Filmmaker Savanah Leaf on the set of "Earth Mama"
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Film How Savanah Leaf went from Olympic athlete to surprising new director to watch

How Savanah Leaf went from Olympic athlete to surprising new director to watch

Filmmaker Savanah Leaf on the set of "Earth Mama"

By the time Savanah Leaf turns 30 in November of this year, she’ll already have earned a number of professional titles few people could dream of owning, including “lauded filmmaker” and “Olympic athlete.”

While these two pursuits may seem different, for Britain’s Leaf, who makes her directorial debut with the enthusiastically received drama A24 “Earth Mama” a decade after playing volleyball for Great Britain at the 2012 London Olympics, they are actually not that far apart.

Leaf’s first feature, which IndieWire’s Ryan Lattanzio hailed from Sundance as a “sublime” drama that “defies all clichés,” follows Gia, a young black mother whose son and daughter of an almost non-existent father are in limbo foster care while recovering from drug addiction. As Gia (played by first-time actress Tia Nomore in a stunning performance) navigates her way through the various reunion requirements while heavily pregnant with her third child and struggling to make ends meet, Leaf unveils a glittering (and occasionally surreal tale of a mother’s love.

Like many budding filmmakers, Leaf grew up watching many animated films: her mother, Alison Leaf, is an animator and production designer who worked on several Pixar films, including “WALL-E,” “Up,” “Turning Red,” and the last two “Toy Story” movies — and Leaf still fondly remembers watching “Babe: Pig in the City” as a kid. (It was one of her very first mother credits, a “great for her.”)

Though she said she didn’t get too into arthouse films until she made her own, even as a teenager, Leaf had good taste: She was “obsessed” with Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “Love & Basketball.” Given Leaf’s artistry and athletic prowess, that affection seems like an obvious slam dunk.

Although Leaf has always been an artistic-minded kid, once she got to middle school, most of her extracurricular time was spent playing sports like volleyball and basketball. “When I got to high school, it was like, OK, I’ll be able to go to college for one of these sports, and I knew I was better at volleyball, so I made a verbal commitment to go play college my sophomore year of high school.” Leaf said during a recent interview with IndieWire in Manhattan. “I couldn’t have paid to go to university any other way. This was giving me a full circle. So that kind of took over everything.

Leaf began his college career at San Jose State before transferring to the University of Miami for his sophomore year (Leaf closed out his college career in a big way, graduating as the 2014 Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year). She had hoped for a “more artistic major” in college (she was already interested in everything from photography to painting before leaving home), but her volleyball schedules kept her too busy.

Savanah Leaf and cast on the set of ‘Earth Mama’Gabriel Saravia

Eventually, he decided to major in psychology, which ended up fulfilling his artistic ambitions. “I feel like he’s really connected to the movie,” Leaf said. “The film feels like a combination of psychology, working in a team environment and artistic expression. For me, the transition hasn’t been as wild as it perhaps seems on paper.

After graduating from Miami, Leaf played professional volleyball in Turkey and Puerto Rico before an injury led her to take a year off. That time away from the routine of professional sports rekindled her creative fire.

“I was taking a lot of photography, I was really interested in art, but I was trying to figure out how I could do it,” she said. “I got injured playing volleyball and just dived into working at a music video and commercial production company. I was basically asking different people, different companies, whether or not they were going to hire me. I had nothing on my resume. A company hired me and let me see the directors and how they pitch and how they write and what references they’re pulling, really up close. This inspired me to think that I could do it too.

When Leaf began to feel his cinematic aspirations, he directed short films (including “F Word”, which deals with child abandonment, and “The 4th Wave”, about Italian rapper Alessandra Prete, aka Priestess) and music videos for everyone from Gary Clark, Jr. to Common. She was also beginning to formulate what “Earth Mama” would become, influenced by another major life event that occurred when she was just 16: the adoption of her little sister.

“Mother Earth”Gabriel Saravia

“It was just me and my mom throughout my upbringing, and she really wanted me to have a sister,” Leaf said. “When I wrote the first draft of the film, I was thinking about my relationship with my sister, and I was thinking about her birth mother and what she was going through at the time. I kind of pictured myself in her shoes and how I would handle the systems in place.

