that when I was 15. I had been pretty sheltered at that point, but that film fucking blew me away. Not that I’m remotely like Tarantino, but the thing that I love about his films is that he’s bold. Someone gets shot, and 500 gallons of blood explodes and then they fly 20 feet into a wall. He really makes cinema an experience. I certainly love my subtle films, but I love to be bold and weird.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.