Q&A with David Petersen, Steven Melendez, and Mary Recine

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Lift

How did the project begin?
David Petersen: So it began at a dog park, where all projects have to start! I had another film that began at a dog park, so this is my second one. Richard Termine is a photographer at the New York Times, and had photographed Steven since he was a kid, I think, and the company for a long time. He had just seen a film I had made about an opera, the making of an opera, another kind of weird film, and he said, “oh David, I’ve got a great idea for a film. You know, these kids have been dancing and this little ballet company’s been around for 30, 40 years. You know, they’re giving these kids an opportunity to dance, and one of them… Has danced all over the world.” That turned out to be Steven. And of course the first thing that came out of my mind, being a realistic filmmaker, is, “where’s the money?” And he said, “well I don’t have any money. But, you know they are close… they’re just in Midtown.” So I said, “well, you know, maybe… I do have my own camera… I could go down there.” So I went down there. And eleven years later, here we are.

It’s as hard to get into shelters as it is to get into maximum security prisons

And Steven, what made you agree to be a part of this project?
Steven Melendez: I didn’t actually know what the project would be when we set out. I certainly didn’t know it was going to take 11 years! I think Diana [Byer], who green lit it for the organization, definitely didn’t know it was going to be 11 years. I think she had in her mind that it was a three week project. And at that time, you know, I was, I was still principally a dancer, and I saw myself that way. And at that time, I hadn’t yet actually come to terms with what it meant to use or take ownership of my past, of my upbringing. And so the journey that the film shows is equally my journey of learning that actually being known as the “homeless dancer” maybe isn’t such a weird thing. Now I can own that title a little bit differently than I did when I thought I was just trying to make a name for myself as a performer. But working with David was fantastic. I mean, he’s a real artist and one thing that he says often is to pay attention to what he’s filming. I don’t know how he says it, “pay attention to what you’re filming,” or, “listen to the works,” I don’t know, whatever it is. And how it manifests on my side was that I felt really comfortable being able to tell him, “you know, David, you’re pointing the camera the wrong way. Actually, you’ve missed the important part here.” And one of the things that I’m really proud of about this film is that it talks about two subjects, homelessness and ballet that I think a lot of people have stereotypes in their mind of, and it doesn’t show a single one of those stereotypes. Not all homeless people are drug addicts or prostitutes. And not all ballet dancers have bloody toes. There’s a lot more to both of those worlds than I think a lot of people recognize and realize.

It’s not terribly uncommon for a documentary to take a long time, but the project sounds like it changed in scope over time. Could you talk a little bit about that journey, and how the story developed?
DP: Well, it started with me and a camera and a student named Jean Claude, who I taught at CUNY and Staten Island. And then things shifted when Mary Recine got involved– and we’d worked at PBS for a while. She’s a producer, and she came on, and that’s how we really got into the shelter. It’s as hard to get into shelters as it is to get into maximum security prisons. And I’ve filmed at maximum security prisons, because they get bad press. They always get bad press. So it was difficult. But this particular shelter, the director knew Steven, and thought of him as a great star and a wonderful, brilliant kid, which obviously helped a lot!

Mary Recine: Yes, getting into the shelters was everything. Of course, we knew that immediately. We realized we didn’t want to make a film [solely focused on] a dance program. We wanted to make a film about a journey, and we wanted to watch and see what would happen with these kids. And we knew Steven was going to take us on that journey. But we knew the story was more than Steven, and more than New York Theatre Ballet. So that was essential. Getting into the shelter was… it was extraordinary to be able to do that. They just said, no, and no, and no. But we wouldn’t give up, and we just kept going until they let us in. We reached out to Misty Copeland [because of her belief in the accessibility of the arts] in 2017, and we were trying to get ITVS to help fund the project. And Misty kindly lent her name to it, and now she’s involved, as is [her producing partner] Leyla [Fayyaz] to amplify [that the arts should accessible to everyone]. And that’s so important. As Steven said, we’re looking at ballet through homelessness and homelessness through ballet. And not many people really respond to that when you try to pitch that. I’ve [worked on] films about Nina Simone and Joan Didion… and people want the famous people films, you know. This was very hard to, to make happen. But it was a true joy.

