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​​Toxic 'row-mance': 'The Novice' combines sports obsession and psychological thrills

Director Lauren Hadaway dramatized her own experiences as a competitive collegiate rower for her dark, gritty debut feature, “The Novice.”
Isabelle Fuhrman in 'The Novice."
Isabelle Fuhrman in 'The Novice."IFC Films

For her debut feature film, Lauren Hadaway — who cut her teeth as a dialogue and audio supervisor for Zack Snyder’s “Justice League,” Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” and Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” — followed the age-old aphorism of “write what you know.” So, while awaiting the reshoots for “Justice League” in the summer of 2017, Hadaway decided to dramatize her own experiences as a competitive collegiate rower to create a gritty, psychological thriller that draws inspiration from two of her favorite films: “Whiplash” and “Black Swan.”

But, as Hadaway noted in her director’s statement, which outlines the vision and motivation behind the film, this isn’t a typical coming-of-age story about a young athlete. 

“There are countless films about creatives getting consumed by their art, or athletes sacrificing everything for the big game, but I’ve yet to see a film about a gritty person spiraling into madness in pursuit of a gritty endeavor,” she wrote. “In an effort to capture the nebulous feeling of what it’s like to be consumed by such an illogical obsession, I’ve subverted what most might expect from a psychological drama or sports film.”

“I never intended for there to be any message narrative about gender or sexual orientation ... I channeled the cliche writerly advice of ‘write what you know’ and wrote a script about grit and obsession set in the world of rowing. It just so happens I was on a women’s rowing team, and I’m queer."

lauren hadaway, director of "the novice"

Written and directed by Hadaway, “The Novice” follows Alex Dall (“Orphan” and “Hunger Games” star Isabelle Fuhrman), 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, regardless of the cost. Haunted by the naturally gifted individuals who seem to surge past her inside and outside of the classroom, Alex begins to alienate everyone around her in the name of success, pushing herself past the breaking point in an attempt to outmatch her teammates.

Having set her sights on becoming a director from the time she was 15, Hadaway felt that her formative experience in various areas of post-production — more specifically in editing and sound design, which she considers to be “half of the cinematic experience” — prepared her to tackle the customary challenges that arose at every level of her own production.

And while it was difficult to revisit a “relatively traumatic” part of her life, in which she became completely consumed by the sport for four years while a student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Hadaway said that the experience of writing, making and editing the film was “utter catharsis” and an invaluable opportunity to unpack her own coming-of-age. 

“Now, I never want to row again. Maybe when I’m 67, I’ll dip back into it, but I’m good for a while,” she told NBC News with a laugh.

In order to bring her deeply personal, semi-autobiographical story to life, Hadaway knew that she needed a young actress who could handle the emotional and physical demands of the lead role, and no one felt right until she saw Fuhrman, who connected with Alex’s internal — and inexplicable — drive to succeed. After recording two audition scenes, Fuhrman wrote Hadaway a personal letter in an attempt to set herself apart from the rest of the pack.

“I ran a relay race with a group of friends of mine from Santa Monica to Las Vegas — it’s a 344-mile race [called the Speed Project] and I ran about 60 miles of it,” Fuhrman told NBC News. “I wrote Lauren a letter essentially explaining what the race was and how I knew what it was like to wake up at 4 in the morning before the sun was out. I knew what it was like to have a team rely on me. … I wanted her to be absolutely sure that I was the right person that could handle both of those things at the same time.”

Despite not having any prior knowledge of rowing apart from watching one lung-busting scene of “The Social Network,” Fuhrman was quickly put to work from the moment she was cast. Since she had to row the entire movie without a body double, Fuhrman rowed six hours every day for six weeks and lifted weights with a trainer leading up to the first day of production and made time before or after a long day of shooting to get on the water, eventually gaining 12 pounds of muscle to match the physique of a competitive rower.

“It really consumed and kind of became my entire life, and I got so into it that I was on the Reddit forums of rowers and their memes that they were sending each other,” she recalled with a laugh. “I really felt there were times when I didn’t know what was real and what wasn’t. I was in the same pocket of exhaustion and physical exertion that Alex is throughout the whole story.”

“What this movie really is to me is a character study on what lengths someone will go to to achieve a goal, at times to their own mental detriment.."

Isabelle Fuhrman, star of "the novice"

The evolution of Alex’s unhealthy relationship with rowing over the course of the 96-minute film is akin to a toxic relationship between two people. In order to make that comparison, Hadaway wrote in her statement that she decided to make “the rowing scenes grow progressively more surreal,” using slow-motion replays and 1960s love songs to capture “a different stage in this doomed relationship: first spark, clunky beginning attraction, first time making love, first fight, the dopamine high of being in love, and finally the slow descent into a toxic, abusive relationship.”

