For Your Consideration: See notes from Maggie Betts' profoundly moving original screenplay

By Joey Nolfi
October 25, 2017 at 02:19 PM EDT
Mark Levine/Sony Pictures Classics
10/27/17
type
  • Movie
Genre

Between now and the Oscar nominations on Jan. 23, EW will speak to numerous contenders in below-the-line categories about their work and craft. This week, Novitiate director-screenwriter Maggie Betts reaches back into her past, reflecting on how a chance purchase of a Mother Theresa biography at an airport inspired her profoundly moving coming-of-age drama about a teenager, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley), exploring issues of faith and sexuality at a convent ruled by a fiercely traditional Reverend Mother (a never-been-better Melissa Leo) — all while the Catholic Church undergoes rapid reform under Pope Paul VI’s Vatican II. Read on for a peek at Betts’ screenplay and her commentary on drafting it, which included extensive research and plenty of trips to her therapist regarding just how she’d avoid playing into the age-old male fantasy of nun-on-nun sex. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you first get the idea to write Novitiate?
MAGGIE BETTS:
I’m not Catholic and I didn’t grow up religious. About six or seven years ago, I was in an airport heading to Kenya. I picked up Come Be My Light, a biography of Mother Theresa. I thought it’d be a generic overview of her life, pretty dry and straightforward, but it ended up being a collection of [things] she’d written throughout the course of her life. Most of them were almost obsessively consumed with the intensity, ups and downs, volatility, joyous euphoria, and crushing heartbreak of her love relationship… I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out who she was talking about because she kept referring to her husband… Halfway through, it dawned on me that she was talking about God. It never occurred to me that nuns were married to God, and that the marriage [of nuns to God] was taken literally as opposed to symbolically.

I [learned] the psychological type that’s most attracted to this [lifestyle] is a passionate extremist and a particular kind of woman. Mother Theresa, of all people, was that type of woman. That was the initial spark. I wasn’t thinking about making a movie, [but] I started buying and reading a slew of ex-nun memoirs… and they all told different, equally compelling stories, but the two central subject matters that seemed to come up the most was what it was like to be a novitiate nun in training, and how Vatican II rocked their world, as most of these memoirs were written by women who left the convent around the time of Vatican II.

Script provided on behalf of Maggie Betts

Did working on this film give you a new respect for religion?
I don’t know if I have respect for the institution; I have respect for the women. My mom was quite religious, but I think I disregarded faith up until this point as something anti-intellectual—silly isn’t the word, but [it didn’t feel] concrete, perhaps something irrational people attach themselves to.

Sony Pictures Classics

It’s a nuns’ commitment to faith and the sacrifices they made in maintaining that faith in the absolute hardest, bleakest moments when they thought God left them, that was moving to me. It’s profound, and a huge part of the human condition that I ignored or disregarded…. I didn’t become religious myself, but I gained admiration for rational, religious people living a life of faith, but not using the institution for political reasons or to gain power over other people.

Mark Levine/Sony Pictures Classics

How did you approach making the struggle of these women in this specific time period universal and accessible to people today?
Most of the memoirs are coming-of-age stories. Obviously, for most people, 18-24 is an important time for so many people, because that’s when you’re finding yourself and your identity; that’s universal whether you’re living in 1968 or 2017… Obviously, the subject of gender equality is basically [in focus] in every industry right now. Obviously, these nuns were heavily shafted by a patriarchal system, so in that sense, it resonated with a lot of things I’m grappling with as a woman in my own society right now.

How much did the script change from inception to what we see on screen?
No, it constantly changed. After reading the Mother Theresa book, I thought I might be interested in telling the story of a 50- or 60-year-old woman who’d been married to God for 40-some years, and exploring some kind of divorce — not necessarily a legal divorce, but their relationship would be falling apart… that led to the basis of the Reverend Mother character…

Script provided on behalf of Maggie Betts

I also had long conversations with my therapist about the sexuality [of nuns]. In my research, masturbation came up a lot, and moments of sexual interaction between nuns came up a lot. Up until many later drafts of the script, I completely avoided those things, only because lesbian nuns felt so cliché, like such a bad male fantasy. When you Google “nuns,” the first thing that comes up is like, “horny nuns masturbating” [Laughs]. It’s so bad. But as I’m reading the memoirs, it became so unbelievably real and painful. It’s not some tacky ass male fantasy; it’s a real, complicated situation, these women forced to repress their sexuality. [I wanted to examine] what happens when they can’t repress it and it seeps out.

The last thing I want to do, as a female director, is play into the cheesiest male fantasy, but at the same time it was an emotional obstacle for these women, so I ended up putting it in and trying to deal with it in the most subtle, delicate ways. I shot all the [intimate] scenes from the shoulders up, because I didn’t want it to be some voyeuristic gaze of this type of thing, but rather looking into the emotional truth of what [the act] meant for these women.

Mark Levine/Sony Pictures Classics

And your lead character’s sexuality is left ambiguous intentionally, right?
I’d never suggest a determination about Cathleen’s sexuality because in that moment she doesn’t realize how desperate she is for human connection. I believe people can be absolutely gay or absolutely straight, but I also believe that love, connection, and the need for physical, human interaction can sometimes transcend that… I’m happy for anybody to interpret any way they want to. But, the point is she’s a 19-year-old kid who lacks any self-awareness, acting on the most desperate human impulse. That transcends sexual preference.


Keep up with EW’s Awardist coverage here.

type
  • Movie
Genre
mpaa
  • R
release date
  • 10/27/17
director
  • Maggie Betts
Performers
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