Sometimes the drive to excel in their chosen field can ultimately bring out both the most advantageous and damaging qualities in a person. That’s certainly the case for actress Isabelle Fuhrman‘s protagonist of Alex Dall in the new thriller, ‘The Novice.’ The performer’s fierce portrayal of the main character creates a visceral window into the cutthroat world of college sports, as she strives to become the top competitive collegiate rower on her school’s team. But along the way, she alienates everyone around her, even the person she feels she can fall in love with, in the name of success.
The drama marks the feature film directorial debut of Lauren Hadaway, who also served as the writer and editor on the movie. She based the story on her personal experience as a competitive collegiate rower.
‘The Novice’ is now playing in select theaters and On Demand, courtesy of IFC Films. The thriller’s official release comes after it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in June, where it won the Best US Narrative Feature, Actress and Best Cinematography awards. The drama is also nominated for five trophies at the 37th Film Independent Spirit Awards, including Best Feature, Best Director – Hadaway, Best Female Lead – Fuhrman, Best Female Supporting Actress – Amy Forsyth and Best Editing.
‘The Novice’ follows Alex Dall, a college freshman who joins her university’s rowing team and undertakes an obsessive physical and psychological journey to make it to the top varsity boat, no matter the cost. Intent on outperforming her teammates, Alex pushes herself to her limits, and in the process, alienates everyone around her in the name of success.
Hadaway and Fuhrman generously took the time recently to talk about writing, directing, editing and starring in ‘The Novice’ during an exclusive Zoom interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed that when she was deciding to pen the screenplay for her feature film helming debut, she wanted to base the story on a personal experience she had, so she decided to focus on collegiate rowing and ambition. The actress shared that she was interested in playing Alex because she felt Hadaway’s script was one of the best ones she’s ever read, and liked the image book the filmmaker put together that included a statement about why she wanted to tell the story.
Hadaway began the conversation by explaining why she was inspired to scribe the screenplay for ‘The Novice,’ and what was the process was like of putting the story together for the feature. “My first career was in post-production sound, and I made the conscience decision in November 2016 to transition into writing and directing within five years. It’s five years and one month later, and the movie’s coming out, so I checked that box off,” she shared.
“When I made that decision, I was very actively thinking about what could be my first film. I was looking at scope, scale and types of stories that directors make. It needed to be something personal that I could tell and wanted to see,” the writer noted.
“I was a collegiate rower, and that was four years of my life. I was obsessed with it, and it was 20 hours of practice a week. I woke up at 5am every single day for four years,” Hadaway continued.
“So when I was actively thinking about going into (writing and directing), and leaving my other career behind, I wanted to tell a story about rowing and ambition. So I decided to take my four years of collegiate rowing and coming-of-age and compressed them into this story,” the filmmaker shared.
“I actually wrote the first draft of this script when I was in the UK for ‘Justice League’ re-shoots,” Hadaway revealed. “I was outside of a factory and waiting for all of the actors to come out between shoots and re-takes. (During my free time there,) I wrote the script for (‘The Novice’) in three weeks. That was in July 2017.
“Then over the next two-and-a-half years, until we made the film, I was constantly revising the script and working in emotional things about my life, including break-ups” the scribe noted. “I used the script to work through a lot of stuff.
Fuhrman then delved into what elements about the character of Alex, as well as the overall script, convinced her to take on the role, and how she become involved in playing the protagonist in the thriller. “This was one of the best scripts I’ve ever read. I remember reading it and going (drops jaw) the whole time.”
Hadaway “also attached this image book she put together that had the location we were going to be filming in and her own statement about why she wanted to tell this story. It was hand-made with this scrawled writing, and I remember thinking, who is this woman?,” the performer gushed about the filmmaker.
“I was instantly hooked and knew I wanted to play this part. So I taped a self-audition and added an extra scene to hammer in that I wanted Lauren to hire me,” Fuhrman continued.
