Director's Chair: Lauren Hadaway — <I>The Novice</I>
Issue: January/February 2022

Director's Chair: Lauren Hadaway — The Novice

Up-and-coming filmmaker Lauren Hadaway got her start in post, where she built a successful career in sound editing and mixing. Her first big break was working as the dialogue supervisor for Quentin Tarantino on The Hateful Eight, and she went on to work as supervising ADR and dialogue editor on both cuts of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, as well as doing sound work on The Conjuring 2, Whiplash, Unbroken and Selma, among many other films.
Now Hadaway has made the transition to director with her acclaimed debut film The Novice, which she also wrote and co-edited with Nathan Nugent. Inspired by Hadaway’s own experience nearly destroying herself while rowing competitively in college, the film stars Isabelle Fuhrman ( Orphan), who plays Alex Dall, a queer 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 beyond — alienating everyone around her in the name of success.

The film, which co-stars Amy Forsyth (Beautiful Boy) and Dilone ( Halston), premiered at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, where it won multiple awards, including Best US Narrative, Best Actress, and Best Cinematography for DP Todd Martin.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, I spoke with Hadaway about making her directorial debut and her love of post.

This was obviously a labor of love and it’s definitely not your usual cliché, feel-good sports film. What sort of film did you set out to make?

“I wanted to make a version of the obsessed artist trope that I love so much, but one where the hero and villain are the same person. She’s not really motivated by any external force. She’s driven by something purely internal, and that’s something I really relate to.”

You had a very successful career in sound editing and mixing, working with top directors on many big films. How did you prepare for your directorial debut? Did you get any advice from other directors?

“I set myself a goal to make the transition into writing and directing, but I didn’t really talk to anyone about it, as I didn’t want to ‘out’ myself. If people think you already have one foot out the door, it’s not necessarily the best thing for your career, but I was soaking everything up and paying attention. Most of my work in post sound was as a dialogue ADR supervisor, which isn’t the most sexy job on paper, but which was really good training for me, as I was in the room with the actors and directors, and I watched and studied how directors worked, and their different styles, and how they interacted with crews and actors. The beauty of being in post sound is that it’s the very end of production, so you see the waterfall of all the stuff that’s gone wrong down the food chain — all the drama and intrigue. You get to see the four-hour assembly get cut down to two, and what’s re-shot and cut and reworked. It’s a great education.”

So no calls to Tarantino asking to pick his brains?

(Laughs) “No, but I did run into him and Eli Roth at a club and Eli gave me the best pep talk ever about his first film and all the struggles he went through. He basically told me, ‘Just do it. You’ll figure it out as you go.’ And that was great advice.”

Isabelle Fuhrman is so good as Alex. What did she bring to the role?

“She’s known for playing very intense, psychopathic characters, but she’s actually very peppy and jovial, and super nice in person, and she was so well-prepared and committed. The rowing scenes were very difficult and it was so cold in the water, and I told her there’d be no doubles and it’s not a sport you can just pick up in a day, but she began training six hours a day and totally embraced her character and everything it took to do this film.”

How tough was the shoot?

“Very tough. Because of the small budget, we only had 24 days and one splinter day, and we shot in Peterborough, Canada. So we had to be really prepared and move very fast.”

Talk about the look you and your DP Todd Martin went for. 

“He’s such a great DP and I really relied on his expertise so much on the set. We talked a lot about the look and keeping it very realistic but also heightened at times, and every morning we’d sit down and go over the shot list and the storyboards, and then I’d just let him go off and do his thing and I’d focus on my job.”

Tell us about post. Was it remote? Where did you do it? 

