It began with a flyer in Lauren Hadaway’s mailbox during her freshman year at SMU: “Join novice rowing. No experience required.”
Hadaway’s subsequent love-hate relationship with the sport triggered four years of mental and physical anguish — much of it self-inflicted — and culminated more than a decade later in The Novice, her semiautobiographical feature filmmaking debut.
“Writing this was cathartic on multiple fronts,” said Hadaway, a Red Oak native who arrived on campus in 2007 looking for a new activity that would fulfill her hyper-competitive drive.
“I didn’t even know what rowing was. It sounded harder than an intramural, and I always like a challenge. The next four years consumed my life. It almost destroyed me, but that resiliency that I built really helped when I moved to L.A.”
She willingly endured a regimen that included waking up at 5 a.m. six days a week, often practicing twice a day, double-majoring in cinema and business, holding an internship or part-time job every semester, and actively participating multiple on-campus clubs and honors programs.
“I was extremely overextended, but it felt normal to me,” Hadaway said. “I thought everyone was going through the same thing I was experiencing, but in hindsight, I don’t think everyone was.”
For the film, Hadaway condensed her experience at SMU into a single year in the life of Alex (Isabelle Fuhrman), a hard-charging freshman at a fictional school who joins the rowing team under similar circumstances. Her decision turns into an all-encompassing quest for perfection, even if it means jeopardizing her social life, academics, and physical and mental health.
“There’s a romantic storyline in the film, but the real romance is between Alex and the sport,” Hadaway said. “After getting to know each other, they started falling in love, and then there was this sort of slow, toxic breakup. When I was a collegiate rower, it was like that, as well.
“My entire body is probably messed up for life,” she said. “You’re doing the same motion, over and over, staring at the back of someone’s ponytail for hours on end.”
After college, Hadaway moved to Los Angeles and built a successful career working in the sound department of major films including Whiplash and The Hateful Eight.
Hadaway wrote the first draft of her screenplay in 2017, when she was in London serving as a sound editor on Justice League. She called her former teammates to ask what they remember about those years. “Everyone thought you were psychotic,” they told her.
The deeply personal project attracted the attention of producer Ryan Hawkins, an ex-SMU classmate. Cameras rolled near Toronto in late 2019, with Hadaway editing much of the film in her kitchen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fuhrman (Orphan) went through six weeks of intense training prior to filming, often waking up before dawn for a cold drive to the marina.
“I had never done rowing, so I got blisters so quickly. I fell into the same pattern that Alex does, but I got to fall in love with the sport at the same time. I really felt Alex’s psyche,” Furhman said. “At the end of the day, I would take a bath in scalding hot water. I would fall asleep so fast and wake up only a few hours later, so excited to do it again. I found the exhaustion to be incredibly energizing.”
After an award-winning festival run, The Novice opens this week in theaters and on digital platforms. It also has been nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards, including for best picture, best director, and best actress.
Hadaway’s film isn’t meant to denigrate rowing or her alma mater, but rather to offer a raw and intimate perspective on the college experience, both in and out of the boat.
“I loved rowing, and I tried to capture the beauty of it. On the water, I saw more sunrises in four years than most people see in a lifetime,” she said. “Making this movie is a dream I’ve had since I was 15 years old and saw Kill Bill for the first time. It was brutal, but it was worth it.”