Steven was a character early on, but how did you find the other characters in the film?
DP: There were a lot of kids we followed that didn’t make it into the film. Steven touched on that too. We followed this little kid named Victor, who was very sweet, and he wasn’t at that time in a shelter. He was in public housing. He was home insecure. But he was… he didn’t come to the shelter. So we had to try to get into the shelter and that’s what took so long. Then we met Yolanssie and Sharia, but then there were other kids like Antalyna, who is a really interesting person. We met a bunch of kids. We followed some of their families. But, you know, they’re always dealing with so many struggles and challenges that they just, you know, like all kids in this program or any kind of program that offers opportunities, if you’ve got challenges, you just can’t keep it going. So then they fell off. But Steven, you mentioned one thing that I thought was great about what the 11 years of production did do for the film. Can you talk about that?

SM: Yes: you know, a lot of times people (both when trying to understand homelessness and ballet, actually), people try to understand all of the meaning of it through a snapshot. You know, you go to the performance when your child is performing, and you assume somehow that that tells you about everything that they have learned that year. But in fact, that’s the product of a long process, and the process takes a whole year, if not longer, maybe a whole lifetime, a whole childhood, and the value of what that child has learned is so much greater than three minutes that they’re doing their dance with their classmates on the stage for their parents and grandparents. And it’s the same, honestly, when we talk about homelessness: you look at families, you can go to a shelter for a day, and maybe on that day you will see something that is jarring, or shocking, or maybe you won’t… but if you go back again and again and again, what I think you realize is that the people in these situations are not actually so dissimilar to the rest of us. And I’m sure there are some statistics on this. Something like 20% of the people in New York State are homeless or home insecure. There’s 100,000 migrants now who are living homeless on the streets. I mean, I don’t know all the numbers, I’m not a statistician. But it’s really jarring and the reality is that there are a lot of people who, as a society, we like to think are not like us… because we don’t want to believe we could be like them. For example, my mother when we were in the shelter, worked at Mount Sinai Hospital. She left the shelter every day in a white lab coat. She was one of the five people in New York State who could run the particular machine that occupied her entire office. And that machine happened to be used for separating the red blood cells from the white blood cells from the plasma. And the work that she was doing was on AIDS research in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. And she lived with her two children in a homeless shelter for three years because the home that we had which was a beautiful, actually I guess you saw it in the film, it was a beautiful home. It had a yard, it had a garage, it had a basement, it had a sinky floor, it had an attic, it was a beautiful home. But the landlord just dropped dead one day, and that’s sad for him, but what ended up happening was his home went into probate, and the person who took it over said, “okay, you’ve got to get out,” and it was really shocking and you know, you think, y’all are in New York, so you know, what does it take to move with a drop of a hat? You have to have it in your savings account: First month, last month, moving fees, deposit, all that stuff. And you need to find an apartment that’s appropriate to have two children in, that’s near a public school that’s appropriate. And certainly all that doesn’t happen overnight. So in the very immediate term, you have to pay for a hotel that night and the rest of that week while you search, and you pay the broker’s fee. And meanwhile, you have a full time job and two kids. Right? It’s sort of an impossible situation. And once you slip a little bit down the hole, there’s no way to claw yourself back out. The infrastructure of the city just isn’t built for that. So, I think what a film like this, filmed over 11 years, highlights is actually how – will use this word and I’m sure it’s the wrong word and I can’t think of anything right now – how “normal” homeless people are. That the families are real families. Not every homeless family has a broken home, right? The fathers and the mothers are there and they all are loving and they care and they have the best interests at heart for their children to aspire and to be more successful in their future than the parents were. And I think it’s really easy to quite literally step over the homeless and allow them to live on the margins of society. And I think we allow that as a society because we refuse to recognize how similar we are actually to them. Or they are to us, or I am to myself from ten years ago. So, yes, the amount of time it took to make this film is important. It’s important to see these stories over time.


NBR Establishes New Award Category to Celebrate Achievement in Stunt Artistry

New York, NY (September 19, 2023) The National Board of Review announced today that they will host their annual Awards Gala on Thursday, January 11, 2024, at Cipriani 42nd Street in New York City. The annual gala will be hosted by Willie Geist (Host, NBC News’ Sunday TODAY with Willie Geist and co-host, MSNBC’s Morning Joe).

The National Board of Review’s awards celebrate the art of cinema, with categories that include Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Actress, Best Original and Adapted Screenplay, Breakthrough Performance, and Best Directorial Debut, as well as their signature honors, the Freedom of Expression Award and Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography.  This year, the National Board of Review has established a new awards category, Achievement in Stunt Artistry, to celebrate the accomplishments and work of stunt artists.

Honorees for the National Board of Review Awards will be announced on December 6, 2023.

For more information, please visit www.nationalboardofreview.org and follow @NBRfilm.

