Tribeca 2021 Women Directors: Meet Lauren Hadaway – “The Novice”

Lauren Hadaway is an LGBTQ+ writer and director with a background in sound editing and mixing. She briefly worked as a Dallas-based reality TV editor before moving to Los Angeles in 2012 to pursue a career in post-production sound. She built a career as an ADR supervisor on films including “Justice League,” “The Conjuring 2,” and “The Hateful Eight” before transitioning into writing and directing. Hadaway is a 2018 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Fellow.

“The Novice” is screening at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, which is taking place June 9-20.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

LH: “The Novice” is the story of an obsessive collegiate rower who pushes to climb the ranks of her college’s rowing team. Think “Whiplash” with shades of “Black Swan” set in the rowing world.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

LH: When I was thinking about what sort of film could be my first film, I studied a lot of my favorite directors’ careers and followed the age-old advice: write what you know.

So, I wrote “The Novice,” inspired by my own years as an obsessive collegiate rower. I essentially compressed four years of my rowing experience and 10 years of coming of age into the script. Writing it turned out to be catharsis for me.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

LH: This film is really my existentialist anthem. Most people are familiar with the idea of nihilism which, crudely put, says, “Life has no meaning. Period.” Existentialism, however, says, “Life has no meaning, comma, we must create our own meaning.”

For the period of time that this movie takes place, rowing becomes Alex’s purpose. It becomes a toxic love affair. I suspect, and hope, that the audience will be left wondering whether it was all worth it.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

LH: My first week as a first-time director was water week, and aside from my director of photography, Todd, who rowed one semester his freshman year of high school, no one on the crew knew anything about rowing. Not only was I communicating the creative vision for the film over walkie-talkies and megaphones during grueling conditions, coordinating sometimes a dozen boats, I was also communicating the limitations and reality of the sport — the scope of a regatta; the specific numbers for the bulletin boards; the way the ergs would be lined up; how the boats move; etc. It was important to me to get all the details right.

That first week was really a trial by fire. Or maybe the better cliché and pun here would be, “I was thrown into the deep end.” By the morning of day four, I really started to question myself. I was sure there was no way in hell we would finish the movie. Before going to set that day, I went back to looking at directors I admired for any words of wisdom or encouragement.

I’ve always really admired Damien Chazelle’s career, so I read some interviews he gave about “Whiplash,” and I found a quote that really resonated with me: “Every day was walking a tightrope between really getting something special and utter, crushing disaster.”

I shared this quote with Todd, and it was like a lightbulb moment. It was gospel. Choir singing. I don’t know how to describe it, but it saved us. For the rest of the shoot, anytime shit hit the fan, anytime it looked like certain disaster, we shouted this quote back to one another. It kept us going. It reminded us that plenty have been here before us and have done alright.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

LH: I met my producer, Ryan Hawkins, way back in college and actually did the post sound for another feature he had produced. He was one of the first people I sent the script to. His production company came on board to finance, and they helped shop and pitch it around to find the rest.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

LH: Watching movies was a weekend tradition for my family, but my parents were pretty good about sheltering me from anything R-rated. I remember back in 2004, my older brother talked about going to see “Kill Bill: Vol. 2” in the theaters with his friends. I thought the movie sounded like the dumbest thing I’d ever heard of: “a white woman doing kung fu.” Then one day, my mom was taking a nap, and my dad put “Kill Bill: Vol. 1” into the DVD player in the living room but then immediately fell asleep. I had zero interest in seeing this film, but I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to watch an R-rated movie.

And it fucking shattered my world. I’d been writing since I could hold a pencil and making little slasher films with my parents on VHS, but that film was unlike anything I had ever seen. And it solidified it for me: I was going to be a filmmaker. I probably watched that movie 50 times. It’s all I could talk about for a year. I saved up my money to buy a mini-DV camera and editing software. I even tried to make a “Kill Bill 3” with some of my friends.

In college, one of my favorite editing projects was cutting a fake trailer for “Kill Bill: Vol. 3.” I was really proud of it and put it up on YouTube. When I got to LA to pursue a career in sound design, I didn’t know where to start, so I set a goal: “I want to work on a Tarantino film.” I figured out who did his sound, where he worked, who I could get in touch with there, etc. and then I worked backwards.

