Interview: Margaret Betts and Margaret Qualley Talk “Novitiate”

Margaret Qualley as Sister Cathleen. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

If you’ve had a chance to watch Fred Zinnemann’s “The Nun’s Story” (1959) with the incomparable Audrey Hepburn, then you’re prepared for an equally great, painfully real and frighteningly relevant film called “Novitiate” written and directed by Margaret Betts. Both movies question faith. But Betts’ piece goes further to question sexuality, freedom, and why having only faith is not enough to get from life more than devotion to something you simply can’t touch or see with your own eyes.

Giving you reasons why “Novitiate” stands out as a movie about faith, is not enough. In fact, “Novitiate” is not that simple to describe. Unless, as a viewer, you are able to distance yourself from the reality of the world we live in and commit to the one created by Margaret Betts.

During Toronto International Film Festival, I had the pleasure to participate in the roundtable with the writer and director of the film – Margaret Betts, and the lead actress Margaret Qualley, to discuss “Novitiate” and everything behind it. Hereby, I am happy to introduce it to you, my dear reader.

MOVIEMOVESME: What inspired you to create “Novitiate” and to tell a story that is questioning faith?

Margaret Betts: I was very interested in nuns, and before starting this film I did a lot of research to see what obstacles there were in their lives. And, obviously, having a crisis of faith is a huge one. There is even a name for it: dark night of the soul is the term the Catholics use for the crisis of faith which is very extreme. And it seems like an important subject to explore is one is interested to explore the world and life of nuns.

MOVIEMOVESME: Did you have a fear that the audience may reject the film or dislike it due to its subject? This is a high risk to take for a filmmaker.

Margaret Betts: Yes, indeed. My first goal was to make a movie.  And this was a world that helped me make a movie where I could talk about things that were interesting and dramatically compelling to me – such broad topics like love or institution versus the individual, things like that. Of course, it is really interesting for me to see how religious people respond to the film, but it is the movie that comes first for me. It is not meant to be some kind of affirmation of somebody’s faith.

MOVIEMOVESME: The film for me shows two sides of Catholicism, two sides of Christianity – the old and the new, where Melissa Leo was kind of struggling with the ‘updated version’. While you were studying that, did you talk to any nuns about how to handle that and how to portray that on screen?

Margaret Qualley: Yes, we did. We invited former nuns, who told us about their experiences within the convent and also taught us a sign language, because especially, before the Vatican reforms, that sign language was a big part of the culture within the convent. Because the nuns would speak not when they wanted to but only when they had to. And ideally, they would mostly communicate through the sign language. Basically, any extraneous senatorial experiences are forbidden, because you want your relationship and connection with God to be on the forefront of your mind. So that’s why you are abiding by that. There’s grand silence in and all these things to bring your focus and attention to God. Also, they showed us the proper way to walk among other things.

MOVIEMOVESME: So I guess, it was quite an experience seeing that there’s a difference between faith and the tradition they go through?

Margaret Qualley: I think in particular with Cathleen there was that part of the world which is the structure and the discipline. And then also the part which is very exciting, which is like falling in love for the first time. And I think we both really wanted Cathleen’s relationship with God to feel like one’s first love – having a crush, being excited and even talking the way one would talk to a boyfriend.

MOVIEMOVESME: The suggested idea of taking someone who comes from possibly an agnostic background instead of someone who had the symbolism of this world in their head even before they could talk – raised as a Catholic. Why was that your choice dramaturgically?

Margaret Betts: It causes a few plausibility risks but the payoff is that her yearning for God and her faith is coming from an absolutely pure place within her. And so it needed to be somebody with no prior associations to it to be able to see what her faith is like. And that’s why there’s a scene with the girls where they all say something like ‘one child should be sacrificed’. And for her, it’s generated from the purest place.

MOVIEMOVESME: It also not easy to share the same screen with great Melissa Leo, and I believe you, Margaret, did an amazing job. I wonder how did you see your character – Cathleen when she was speaking to Mother Reverend – asking a question or telling her something.

Margaret Qualley: Yeah, obviously Melissa Leo is a widely talented actress and it was intimidating to work with her, which I think worked in my favor for our relationship within the story. Not that she was unkind to me. She’s very generous and very kind. But I respect her so much that I think that was really helpful for our on-screen dynamic.

MOVIEMOVESME: I was wondering about your research when developing the film. Vatican II (Second Vatican Council – MMM) was a new thing for me. And I think a lot was about the decision-making process and a time when modernization of the church of bottling out. 

Margaret Betts: I think, you have to look at the time period. This is happening in America specifically, and Vatican II is in Europe, so it may not be across the world applicable. But I do believe in Zeitgeist and the 60s is a time period of tremendous upheaval. And in the 60s, a lot of people were seeking out alternative spirituality – like when the Beatles were in India. So, Catholicism was just not attractive. If someone is born Catholic, they’d stay Catholic. But if one has come to a moment in their life where they want to be connected to something an try some religion, they wouldn’t think to sign up for Catholicism and see what happened.

And Vatican II is about going back to liturgy and it looks like reassessment. What happens in this kind of institutions is – it’s reform but they are kind of trying to get back to what the liturgy says. And in terms of the decision making, I found the most fascinating that sexism is so entrenched in an institution, that it’s almost like the institution’s own subconscious. It didn’t even occur to them how profoundly offensive and sexist it was toward nuns – to tell people in this very patriarchal way that you know how they should live their lives. Even coming from a place wanting to create a reform and be progressive, it is offensive.

MOVIEMOVESME:”Novitiate” is not just about love, faith or anything around it. It’s about touching what is the sacred the most.

Margaret Betts: It is totally about love. It’s framed by the idea of going from ‘you’re all I can ever want’ to ‘I seek something more’. And it’s kind of like the first time you fall in love – the relationship is about how you can make this person love you back. It seems like all we have to do is to make him love you. How can I do that? Should I crawl across the floor, should I whip? How am I going to deserve to be loved? And then she gets to the point when she seeks something more – a relationship that’s validating, equal and mutual.

MOVIEMOVESME: I think it kind of showed how there’s a lot of danger in religion. Not just Catholicism but any religion. Do you think that with Cathleen’s character, the movie shows that faith is the most important thing and that love is the most important thing?

Margaret Qualley: Not necessarily faith but love and spirituality. I think it definitely illustrates how beautiful spirituality can be and how terrifying organized religion can be.

Margaret Betts: When I was writing this story, I was mesmerized by the religious impulse – this very intimate, personal, an internal relationship that you have coming from your heart with God or whatever it is. And then, you start asking why does this enormous institution have to come in and regulate the most intimate thing inside of yourself. And that is so weird to me.



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