At just 29 years old, Savanah Leaf has already built a career in three fiercely competitive industries and racked up impressive accolades in each. In 2012, the London-born, California-raised former professional volleyball player competed for Great Britain at the Summer Olympics. In 2020, the footage she directed for blues guitarist and singer Gary Clark Jr.’s single “The Land” received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Music Video. And on July 7, Leaf’s feature directorial debut, mother earthIt will be released in theaters nationwide.
mother earth tells the story of Gia (Tia Nomore), a young mother fighting for custody of her two eldest children in foster care while pregnant with her third. The film was shot in Oakland, California in just 26 days last spring and builds on Leaf’s previous work, the documentary The heart still hums, which he completed with actress Taylor Russell. The project represents both a new chapter and a new challenge for the Bay Area filmmaker.
“I didn’t envision any of this, but at the same time I did it,” he says. the hollywood reporter. “I was just hoping for a movie that I believed in, a movie that I could support and want to see.”
A24 came on board as the film’s primary financier just as Leaf was finishing the script and was set to begin pre-production in March 2022. mother earth made its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January and won the Audience Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival in April. It counts among its stars the actress Erika Alexander and the rapper and singer Doechii.
“I feel lucky to have found partners who would allow me to make a film in a way that I respect and like,” says Leaf. “I don’t think it’s an easy task, especially in the United States. I knew I would make a movie, I believed in myself to do it, but I didn’t know who would be involved or how it would be made. I feel very excited for the community and the group that we did it with.”
When did you first develop your interest in cinema?
I’m trying to figure it out and I’m not sure, but when I got injured playing sports in 2015, I really started to see movies as an option. I played sports in college, but I studied psychology, and in a way, I think of film as a combination of psychology (working in a team environment, which is very sporty) and artistic expression. I have always taken photos or written or painted. So it sounds crazy that I’m in movies and I was an athlete, but I always had the culmination of all of this in different places in my life.
Would you say it’s harder to get to the Olympics or make a movie?
Getting to the Olympics is all about your physique. The crazy thing about trying to become the best athlete instead of trying to make a movie is that some people just won’t make it because they’re not cut out for the sport. I felt very lucky because I jump high and that was my thing. I’m tall and that allowed me to get into the volleyball room in a way that a lot of people can’t. So, there’s an ease that I’m athletic, there’s an ease that that ability was given to me. But still, the mental toughness, the physical aspect were wearing him down. I feel like I woke up and worked and worked and worked after two hours of sleep; I felt like it prepared me for anything. I feel like cinema couldn’t do anything to me that sports did to me physically.
But when making a movie, my head was spinning. There is something you really have to find within yourself. As a black woman, I often feel like I’m not supposed to be in this space. Or people constantly tell you, “You’re in this space because they needed to support a black woman these days.” People are constantly wondering if you’re supposed to be here or not, and that’s something I’ve always struggled with. While in sports, I always felt like I was supposed to be there. So for me, that has been the hardest and will probably continue to be the hardest. Like, how do I feel good and like I’m supposed to be here? How do I not worry about my voice when I’m speaking in a room, or if I’m articulating the right way? So from an emotional standpoint, I feel like that’s really difficult.
in one of your instagram posts, you said that it feels like your whole life has been building for this movie. How is that?
This movie is really about motherhood in its many forms. I think about my own mother and my relationship with her, and I think about the mothers I grew up with, the coaches who impacted me, my best friends who were sometimes taking care of me from her. All of them were really drawn to this moment.
When I was 16 years old, my mom adopted my sister and I met her biological mother. That was another perspective on motherhood that really impacted the first writing of this movie. I was imagining myself and what she was going through, and turning to all these different mothers who have been through so much and really impacted me in so many ways. That’s what I mean when I say it feels like I’ve spent a lifetime doing this. My whole life has been based on motherhood and how people have survived and thrived through it.
mother earth is also connected to his documentary 2020 The heart still hums. How did that short film come about?
The first draft of my script was based more directly on my relationship with my sister. And then I did the short doc focusing on five different mothers, some of whom had given their children up for adoption, some who had their children taken away because of the foster care system, and some who were foster children and are now mothers. . I was looking at all these different women, as well as my relationship with my own sister, and I was using that almost as emotional research for the film. Then when I rewrote the script, it was like I unleashed another side of the story. I had to dive deeper into the research.
