Earth Mama has just finished the film festival circuit, premiering at Sundance earlier in the year to rave reviews. The heartfelt documentary-inspired feature marks Academy director Savanah Leaf’s first. It’s an emotional look at the difficulties of parenthood combining aspects of her own childhood and learnings gained from previous doc short, The Heart Still Hums, which served as research for this film. Leaf relished taking time to put this piece together, opening herself up to the story as it unfolded and listening to those who informed its direction. Filmed during the pandemic, she shares her thoughts on embedding authenticity in-camera and throughout her research process. 

Interview by Olivia Atkins

You originally directed the docu short, The Heart Still Hums, how did that project evolve into Earth Mama?

I wrote a first draft of Earth Mama before we filmed the documentary and it included many of my own stories and relationships. Then I created the docu short, which was like ’emotional research’ for the feature length. After that, the script evolved following the experiences we witnessed. From there, I worked with our producers at Academy FilmsPark Pictures and Film4 to research child protective services and the American foster care system to ensure we placed authenticity within the story. The film today is an accumulation of all of these stages of development.

And what inspired the film?

The film was initially inspired by my relationship with my sister and our experience meeting her birth mother. The first draft was an imagined version of what I thought she was going through at the time we all met. But in developing the script, it expanded into so much more than just this story, involving other people’s life experiences and the film became a space to share the collective’s voice in one character’s journey.

How did you find transforming the project into a feature format, especially given that this is your debut feature film?

I’ve really enjoyed developing this narrative feature. It was healing and liberating spending so much time on the script and allowing for research and self-reflection. From start to finish, I found it creatively challenging. There were financial restraints and various obstacles to consider especially shooting in the pandemic, but it forced me to challenge myself in ways I couldn’t imagine before.

The Heart Still Hums by Savanah Leaf and Taylor Russell

What did the research process for Earth Mama entail? How much did you lean on the access and perspective gained from the docu short?

It’s hard to say where the line sits between fiction and reality. The research fueled every part of the story – from the script, to working with the actors, character development, editing and sound design. Some of that research was just having to experience life. I’m an observational person and have always been, so in many ways a lot of my life informed the direction of this film.

The casting process started with meeting people I’d worked with on the short doc. And then liaising with organizations across the Bay Area to find our cast: doula groups, parenting circles, local theatre actors, performers from music labels, basketball teams, community college students, etc. In a way, the short inspired the casting process for the feature.

Though Earth Mama is fictional, the setting and the way the characters interact feels very realistic. Did you do anything in particular throughout shooting to maintain this?

I’ve always been drawn to realism in cinema, at least from an acting perspective. When initially preparing the film, I spent a lot of time with the lead. We weren’t necessarily rehearsing scenes, more playing relationship rehearsals. Sometimes Gia (played by Tia Nomore) and Trina (played by Doechii) would walk around the mall wearing their fake pregnancy bellies and pretend to be best friends. They would go to Victoria Secret and try on bras in character, developing their relationship on and off screen. We decided to create a visual language so the camera would be far away from our talent, releasing the pressure or distraction of having a lens in their face throughout a scene. We also reduced the amount of coverage in every scene to just one or two shots, so that meant the cast didn’t have to repeat takes for multiple camera angles.

Earth Mama by Savanah Leaf

At what point did you bring cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes on board and why did you feel he was the right person to bring this story to life?

Once we had our financiers on board, I approached Jody Lee Lipes and sent him the script. We have worked together on various short form projects and I’m a huge admirer of his work. He has done a lot of incredible narrative features like I Know This Much is TrueAfterschool, and Manchester by the Sea, and he is a very sensitive filmmaker, skilled at incorporating intention into the script. I’ve always been drawn to his way of seeing the world, how he prioritizes humanity and naturalism in his characters.

Your portrayal of the characters in this film is very intimate and humane – something that is enhanced through the close camera angles. Why did this feel like the right decision creatively?

This is a story about a person trying to connect with her kids, that keep getting removed from her. The protagonist Gia keeps her emotions bottled up and has a tough exterior, she’s continuously trying to battle the system. We wanted the camera to walk with her, to catch what she goes through as she faces such monumental obstacles. Sometimes the only way to shoot a scene was on a long lens close up – to capture the intimacy of her response to the world around her and her sense of claustrophobia because of how few options are available to her.

There’s not much dialogue in the film, what role did sound design and music play in bringing the story to life?

Our sound designer Joakim Sundström has a keen sensitivity to subtlety and knows when to enhance a background voice or a train horn, to build scene tension if dialogue was minimal. Editor George Cragg and I had laid out the groundwork for the sound before we began working with Joakim, inspired by the feeling of claustrophobia and the way children haunted Gia throughout. Using elements like road bumps to imitate a heartbeat, or a distant child crying to mimic Gia’s longing for her children, we – together with Per Boström – decided how and when to optimize these moments.

Hope, faith and resilience are some of the core themes presented throughout. Why did you want to reframe the narrative on this story and reception-wise, what have you felt audiences have most resonated with?

Audiences resonate with Tia Namore and her incredible acting debut and the way cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes, production designer Juliana Barreto Barreto and costume designer Natasha Hester visually told this story using light, color, texture and authenticity. Audiences have left inspired by the documentary elements of the narrative and how real people have shared their stories on the difficulties of parenting. We’re really excited to see how it resonates with viewers outside the US as Earth Mama becomes available globally.