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Maggie Betts Takes on the Catholic Church with Novitiate

The searing drama captures a world of forgotten women and establishes Betts as film’s most exciting new voice

Emerging directors have a tendency to stick to topics that hit close to home but with her debut feature, October’s Novitiate, director/screenwriter Maggie Betts had no hesitation about going way out of her realm. Unlike the quirky romances and accounts of 20s-angst that make for so many indie-film forays, Betts’s drama is a quietly devastating period piece recounting the agonies of young women going through the punishing process of joining the nunhood in the early ’60s. Vivid and compelling, Novitiate has marked Betts as one of the most interesting new voices in film but her process of becoming a filmmaker began years before the camera started rolling.

Tall and beautiful, Betts has had a charmed life. She grew up in New York City, the daughter of Roland, an investor and the chairman of Chelsea Piers, and Lois Betts. At Princeton in the late ’90s, she studied English and nurtured her love of research. After college she lived with close friend Barbara Bush, whose father has been Roland’s best friend since they attended Yale together, in the West Village. She was known primarily in the worlds of philanthropy, through a longtime relationship with UNICEF, and fashion (Prabal Gurung is another close friend). But for years she had a desire to pursue filmmaking that went unheeded. “I was always writing scripts,” she says. “It was just a confidence thing. If you don’t really, in your heart, believe that it’s going to get made you can psych yourself out and you start losing the discipline to continue writing.”

After volunteering with UNICEF in Africa, Betts began work on a documentary about maternal transmission of HIV in Zambia. It was a perfect fit in the sense that the magnitude of the subject would prevent her from ever abandoning the topic. “I knew that the issue would propel me through when I felt shaky or wobbly. That the importance of the issue would force me to man up and just get through this movie and make this movie and pull myself together,” she says. “I might have actually chosen a serious-issue documentary as a way to teach myself to get through the hard times in a movie.”

The Carrier premiered at Tribeca Film Festival and was released in 2011. Betts followed it up in 2014 with Engram, a 25-minute short film that was her foray into screenwriting. Each project was a building block to what would eventually be Novitiate. “It takes a while when you’re a woman. It’s such a mostly male-dominated field that it took me a while to think that I could do it,” she says. “I started with a documentary and then made a short film and worked my way up to a feature, which was taking more time but I wanted to feel like I could be in control of the situation when I made a feature. That I wasn’t going to be out to sea.”

While working on The Carrier, Betts, who didn’t grow up Catholic or even religious, stumbled upon a biography of Mother Teresa. The book was a love story, she realized, and the subject of Teresa’s passionate ardor was God. “It dawned on me that that’s who she was talking about and I was like, ‘Oh, my Lord!’ I did not know that women could have this kind of relationship with God. I’m a pretty passionate person but it was like my first boyfriend times ten thousand,” Betts recalls. A fanatical researcher, she was soon perusing Amazon for memoirs from former nuns, the bulk of which were written by women who’d fled the church during the post–Vatican II period from 1965 to 1975.  She realized almost immediately that the subject was filled with the drama and conflict necessary to sustain a full-length film.

Set at a convent, Novitiate explores the period of apprenticeship that young nuns must go through in order to become full members of the order. The cast is led by The Leftovers actress Margaret Qualley, who plays a young woman beginning to question her once-passionate love of God, and Melissa Leo, as a Mother Superior who leads a culture of deprivation and abuse. Betts felt an immediate connection with Qualley, whose mother is Andie MacDowell, when she first auditioned her via Skype. An atheist, Qualley had no personal relationship with religion but as a former ballet dancer she was very familiar with a practice that promotes an obsessive need for perfection, which lined up with the self-abusive environment portrayed in Novitiate. “There was so much that was similar. We suddenly ended up in this really deep conversation about the similarities between the striving for perfection that nuns have and that of ballerinas,” Betts says.

If Novitiate doesn’t come from Betts’s experience, it was certainly shaped by her background and her extremely close relationship with her parents, both of whom are avowed anti-cinephiles. “I’m a really big Terrence Malick fan and I remember being like just so obsessed with Tree of Life. I saw it six times and it was so profound and everything to me,” she recalls. “I told my parents to go see it, not thinking really and they were like are you kidding me? They’re like, you sent us to see that piece of crap?”

Their perspective has been tremendously valuable to Betts, who has found that what’s celebrated within avant-garde film circles often fails to connect with audiences. “I actually create for them as an audience more than for myself. Way more,” she says. “The most interesting feedback I’ve gotten repeatedly about Novitiate is that it’s too commercial. But that’s because I wanted to make it all the things I wanted to say but accessible to as many people as possible. I listen to them and they’re ruthless.”

Her attachment to her family and to her New York roots has Betts determined to remain in the city, even as it looks like Novitiate could have the impact to dramatically change her life. The film took Betts to Sundance, landed her an agent with CAA and has garnered Oscar speculation. She is currently at work co-writing a political drama for Focus Features that she will direct.

Politics is not a coincidental theme, but rather a result of the presidential election forcing her to examine the impact of what she focuses on. (She’s also been pursuing a potential project related to abortion.)   “Since Trump has been elected, every idea you have has to pass through this sort of test of being like even the most abstract way, is this furthering a conversation about where we are right now? It feel sort of indulgent, weirdly, if it’s not,” she says. “The things I’m working on now, they’re born of that need to talk about important things.