But the next round was more about the ins and outs of the foster care system. What does it mean to be parent-friendly and what are the parameters? And what are the rules and what are their measures and how are people analyzed? Then I started going back and reading about other mothers’ situations in books, news articles, and magazines. It was a really long process of emotional research and then going to the granular aspect of why these obstacles are so difficult to overcome. What is the simple solution? Isn’t there one?
Although it is a feature film, mother earth it has a bit of a documentary feel to it as well. Can you talk about your approach to filming this project?
There’s a documentary feel to it because I have these types of testimonials on film that are real women and men who have been through these circumstances. One of them is actually from the documentary and went into the feature film, and actually opens the movie. So, there is this documentary lens of observation in the fictional feature film. Even when we film Gia, the camera is quite far away and we let the scenes play out as a whole. We never just filmed the beginning of a scene; we’re shooting everything and letting her go through that emotional arc, and trying to do it in a way that feels honest and authentic and real and grounded so that it doesn’t feel like this glorified drama. I do not need that. I don’t need to be forced into trauma. I’m very sensitive to that and I didn’t want to do that with this movie.
The terrestrial aspect of the film’s title literally appears in the images, particularly in the scenes where we see Gia alternating between walking the streets of Oakland and wandering through the woods. What are you communicating there?
I often thought about this lineage of black women that came before Gia and also the lineage that will come after her. I was thinking about the trauma that we inherit, but also how sometimes you want to break away from that trauma. Also, sometimes there is beauty in that lineage and there is strength in that lineage; there is a resilience I wanted to show that it wasn’t just dialogue between characters, it was something you felt. As if you could really feel his inner world. Sometimes that’s hard to place in some words of dialogue, I just don’t think it has the same resonance. And I think, for me, that magical realism allowed you to immerse yourself in his physiological inner space.
Tia Nomore portrays Gia’s experience and that of many other young mothers who have had to deal with the foster system in such authentic ways. How did you find her for this role?
Tia was such a special person that she came into the mix. She’s a rapper, a musician, and a performer, and we were looking at a lot of local artists because we thought if we cast someone who has never acted before, it would be great if they also had acting experience, not just because of their acting but because of the stamina it would take to do such a long project. and know that I can trust them with that. Tia had that experience and she was also a mom recently. She had just given birth a year before we filmed and she was still nursing and breastfeeding, and she was still feeling a lot of emotions around birth, labor and postpartum. So, it was really interesting to hear about it from her perspective and she was training to become a doula, so she had this connection to motherhood that felt very deep and it was also very on the surface because it was happening to her then. . She was learning how she was going to be a mother being a mother at that very moment, and I think she really influenced the role of her and who Gia is as well.
It’s also surprising to see Doechii this way, given that his music career skyrocketed last year.
When Doechii auditioned, they actually sent me the “Crazy” music video before it was released. In a way, I said, “I don’t fully see how it relates to this role, but I do see how it relates to her as an actress,” and I think she showed me that she’s willing to go there. She has this crazy strong work ethic and is willing to put herself out there. She came to auditions, she came to the set without makeup, just naked. She knows when to be on time and she gives of herself and knows how to do it in a really beautiful way. I think she really feels like a friend that I had as a kid and that’s what excited me when I met her. She is just a natural actress.
Going back to that idea of asking what the simple solution is during your research period, I found myself asking a similar question when the movie ended. Like, what do I do with what I just experienced? What do you hope the audience takes away?
One of the things is that I hope that people who have been through similar situations feel heard and not alone. Often in these circumstances you feel like you’re hitting a wall and film is this really beautiful medium where you can feel less alone. I hope people feel that I represented their story or parts of their story honestly. I hope for other people who don’t know this story so closely, it sheds light on a topic that isn’t often discussed in a way that invites you in, rather than forces you to feel emotions and makes you feel sensitive and respectful. I hope it sparks conversations and communities that support communities. There are so many brilliant people in this world already working on this issue and hopefully it will help bring some of those organizations into line.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
mother earth it is now playing in theaters.