Director Lauren Hadaway knows a thing or two about grit, determination, and the pursuit of personal excellence. Her story begins simply enough; born and raised in a small town in Texas. It was there she became focused on cinema in her early teens. It didn’t take long before she had set her sights on a career in the film industry and began to blaze her trail. Her unrelenting drive and determination result in her graduating summa cum laude with a double major in business and film from Southern Methodist University. She continued laying the foundation as dialogue/ADR supervisor on films including ‘Justice League’ (both cuts), ‘Operation Finale,’ ‘The Hateful Eight,’ and ‘Whiplash.’
Always looking to challenge herself creatively, Lauren set an ambitious 5-year goal for herself, which ultimately led her down the path to her directorial debut with ‘The Novice.’ The inspiration was born from Hadaway’s own experience as a collegiate rower. Instantly engaging, the story focuses on Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), a queer college freshman who joins her university’s rowing team and undertakes an obsessive physical and psychological journey to make it to the top varsity boat, no matter the cost. Intent on outperforming her teammates, Alex pushes herself to her limits—and beyond, alienating everyone around her in the name of success. Fuhrman’s fiercely intense performance coupled with Lauren Hadaway’s bold direction, dynamic editing, and captivating sound design provides a visceral window into a cutthroat world. It’s one of the rare cinematic experiences that continues to stick with you long after you’ve left the theater. In June, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, ‘The Novice’ captured multiple awards, including Best US Narrative, Best Actress, and Best Cinematography. Additionally, the film is currently nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with this captivating duo to discuss the making of ‘The Novice,’ the challenges faced along the way, and the material that moves them!
Tell us about the genesis of this film and what made it the one you wanted to pursue as your feature film debut?
Lauren Hadaway: I have an entire first career in post-production sound. I wanted to be a director early on. When I was 15, I saw Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Kill Bill,’ and I was like, “I’ve gotta be a fuckin’ director! This movie is incredible!” Then I got imposter syndrome when I went to school. That’s when I fell in love with post-production, editing, and sound, because you can do it, and no one is there looking at you. I think sound is really half of the cinematic experience. Most people, including directors, aren’t thinking about it as a storytelling tool. I had some success in my sound career and realized that I was getting up there, and it would be the same thing, working on other people’s stories for the rest of my life. I was in my mid-20s at that point, and I made a very conscious decision in November of 2016. I set a 5-year goal to transition into writing and directing. At that point, I started thinking about my first story. I began researching directors and their first films — the scope, scale, and types of stories.
There’s the cliche of “write what you know,” but you also want to make films that you want to fuckin’ see. There aren’t really a lot of rowing films, and the ones that do exist, for me, didn’t capture what it was like for me to be a collegiate rower in college. So I wrote ‘The Novice’ in July of 2017. I punched the first draft in 3 weeks. I took my 4 years of collegiate rowing experience and 10 years of coming of age and compressed it down into this script. It was quite a journey to get this thing made, but I really wanted to put this on screen. I also loved the troupe of the obsessed artist. In so many other films, there is always an external force. It might be a coach, the act of trying to win or become the best to go to the Olympics. That’s not something I relate to. I wanted to tell a version of this story where it’s this internal drive that’s seemingly inexplicable and to ask the question, “What is it that makes a person obsessive and neurotic about something?” This film, writing it and making it, was honestly a catharsis.
Isabelle, what spoke to you about this project, and what made you connect with the material so deeply?
Isabelle Fuhrman: I read the script and was just floored by it. Up to that point, or even since I don’t think I’d read a script that was so fantastic. Lauren really wrote everything you see in the movie out on the page, and she had a lookbook that was hand-scrawled in her own handwriting, along with her own statement. All of the images and pictures overlapped, and there were raven drawings and things like that! I remember thinking, “Who is this woman! Oh my gosh, she’s fascinating!” [laughs] “I really want to play this role, but I just have to meet this person and work with her!” I really connected with Alex’s inexplicable drive and ambition to achieve. Personally, that’s something I have within myself, and I think Lauren saw that intensity and craziness within me, even though I don’t think I allow myself to really accept it or see it all of the time. Working on this film has allowed me to realize that it is a part of myself, and it’s okay! [laughs] I really just knew that I had to play this role from the first moment I read the script.