Three years later, I had my first ever recording session ever with Quentin Tarantino himself. Working on that film was a dream come true, and realizing that goal really gave me the confidence to reconsider my long-dormant dream to pursue directing.

I should add, one of my favorite motivational comments on that YouTube trailer is: “Wow, even for a fan made trailer. This is total horseshit. Please keep your day job and never pursue the film industry. Not even gonzo porn. Just stay away from it completely.” The best revenge is living well.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

LH: The best advice: “You don’t need to go to grad school. You need to be working.” I had always been an A student. Excelled at school. Liked taking tests, liked all of it. After I graduated from college in 2011, an MFA seemed like the next logical step. I was neck deep in recommendation letters, writing essays, and taking the GRE when one of my professors told me this. It had never occurred to me. And he was right.

I wouldn’t say this is the worst advice, but I hear f0lks saying to “make stuff” and “make as much content as you can” all the time, especially on alumni panels, and I like to give my somewhat opposing perspective. I’ve seen many people get sucked into churning out content for the sake of it, and they’re just spinning their wheels and diluting their best work. Whether you have one short film or 100 under your belt, you are still a first-time feature director. Quality over quantity. Creating content costs resources: creative energy, time, money, connections, so make sure you’re working on something that you’re ready to spend the next weeks or years of your life on.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

LH: When I was 15, I saw “Kill Bill” and knew I wanted to become a filmmaker. I was so sure of it. Then a few years later, I arrived at college and was immediately overwhelmed by all the dudes who seemed to know every camera and lens, seemed to have tons of short films under their belt, had the fanciest gear and software, and grew up in cities. Most of the film program was dudes. I immediately got hit with what I now know of as imposter syndrome.

I gravitated towards post-production where I could work in a quiet room all alone without lots of eyes and pressure. I already loved editing, so it wasn’t much of a stretch, and then I fell into post-sound which I found utterly fascinating. No one at my school did that, so I became the token post-sound person. It was only after I had built a successful career in post-sound and started working with some of my heroes that I realized that most successful film people aren’t actually creative geniuses — they’re just normal people with clear creative intention, work ethic, and experience.

So in November 2016, I made a new goal to myself: to transition into writing and directing within five years. And then I started making active steps to do that. I would say to anyone suffering from imposter syndrome that all you need is a goal and to know how to show up. You have to do the work. You have to make hard choices. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible. I promise you that none of us really know what we’re doing. We’re all figuring it out as we go, which means you can too.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

LH: It’s hard to pick just one favorite, so I’ll mention the last film I compulsively re-watched over and over: Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.” It’s a slow burn, but the last 15 minutes are an absolute punch to the face. The entire film felt like a long set up for those last few minutes and the payoff was incredible.

I saw it three times in theaters, and it was the last film I saw in theaters before COVID hit. It inspired me to learn French, which sent me down a rabbit hole. Now I live in Paris. C’est la vie.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how? 

LH: I’ve always been someone who needs to go somewhere to write. I need a routine and security. When I’m starting to feel down, my impulse is to become a hermit and recluse, which is also the worst thing for my mental health. It’s taken me a long time to learn that when I start to want to withdraw from people, what I actually need is to force myself to be around people. I need a place to go. I need little interactions. Being alone in the house is the worst thing for me — so you can imagine where this is going.

We shot “The Novice” and the end of 2019, and I plowed through the assembly edit in December and early January. I knew myself well enough to know that after the adrenaline and the entire insane year that was 2019, I was headed for a huge depressive crash, so I prepared for it.

I developed a routine: every morning, I went and wrote at a café; I spent my afternoons and evenings with friends or going to see a movie. I signed up for a couple classes at a local community college. I took rollerskating lessons at Moonlight Rollerway. I was trying to get a game night going with friends, but the pandemic just decimated all of that. I had the worst depressive episode of my life last year.

Truthfully, I haven’t created much during COVID. I feel like I haven’t accomplished anything, that I’ve wasted a year. I have to actively tell myself, “You finished your film. You learned French. You worked a six-month sound job. You moved across the world. You lived through a fucking pandemic.” But most of that just felt like surviving.