Since 1909, the National Board of Review has dedicated its efforts to the support of cinema as both art and entertainment. Each year, this select group of film enthusiasts, filmmakers, professionals and academics views over 250 films and participates in illuminating discussions with directors, actors, producers and screenwriters before announcing their selections for the best work of the year.  Since first citing year-end cinematic achievements in 1929, NBR has recognized a vast selection of outstanding studio, independent, foreign-language, animated and documentary films, often propelling recipients such as Peter Farrelly’s Green Book and George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road into the larger awards conversation. NBR also stands out as the only film organization that bestows a film history award in honor of former member and film historian William K. Everson. In addition, one of the organization’s core values is identifying new talent and nurturing young filmmakers by awarding promising talent with ‘Directorial Debut’ and ‘Breakthrough Actor’ awards as well as grants to rising film students and by facilitating community outreach through the support of organizations such as The Ghetto Film School, Reel Works Teen Filmmaking, and Educational Video Center. With its continued efforts to assist up-and-coming artists in completing and presenting their work, NBR honors its commitment to not just identifying the best that current cinema has to offer, but also ensuring the quality of films for future generations to come.

Join the conversation @NBRfilm

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Press Contacts:   SLATE PR
Shawn Purdy / Alicia Mohr  – SLATE PR
shawn@slate-pr.com / aliciam@slate-pr.com

Q&A with Randall Park, Adrian Tomine, Justin H. Min, and Ally Maki

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Shortcomings.

Randall, what gripped you about this story and these characters?
Randall Park: I first read the graphic novel when it came out back in 2007, and I was just mesmerized by it. A lot of that has to do with Adrian’s writing, but also the style of the art. There was something about it that spoke to me so much. And on top of that, it had these characters that were so reflective of my life at the time, the life of my friends, the things we would do, going to diners and hanging out all night, and the relationship issues I was having at that time. All of these things were reflected back to me from those pages. In that sense it felt very authentic to me by things that are not often associated when it comes to Asian-American things. Hanging out a diner, you know? And the story, the book, Adrian’s work in general really stuck with me throughout the years. I always thought, gosh, this is like a great movie, the kind of movies that I love. But at the time, I didn’t think the industry was in any place to even tell this kind of story. Nor was I professionally in any place to do anything about it. And then, 15 years or so later, it somehow happened.

I remember reading it and thinking, this is a real person

I’d love to hear more about that evolution.
RP: I wasn’t thinking about acting in it myself, but I wanted to act in it. I was in no place to even make that happen. I mean, at the time, I don’t even know if I had an agent. I was pretty new to acting. But it was a dream role. This character is such a complex lead, so flawed with a lot of things going on, it was a definitely a dream role. But by the time we were ready to make this, I knew I was definitely not the one to play this character. We had to find Ben. And we knew that that would be a very daunting task because the character is so specific, so different, and really difficult to play.

Adrian Tomine: Yeah, I had thought of Randall as an actor for the part though, because I wrote the script so long ago. Starting in 2007, people knew I was always on the lookout. They’d be like, there’s some Asian guy on The Sopranos or something, and I’d frame it, like, maybe that would work. I’d look at him for like his three seconds on screen! I was looking at everybody, for years. And so of course Randall was one of the big names that kept coming up. I remember thinking when I saw him on Curb Your Enthusiasm—which is one of my favorite shows—I was like, oh, just the fact that this guy wanted to be on Curb means that he might be the perfect guy for this. I was only thinking of him as an actor at that point. But when he came along as a director, he’d already been on my mind quite a bit.

Justin, was what your impression when you first saw the script? Was it a dream role? He’s not the most lovable guy.
AT: Be honest!

Justin H. Min: I really did see it as a dream role! It’s interesting because in a lot of my press for previous projects, they would always ask, what do you want to do? Who do you want to play? And I could never really give a specific answer, but the gist of it is that I wanted to play a real three-dimensional, complex, nuanced character. I felt like the majority of scripts and roles that I had been given for auditioning didn’t quite meet that criteria. And when this script came into my life, I said, wow, this is it. This is the first time I’m seeing a real three-dimensional Asian-American person with flaws and brokenness, but also, some goodness as well. I remember reading it and thinking, this is a real person. And in the same way that Randall and Adrian just described, I felt the script described parts of myself and described a lot of people I know. To be able to represent someone who felt so close to me in many ways was a dream.