“I also wrote her a letter about running because I enjoy running. I wrote all about how I understand what it’s like to have a sport that you love, but also being in pain and exhausted, and pushing through that. I just wrote about how I was the right person for this role, not only as an actress, but also a person who understood the strain of this part,” the actress added. “Clearly it worked, because she cast me!
“I really just jumped head first into this role. I fell in love, and became obsessed, with rowing as a sport. Alex’s college experience is kind of like Lauren’s college experience, so I was waking up at 4:30 in the morning and hobbling to the car and drinking my coffee, so that I could go to the bathroom before I got on the boat in the morning and watched the sun rise as I was exhausted,” Fuhrman added with a hint of a laugh.
“I went on to row for about six hours a day (in preparation for the shoot before filming began), and would drive home in wonderful L.A. traffic across town and then do weights. I gained 12 pounds of muscle for this role,” the performer revealed. “I not only put my heart, but also my blood, sweat and tears, into this role.
“I felt, I would say, really trapped, inside Alex’s mind for the entirety of the shoot,” Fuhrman added with another hint of a laugh. “I really trusted Lauren to guide me throughout that. It was such a match made in heaven; we had such a great time, even though you probably wouldn’t think that when you watch it.”
Further speaking of the physicality of the role, the actress noted that Alex pushed herself to her limits, in order to garner success on her collegiate rowing team. Fuhrman further delved into what the process was like of preparing for her character’s mental and physical state after she signed on to star in ‘The Novice.’
“The physicality really helped the emotional aspects of the movie. I was so physically exhausted, but at the same time, I was stronger than I’ve ever been in my life, which was a conflicting feeling,” the performer shared.
“The same was true for the emotional part. This is a role I think any actor would die to play. To have Lauren trust me with this character and her growth throughout the story was incredible,” Fuhrman continued.
“I just wanted to give every part of myself to this part. I woke up every day so happy and excited to be working on this film, but at the same time, I was so exhausted. I wasn’t sleeping, and I was working out so much that I was bleeding from the blisters on my hands,” the actress revealed.
“So it felt like the emotional aspects and the physicality of the role went hand-in-hand. Physically transforming into Alex is what emotionally got me into her head. The physically transformation for me made my job as an actress easy because I got to be present with everybody. It also made me feel as though I was living this obsessive mentality of having to be the best,” Fuhrman divulged.
“I row in every single scene, so I felt an immense pressure to look as though I’m a novice rower who grows into someone who conquers the sport. Lauren also spoke about that when we first met, and it’s a really special thing to watch,” the performer shared.
“So watching the movie, I feel like it’s the most proud I’ve ever been of any performance I’ve ever given. I gave everything I could to this role, and I’m really proud of the film,” Fuhrman added.
Hadaway then delved into how in addition to writing the screenplay, she also made her feature film directorial debut on ‘The Novice.’ She explained how working on the script influenced the way she approached helming the drama.
“Anyone who’s lived in L.A. and tried to make it in this business has a screenplay – or seven. I’m one of those people who tried to do it, and it was tough,” the filmmaker revealed. “I’ve written other things, but this is the first thing that people really responded to in a way that I could tell that it was different and special.
“I also consciously took a step back from my first career, and took a big gamble in pursuing this. If this didn’t work out, I kind of burned some bridges in my first career, and would have had to climb back up that ladder a little bit,” Hadaway admitted.
“I had great producers attached to the film, but finding money wasn’t an easy thing. It was a two-year process, and there were false starts and stops. Every time you think your film is going to be made and then it isn’t, it’s a heartbreak,” the director noted.
“I eventually accepted that this film was never going to happen, and I actually wrote another script, which was inspired by an actual break-up, and thought that was going to be made,” Hadaway also shared.
“But this film came together. We got greenlit and shot the film in Toronto. We then cast Isabelle and she trained for six weeks in L.A., while I was up in Canada location scouting,” the filmmaker continued.