I went after the role head-on. I taped the audition scene, along with an extra scene, and I even wrote a letter to Lauren about how I ran from Santa Monica to Las Vegas with my friends. I ran like 60 miles of this relay race and was basically said, “No one else is going to be able to the emotional and physical side of this, so you have to cast me!” When Lauren and I met, we instantly clicked! Maybe it was our Virgo/Pisces connection or something! [laughs] There really was this click where we both kind of knew! It’s kinda like falling in love like, “Oh, we’re going to do this thing together!” I trusted her from day one, and she trusted me. I really feel like you can see that throughout the film. We really ran with it together. It is her baby, but I also feel, in some ways, like it’s my baby too! We really worked on this together and created the story together. Lauren’s guidance throughout was invaluable. From basic questions about rowing to what I should do when my blisters were popping, Lauren was there for me every step of the way. I really felt like I had such a great space to play and open my chest up emotionally to pour everything out into this role. I felt the same way when it came to the physical aspects.
Tell us about some of the moments where you were feeding off each other creatively?
Isabelle: There are so many! Lauren has this story about when we were doing the breakup scene. Lauren had this very specific vision in mind. She wanted me to kinda laugh and cry…
Lauren: Yeah, it was in my head for like 2 1/2 years. Ya know, you don’t give actors line readings or tell them the exact way to do it. It’s not your place to do it. I had seen Isabelle throughout the whole thing. The first week was water week, and it was all about survival! I was just trying to make sure things were happening, and Isabelle was on her own, wild and feral. She was killing it! Then we went into doing everything else, and that emotional scene in the bathroom was one of the last few things we shot. At that point, I had seen how capable she was as an actress, and I think we had built a relationship and a rapport. You develop a certain trust in each other when you are in the trenches together. I told her, “This has been in my head this way for 2 and a half years. In this moment, she’s going to say this line. I want you to laugh, and there to be a tear on your cheek. That’s what I want, and I know you can do it, Isabelle.” Then we did 4 takes — boom, boom, boom, boom. Every single time there was a tear on her cheek, and it’s in the film like that! It was constantly like that. It was an incredible experience to feel like you could lean on the other person. She can lean on me. I can dial her back or push her forward. She could say, “Let’s try it this way.” If her idea is better, we’re gonna fuckin’ do it! It takes a lot of trust to say yes and no to a person and be direct. It was a great relationship.
Isabelle: I trusted Lauren so much that I was in tape pasties in a bath with a crab that was alive and coming toward me! I remember being like, “It’s for the movie. He’s not going to hurt me! I’m going to be fine!” [laughs] I remember thinking, “I must really trust Lauren to be doing this right now.” I was staring at this crab, and it was staring right back at me and walking toward me! This was right after Lauren was like, “No, no, no. You’re not going to be in the bath with the crab.” Cut to being in the bath with the fucking crab! [laughs] It was great though. Lauren, I trust you with my life and with my genitals! [laughs]
Lauren: Yeah, we’re very close. [laughs]
Tell us a little bit about getting mentally and physically prepared to take on a project of this caliber.
Lauren: This has been so many years in the making for me. Having rowed in college and already having the experience of waking up at 5 AM and putting in 20 hours of practice a week with two-a-days, double majoring, working, and interning. All that resiliency and exhaustion I experienced again while making ‘The Novice.’ As the director, I’m kind of the general or leader of the thing, and you must have your creative vision, but a lot of it is that people will look to you. However calm or in control you seem, they take their cues from you. A lot of it was just being aware of that and taking my experience working in sound, working at very high levels there and in some very tense situations there, and bringing that energy to the set. I knew so clearly what I wanted that it wasn’t really difficult, to be honest. The hardest part for me was afterward and the crash that came. Isabelle had a lot on her plate. I told her, “Isabelle, you’re not going to have a double. You’re going to have to know how to row!” She can take it from there.
