Halfway through making her 2010 documentary The Carrier, director Maggie Betts was already hungering to create a narrative feature. To stage a story not as is, but how it plays in her head became an alluring prospect that she couldn’t shake–and one that seemed doable based on three tenets a producer once told her to abide by.
“She said, ‘Find a story that can take place within a contained set of location. Find a story that is about a very niche, specific world.’ And then her third piece of advice, which was really important, was, ‘Write an insanely enticing part for a woman over 50,'” Betts says. “Sadly, because of the way that this industry ages women out way too early, the result is that a lot of really talented, A-list actresses are more inclined to do a smaller independent feature with a first-time director because they’re just not seeing the type of material that lives up to their talent. I applied all three of those pieces of advice to Novitiate.”
Novitiate stars Margaret Qualley, (The Leftovers, My Mutant Brain) as a teenage girl who enters a convent in 1964, just as the Roman Catholic church was instituting seismic changes through the Second Vatican Council, informally known as Vatican II. Led by Pope John XXIII, Vatican II loosened the church’s longstanding strict rules, such as allowing the use of languages other than Latin during mass and permitting Catholics to pray with parishioners of other faiths.
In Novitiate, the convent’s Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo) tries to push back against the sweeping changes that are threatening to undermine her lifelong dedication as a nun and shaking the foundation of her faith.
Betts got the idea for Novitiate after reading a biography of Mother Teresa. Not long after, Betts, who admits to not being all that religious, was diving head-first down a rabbit hole of nuns and Catholicism.
“I ended up buying all these ex-nun memoirs, and they were such page-turners. I was consumed with the idea that the relationship these nuns had with God was like a literal love relationship leading to an eventual marriage,” Betts says. “And then simultaneously, the whole issue of Vatican II–I was like, wow, I have such a sustained fascination with this.”
However, it’s one thing to have an idea–it’s an entirely different struggle to execute it. As a novice director, let alone a female one of color, Betts was operating in a space in which her authority could be routinely challenged. To get ahead of what could’ve been a problem, she decided to surround herself with female department heads.
“They were all my squad,” she says. “I was careful not to put anyone in a position who might take pleasure in challenging me. Some people take pleasure in giving someone a hard time because they’re new or they’re African-American or they’re a woman or whatever.”
Still, Betts was aware of the limits to her knowledge and had no problem asking “stupid questions,” which, as it turns out, helped her develop her authority as the director.
“I made it clear from the beginning that I was going to ask if I didn’t know something–a lot of people lose their authority when they’re stubborn,” she says. “People get in trouble when, because they’re in a position of authority, they feel like they need to pretend to know the answer all the time. In the beginning, you’re scared of looking like an idiot, but further down the road you have more authority by the fact that you’re not falsely trying to present an authority that you haven’t earned yet.”