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Decisive Moments: Earth Mama Director Savanah Leaf in Conversation with Derek Cianfrance

Earth MamaEarth Mama

There are two long back-and-forth tracking shots in Savanah Leaf’s wise, emotionally full debut feature, Earth Mama. In the first, the pregnant Gia—a 24-year-old Oakland single mother fighting for custody of the two young children she already has lost to state-sponsored foster care—purposefully strides across a playground, the camera focused on her as she passes expensive strollers and children playing in the background in soft focus. Moments before, she has asked the owner of the photo studio she works at for a cash advance: “I don’t want my baby coming out with no clothes or nothing,” she says. (Leaf cuts before we learn the answer.) The dolly move slows, and Gia kneels down and swiftly grabs a handful of diapers from one of the strollers. The dolly reverses and Gia, her pace quickening, walks back to her car, keeping her composure as off-screen voices notice her theft and cry out, “Stop!” A few scenes later, after submitting to her court-mandated drug test to check that she hasn’t relapsed, Gia, who struggles to meet the onerous demands of her social workers, meets a counselor and discusses giving up her new baby for adoption.

The second extensive tracking shot occurs much later in the film. Gia has just attended a successful prenatal check-up with the warm middle-class family with whom she’s agreed to an open adoption, but she’s quietly wracked with indecision over that choice. At 37 weeks now, her t-shirt stretched tight over her swollen belly, she goes to meet friends at an outdoor nighttime sideshow, again the camera dollying alongside her. A car doing donuts appears in flashes as Gia pushes through the crowd and argues with her friends about her plans—she’s not a mother if she gives up her child, one disrespectfully says. Gia’s face hardens, and as she leaves frame she appears on the verge of something irreversible. 

The extraordinary, heart-rending Earth Mama is a film about choices—choices born of maternal love, self-doubt and strength, while being bordered by economic realities and bureaucratic structures. Leaf captures the process of these choices with bold intentions of her own, creating a film that’s both socially aware and, at times, invitingly poetic. Working with DP Jody Lee Lipes, Leaf repeatedly allows the camera to simply linger on Gia’s face in her interactions with co-workers, administrators, her own children and the mothers she’s in a treatment program with. A pattern of slow zooms establishes a patient rhythm, one that creates a tension given all of Gia’s external stressors. And Leaf’s confidence as a writer and director grants her the unexpected, such as meditational moments expressing Gia’s inner life, or even a startling moment of body horror. Playing Gia is first-time actor Tia Nomore, an Oakland rapper whose first child was born during the pandemic and who was training as a doula when cast. Nomore’s performance is a revelation, conveying shades of tenderness, defiance and vulnerability, along with her character’s guarded stoicism and sense of internal mystery. 

For the past decade, Leaf—who competed in the 2012 Olympics as part of Great Britain’s volleyball team—has been an accomplished director and photographer working in commercials and music videos. Nominated for a Grammy for a video for Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” she also made a short documentary in 2020, The Heart Still Hums, that is something of a nonfiction prelude to Earth Mama. It begins with footage of Leaf’s adopted sister Corinna, then 10, and a title card, in which Leaf, who cut her sister’s umbilical cord, relates that “her birth mother said she wanted me to be the role model she couldn’t be.” But rather than focus solely on her sister, during its 28 minutes The Heart Still Hums engages with a chorus of women grappling with their own choices of whether to keep their babies or place them up for adoption. That generous point of view continues in Earth Mama, as Gia’s experiences are frequently presented alongside those of other young mothers, several of whom speak in documentary-style direct camera address.

Speaking with Leaf for Filmmaker is another writer-director whose work has drawn from family history, Derek Cianfrance (Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond the Pines). Their conversation touches on Leaf’s aversion to “TV coverage” and her choice to shoot in 16mm, but also on topics such as the question of consent when drawing from real-life inspiration and whether or not to be vulnerable in interviews. Earth Mama is in theaters on July 7 from A24.—Scott Macaulay

Cianfrance: I watched your movie again this morning. Do you remember, the first time after seeing the movie, I couldn’t quite get my words together? It kind of made a mess out of me. The same thing happened today.

