The Novice Photo: courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
The story of Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), a student who becomes obsessed with rowing, Lauren Hadaway’s début feature The Novice turns the conventions of the sports film on their head. It’s a dark tale full of suffering and desperation en route to no obvious source of relief. When Lauren and I met to discuss it, it was immediately apparent that she shared some of her protagonist’s characteristics. She was strikingly dressed with an intense stare, shifting in her seat, eager to get started and 100% focused when she did so. I put it to her that whilst some critics are confounded by Alex because she chooses rowing instead of something in which she could succeed more easily, her behaviour reflects the sentiment captured by John F Kennedy when he famously said “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard."
Isabelle Fuhrman as Alex Dall in The Novice Photo: courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
“For me, this film is really my existentialist anthem,” she responds. “I mean, I grew up in a small Podunk, Texas town. It was very religious. I've never been religious. You know, I think that when we die, we die. And that's always been rough for me. But then in college – sort of a cliché experience – I discovered existentialism. Right, I was like, ‘Oh, I'm 20 years old. I've learned about the world.’ But no, it's like, nihilism is very crudely put, it's this idea that life has no meaning, but existentialism is the idea that life has no meaning until you give it meaning. And there's both something terrifying and something very liberating about that.
“For me, you know, Dall is a proxy of my younger self in a lot of ways so this was cathartic and making it was cathartic. But the thing I've learned about myself is that I need to constantly be building, whether it's in a relationship or working on myself or career. I need to feel like I'm building, like a shark – I have to keep moving like a shark has to keep swimming. I’m prone to depression and things like that. The thing that I've learned is like, if I have a purpose, if I have something I’m working towards, that is what makes me feel fulfilled. And it can be relationships, work, any number of things. And so Alex I see as a proxy me in a way. She's really young, a less refined, less chilled out version of that very 18-year-old kind of taking on the world. You're going to fucking conquer, but she almost arbitrarily chooses rowing. I think it could have been anything.
In the locker room Photo: courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
“I myself was a collegiate rower. Again, I didn't know what rowing was, when I was a teenager. I got a flyer in the mail before I went to university. It was like, ‘Join the novice rowing team, no experience required.’ And I like a challenge. I don’t like to do everything that everyone else does. For instance, going to Australia, everyone's like ‘Go to Sydney!’ and I'm going to go to Western Australia in the summertime. No one does that. If people want to go to London, fuck that, I'm going to go to Wales in the winter. I want to do things, I want to have experiences that everyone I know has not already had. And so I think for me really it was it was arbitrary. I think for Alex, this was the thing she latched onto and it's almost like a prey drive. You know, a dog sees a squirrel and they latch on and you’ve got to fucking yank that dog by the leash to get him away. The blinders are on and you focus to the end for better or worse. And so I think for Alex, she's finding purpose and fulfillment through this thing, even if she's kind of that dog willing to run across traffic into that squirrel. And she's going to have to grow out of that, I think. It's something I’ve started to do, getting older and trying to find balance. I haven't figured it out yet, but yeah.”
So how does that relate to the process of making the film?
A place in the team Photo: courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
“I could never make another film like this because I would die,” she says. “No, I mean, this was my blood, sweat and tears investment. It is my baby. If I'm walking down the street and I see someone's kid running out into traffic, I'm going to grab the kid. I'm not going to let him run into traffic. I think most people would fucking agree. But when it comes to letting your kid eat no vegetables, if they're watching too much TV, if they're not doing their homework, I don't really fucking care if the kid looks fine. It's good. It's up to you. With this, this is my baby and everyone cares about its well-being but like, no one's going to care neurotically as me.
