The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Earth Mama.
Congratulations and thank you for this beautiful and very moving film. I must ask about your background as both an athlete and a photographer. Can you talk about making the transition from athletics to a visual and creative artist?
Savanah Leaf: I feel like it sounds a lot crazier than it is because when I look back at the transition, I went to college and I studied psychology and I played sports and I was the team captain. In a way, I think a film is this combination of working in a team environment. I really dove into psychology and then also artistic expression. Then when I got injured playing sports in Puerto Rico, I had to figure out what was going to happen next. I had only envisioned myself as being this athlete because that’s where the opportunities laid for me. And when I got injured, I just started exploring and I found this job opportunity where I could watch directors specifically in a commercial music video space. It enabled me to see how they write and it made it all feel a lot more achievable to me. I had always wanted to express myself with more than how my body moved. I wanted to express what was going on in my mind, and it felt like a lot of people weren’t paying attention to that while I was an athlete. That transition really felt like it was very enabling for me as a thinker, as a creator.
it became more about the present decisions than previous decisions
I felt very much like I could see the teamwork in this film. How did you work with the members of your team, specifically your DP? The look of the film is so appropriate for the story you’re telling.
SL : Our cinematographer was actually one of the people I had worked with the most before we made this film. I had worked on two projects with him before. The cinematographer is Jody Lee Lipes, who I had admired for years. I had recently seen I Know This Much is True, a TV show that I thought sensitively captured really difficult subject matter. And the way in which they shot was so wild to me because [director] Derek Cianfrance is shooting oftentimes without any blocking. So he’s very much reacting to the people in the scene. We’re collaborating and thinking about most of the shots ahead of time, where we basically blocked out most of the scenes and tried to figure out a way in which we would shoot it so that a lot of our new actors could just live and breathe in the space from the start to finish of every scene and it would not feel like they had to repeat themselves just to get a different camera angle. Jody does this so well. We created this language in that way. And then on the day, sometimes he would do something as simple as a subtle pan in the camera or move a little bit further on the dolly track just to get a different angle. Those things are very much in response to what’s happening in the moment. It’s so subtle and oftentimes you might need to watch it again just to feel some of them. But I think those responses were very much due to what was happening in front of the camera and his sensibilities. With the dolly track we were constantly thinking about how do we use just one shot and go. It almost feels like she’s trying to escape.
You mentioned new actors and you have a lot of new actors but also seasoned actors. How did you all balance working with one another?
Tia Nomore: That was a very unique process, I think, and a very balanced one at that. It felt like there were a lot of safety nets for free falling. That was a huge situation for all of us involved. It’s very unique and very much giving safe space—you can learn here, you can fail here, you can excel here, you can exceed here. That was probably the most ideal situation to be in for the first time. It’s Savanah’s first feature as well. All of us were kind of in that world, in that zone together.
Erika Alexander: Many of the them may have been less experienced at acting, but they were mature in life lessons and that’s what they brought to the film. If you create a dynamic where people who have the courage to agree to use their life experience in a fictional space, then you can get real connections. Savanah was really using a lot of intuition when she chose people. I think in a way they’d already chosen her and she’d already chosen us and we agreed to meet, to do it and do our best. And it didn’t matter if we didn’t know exactly what the result would be, but that we were going to give it our best effort and throw caution to the wind. Tia was already a very accomplished musician. She’s a mother, and also a boss. She’s her own boss, and yet she’s giving up control to Savanah. I’m used to being in those spaces where I’m a tool and she’s the toolmaker. As a veteran, I am around people who are less experienced and may not know their way around a set. But I’m looking forward to that. You can forget yourself and do what you would naturally do if you were a child playing with each other. You just play for a while. Everybody’s agreeing to play house for a little while, but in a very dangerous space because it deals with real emotions. And I think the result is beautiful and powerful and I’m really happy to have been a part of it.
Can you talk about the kinds of emotional support you found yourselves needing during the different stages of this film?
TN: I think support is a huge deal in general. During pre-production I definitely needed just a space to be vulnerable. I had had my daughter the year before starting this and it was quite literally my first time outside as a pandemic parent and being around more than five people at a time. I had a lot of social anxiety especially taking on a role that was very different from my life. I needed a lot of space to be vulnerable and aware of the things that came up in my body in real life and how to place those things. When it came to being on set, there was a lot of silence and a lot of space. I could literally just sit there and cry and I could be okay. Or I could walk off. I didn’t do that often. Often when I felt like walking off, I would just sit there and let things feel or feel me and maybe pour out a little bit. And everybody was just holding space for me. Whether they were in the room or just right outside, I could feel it and I felt like everybody was willing and able to be there to support me. And then by the time that I got to meet Ms. Alexander, it was like SOS, okay? We didn’t have a lot of time together in pre-production to learn one another, but when we did, it was very natural. And we call this like, hauntingly familiar, so it was nothing for me to fall into her arms. And she’s like, yeah, just play. I remember you saying that too. I’m like, how do we play right now? Even right now, she’s holding space for me in a way that I don’t even think she knows. She’s a meditator. Savanah as well. They’re much stiller than I am and it’s still going on. You’re seeing it right now.