Leaf: Wow.

Cianfrance: I find it to be just a beautiful, mysterious movie, almost more like a meditation than a narrative. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Leaf: It’s very observational. It’s not really trying to manipulate the audience, and it’s aware of itself being a movie, in a way. Like, these mothers sharing their experiences [are] all people [who] aren’t actors—it’s really just documentary moments where they’re sharing themselves. It’s kind of like, how could we create this story arc in a very observational tone and sit with people as they’re going through life, asking plain and simple questions? In that way, it’s like a meditation on parenthood, trying to take away the idea that it’s one mother’s story, because it has these draws that are so universal as well. 

Cianfrance: Can you talk about your way into this story? I know you’d made a short before. 

Leaf: The first draft was this story I had been itching to tell of how my sister came into our family. My sister was adopted when I was 16 years old. I had met her birth mother; I didn’t know everything she was going through but heard little snippets. So, the first draft was me imagining what she was going through at that time, knowing these little things. I cut my sister’s umbilical cord and named her, so I had this very close connection to my sister, but I also felt a really close connection to her birth mother. We were similar ages but going through different things in our lives. 

Being from the Bay Area, I wanted to bring out so much of all the mothers [who] had impacted me. I made this short doc, which was me going into a lot of different mothers’ experiences, [those] who have children in the foster care system or gave [them] up [for] adoption because of addictions or financial difficulties. That research allowed [Earth Mama] to [go] beyond just my own story. I kept doing research and hearing other people’s stories, and that created this collective story. 

Cianfrance: It’s your process through documentary. The moments in the film that are the most emotional to me are where your family meets the mother. The specificity, and pain and love, and the giving and sacrifice, and the nurturing and the nature, it’s all in those moments. In real life, those moments seem like they were profound for you.

Leaf: Yeah, real moments [that] stick out to me in my memory, [like] when my sister’s birth mother talked to me at 16. That moment at the end between my sister’s birth mother and me is very real because, in reality, she told me to be the role model that she couldn’t be at the time. I was 16 and felt really empowered but also really inspired by her, and I felt sadness at the same time. In the documentary, someone says her soul was humming when her child left because she still wanted to breastfeed, she still wanted to do all these very physical things, but her child wasn’t there, so [her soul] was just humming. I felt that hum when my sister’s birth mother said this to me, so I wanted to create that kind of hum in the film. And there’s that moment at the end where she’s talking about basketball, there is that kind of hum there.

Cianfrance: You created the hum. It’s this life force. Your sister’s birth mother, did you keep in touch with her?

Leaf: No, and maybe that’s why I have an eagerness to make this, because I definitely think about her. And my sister is my favorite person in the world. She’s funny and really outgoing, very different than me.

Cianfrance: You’re not funny and you’re not outgoing?

Leaf: I don’t think I am that outgoing. Maybe sometimes a little funny. But my sister? Sometimes, I’m like, how lucky am I to have her in my life? She’s moved me in ways that she doesn’t even realize changed my life, like maybe how people feel when they have a child. I don’t know, I don’t have any children, but a lot of people talk about having this greater purpose when they have a child that’s outside of themselves. And my sister kind of makes me feel like that because we’re such different ages, you know? She’s way younger than me.

Cianfrance: 16 years younger.

Leaf: Yeah.

Cianfrance: Has she seen the film?

Leaf: Yeah.

Cianfrance: And what are her thoughts on it?

Leaf: She says she really likes it, and she keeps watching it. I thought she would watch it once and be like, “This is too emotional.” But she’s very excited about it. She’s actually in the movie for a split second.

Cianfrance: Who is she?

Leaf: There’s a girl in between two guys, and they stand in front in the portrait studio in front of a red backdrop, a lighthearted moment. The guys next to her, they’re like brothers to me—I’ve known them since I was like, 12, 13. So, she loves to see all these people in the film. And we don’t live in the same area, so I think seeing the film or any piece of art that I put out is like her connecting to me, even from afar.

