Exploring themes which range through motherhood, class and race, BIFA nominated debut feature Earth Mama from Savanah Leaf is a stunningly quiet but hard hitting film. The young filmmaker has built upon her 2020 documentary short The Heart Still Hums, co-directed by Taylor Russell, and her own lived experiences with an adopted sister to create a world which absorbs every part of you. The camerawork in Earth Mama offers surreal expressionistic moments juxtaposed with raw documentary-esque storytelling and Leaf’s forceful authorial voice confidently allows the stunning images of her characters and the Bay Area locations to often say more than is contained in the subtle dialogue. Featuring a captivating debut performance from Tia Nomore (who has also picked up a Best Lead Performance BIFA nomination), the characters of Earth Mama also serve as a love letter to the women and individuals let down by the very systems supposed to protect and guide them. After premiering at Sundance earlier this year and collecting numerous awards ahead of its UK cinema release on the 8th of December, we spoke to Leaf about including surreal, ethereal moments which connect to the trauma of generations of women, her place in the industry as an up-and-coming young Black female director and why she found making a film harder than competing in the Olympics.
[The following interview is also available to watch at the end of this article.]
In what ways did your 2020 short, The Heart Still Hums help shape the script and emotional beats we see in Earth Mama?
The first draft of Earth Mama was very much a personal reflection of meeting my sister’s birth mother for the first time. Then I made my documentary The Heart Still Hums, centered around meeting mothers who were trying to get their children back from the foster care system or their kids had just been taken away from them. Some of them had given their children up for adoption and some of them also were foster children themselves and now mothers. It was a great group of different women going through similar situations and just hearing their unique stories started me on this research journey. It also grounded my script because it allowed me to see different emotional beats from a different kind of perspective, giving it more weight and heart and soul. Some of the things that people told me when we were doing that documentary kind of served as hum because someone literally said her soul was humming. That hum is something that we continued to create in the tone and feel of Earth Mama.
How did you approach telling this story as a fictional narrative which also uses a documentary lens with the authentic testimonies we see in the film?
It was really important to me to have a good amount of people from the Bay Area in the film and while we were casting we were asking everyone how they connected to the storyline. We found that so many people were so eager to share their stories because they hadn’t had the space which felt safe and comfortable before to even speak about their experiences. So I ended up adjusting the script to make some certain pieces of dialogue feel more connected to what these individuals were saying. Also, at times we would film scenes and I’d allow people to choose their piece of dialogue from a collection of pieces, then I’d ask them at the end, is there anything else they want to share? A lot of people just continued and started sharing their stories and how they felt about things and we would ask further questions and they kept going. So, there’s this documentary aspect of the film that just started from giving people the space to share what they wanted to, which then built into so much more. Even though everybody’s story is so unique, it just felt like this kind of collective voice by the end.
One of the elements I really loved alongside the central theme of motherhood is you speaking to the networks of women who lift each other up and support each other.
I think it was really important for me to have this support group which at times when you’re in the thick of it, doesn’t feel like a support group. You get frustrated. You don’t feel like being a part of the group any more but at times it is just about listening to one another and in a way, I think our experience filming was a little bit like that. In the scene where we have this group of mothers that share their experiences, on that day it really felt like we were all just listening to one another, which felt very special. One of my biggest takeaways from the whole film was that day and what that felt like filming it.
This documentary aspect of the film just started from giving people the space to share what they wanted to which then it built into so much more.
Let’s talk about Gia, you had to keep pushing shooting until you found the right actor for that role. What weren’t you finding in casting that Tia Nomore brought to the project?
We met so many different people both actors and people that had never acted before. What I found in a lot of actors was this front. People trying to show that they were from the Bay Area and that sometimes formulated into weird things such as people speaking with a southern accent or things that just felt really disingenuous. I was gravitating towards people from the Bay and it’s a really tough role – there’s a huge emotional journey, a weighty journey and they are in almost every scene of the film. So I had to find someone who could give themselves to the film, not just from a time standpoint, but from an emotional standpoint. They had to be up for it and feel like they could push themselves.
Tia was so ready to be vulnerable at that moment. She had just given birth to a child a year before and was still breastfeeding so all these feelings around motherhood were right at her fingertips. She was still figuring out what that felt like to have a baby in your belly and then it no longer being in your belly and dealing with postpartum so it was like everything aligned. Tia had that experience of being a mother which I have never had and she was a balance between both of us. We were filling the spaces that the other person hadn’t had before, which was really a nice way to work together.
How was the process of working with her given that she’s not from an acting background?
She doesn’t come from an acting background but I think some people are really in tune with their instincts and Tia really had that. A lot of our process leading up to the film was about the relationships in the scenes. Who are these characters? How does Gia relate to Trina or to Miss Carmen? How does she relate to Mel? How do we compare those to relationships we have in our own lives? Gia has this relationship with basketball and Tia never played basketball so we would go and I would teach her how to play. It was hanging out and teaching each other stuff. Tia would tell me stuff about motherhood that she was going through and what that felt like – it was all really down to our conversations that led into these dynamic days. We would have Tia with Mel going to Ikea to buy a crib and we really focussed on them being in their roles, not playing any scenes specifically, but being in their roles and rehearsing that relationship. Tia did that with all the central characters which gave it the depth that we needed starting production.
You have spoken about the importance of the Bay Area, how did your personal connection to the area and all of your locations guide and feed into the central themes of Earth Mama?