“So, yeah, it was tough, especially last year doing post production. I’m in my kitchen during the pandemic, the world is ending. I'm on my laptop. I have an old TV set up on the kitchen table and my roommate is behind me cooking her dinner. I can hear a sizzling sausage in the pan and I'm sitting there having a fucking anxiety attack and everyone's like, ‘No, it's fine. It's good.’ Like, when it came time to doing post production and sound, I didn’t have the money. I ended up cutting a lot of the dialogue and stuff for this just because I wanted to make sure we could use my guys and take the budget to them. I mean, it was all or nothing. I definitely went all in on this because you know, you get one first film. I certainly wasn't going to half-ass it. But that being said, I don't know if I can ever cut another movie without having a assistant, or do it in my kitchen – I’ll probably avoid that in future.”
On the machines Photo: courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
Quite a few critics have been describing it as horror. Does she see it that way?
“At times. I mean, I was wanting it to feel like that in certain ways. I think with obsession and things that are not rowing or whatever, going back to that sort of dog latching on, there's this quality... I mean, for me, I'm an obsessive person, very all or nothing. And when I got to this place that is very dark and scary, I didn't want to make this sort of average inspirational sports film, I wanted something that really felt true to what I experienced when I was a rower. When I was making this I asked my teammates, ‘What did you think about me back then?’ and my friend said ‘We thought you were fucking psychotic.’ So, you know, I wanted to capture that, and that kind of tunnel vision of it. So you know, I don't mind that people will equate it to horror. For some people it is. For me, it just feels like unfortunately, that's just some some times of your life.”
The film includes scenes of self harm. How did she approach that difficult subject?
“When we see a lot of films with men, men tend to – I’m generalising here – destroy outwards,” she says. “They punch, they start wars and they they fucking scream, they huff and puff, they puff their chest and other things; and with women, speaking for myself and the women that I know in my life, I think that we often turn inwards and we destroy ourselves.
Going it alone Photo: courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
“There was a scene we were shooting where Isabelle was like ‘Lauren, I don't know, this is the one thing in the film where I don't really have anything to equate this to, I don't have anything to pull from here.’ And I was like, ‘This is just your fucking frustration, like you don't want to hurt. You don't want to destroy other things. You don't want to hurt someone else but you need to get this intensity out.’
“I think a lot of times with self harm and things – and I can't speak for everyone – it's often equated as, ‘Oh, I just want to feel something.’ but I think the thing that I relate to more is this idea of self harm because you can't fuck with people in that moment. You're so so overcome with rage and with frustration with whatever that you want to hurt, you want to destroy, but you don't want to subject this onto anyone else. And yeah, I mean it is it is fucking rough. And I think with the self harm, with the scars and things, it's the sort of haunting thing like, this is the thing that I have done and there's a mark that's left there that I can't like shake off. And I think by the end though, it's kind of accepting all the bad things that have happened to you that have made you who you are.”
We only really see the more relaxed side of Alex in her relationships, particularly her romantic relationship with teaching assistant Dani (Dilone), but also a little bit early on in her friendship with fellow rower Jamie (Amy Forsyth).
The Novice poster Photo: courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
“Yeah, I mean, the relationship with Dani, that was always meant to be the grounding for us. Even the way that we shot it, everything else is very cold or very claustrophobic and kind of yellowy green feeling. But when she's with Dani, we shot it very calmly. We wanted it to feel warm, we wanted it to feel relaxed, like it's almost this way to be a human. It's like the real world. And I think that Dani is trying to tell her this. She’s trying to tell her, ‘Hey, you need to take a little step back.’ But the thing about it is, like, people aren't going to change because you tell them to. They have to be willing to listen.
“Some people comment that ‘Oh, you know, no one's noticing these things are happening to Alex.’ I think she's going through these things that she's not hearing and she doesn't want to hear it and she's not ready to hear it. So with her friendships, she's okay with them until they start conflicting with the same issues, and then it becomes this case of like, ‘I don't have time for this,’ and they become this sort of sacrificial pawn. I mean, it's rough, but she had people in her life who cared about her and she pushed them away.”
The Novice will be released in the US on Friday, 17 December.