Leaf’s initial script ultimately led her to make the documentary short film ‘The Heart Still Hums’ as a sort of ’emotional quest’. The women she and co-director Taylor Russell interviewed for the documentary, which follows five mothers struggling to regain custody of their children, “brought the script together and grounded it in a different way. The film started from a very personal place, but then expanded into sort of a collective voice,” she said.

Leaf is very aware that “Earth Mama” isn’t exactly her story, and Gia isn’t exactly her (or her sister, or even her sister’s birth mother), and the intense care and empathy she applied to make the film shine through in every light frame. She (She also spent a lot of time interviewing women, talking to experts, and poring over the literature on the subjects touched upon by the film.)

“I haven’t experienced this specific situation, but I think a lot about how I deal with stress and obstacles,” said the director. “I try to think of Gia as I do and how I would handle this, how I would handle seeing my kids for a couple hours a week, and this is your window of opportunity to connect with them. It may not be my specific story, but I think the way we handle it is about not thinking that anyone is other, we are all. It could be me.

Casting newcomer Nomore, best known as a popular Bay Area rapper, for the film’s lead role “took a few moments,” Leaf said. “The first time she read the scenes with our casting directors, she was very present. She was watching, answering and listening very honestly. That really stood out, because I think a lot of people, when they’re first in acting, try to put on a show. She wasn’t really doing it. I was nervous, because when you rap, you put on a show, but she has to back out. When she saw it and was willing to go there and be vulnerable, she was really emotional.

A still from Earth Mama by Savanah Leaf, an Official Selection in the US Documentary Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of the Sundance Institute
“Mother Earth”Courtesy A24

Their next meeting? Leaf carefully called it “not necessarily great.” Nomore came to see the ‘Earth Mama’ team after a rap performance, ‘and she came right out of it and she was all made up, and it was hard for me to really see his then,” Leaf said. And the encounter after that? “She took all that makeup off and became more grounded again. That was really the moment, because I could see her, YEShe may have this other side to her, but she’s willing to pull it all away.

Nomore was also willing to go deep and be extremely personal, even in the ways her own body reflected Gia’s journey. “She had just had a son a year earlier and she was still breastfeeding,” Leaf said. “Her body, physically, was very much in touch with what it feels like to carry a baby and what it feels like to go into labor. She was training to be a doula, so she was listening to a lot of other people’s stories at the time and I think that made her very sensitive to the story.

Leaf kept Nomore even more present during filming by not showing his star the entire script. “She saw about 70 percent of it, and we had discussions about that, how she felt about it, and she really didn’t want to see the whole script,” Leaf said. “She was eager to stay as present as possible. I think she helped, just thinking about it from scene to scene, thinking about how I was going to handle it This moment, how would I handle this moment? The character is quiet and holding on until the very end, and it’s not like she’s not angry, but she’s just bubbling.

“Mother Earth”Gabriel Saravia

Leaf’s younger sister, who is only 14, saw the film and “really loved it.” (She also appears in a handful of scenes as a background extra.) “At that age, I don’t know how much you’re thinking about the depth of the film,” Leaf said. “But to me, it’s kind of an ode to mothers and what they go through, and acknowledging that it’s not as simple as you’re told or as we initially think it is. Hopefully, as she gets older, she looks at it in different ways and feels that it commemorates her respectfully and authentically.

And their mother? “She really loves Him,” Leaf said. “I was very nervous about sharing it with both of them, and my mother never read the script or anything, because I didn’t want to adapt it to anyone, I wanted her to be honest. And then when she saw it, I think she was really surprised and happy to receive it.

Next, Leaf has a lot of balls in play: the Hauser & Wirth Gallery in downtown Los Angeles is currently hosting an exhibition titled “American Gurl” which “showcases video art, film and performance to unpack and revisit the American Dream through the lens of women.” Leaf’s nine-minute “self-portrait” entitled “run” is part of the programme, which runs until the end of the month.

And, yes, she also wants to make another feature film, and hints that one is already seeping into her brain. “I have an idea about a project that I’m really excited about, and so I’m diving into this,” Leaf said. A sports metaphor, of course.

A24 releases ‘Earth Mama’ in theaters on Friday July 7th.

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