“Because of our small budget, I began by doing most of the post on my laptop at a café and did the first assembly that way. Then when COVID hit, I did the rest of the edit in my kitchen here in LA. Then Nathan Nugent came on for about five weeks and he was in Ireland and I’d gone to Texas, so we did it all remotely. Then for the final sound mix, we went to Formosa Sound in Hollywood, which was probably the one legit post place in the whole process. There were also a few VFX that I did myself for the final race sequence, which was a nightmare to shoot. I did a lot of creative editing on it, swinging the picture around and adding some bumps and stuff to give it more energy, but nothing too crazy. I really love the whole process of post, especially editing and working with sound.”

How did you and Nathan Nugent work together, and what were the main editing challenges?

“I tried to get it in as good a shape as I could before we began working together, and I interviewed a lot of editors and hired Nathan because he really got the emotional journey of Alex. The big challenge right away was dealing with the first 15 minutes of the film. That was very hard to craft and it was an issue all the way from the script stage to the edit: What drives Alex? People kept asking me, and it was very frustrating as there’s no simple answer. Yes, she’s driven and gritty, and I relate to Alex, but I don’t know where my own grit comes from, or where my creativity comes from. And people accept a film about a creative person finding purpose through their art, but when it’s a film about a gritty person finding purpose through a challenge, like rowing for example, I think it’s far harder to accept. So I’d crafted all these scenes to try and explain all that — scenes I didn’t even like, and I kept changing the cut, and then when Nathan came on, we just decided to boldly push it all in the other direction and make Alex even more driven and extreme. So we stripped out all these scenes and dialogue, and leaned into this idea of Alex being almost like this zoo animal we’re observing. You don’t have to sympathize with her or relate to her right away. And that really opened it all up for us. And then later there were a couple of montage sequences that we worked on a lot, and I never had a clear vision about the score. Once we added needle drops and music by Alex Weston, the composer, it was like finding the final piece of the puzzle.”

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you? It must have been a big focus, especially given your previous career in sound editing and mixing?

“It was, although we only spent a week on the final mix. I had a great sound team, including mixer Craig Mann, who won the Oscar for Whiplash, and mixer and sound supervisor Peter Staubli, who’s won awards for films like Skyfall. And I had really fought to get those two guys on the project, as I knew them and had worked with them before, despite not having the budget for them. It was just too important for me to risk going somewhere else, and they all did a lot of prep work so that when we got to the final mix, we weren’t wasting any time trying to find our way. It was all ready to go and we could focus on all the creative end of it. 

“The big difference between an indie like this and a big budget blockbuster is that in the latter, you use what the editor did as a template and a guide, and you replace it all. But in an indie, you take what the editor has done and then you build on top of it, which is exactly what they did here. And I wanted to be bold, not subtle. This movie’s not subtle. But then I think everyone got a bit nervous and began to dial it back a bit in all the pre-mixes. For scenes like the race in the day, I wanted the music to just get crunchier and crunchier, and more and more intense, and in the final mix I asked Craig and Peter if it was just too much, but they were like, ‘No, we should crank it up even more,’ and I was like, ‘OK, let’s do it,’ and it really works. So it was really satisfying to work on all the sound with such a great team and get it the way I really wanted it to sound.”

What about the DI? Who was the colorist and how closely did you work with them and the DP?

“We did it with Mikey Rossiter, who’s at The Mill, and Todd knew him well and had worked with him often, and we both teamed up and fought to get him too. Part of the reason I’d chosen Todd as my DP was that I loved the look he gets in all his projects, with the grain and the grade, and that’s how I wanted this to look. But it was all remote, as I couldn’t go to New York for the sessions because of COVID and Todd was in London. And like with the sound, I wanted this quite extreme dynamic range — lots of icy blues and cold grays for all the exteriors, and then we used dark, claustrophobic hues for the interiors — weird greens and yellow shades, and Mikey and Todd did a great job."

Did it turn out the way you first envisioned it, and do you want to direct again?

“It did, and I absolutely do want to direct again. I just hope I don’t have to go back to my sound career, although I always have that as a back-up (Laughs). I signed with CAA and I have a few projects brewing and one I hope to shoot soon, so that’s the plan — full steam ahead with directing now.”