Even the French was a survival thing — I really buried myself in it during the start of the pandemic mostly to distract from a recent breakup, imagining that I’d spend the summer of 2020 in Paris. When it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen, I decided, “Okay, I guess I’m going to move to France.” That French beacon kept me going and gave me something to focus on. It kept my head above water. It was almost arbitrary. It could have been anything. But surviving isn’t thriving. And I’ve missed writing. I’ve yearned for it the way I’ve yearned for love. I’ve tried to get the spark back a dozen times, but I just do not do well at home, and I don’t do well without a routine.

I moved to Paris two months ago, and it’s been in full lockdown until last week. Yesterday, for the first time in 14 months, I wrote at a café. A little terrace off the Rue des Martyrs in the 9th arrondissement. And this old man with a Greek fisherman hat and no teeth approached. I’d seen him around dozens of times over the last two months — usually sitting on the sidewalk with a little boombox and flowers — and I always wanted to talk to him but had been too shy with my French to approach.

Well, he came up to me and introduced himself. When he found out I’m from the USA, he told me his daughter lives in New York. He pulled out this magazine and pointed at the cover, “That’s her.” He was so proud. You could tell by how worn the magazine was that he’d shown that to a hundred people. I told him I was heading back to New York in a few weeks for my film premiere. And then we started talking about old French movies I should watch. He told me when he was 17, he bought a projector and ran a cinema club.

An hour later he came back and brought me a bouquet of flowers. There was a little card in it, with a little note that said, “Each petal is a kiss wishing you success and happiness.” And holy fuck if that didn’t make me feel alive. That was a good writing day. A good French day. That day was magic: a coffee and croissant on the terrace, writing, getting occasionally interrupted by the fat beagle howling at the street cleaners or by brief French conversations with an old dude with a cool hat who loves cinema. What a dream. That is life. That’s an intangible thing that COVID has taken from us — what it means to be a human. What it means to be alive. After more than a year, I have a little spark, a little flame, but it’s so, so fragile. I’m doing everything I can to protect it from the elements and nurture it until it’s back to its old self.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make Hollywood and/or the doc world more inclusive?

LH: I’m trying to think of what to say here that hasn’t been said before. If it’s about “write what you know” then in order to see more diverse stories, we need more diverse creators. But there’s a pipeline problem — there just aren’t enough underrepresented people working at the level they need to be at because they’ve been excluded so long. I think things will be better in 10 years, but for now we need to keep hiring, training up, and encouraging the younger generation, getting them in at the ground level.

When it came to casting “The Novice,” there was a moment in time when it looked like literally every speaking role was going to be a white person. Dilone’s audition hadn’t come in yet, and we were still casting the smaller rowing parts from actual rowers. While I don’t know the numbers, rowing is a really white sport, so even finding POC rowers was extremely difficult.

Chantelle Bishop, who plays the captain of the rowing team, was on our shortlist from the strength of her auditions, but at the time we were worried she wouldn’t work because of an old hand injury. I had a real crisis over it, and I wasn’t quiet about it.

I specifically asked to see more auditions from POC, and I had multiple heart to hearts with my casting director Nicole Forde who’s a biracial woman. I’m butchering her words, but she said something to the effect of, “You don’t want to cast a POC who isn’t right for the role just because you think you need a visible minority. It’s a gimmick. You need to cast who’s right for the part.” In the end, Dilone’s audition rolled in last minute, and she was fucking perfect. And thank god Chantelle’s hand thing didn’t end up being an issue.

So I don’t know what that says. I think each one of us with any kind of privilege needs to shut up and listen. Swallow the ego. Try to do the work. Be patient. And don’t force things in an effort to be inclusive because it’s not helping anyone, and it’s probably adding to the issue of misrepresentation, and honestly, people can sense the bullshit, even if well-intentioned. It’s such a nuanced thing.

I’m a redneck from a tiny Texas town who once believed she’d never leave the country, even for vacation; who once said she would never get a tattoo; and who once said she was definitely straight, married at 24 and with a kid by 30. Now I’m a 31-year-old queer woman living in Paris. I’ve been in a lesbian throuple for fuck’s sake. I have a giant naked mermaid tattooed on my back. I’ve come a long way. Evolution is possible for all of us. It just takes being comfortable with discomfort.

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