“The why and the who of Alex is the mystery of the film, and as the film goes on, we get a little more of a peek behind the curtain and get the sense that she’s done something like this before,” Hadaway explained in an interview. “This is a pattern of behavior, and I like to think at the end of the film, she’s kind of leveled up a little. …  But Alex being a proxy of myself, I will tell you that she will never probably get it all quite figured out, for better or for worse.”

Fuhrman said that, after seeing the film, her sister quipped that the central, toxic relationship is like a "row-mance."

“It really felt like I personally had this toxic relationship with rowing. We had this hot, steamy romance, and the movie ended, and I haven’t done it since,” she revealed. “I really felt like this balloon had deflated when we finished. I would like to maybe try it again, but I have such fascinating memories of my hands bleeding and my blisters. There are parts of this sport that are really stunning and beautiful, but it’s an incredibly masochistic sport to dive into.”

“We’re telling a story about grit and ambition in a way that I don’t think has ever been an obsession, in a way that’s never been shown before,” Fuhrman added. “What this movie really is to me is a character study on what lengths someone will go to to achieve a goal, at times to their own mental detriment, when there’s no one else around them telling them that they have to succeed. It’s something that’s innate and within them, and from my own personal experience, I still struggle with this.”

But while Alex’s obsessive nature makes it more difficult for her to have meaningful relationships with other people, Hadaway still chose to humanize her lead character by showing that she is capable of making those connections, even if her priorities continue to lie elsewhere. After failing to rise to the top varsity boat, a dejected Alex accepts a date with her former teaching assistant, Dani (model and actress Dilone), an androgynous, quick-witted lesbian with a no-nonsense attitude. When the two have passionate sex after their first date, Alex — who was also seen having a clumsy hook-up with a frat boy — has a sexual and physical awakening and discovers that rowing, like sex, is more about technique than size and that she needs to make up for what she doesn’t have in muscle with finesse and rhythm.

“That, I think, is an analogy for rowing specifically, but it could also apply to the rest of her life,” Hadaway said. “Dani represents this warmth and this humanity, and we get the sense that she’s gone through something similar to Alex and is trying to tell her, ‘You don’t need to be doing all this.’ But people have to learn their own lessons, and you can’t make someone change if they don’t want to change themselves. And if they don’t want to be helped, then they’re not going to be helped.”

And while her directorial debut features a queer romantic subplot, Hadaway said that she didn’t want to make Alex’s identity a major plot point, because she thinks there is still a lack of LGBTQ stories that are not tied to a character’s sexuality or gender identity. 

“I never intended for there to be any message narrative about gender or sexual orientation,” she wrote in her statement. “I channeled the cliche writerly advice of ‘write what you know’ and wrote a script about grit and obsession set in the world of rowing. It just so happens I was on a women’s rowing team, and I’m queer. That’s it.”

Since the film’s premiere in June at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won top honors for best U.S. narrative feature film, best actress and best cinematography, “The Novice” has received rave reviews from critics, with many commending Hadaway on an “utterly unforgettable” and “masterfully orchestrated” first feature and Fuhrman on a “searing, star-making performance.” The film also received five nominations this week at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, including for best feature, best director and best female lead.

Though she acknowledges that not everyone will walk away from this film with the same zeal to take on the world as Alex, who uses these extreme challenges as a way to find meaning in her life, Hadaway thinks the biggest takeaway is: “No matter how much you achieve and how much you do, once you have that momentary satisfaction or conclusion, that’s it,” she said. “Then, it’s on to the next thing and on to the next thing, and that’s going to be a crude or a cold realization for anyone to really evaluate: ‘What is worth it? Where do we put our energy and time?’”

In a full-circle moment, Fuhrman will soon be reprising her role as Esther in the long-awaited sequel to the psychological horror film “Orphan,” which was her initial claim to fame in 2009. But at the age of 24, the actress now feels that “The Novice” will always be a defining chapter of her life and career — and one that she is arguably most proud of.

“I loved telling this story and working with Lauren, and even though it’s not the exact same thing as Alex’s obsession with this sport, those lines of reality really kind of blurred for me,” she said. “And as proud as I am of ‘Orphan’ and excited for people to see the next one, I really do feel like this is a closing chapter, weirdly, in my career and in my life where I’m moving into this next chapter of adulthood. I really feel like we captured something really special, and I’m truly proud of this film.”

“The Novice” is now playing in theaters and available on demand.

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