The greatest challenge for me in shooting Novitiate was the limited amount of days we had—28, to be exact—to pull off such a performance-heavy movie.
I’m sure that might seem an odd thing to say, as so many directors are often worried about how to pull off a lot more challenging and complicated technical sequences, within a super tight budget and schedule. But because Novitiate is set within, and deals with, such a highly specific world—the world of nuns in the 1960s—I knew the movie depended almost entirely on the performances being utterly impeccable. Without outstanding performances, we would have no movie, and because of this, the thing that worried me most was time.
Novitiate was also my first narrative feature. I was extremely intimidated by the very notion of working so closely with actors, trying to bring out the best in them, and giving them all the support they need, while also not languishing in take after take for every single scene. As we started breaking down the script together, my brilliant and wonderful line producer Carole Peterman shrewdly alerted me to something I’d never thought of before, which was that actors really like to take pauses. Even though you don’t ever see even half the pauses that were taken on set in the final cut, that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen and that doesn’t mean they don’t majorly take up time. So as I was looking at each scene in the script and assessing the rough amount of time it might take to shoot it, Carole was looking at the very same scene and envisioning double the length.
Of course, the best way to approach any challenge like this is to over-prepare, and that’s really what we did. For months and months before production even began, I made a point to frequently check in with most of the younger actors and find out how they were doing prepping their characters and what, if any, difficulties they might be having with their characters. I especially did this with Margaret Qualley, with whom I ended up having some of the most beautiful and profound conversations of my creative life. The two of us would often spend hours on the phone at night for months leading up to the shoot, trying to get closer and closer to the heart of her character, Sister Cathleen, as well as working to build a more specific arc for her. Also, once I had cast the full ensemble of younger nuns, I then rewrote the script and redrew each character to conform more closely to what I believed each actress’s greatest assets would be. The character of Sister Cathleen was a much more fragile, vulnerable, shaky young woman before I met Margaret Qualley. Margaret has a certain type of gorgeous inner strength and grit to her, and I thought it would be crazy to not use those qualities as inspiration for another layer to Cathleen.
The next thing that we did was to set aside a full week of rehearsal for all the younger actresses, something I’m told is somewhat unusual on a smaller independent film like ours. And I also insisted that we somehow cobble together money we really didn’t have to fly in an acting coach from New York to work with the actresses all week. Sheila Grey is really one of the most beloved and renowned acting coaches around, not to mention someone who’s known specifically for her tremendous gifts with younger actors. So Sheila came for a full week before shooting and ran a Novitiate-specific actors’ workshop with all the girls that included elaborate group improvs to get them all to function as an ensemble, as well as intimate one-on-one sessions to make sure we knew in advance what scenes each actress was the most concerned about or afraid of. Sheila and I would also meet for dinner each night, and she would give me tons of amazing advice on how to understand the needs of each young woman specifically, as no two actresses are the same.
It’s important to note that I didn’t go through this whole process with Melissa Leo or Julianne Nicholson, mainly because of the extraordinary reverence I have for both of them as indomitable forces and masters of their craft. However, Melissa did arrive early in Nashville and we spent a fulfilling and exploratory 12 hours alone together discussing her character, Reverend Mother. Melissa is so insanely passionate about her work that when I meekly suggested we take a break for lunch, she looked at me as if I were speaking some kind of foreign language. Understanding the depth of Reverend Mother was the only thing Melissa was hungry for at that time, and I’m not sure she ever ate that day at all!
Even with all this preparation, there were still a couple of scenes that I was incredibly nervous about as we inched closer and closer to shooting. My main concern was the very first “Chapter of Faults” scene that you see in the film, which was a full eight pages long in the script. I wanted to shoot this scene uninterrupted from start to finish, which required sustained intensity and endurance from the actors, specifically Melissa and Morgan Saylor. Once we finally got to the day, I also decided I wanted to shoot Morgan’s close-up first, which isn’t really the normal way to go about things. Usually you shoot the master first, so that—God forbid—if anything happens, you at least have the master. But I could somehow feel that Morgan, who carries the bulk of the scene on her shoulders with one very long and heartbreaking monologue, was ready to go and that we should start on her close-up no matter what. This caused a bit of squabbling behind monitor, as part of a producer’s job is to not ever let a director do this. But I pushed back pretty hard and somehow got my way, which in this particular situation felt like the right way to go.
This scene was also very difficult for me personally, because Morgan has to go through hell and back during the course of that monologue, and any director that says it’s not unbelievably hard to sit there and watch somebody go through hell, again and again on behalf of your movie, is probably a sadist. We got through three utterly amazing takes in the close-up on Morgan, during which she delivered in a way that astounded me. Part of me wanted to go for a fourth take, but I was internally conflicted, firstly because I really did feel pressure to get to the master, and secondly because Morgan was giving me so much and I didn’t want to push her to the point of becoming no more than a puddle on the floor. I decided I’d let Morgan decide, and after the third take I went up to her, still shaking and crying, and said, “Hey Morgan, I know how insanely brutal this is on you and there’s a part of me that thinks maybe we should try for one more take, but also another part that doesn’t want to push you in a way that might actually be a bit cruel.” Morgan just looked at me for a second with tears streaming down her face and snot pouring from her nose and said, “Maggie, I’m an actor. This is what actors do, and we do it because we love it.” MM
Novitiate opens in theaters October 27, 2017, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.