Lauren Hadaway might be making her feature directing debut with The Novice, premiering as part of the U.S. Narrative Competition at this year’s Tribeca Festival, but this isn’t the first time she’s worked on a film. In fact, chances are she’s been a crucial component of at least one, probably more, of your favorite films of the past decade.
Having done sound work on films with directors ranging from Quentin Tarantino (The Hateful Eight) and Ava DuVernay (Selma) to Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) and Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim), Hadaway has been part of works from some of the best directors in the business, and she’s clearly learned a thing or two that she’s brought to her first time at bat in the director’s chair.
While drawing from plenty of the greats, the filmmaker is also pulling from her own experience as a collegiate rower for this story of Alex Dall (Isabelle Fuhrman), a novice rower on her school’s team whose ambition turns into an obsession that pushes away everyone and everything in her life in an effort to succeed no matter the cost.
Certainly Whiplash feels like a major influence here, a film which Hadaway shares great admiration for when I was able to speak with her a couple of weeks before her film made its big Tribeca Festival premiere. We talk about where Hadaway’s love for film initially began, what led her through the world of sound work into ultimately hitting the director’s chair, and the motivation behind using her life experience to create this nerve-rattling first feature.
Read below for my interview with Lauren Hadaway:
Mitchell Beaupre: How are you doing? Are you getting excited with the big Tribeca premiere right around the corner?
Lauren Hadaway: I am. It’s getting more and more real. I just moved to Paris, so I’m a little removed here and distracted by the move and getting adjusted in the city, but it’s about to get real.
MB: How does it feel to have your first feature get a spotlight like this at one of the major film festivals?
LH: It’s a huge deal. I come from a really small podunk town in Texas that was an hour from Dallas. I always wanted to go to the arthouse cinemas and I never could. I would literally read the newspapers about films and cut out the little posters and stick stuff on my wall. I remember reading about these bigger festivals and it never occurred to me that I could be able to get into one. I just wanted to see the films that are playing at them. Thinking about all that now, my little redneck kid self would be very proud of me.
MB: What was it that made you first discover your love for film and want to become a filmmaker?
LH: It’s funny, I always remember writing and wanting to be a writer since before I could even read. I remember tracing words and things, just having this fascination with the written word and storytelling always. When I was probably 10, classic story, I stumbled into my parents’ old chifferobe and there was this old VHS camera in there. I whipped that thing out and started making slasher films with my friends, buying all the blood, all of that.
I still remember in my head the exact moment that solidified it for me. I was around 15 and I had always watched movies with my parents, but they had sheltered me from watching anything R-rated up until that point. The year prior my older brother was talking about all his dorky friends going to see this movie Kill Bill, and I thought it sounded like the dumbest movie I’d ever heard. So then a year later, I’m 15, and my mom was taking a nap. My dad puts in this movie Kill Bill in the DVD player and he immediately falls asleep. I saw that the movie was rated R though, so I thought that even though this movie sounded really stupid I still wanted to watch it. It blew me away. I was obsessed with it. It was all I could talk about for a year. I started watching all of Tarantino’s films and got slowly sucked into the world by that, and that’s the moment I knew that I wanted to be a filmmaker.
MB: The Novice is your first feature as a director, but you’ve been working for years on films like Whiplash and Pacific Rim doing sound work with these amazing directors. Another film you worked on was The Hateful Eight. What was it like getting to be a part of a Tarantino project after all those years?
LH: That was a dream come true. Honestly, that gave me the confidence to pursue writing and directing. What happened was when I went to college in Dallas I got there and there were not a lot of girls in the film program. A lot of the kids there were these dudes that had all these fancy lenses and cameras and software and it just made me think that I can’t be a director. I loved editing though, and had been doing that for years on my own little films, so I got sucked into post-production and fell in love with sound. With sound you can create this endless world that’s such a vital part of the cinematic experience, and people just don’t think about it and how it can mess with you on such a reptilian level. Then when I moved to L.A. I didn’t know where to start because there’s not really a set path when it comes to getting into the world of filmmaking.
So I set a goal: I want to work on a Tarantino film. And then I worked backwards. Who does the sound on Tarantino films? Wylie Stateman. Where does he work? Soundelux. Who can I contact at Soundelux? I found this one email and I cold emailed out of the blue and basically kicked off like a six month long back and forth relationship until I started an internship there over the years. Finally I got hired to work with Wylie and one project turned into another project and eventually that turned into working on Hateful Eight. My first ever recording session in my whole life was with Quentin Tarantino himself. I remember hearing his voice come in behind me and it was just like having my dream come true 10 years after I envisioned it. It was a huge deal, and I think achieving that goal was one of the big things that really made me think that I can get into writing and directing. I still love sound too, and I know if I ever fail at this then I have a great career to go back to.
MB: You coming from this extensive background in the technical side of things really pays off with The Novice because it feels like you’re utilizing every tool in the toolbox to place the audience so effectively into the head of the main character. The sound design, the editing choices, the way you’re moving the camera, it’s all working in sync to create something incredibly experiential. Could you talk about that approach?