And Ally, what was your initial take on the character?
Ally Maki: I had a similar reaction to Justin; I definitely considered this a dream role when I first read through the script. Then I read the graphic novel in one sitting and I couldn’t believe that it had already been out for well over a decade. Adrian’s work felt so far ahead of its time. Seeing how these conversations are still relevant now we’re still just starting to break the tip of the iceberg on this stuff. I just wanted a crack at it this role. I remember on the Zoom chemistry read, we got to do that final seven page scene together. That’s all you could wish for as an actor; to be able to have a ping pong match for seven pages with someone as gifted as Justin Min. Even with only the audition, and with Randall being there, I was like, this is a dream. Even if I don’t get it, I have lived!  

I want to go back to that theme of authenticity you mentioned earlier, as well as the idea of representation. There are a lot of Asian people in the world, but you’re not representing all of them.
AT: I made a decision to make a book that featured explicitly Asian-American characters, but I also made a conscious choice to not necessarily make it about that or make that be the prime focus. I was going to try and separate my personality and put it into a cast of characters. Characters that are often described as unlikable, which I try not to take personally! You know, I was trying to reflect myself in these different personalities, but I wasn’t going to let myself say, here’s the statement I want to make, or here are the themes that I want to clarify or communicate or anything like that. In general, I know there’s a lot of important art that’s created that way, but my style, the way I’ve worked in the past has been very opposite of that. I tend to let themes or ideas kind of emerge from character. I realize it sounds very narcissistic, but I wasn’t really attempting to represent anyone other than my own mind in a lot of ways.

RP: I think that’s a fascinating question because I feel like authenticity and representation sometimes seem like they’re kind of in the same bucket. But if you really think about it, the more authentic you get, the less representative you get, you know? The more specific to you and your own exact experience something is, the more it’s representative of one person—you. Who can fully identify with that? But the thing I love about Adrian’s work and this script and this story and this movie is that I feel like it’s more about honesty and truthfulness. And to me that is both specific and it’s representative. There are things that you could identify with, but it’s also very specific. Adrian’s work is very specific to his worldview. But in that I think there are human elements that everyone can relate to.

To your point, I found the character of Ben disturbingly relatable! I also found myself, as an audience member, wanting to both root for and against these characters in some ways. Especially Ally, whose character takes a big turn.
AM: Yeah, we actually had many conversations about that. Randall made it a point from day one to say, even in the audition, the thing about Miko is that we don’t want the audience to turn on her. There’s so much of her experience that was dead on to my life. I was like, no, I see her humanity. I see why she’s making these decisions. They might seem like wrong decisions, but I’ve had plenty of dates where you’re uncomfortably with the guy who has a samurai sword collection or he’s asking me if I like sushi and going to Japan. I’ve also had other relationships where I felt completely undervalued or I wasn’t listened to or I had no voice. For me, this movie is all about Miko finding that voice. I think her going to New York and meeting Leon was her own inner rebellion. These are things she had to do to become a better person and figure out her identity. In my own life I’ve dealt with so much perfectionism and shame. And that’s what’s beautiful about Adrian’s work—so much of it I understood culturally by being fourth generation Japanese-American. My parents were born here, and my grandparents were also born here. Walking around and eating sandwiches was totally my childhood of eating at McDonald’s. All that little stuff is so nuanced. I always saw the heart in her and I appreciated that Randall had that exact vision as well. And of course, Adrian in your creation of her.

AT: The Miko character is particularly tricky for an actor. Because by definition, to make the plot work, she has to be a little mysterious. She has to be absent for a big chunk of the film. That’s a real challenge to develop a character fully when you only have a few scenes. And I think what Ally did was just like greatest example of economy—I’ve only got this many minutes on screen and let me make them work together and tell a whole story through implication. I don’t get a lot of chances to praise the actors! And I’m sure Justin will have something to say on his character, but I also want to point out how different Justin is from Ben because I don’t want people to think we went on a hunt and found a guy who’s just like Ben and put him in front of the camera and told him to be natural. It’s an incredibly crafted performance from start to finish.

JM: To your question, as an actor I never want to get too in my head of, how is this going to come across the audience? While doing scenes I never thought about how likable he might be in that particular moment. Or, I hope the audience starts to root for him here. At the end of the day, it’s not my responsibility to control an audience’s reaction. It’s my responsibility as an actor to be truthful to the work and the words and to execute Randall’s vision as a director. In every scene, in every moment it was mainly about, where is this guy coming from? Why is he saying the things that he does? And at the end of the day, someone who’s as hypercritical of the world in the way that Ben is, is also hypercritical of himself. That is where, for me, the truth and humanity of Ben came through. He’s very insecure but also has incredibly high standards for himself, which he projects onto the world and onto other people. He comes across as sort of grating, but it’s because he holds those around him and those circumstances to the same high standards that he holds for himself.