Cianfrance: I understand that.

Leaf: Do you feel that way?

Cianfrance: Yeah, because my family’s all in Colorado, and every movie I make is somehow related to family. There’ve been movies I’ve made that are direct gifts to members of my family.

Leaf: Do you ever get nervous about sharing?

Cianfrance: Of course, because you’re opening up. Your job as an artist is to express your imagination. Sometimes, that’s your fear; sometimes, that’s your vulnerable, embarrassing hopes, and you really have to put it out there. So, it’s exposing, and sometimes, your family hasn’t agreed, [hasn’t] taken that same oath as an artist to just lay it out there for the world to see. That’s very personal art, but that’s what this movie is. 

Leaf: Yeah, and that’s what your work feels like to me.

Cianfrance: It’s like a family picture, and you’re all naked together.

Leaf: That’s exactly what it’s like. And they haven’t signed up for it.

Cianfrance: Yes, there’s an issue of consent. Do you think about that?

Leaf: I totally do, and that’s something I struggle with emotionally. I’ve tried to write stuff that’s not deeply personal, and I just physically can’t do it. I just can’t figure out what happens next. So, I’ve realized the only way I can write is through stuff that’s really happened to me or people [who] are close to me, stuff I’ve felt deep inside of me. And I always worry that the people around me are going to feel not-represented or really don’t want to be seen. Or, my viewpoint on something is through my lens, not their lens, so they might feel it’s inaccurate. That is something I am constantly [thinking about], at least now in this phase of sharing a film. Before, when you’re just writing for yourself, no one’s seeing it. But as soon as you start sharing it, even to one person—probably the biggest anxiety around art is that not everyone might emotionally consent. Your actors, everybody physically part of it, have consented to be in it, and you can go deep with them about how much they want to share. But the people you’re writing about might not always [want to share], and I get really emotional about that. But, I also think maybe there’s a greater purpose beyond just me and them, and maybe it’s hearing people’s personal responses to the film that are broader. But I don’t know. I’m still dealing with that. I think that’s just part of making stuff.

Cianfrance: The thing that I’ve learned is that if you open yourself up in that way to people, they’ll come back and open themselves up to you all of a sudden. I mean, it’s interesting that your central character works at a photography studio. Photos, it’s normally like, “Here’s the artificial backdrop, and we’re going to capture this one happy moment of smiling faces.” But what your movie does is show what’s behind all of that. Everyone’s got this smiling, beautiful picture of themselves, but for me, it’s always hard to relate to those pictures because I know that’s not the truth.

Leaf: Ever since I was really young, you go to people’s family houses, and they’ve got all these photos all over their house of how perfect they are. People used to send Christmas cards of their happy families. And every time, it feels so forced but also really sweet because that holds a value for them, you know?

Cianfrance: For sure. It is beautiful.

Leaf: Yeah, it is beautiful to see people sitting around together and generations, or sometimes even just friend groups, constructing what they want to be their happy family. But there is so much more behind that. And I think Gia’s kind of like me. She’s in this place and making these photographs, but she’s also trying to dive beyond that.

Cianfrance: You’re in the beginning of your press tour with your movie. My movies are completely vulnerable and open, and I never know if I should be that way in the interviews, too.

Leaf: I don’t know, either.

Cianfrance: I don’t know any other way to be.

Leaf: Yeah, and that’s kind of me. I’ve been getting really nervous and emotional about how you make a film, and you’re about to put it out. How is that portrayed and who am I talking to? There’re all these avenues to do press stuff, and all I really want to do is have one-on-one conversations and hear how people emotionally respond to the film because that’s what’s interesting. And I struggle to not be genuine. If I catch myself [doing that], I get really exhausted and just want to leave. Do you get like that?

Cianfrance: Yeah, but at the same time—when Blue Valentine came out, it was a movie based around a childhood fear of my parents getting a divorce. Then, the movie is released, and on the front page of the newspaper in my hometown, it talks about “local kid turns the pain of his parents’ divorce into art.” And my mom and dad and all their friends get that paper.

