Determination is defined as a quality that makes you continue trying to do or achieve something difficult. It’s the quality that we love in all of our sports heroes – either driving down the field in the 4th quarter or putting up the last shot to beat the buzzer for the win. Well, there’s a road to get there. A lot of training, sacrifices, blood, sweat, and tears. You know the sayings. However, what if that drive turns into something darker where you can no longer recognize yourself? Where you can get so tunnel-visioned that reaching the same goal might not be enough?

Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman) is a college freshman that finds the sport of rowing and she’s extremely determined to make the varsity team. Her life quickly gets divided into class and her new found love (or obsession). First-time director-writer Lauren Hadaway, also a former collegiate rower, makes you feel how hard the sport is. Many of the characters during practices experience an intense amount of pain and exhaustion. It almost becomes a drug for Alex to feed on. So, throughout The Novice, you see her character undergo a metamorphosis in isolation focused on one goal. But, in pursuit of one thing, are you ok with losing everything in the process?

I spoke to Hadaway about how her experience directing on the water for the first time was, certain characterizations and what they mean, and her overall goal of bringing the audience into this world.

I watched The Novice from the standpoint of previously being a college athlete. So, I resonated with Alex and her determination factor. Rowing is so intensive, and it’s an excellent subject for a sport that rarely gets covered in film. Society kind of puts an onus on being driven at all costs. You think of athletes like Michael Jordan and Tom Brady as quick examples. However, you use very abstract ways of showing how it can be detrimental to everything around you. 

There were a couple of things I was trying to do. I was a collegiate rower. When I came into making my first film, it was trying to tell a story that only I could tell. There aren’t a lot of rowing movies. I think part of that is because one shooting on the water is an absolute fucking nightmare. Also, I think when you look at it from the sidelines; it looks really peaceful, serene, and graceful. I just went to Regatta recently washed it, and it seems so easy, almost. But when you’re in that boat, it feels like an absolute shit show.

There’s a mental mind-fuck that is happening as you’re going through this because you’re doing the same motion over and over. You’re staring at a spot on the back of someone’s head in front of you. You’re going backward and can’t even see where you’re going – could run into the shore for all you know. You rarely know who your competition is. Sprinting a 2K for 6-7 minutes straight is a challenging mental experience. It feels like your body is turning to blocks.

Even though this is a film about and with rowing, I wouldn’t say it’s a rolling film, per se. It’s really about grit and ambition. Rowing is just a medium to explore that. The challenge for me was a couple of things; one, how do I make an audience who 99% of them may know nothing about rowing don’t know anything about rowing feel what Alex is feeling? Then two, how do you make the audience feel this level of obsession, neuroses, and things as well.

One of my sound mentors said something that always stuck with me. It was that the best directors always have very clear intentions. With sound, everything that you cut adds to the story. Everything ultimately needs to serve the story. So, trying to display the emotional journey of this character dictated what we’re seeing and hearing on screen. It’s not the literal experience of rowing- it is the subjective experience. By nature of that, sometimes it feels like a horror film. Because fucking hell, doing a 2k, getting obsessed, or losing your mind trying to do this feels like you’re in a horror film.

So yeah, it gets dark. It gets twisted; the sound gets warped, and then whatever. Also too, there are moments in the film that are really beautiful. I try to capture the love-hate of it all. I’m sure you probably feel the same way about your sport. Like you fucking love it, but you hate it. It’s almost like this relationship between her and sport. It starts beautifully with the first attraction, falling in love and bliss. Then, there’s slow toxic descent.

Regarding everything visually, nothing was done just to be cool. Everything that you hear and see, I was trying to add something to the story. I wanted to put the audience in her shoes. Also, I don’t want anyone who watches this film to come out the end and still think that rowing is peaceful, you know?

So, you touched on filming on the water. As The Novice goes on, it feels like Alex is slowly drowning. In particular, there’s a scene with the race at night during a storm that I’m sure was an intense experience to do.

Again, I come from this sound background. I didn’t come from doing tons of commercials, short films, and music videos. This was my first set experience since college short film we did in class. My first week as director was “Water Week.” So, I was very much thrown into the deep end, “sink or swim”- all the cliches you can think of. We shot the final race over the course of three nights, and it was a clusterfuck.

I mean, first, the city, for instance, opened the dam, and we’re draining the river or the lake. Whatever it was – and they didn’t tell us they were doing this. So, all the boats are getting sucked down the river. You have the five boats in the shot, plus the sound, safety, taxi, light, camera, and houseboats where I was on. All of this stuff was coordinating, and we had outfitted Isabel for this. We had made a special rig on a boat with a training wheel tripod type of thing sticking out for getting the close-up shots. Those boats are so easy to flip. Any of those girls have gone into the water, and we’ve been totally fucked. This movie would have been finished because we were taking so long to reset.

We got literally one of everything that we needed. But we had made one rig that had training wheels on the side, and we mounted the camera. So Isabelle, Amy, or whoever’s rolling around with this giant camera right in their face. Our sound guy, Scott Bell, put the boom microphone right there, and doing that was crazy. Meanwhile, we have the big camera, another boat, and the techno crane. The race is supposed to last 14 minutes-ish, roughly, but you can only light this much of a section.