“A lot of first-time directors go on to features with a background of 10 short films, commercials and music videos, but that’s not my background. My background is in dialogue ADR (automated dialogue replacement) and working with actors and directors…on the dubbing and mixing stages,” Hadaway noted.
“All of that came together for this film. Even though I hadn’t done this before, I still felt confident going into this production,” the helmer divulged. “Though the first week of shooting was water week, which was a disaster…Having a first film that’s set around the water was ambitious, but we did it and survived.
“We then went into the dialogue scenes and everything else. At that point, Isabelle and I had been in the trenches together. We were able to push each other and collaborate – it wasn’t just me directing Isabelle. We created the film together, and it was a magical experience,” Hadaway gushed about working with the actress.
“Then the post-production was a nightmare because I did most of it in my kitchen during the pandemic by myself in isolation,” the editor revealed. “I had no idea what the state of the world was going to be – last year was rough. It’s been all blood, sweat and tears, but it’s all been worth it.”
Following up on the fact that ‘The Novice’ was shot on location in Toronto and Peterborough, Ontario, the duo shared what their experience of filming in Canada was like during the principal photography. “We shot in Toronto because one of the film’s producers lives there, and the city also has great tax credits. We also scouted every rowing club in a two-hour radius around Toronto,” Hadaway shared.
“The area we shot in Peterborough is about two hours away from Toronto. We almost didn’t go there, though, because when I saw photos of the area online, it didn’t look like what I had in mind when I wrote the script,” the filmmaker revealed. “I pictured more of a classic, brick Ivy League-esque feeling school. The school we found didn’t look like that online.
“When we later pulled up to the school, it was in the middle of nowhere, and it felt as though it was in a Southern Gothic forest. The architecture was built in the 1960s, and the lecture hall we shot in was a nuclear bunker,” Hadaway shared.
“When I first saw the whole campus in person, I changed my mind and thought, we have to shoot here. So I re-wrote the script to fit the location, and leaned into it,” the scribe added. “For the training room, we found an 1850s army shoe factory, and the ceilings were really low, so it felt really bizarre and creepy. But we really leaned into it…It ended up being a happy accident.
“I think in filmmaking, the things that surprise you and come out of nowhere are the funnest things. There are tons of cases of that in this film, and we went with the flow. Some of the things we changed ended up being better than what we originally had in our heads originally,” Hadaway added.
Fuhrman also chimed in on what her experience was like of shooting the movie on location in Ontario. “It felt perfect for where I needed to be. What’s funny is that we all stayed at the same hotels, so I didn’t feel isolated, necessarily, but I definitely felt on my own a lot of the time.
“I was waking up before we would film for the day and work out at the gym or row in the tank. The Trent University rowing coaches were incredibly helpful,” the performer gushed about the coaches. “They would do the whole day with us and gave me special help and taught me about technique.
“Going home at the end of the day when it was dark, and then waking up the next morning while it was still dark, really helped me connect with Alex…Not really seeing the sun unless I was on set really put in in a good mindset to play Alex,” Fuhrman revealed. “It put me in an emotional place, where I was living for the moment and the day because there really wasn’t anything else I could do; I was constantly thinking about what the next scene and shot was.
“Lauren always talks about my binder with the script, which had all of these tabs and notes. I was constantly pouring over my script, and thinking about what I could do better and play with in the next scene or shot,” the actress shared. “I really felt like I was living in this Petri dish that was ‘The Novice.’
“I didn’t even realize that reality existed until after we finished filming. I got on the plane to go home and then slept for about two weeks because I couldn’t even move. I allowed myself to keep moving past the point of exhaustion,” Fuhrman also revealed. “I was on an adrenaline high for the entire shoot…and then the movie wrapped, and my entire mind and body was relieved.
“I think being in Canada really helped with that. We had such a wonderful, supportive, fun, happy crew. I’m a very happy person, and I think we had good vibes during the entire shoot,” Fuhrman concluded.