Q&A with Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli

The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Lakota Nation vs. United States

How did the two of you first connect, and when did you know that you were going to make this film together?
Jesse Short Bull: Laura and I first met in the parking lot of a hotel in Rapid City, South Dakota… and we met nervously, over a cigarette or two or three. That was our first meeting and, yeah, it only took maybe a nanosecond or two for me to realize that Laura was an amazing person and just somebody that was willing to go all the way and just… work, so hard, for this story. And I knew that then, from the very beginning.

Laura Tomaselli: I hate going after Jesse because I like listening to him talk so much! But, I think when we… it was like a funny blind date where we were both sort of like, “well, are we gonna do this terrifying thing, to make this movie, or are we going to try and make it, anyway?” And I think what really unified us is that we were both so scared about doing justice to this story. And I don’t know if we’re the people that can say that we did do it justice, but… I think that conversation was our first step.

was it an obstacle, or was it an omen?

I read that one of the ideas in the movie was to shoot nature like a church. Can you explain that idea?
JSB: Yeah, that came from our initial conversation. Obviously the land is… we wanted to try and go a little bit beyond just seeing it as a setting, a little bit beyond a simple shot of a rock or a tree. And since we couldn’t schedule an interview with the Black Hills — they were pretty busy! — we wanted to try to let the Black Hills speak to us somehow. And the way we did that is really due to our amazing cinematographer Kevin Phillips. It really clicked with him, with his eye, and his technical ability, to try and let the Black Hills and surrounding areas say something for us that Laura and I didn’t want to try and control or edit. We just wanted that, the beauty of the land, to say something to the audience.

You use many clips of Hollywood movies and other pieces of media in order to contextualize the story and then you also add your own content. How did you approach incorporating those elements into the film?
LT: What Jesse and I had to do, what we set out to do in the beginning (after our nervous parking lot cigarette session), was try to convince people that things like treaties, that all these things that happened a hundred years ago, 200 years ago, more than that… were still important today. I think that there could be a full film just explaining that aspect. And there are full films about stereotypes of Native Americans in Hollywood movies. For me, I felt like it was effective to combine personal testimony with new context, to help people to hopefully get them to get around the walls of their preconceived ideas of this part of the world. One of the things Jessie and I talked about was how to get around people’s walls that they have up, thinking that this doesn’t matter to them, that it’s not pertinent to them. They don’t live in South Dakota, and so we hope that the combination of new material with footage they’re more familiar with will work in tandem to tell the story.

Nielsen released a study saying that Native representation had doubled between the years of 2021 and 2022. South by Southwest also highlighted the increased representation of Native peoples at their film festival, where there were five projects with Indigenous voices. Do you feel like Native voices are having a moment in media, or is it a largely a PR thing?
JSB: I do think that’s a correct assessment, because back in 2005, 2006, 2007, I really remember a lot of investment in Indigenous storytellers across the United States. And I do know that this was a dream for a lot of people, to see what we’re seeing now. There just seem to be a lot of things budding right now, and yeah, that was part of a people’s dream and I hope that only continues to get stronger.

What were the conversations like with your producing partners and your distributors, as far as bringing them along in your story? Because this film has a clear point of view and tells some uncomfortable facts, which perhaps gave folks pause?
LT: We heard that the movie was too political a couple of times, from people that potentially wanted to acquire it. But in general, I don’t know what Jesse would say, but to me, making this film was a funny road. There were a lot of obstacles. We had a joke that was it an obstacle, or was it an omen? There’s a lot of… I think sometimes the documentary about making the documentary can be just as interesting. But our producers, by and large, were wonderful. Our Executive Producers were wonderful and everyone gave us, I think, a lot of room and a lot of feedback, a lot of constructive feedback.

JSB: Yeah. And just to add onto that, as we started to build out the team of people, it can be tricky at times. And the thing is, at the end of the day, I think all of us knew that the heart of it was the Black Hills issue, which is very delicate, and sensitive, and requires a lot of great care, and we’ve seen things like this alienate and topple other projects in the past. So having that goal of keeping the Black Hills front and center for everybody, in spite of some of our cultural differences, in spite of professional differences… as long as everybody was okay with where we wanted to try and go with the Black Hills, that always was the main through line. And like Laura said, even when challenges would arise, at the end of the day, we would still go in the same direction.

Q&A with Savanah Leaf, Tia Nomore, and Erika Alexander

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.