Isabelle: My training was really extensive. It started with Lauren rolling her erg machine out of her garage for me to put in the bedroom of my apartment! [laughs] She showed me how to use it properly. I didn’t realize, which I think most people don’t, that people generally use those machines completely wrong. I was waking up in the morning at 4:30 AM and driving in the dark to Marina Del Rey and getting in a boat with my coach, who would yell at me from another boat. I was completely busting up my hands and getting so many blisters! My legs would feel like bricks at the end of it, and I would be totally exhausted! Then I would see the most beautiful sunrise. Then I’d get a 15-minute nap and stuff my face before getting back on the water for 3 more hours. Then I would drive in horrible traffic all the way to the other side of LA to go work out with a trainer. I wanted to gain some muscle for this role, and I ultimately gained 12 pounds of muscle. I was seeing the trainer 3 times a week. I would do it all over again, every single day! Even while filming, I would go to the gym or the tank to row or lift weights and then do it again after a full day on set.
For me, it felt like an all-or-nothing kind of role, so I wanted to give every single part of myself to it, and I really, really did. I literally gave my blood, sweat, and tears every single day. There were some days during water week where, like Lauren said, we were out in the middle of the water for 8 hours of a 10 hour day. I needed to pee, and there was nowhere to go. I would have to take my pants off and lean my ass off the side of the boat. I’m doing this while trying not to tip the boat, which is really easy to do, and hoping nobody sees me! [laughs] There was nowhere else to go, and we had a lot of work to do! It takes too much time to row the boat in, hop off, take all the crap off and unstrap your feet! It goes back to what Lauren said about setting a tone. I felt the same way. As much as I felt sore and exhausted, I knew that we were doing something very special and incredibly difficult. To make a movie of this size and magnitude with the budget that we had in this short amount of time, I had to bring my positive, bubbly attitude to set every day! I knew that if I was having a miserable time in the freezing cold and people knew that, then everyone would be having a miserable time! As long as I could emotionally keep smiling, I came to realize that everyone was like, “Isabelle’s doing fine, so we are doing okay. If she can be doing this and rowing for 8 hours and is still smiling, then we’re all doing okay!” [laughs] It definitely took a lot out of me, but I think it really helped my performance because I didn’t have anywhere to hide. I could only be where I was as Alex with my chest cavity completely opened up and raw, just hoping that I looked as good as I needed to. I would be incredibly hard on myself if I felt I didn’t do the job that I could.
‘The Novice’ is a tremendous film that showcases both of your strengths as an artist. What are you looking for in the material you take on at this point in your career?
Lauren: I have one thing that I now assess everything with, and that is — “Am I willing to cry in the fetal position on the floor over this project?” If the answer is no, it’s a no from me because this is two years of my life as a director where I’m devoting everything to it. That’s the bar for me! Isabelle, I’m sure, has a more nuanced answer! [laughs]
Isabelle: If I can look back on the experience, even if the movie doesn’t turn out, which happens very often, and say, “What an incredible experience. I loved every moment of that!” Then I think that is a win! As difficult, strenuous, and exhausting as the process for this film was, I loved every single moment of it from beginning to end! I felt like that character in ‘American Pie’ who says, “This one time at band camp…” [laughs] I mean, I literally talked about this movie for the four movies I did after it, back to back. I thought, ‘I probably sound so annoying!” [laughs] I just had such a great time working on this film that it really feels like the benchmark for me. I want to read the script and talk with the team involved and know that, no matter what happens, I’m going to have a great time. But, at the same time, I’m excited to learn something about myself, explore something deep and dark about myself or learn something from this character. Lauren and I really loved each other while working on this film, and that’s the type of relationship you dream of having with a director! I feel so lucky to experience that with Lauren! I don’t know if I’ll ever get to experience that again, but that is what I hope for! I hope to have incredible experiences working with great people and have it show through in the work. That’s something I feel that ‘The Novice’ definitely does. There is so much heart that went into this movie! I think you can tell there is something real, visceral, and emotional behind it because it comes from some very real, deep dark place that I think many people have deep inside of themselves. It’s this drive to be good or to be enough to themselves.
I couldn’t agree more! It’s one of those rare films that resonates on so many levels and stays with you for days after you’ve experienced it in the theater. Kudos to you both for what you created with ‘The Novice.’
Isabelle: Thank you so much, Jason!
Lauren: Thank you!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.