LH: The film is based on my years as a collegiate rower, and as much as I love rowing the thing is that it’s not inherently cinematic. It’s people going backwards. It’s really smooth. It looks calm. The challenge creatively was how do you put someone in the headspace of the character’s experience, that obsession and grit? For me the answer was all of those things you just said. It’s really creating a cinematic experience with sound, with image, the song choices and stylistic pieces. It’s a sports film, but it’s also not a sports film. You have like the biggest action scenes set to 1960s love songs, or we go into these trippy surreal spaces. That’s because it’s not a scene about a girl rowing a boat. It’s a scene about a girl falling in love or a girl obsessing over something and getting lost in the moment. I hope through that the audience can also be transported into that headspace and really understand that even if they don’t know a thing about rowing.
MB: Setting a film, especially your first film, in the world of collegiate rowing is a very interesting idea that I don’t think we’ve really seen before. Could you talk more about that decision to set the film within that world?
LH: It’s a good question. It’s that old cliche of writing what you know. I was writing so much, I’ve got this novel sitting in a drawer that no one’s ever going to read, and when I decided to transition into the world of writing and directing for film I started studying the careers of my favorite directors. I worked with Damien Chazelle, for instance, on Whiplash. It’s funny, people would always ask me when I was doing sound work on a film if the film was any good or not. I would always say that I don’t know because it’s not done yet, and to ask me again in six months. By then, though, I’ve seen it a hundred times so I lose all perspective.
With Whiplash, that was one of the only films I’ve worked on where I knew right away from the first in-progress cut that this movie was going to be amazing. No one knew who he was at the time, I had no idea that movie was going to blow up, and I admire his career so much and what he did with that film. For me, rowing was really traumatic. So I think when I hit this place of wanting to do this, it was a sort of escape for me to write something that was my catharsis. It was also something that I knew could fit into this budget range and when I look at the careers of different directors I like it really hit that other cliche of this seeming like the story that only I could tell. So that’s what I tried to do.
MB: You’re clearly an ambitious person with a ton of drive and hustle to meet your goals. Is that a theme that you really connect with in the film and wanted to imbue in your leading character here?
LH: I find that looking back in my life there are these times where I set goals and then I pushed myself to achieve them. I’m not a religious person at all. I find purpose in challenges and in adventures and doing new things. I always need a challenge to feel happy, like truly happy, even if I’m miserable. Literally in this moment right now I’m sweating in my apartment in Paris, in the city I just moved to, but I feel like I need these challenges. I know I’m not alone in that either. When I wrote this story and started giving the script to people I was really nervous because I didn’t know if people were going to connect to the rowing part, but everyone can connect to that aspect of it. Everybody’s got something in them that is really pushing them.
MB: You really put Isabelle Fuhrman threw the ringer with her part here. I’ve been a huge fan of hers since Orphan and she really crushes this role. What was the process like of working with her?
LH: I totally agree. She blew it out of the water. Did not intend that pun. It’s funny, we had a lot of stops and starts with putting this film together, so we actually had someone else attached and then at the last minute that person got cast in something bigger and had to step away. Which I understand, but then we were scrambling to find someone else and we went back out and did auditions. Isabelle was there and just immediately got the part correctly. Her audition blew me away. This is really my first rodeo when it comes to casting, but I’ve been on a lot of sets and so I tried to pick up what I could from the directors I love.
One thing I remember from a screening with David Fincher was afterwards he said something about how when he casts a film he tries to think about who the actor really is. When he ends a 12-hour day of shooting with Ben Affleck, that guy isn’t Batman he’s just Ben Affleck. He’s tired. So I really took that to heart. Isabelle hates when I tell this story, we always fight when I tell it, but I was a big fan of her too from movies like Orphan and Hunger Games, where she’s playing these like psychotic characters. When I met her in real life though she was so bubbly and energetic, which ended up being a saving grace but in that moment I was almost scared that she wasn’t crazy. I didn’t know if she was going to work for the part. But then I see she’s got this notebook with all these little dividers, all of these printouts and preparations for a little meet and greet.
So we started talking and I could see how driven and vicious she was. She’s not this character in real life, but she has that drive in her. We cast her and she immediately started training for like four, five, six hours a day, and sending me videos from the marina at like four or five in the morning of her in the car waiting for the rowing coach to come show up and train her. She did all the rowing, she would go off and do extra lessons, she was just so committed. She completely embodied the role.
MB: We’ve seen characters in movies like this before – the driven, obsessive person who treats people like crap and abandons everything else in their life to achieve success – but they’re so often men who are being put on this pedestal of the tortured genius. Was there something distinct for you about telling this story through a female perspective?
LH: This is why I think diversity is so important, because people are writing what they know. As a woman who has been on a female rowing team, I was simply just writing what I know. These days you see a lot of efforts of changing characters from men to women to try to be more inclusive, but so often those kinds of things feel forced. It’s well-intentioned and all of that, but I think there’s something different when it just comes from an organic place where you’re not forcing it.
I do think there’s something interesting as well about what you’re saying there in the difference between men and women and how we stereotypically see them in these kinds of movies. I frame it as men destroy outwards, they punch walls in front of people, they destroy things, they let their rage out in an externalized way. From my experience of being a woman and being around women in this environment, I think we turn inwards when we hit these hard moments, and you really see Alex start to crumble from the inside out here. I think that can often be more interesting.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]