EA: I’m a free-range actor, whatever that means. I’m largely left alone most of the time. Savanah allows me to mind myself, and in that way, I can be supportive and be supported. If people don’t get scared that I’m not talking about a scene or not looking like I’m thinking about a scene, I’m probably not. Because I don’t believe that inside those spaces I should be burdened with that, and at that time it’ll be enough to walk in to that room and trust that we can all come in and reconvene and go on. Through my life I have learned that having to carry heavy roles was something that was almost excruciating. You go home with it, you wake up it, you’re thinking about the scene, you’re thinking about whether you can do that in the scene. Let me just let go. It is what it is. They can’t eat me. Now, let me see what I can do. If I was to show it by doing it, then they’d see that they could also trust their own instincts, that they could walk in and still be able to act. And you can also laugh in between takes. That it’s appropriate to let somebody go and sit in the sun and relax and talk to people, and then walk straight in there and be that mother who’s in that pain. But you yourself could give yourself a break and your body would know what to do when it was time. It would understand what the assignment was. Savanah allowed for everybody to just be themselves and then round themselves up and it was a really wonderful experience in that way.
I’m curious to know for the actors how much research you felt, if any, you needed to do to give such dynamic performances.
EA: Well, both my parents are orphans and my mother’s a social worker. My father was a preacher. Both were public servants in a way that comforts people in difficult situations. My sister is a social worker who worked in adoptions for years in Philadelphia. My brother worked here in Brooklyn in social work. I’m bleeding off their experience; there’s no doubt about it. I spent my life in churches. I spent my life after church. I spent my life in people’s homes. I spent my life waiting for my mother outside, doing things, keeping notes, all the things she had to do, going over and over, making sure that she didn’t miss anything, didn’t miss an appointment because the child’s life could be at stake with one mistake. I had that, but I didn’t really think about so much research. Maybe that sounds a little bit high-handed. It just seemed to me, again, more direct to get out of my own way, and stay out of their way. They were young, but they were experienced and they knew what they were doing, so they didn’t need me to be telling them what to do. Just being there and being confident in myself was something useful, but so was not knowing. I had no idea what would happen. And sometimes the only thing you can do is say, I have no idea how this will feel once we get in the space, because this space hasn’t been invented yet. It’s in Savanah’s mind and it’s on the page and we’ve all decided to do something with it. But once you’re there, then something happens and that is magic and you just leave it alone.
TN: In the beginning before filming, Sav shared a lot of literature with me. And, I did my Google search of her cause she was like, not on Instagram and it was weird! I’m like, who is this? All I had was Sav’s previous work. I don’t even think I had a picture of you yet. I saw your work, but I think just being from Oakland, you see moms like this all the time. These are the moms that I help off the bus. Like, let me get your stroller for you, or they might be a couple of dollars short in the line before you so you give them five dollars. They’re the moms that are in our communities very much still. I think on top of that research, there was quite a lot of literature. We were constantly exchanging. Here’s a link to this video—this is really tough. Did you watch it? Did you read these? There would be short, not stories, but voices. We were constantly at exchange about different voices and hearing them out. When I did meet the moms—I don’t know if they were particularly from Chasing Crisis—that Savanah has been previously working with, I was like, damn okay we’re all in one room now and it’s vibrating with this energy. So just being present and looking around and realizing that these things are not too far off was a lot of the emotional research for sure.
SL: Those testimonies where the moms are almost speaking to the camera, but not quite to the camera happened within the first two or three days of shooting. Both Erika and Tia were there with some people. That also kind of set the tone of the whole film experience for all of us.
One of the things that I appreciated about this film is that we don’t really see the exposition or the background of the character of Gia. How did that come about?
SL: That was in the writing. There were different versions of the script where there were more moments where more backstory was revealed. And I felt like I was trying to justify in a way why she makes this big decision in the end, this relapse moment. Then that didn’t feel genuine, and I realized that it didn’t make the audience feel with her anymore, so I tried to pull that out and that’s what the script was left with. You can just be present with her through those emotions. You don’t need to know who the father was or why she’s in this situation right now. Because it’s really about, what am I doing with this baby and I’m very heavily pregnant. That’s the focus. And it became more about the present decisions than previous decisions. And I think that’s what excited me and what I think enables audiences to strip away their judgment a little bit further.