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Screen Gem

Culture Watch
Portrait of Maggie Betts by Ryan Slack.

By Marshall Heyman

Maggie Betts isn’t a particularly religious person. And yet the subject of her first narrative feature—out this October from Sony Pictures Classics—is nuns. Set in the 1960s during the time when the Catholic church was undergoing major philosophical changes, the film, “Novitiate,” stars Margaret Qualley (“The Leftovers”) as a young woman who has decided to pledge her life to the convent.

“It was completely by accident,” says Betts, who lives in a townhouse in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. The daughter of Lois and Roland Betts, her father developed Chelsea Piers in New York and is a close friend of George W. Bush. This means Maggie has stepped out on the town quite a few times with the Bush twins, and traveled to Africa with them as well. It was during a trip to Zambia, the setting of Betts’ previous film, a documentary about the AIDS crisis called “The Carrier,” that she picked up a biography of Mother Theresa. The book detailed the world’s most famous nun’s “marriage” to god.

“This was not a symbolic marriage,” Betts explains, adding that she found the committed relationship between Mother Theresa and her higher power particularly fascinating. “It was intense, highly dysfunctional and all or nothing.”

“That made me go on Amazon to look at ex-nun memoirs,” Betts adds. By the time she had written the screenplay to “Novitiate”—the title refers to the period of training prior to taking vows in the church—Betts had read nearly 30 books on the topic, over four years. In turn, her film, which won the Breakthrough Director prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is highly researched and detailed.

“I’ve wanted to make a movie my whole life, but I didn’t necessarily have the self-confidence until now,” says Betts, who has been writing unproduced screenplays since graduating from Princeton. Though she had made the documentary and a short film called “Engram” starring Isabel Lucas, when it came to a fiction film, “I didn’t know if I could handle the pressure, the money, being in charge of all these different people,” she admits.

A few tips from producer Celine Rattray gave Betts some added confidence when it came to developing “Novitiate” for the big screen. Rattray suggested finding an interesting and novel area to tackle, one that hadn’t been over-explored on screen. She recommended Betts try to keep the action to a contained environment, like, for instance, a convent. And she also encouraged Betts to write an incredible part that would attract a female actress to star. In Betts’ case, that would be the Reverend Mother, played by Melissa Leo, who won an Oscar for her role in 2010’s “The Fighter.”

Though it took Betts a long time to get her debut film off the ground, she is already at work on two more, including one about the Russian feminist protest punk rock group Pussy Riot. “There’s a part of me that wishes I’d done so many things earlier. Did I waste all this time?” Betts says. “But I probably wouldn’t have been able to make this movie at any other age. I like getting older. You see things from so many different angles.”


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