Leaf: But did that, in fact, bring you closer because they could feel what you were going through, maybe?

Cianfrance: I wouldn’t say that, no. They’re supportive, and they’re fucking great. But my whole life, my dad would be like, “You’ve got to stop.” Because I would shoot everything my whole life. I would shoot our family fights.

Leaf: Oh, really?

Cianfrance: I used to shoot family arguments, yeah. I used to try to take pictures of people crying in my house. I got in trouble a bunch, my dad just saying, “Stop taking these pictures. These are not pictures anyone wants to see.”

Leaf: Now, they get it.

Cianfrance: Maybe. 

Leaf: That film, in particular, I actually can’t relate to the fear of parents getting divorced because I never had that. But the emotion of falling in love and then it falling apart and that yearning or grieving process, is so relatable. I’ve been thinking a lot about that grieving process, recently, especially with a film. Do you get that when your film’s over?

Cianfrance: I’ve always thought I would have that. I heard when Sam Peckinpah finished The Wild Bunch, he went and cried against the fence. 

Leaf: In relief? (laughs)

Cianfrance: Yeah, in relief, catharsis. I’ve always thought, “OK, I’m going to have that catharsis now,” and it’s never happened to me. The only thing that I ever feel, being done with a film, is empty, like, “It’s gone now.” Maybe that’s the grief. “It’s not there anymore.”

Leaf: Someone put it really interestingly. I made this movie about birth and letting something go. I’m in this other version of that now, and it is like a hump, which is interesting.

Cianfrance: Well, now it has its own life, and it’s going to hopefully live for a long time. I wanted to ask about your aesthetic choices. I think it’s so interesting how you take these naturalistic moments of behavior and see them with this incredibly heightened, very particular observational cinematic eye. And you shoot on film, and the color of the film is so specific. The movement of the camera is almost in a trance. Our dear friend Jody Lee Lipes shot your movie. Can you talk about your aesthetic choices with Jody?

Leaf: This is a heavy film, tough subject matter, but I don’t want to impose that with the camera. I’d rather keep a distance from the people in front of the camera. We were using a lot of people [who] haven’t acted before, so we wanted to have a language where we didn’t have to keep having them repeat themselves. There’s limited coverage, and we have the camera far enough away from the subjects so they don’t feel like they’re being intruded on. And the color palette—I want them to be heroes of their own stories and allow them to be in light. Just because it’s about people going through tough shit doesn’t mean you have to make the image rough.

Jody’s really talented with responding to what’s in front of the camera in a very fluid way. He’s always reacting rather than forcing something ahead of time, so a lot of that came naturally. We also chose a lot of the frames and thought about the blocking ahead of time; then, there were light subtle shifts as he was panning slightly to keep people in frame or adjusting things like that, based on what was actually happening. But the majority of the blocking was thought about beforehand. The camera’s either static or on a dolly the whole time or zooming. And it was really just about giving the actors the freedom to just do the scene once and [not] need to repeat it. 

Cianfrance: Some of these choices about giving these performers their space also really allow them to not be self-conscious, to not be so aware of the fact that something is being expected from them. One of my favorite parts of your movie is the performances. Tia is so amazing. I think you are allowing Tia her own journey in this film. Correct me if I’m wrong. As I’m watching it, I’m not imagining that she’s following every single screen direction or parenthetical of, like, “Tears start forming” or “She laughs.” She feels free. It feels like you’ve set up this situation, and you’re watching.

Leaf: That’s kind of what it is. I tried to take out a lot of stuff in the script that might be prescriptive.

Cianfrance: Why?

Leaf: Because I didn’t want her to force anything. I wanted her to have that freedom, like you said. She’s never read a script before. The first thing you do when you’ve got someone that’s never read a script before is [say] like, “OK, this is dialogue, this is action”—and then, “Don’t pay attention to this stuff. The most important thing is this specific goal in this scene.” This is what you want, and [you] try to make it as simple as possible so that other things can come through. For me, what was really important was creating physical things that emotionally affected her. That’s in the writing process as well, knowing that I was going to have some people [who] had never acted before. For example, when she’s giving birth there’s this plastic sheet, and it’s claustrophobic. 