A lot of the places were inspired by where I grew up, the malls and the portrait studios. The actual mall I wanted to film in is now shut down. We went there and it was a complete mess the whole mall had deteriorated but we used that as inspiration for a separate place. That was how we approached most of the locations, even being by the water in the Redwoods. We would go to a lot of locations I thought of when I was writing and then if we couldn’t film there for one reason or another, we would find a place similar to it. I worked with my location manager, Rashod Edwards, really closely. He also grew up in the Bay Area and we just went back and forth off of one another going down memory lane and recalling all these moments of our teenage years and trying to pull those out. That’s where the authenticity in the locations comes from, us brainstorming together, oftentimes walking into places and just begging them to let us film there.
So much of my time in prep was me and Rashod in the car talking about the scenes and that birthed a lot of the aesthetic of the locations as well as the authenticity in them.
Rashod is really special, I don’t think all location managers are like this, he wants to know the heart behind every location, why it’s written in. We would have discussions in the car about why this was the way it was or how he connected to these moments and if that was accurate. That’s how I try to approach every element of the film but I think locations were really special in that so much of my time in prep was me and Rashod in the car talking about the scenes and that birthed a lot of the aesthetic of the locations as well as the authenticity in them.
I am and have always been a huge fan of magical realism and what it brings to a film. Can you talk about the inclusion of those scenes in the aforementioned Redwoods and how they fitted into your very gritty and real drama?
Motherhood is so many things it’s not just how you’re not drinking or the physical side. It’s also this physiological inner connection to what your mother did or didn’t do, and what your grandmother did or didn’t do. This lineage of others which I think is really special, scary and traumatic at times, but also exciting. I wanted to pull that into the film and into Gia. She’s not just living through her present moment, she’s living through this trauma and accumulation of resilience of so many women before her. That look on this expansive self and on her relation to this bigger picture of the world was really important. That’s why we decided to film in these Redwoods that allow her to connect to something bigger than herself in her present moment.
She’s not just living through her present moment, she’s living through this trauma and accumulation of resilience of so many women before her.
16mm seems like the perfect choice to shoot this film, deeply adding to the aesthetic and the feel.
I knew I wanted to shoot on film and I had worked with our cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes before and I knew it was not a question as to using film or not. I’ve shot lots of commercials and music videos this way and I just love the aesthetic, how it receives color and how dynamic and gritty the images are. I also love how it makes everybody on set so attuned to every little detail because they don’t want to fuck it up, they don’t want to be the reason why that take didn’t work because of how expensive it is. On the other side of it I initially went into it thinking I was going to shoot on 35mm until Jody proposed to shoot it on 16mm. Besides being a financial bonus, it also allowed us to shoot for longer before the film rolled out, which was really important because as we were shooting these longer scenes. And it also aesthetically gave the film a little bit more grain and grit to it in a way that nicely contrasted with some of the more composed framing.
I read that you found making a film harder than getting into the Olympics. Can you talk to us about finding your place as a young Black female filmmaker?
I’m a really tall, athletic person and sports is a place where I think Black people, Black women have excelled for so many years and I found my place there. I felt like I was supposed to be there and I loved that about sports. But when I was entering into film, I didn’t see as many people like myself, specifically as directors. It wasn’t just about seeing people like myself, it was also the idea of speaking up in these rooms with everybody – producers, execs, and oftentimes you don’t have a lot of Black people or Black women in those spaces so that is very intimidating, You have to learn how to fight through that intimidation and gain confidence in yourself and know that your voice really is important. Sometimes other people are wrong when they seem like they should be right because they have so much experience – that was really difficult for me.
I also love how it makes everybody on set so attuned to every little detail because they don’t want to fuck it up, they don’t want to be the reason why that take didn’t work because of how expensive it is.
It continues to be difficult and probably will be difficult in my life. That hurdle of just being able to write a first draft of your script and send it to someone is terrifying. Then especially as a woman, it’s terrifying and then that topped off as a Black woman – it’s even more terrifying. You wonder who’s going to listen to me? Does my vocabulary sound good enough? Does the way I’m writing things seem educated enough? It’s all these questions I have about myself and a lack of confidence that you have to kind of keep jumping through at every stage. I continue to feel that way even writing my next piece. Do I sound like I know what I’m talking about? And is it okay if I don’t know? For me, making Earth Mama has been a big confidence builder. Also finding voices that are similar to your own or finding pieces of yourself in them to give you that confidence to keep going. When I was in sports, it was just completely different, there were so many people I could turn to but in film, there’s such a small gate to entry for so many years, and it’s only now kind of opening up.
A performance like that has every right to be in that space, if not in other awards as well.
I think that fight comes through the film and you deserve to have all of the confidence as Earth Mama is so incredible and has received no fewer than three BIFA nominations for Best Debut Director, Best Casting and Tia Nomore’s Best Lead Performance. What does that sort of recognition mean to you?
It’s so special to see someone like Tia alongside the likes of Tilda Swinton and Jodie Comer. These are huge names and this is Tia’s first film ever. She makes so much sense being on that list, her performance is incredible and that feels amazing for me. Our casting directors are incredible so I’m so excited they’re there too. For me it’s so huge to see talent be recognized because they’re putting themselves on the line. They’re so vulnerable, especially someone who’s never done it before and to hold her own. A performance like that has every right to be in that space, if not in other awards as well and that’s something I’m very proud to be a part of.
Earth Mama is such a powerful debut feature, what will we get to see from you next?
I’m writing a couple more scripts, one of which is set in the UK, which I’m excited about. I’m taking a lot of what I’ve learned in story structure, my approach to things, what I’ve really loved, what I wish I did better, and trying to challenge every aspect of the film. It’s really exciting to release a film or be in the process of releasing a film and just knowing that you have something brewing is a great feeling. So I’m in a space of shifting my energy as Earth Mama will be released on December the 8th then working on what is next.