So you’re being creative, and you kind of like swapping things in and out. It was just some mind-fuck- this Tetris game. Then, when we shot the rain portion-when they showed me the rain rig, I was like, “You gotta be kidding me. Like this is all we have? We have like this 100-foot stretch to have rain like, and the scene is supposed to be an emotional climax of the film. And this is you telling me this is what I’m looking at right now?” I was like, “Holy fuck, how are we going to do this?”

But it worked out. I mean, it was really tough. Between Todd [Martin] and me, the DP, we would sit down and figure out exactly what we needed to tell the story. We would check it off and have to move on because we did not have any time. That was the one scene out of everything that we shot. I mean, to me, all films feel like a disaster. But that scene, in particular, I was like,” I don’t know if we got everything we, need guys. I don’t know.”It wasn’t until we got to editing and looking at the footage for the first time where I said, “Holy fuck, like, how am I going to cut this together?” I think it worked in the end.

I wanted to talk about two different characters in The Novice. Jamie (Amy Forsyth) is Alex’s rival on the team. Dani (Dilone) turns into her lover. As the film goes on, Alex’s point of view becomes more distorted as she becomes consumed by rowing. There’s a beautiful coming-out story regarding Alex and Dani, but Alex can’t enjoy it. She can’t accept the love that’s in front of her. I love how you took two different facets of Alex’s character and put it inside two other people around her. 

Well, with Jamie, I would say something a bit different. She says in the film, “I was trying to be a friend.” But how I directed Amy and what I told her I was, “yeah, your friends with Alex because she’s not a threat to you.” Jamie has always been the cool girl, the best, and doesn’t even have to try that hard. She’s like,” come on, kid. I’ll show you the fucking ropes. Yeah, I’m bored. Let’s just sit here and shoot the shit.” I think all of us probably experienced where we have someone who you kind of feel cool being around.

So, whatever Alex is saying to Alex, deep down. I was like, “you wouldn’t you drag this chick along. Would you even consider her?” I think Alex knows that, too. But I also think that Jamie is right because Alex is taking things too far. I wanted very much that every character is the hero from their point of view in this. I think some people can see what Jamie is going through, rationalize it, and even root for her. With Danny, she was intended to be the warmth in the film. Aside from her scenes, everything is shot either very cold, gray, and stark or claustrophobic. There’s this kind of green-yellow jaundice feeling aside from Danny’s scenes.

We intentionally shot those differently and wanted them to feel warmer. The lighting is different and also the way that the camera moves. I think it’s Dani is also becomes this kind of epiphany of “it’s not the size of the boat, it’s the motion of the ocean.” You go from the frat guy that Alex has sex that’s the worst thing ever, versus with a woman, and it’s just a mind-blowing experience. That’s kind of analogy for rowing – it’s not about just fucking hammering, and it’s the technique, you know? Technique matters. I feel Dani, in some ways, has been where Alex has. Dani, in some ways, is a proxy for my older, wiser self. When I was younger, I was the sort of Alex doll. Very clinical, focused on ambition, achievement, and things like that. The relationships weren’t a priority.

But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to value them. I tried to have Dani instill in Alex that these things matter. But Alex pushes her away and doesn’t want to listen. We all know the cliche that you can’t change someone; they have to change themselves. Also, you can’t help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves. Alex has these forces who see her and see what she’s going through. Even so, she’s like, I have to finish this.

I like that the ending doesn’t reward Alex, as you see in all sports movies like Rocky. He gets his face beaten in by Apollo, loses the fight, but it feels like he won. Alex stays at school and row over winter break and does not see her family over the holidays. There’s a physical cost being that honed in because she just looks exhausted, but she’s so fixated on a moving target. What was your thought process in constructing an ending like this one?

It’s interesting, too, because I want it to be like the end of Inception and the spinning top. Did Alex or didn’t she and the interpretation of it, depending on your point of view in life, will be different. This ending feels like when you get to the end of a project. You’ve invested all this energy, time, and focus into one thing – then you finish it. I think at the end, she feels this level of contentment that lasts for a split second. Then, it’s like the end of The Graduate when Benjamin gets Elaine on the bus, and then she’s all happy. He has this sinking look in the eyes – staring off into space. I think for Alex, it’s very much that thing.

I think Alex has leveled up because a bit of her backstory is about what she went through in high school. Through this experience, she’s grown a little as a human being and can kind of walk away. Alex had a moment of satisfaction, and now she is empty. It’s this sort of existential dread that comes down and the crash of what I think she will be searching for whatever the next fix is. And I think that is the reality.

This is nerdy, but getting into neuroscience, dopamine, how the brain works, and how human beings work. There’s actually a lot of science and this idea. We have done what we’ve done as human beings because we are constantly on the quest for more. Do we fight that as a species, or do we just accept that the way it is? It’s something that I’ve had to grapple with. I used to be very different and then tried to fight against it. But now, I’ve kind of accepted that this is the way it is.

I don’t know if this is true or not, but I feel like I’ve heard sharks have to keep swimming, or they sink. For me, I relate to that entirely. I have to think about when a project will end and what’s coming up next. And if I don’t have something to work on and focus on, I am not happy. Whether it be relationships, working on myself, career, and what have you. Alex gets to that point at the end, and you’re right – she has fucking nothing. She gets the satisfaction, but there’s nothing else going on.

So, she’s got some lessons to learn. There’s the idea that you have to cultivate and nourish multiple aspects of your life—also, kind of knowing that there never is going to be enough.

Read our Tribeca Festival review for The Novice here. 

Photo Credit: IFC Films