Cianfrance: It’s a barrier.

Leaf: There are physical barriers or claustrophobic settings or scenarios. For example, the sound of trains, that’s just naturally in the space. There are ways to create physical barriers or obstacles or things that are uncomfortable for her. Seeing a bunch of babies or children playing in the playground and having to walk through that to get diapers. How do you create that in the writing, so that when you place somebody there they can just react to that space being uncomfortable? And that was the freedom. You set up physical obstacles, and she has to maneuver them in her own way.

Cianfrance: That scene in the playground reminded me of one of my favorite filmmakers and favorite films, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, in that there’s no need for an establishing shot. When she enters the playground, you’re tracking with her, and the playground exists offscreen. And when you finally do see the playground, it’s abstract, impressionistic, out of focus, but the sound is doing so much of the work for you, and your camera has created Gia’s world to be claustrophobic. She’s under a microscope in that moment. You hear the other mothers talking to her, but you never see them. It’s so bold, the way you shoot it. What is the process of convincing your producers and financiers to pull off a scene like that? Because you didn’t have any other coverage, right?

Leaf: No, we didn’t. I was really lucky. There are definitely times when people are telling me like, “Man, you’ve got to get some coverage. This is crazy.”

Cianfrance: Like when?

Leaf: That scene, but the biggest one was probably the sideshow, where the cars are doing donuts. We had the shortest night of the year [when] we were shooting that, and we were shooting overnight. So, we had very limited time and were going to shoot it all in one take. And they were like, “Come on. There’s no way we can get this in one take.” We drew a storyboard version of it to try to make people understand what was going to be done. I’m lucky because I had a budget size where we don’t have people from our financiers on set all the time. But even when we’re editing, people are like, “Do we not have any coverage of this scene?” And it makes me feel multiple ways. I’m like, “Shit, should I have had it?” but at the same time, I’m so proud of not doing that because it does feel bold and like we set out to do that. We set out to give a strong tone throughout. I’m tired of seeing the same shit on screen all the time, which is TV coverage. I think that’s just a bunch of fear. Not a lot of people are really taking bold choices. They’re so afraid to even shoot on film. I mean, it’s financially tough, and there’s not a backup. I get it. But that’s why you start to see so many movies looking the same, and that’s boring to me.

Cianfrance: There’s something about a long take in a film because there are no lies in it. You can’t hide a lie in a cut.

Leaf: Exactly, [and] you’re stopping them from just living the scene out, you know? Every time we’d call a cut before the whole scene is over, it’s like you’re stopping their emotions from going to the next thing. And it’s really tough to do that, especially with non-actors. But even actors, I imagine—I haven’t really worked with tons of well-known actors or anything, but I imagine that’s tough every time, having to stop and move onto the next thing or maybe go back to the thing before. You have a similar approach, right?

Cianfrance: For sure. When I was doing I Know This Much Is True, the first day Rosie O’Donnell came on set we had a 10-page dialogue scene with her and Mark [Ruffalo]. And in the middle of the scene she was like, “You’re going to shoot the whole scene in one?” I was like, “Yeah.” She was like, “Wow, that’s a lot of dialogue.” Well, forget the dialogue. You know what you want out of this scene, right? You know what the intention is of the scene. You’re sharp. Take over. Say whatever you want. I don’t care about the words on the page, anyway. So, we started shooting, and two minutes into the scene she got stuck and was like, “Line.” And I was like, “I’m not going to give you a line. I’m not going to help you here.”

Leaf: Yeah, keep going.

Cianfrance: “Just go into yourself. I believe in you. If you get lost, get lost. It’s OK.” And it’s what I’m hearing from you: You are allowing your actors, your performers, to behave. There’s nothing I feel like they can do wrong in your movie. There’s no right way or wrong way for them to do a scene, I don’t think. Or was there?

Leaf: Not really, no. Not while we were shooting. Everyone was experienced in a way. Tia’s not had this life experience specifically, but she created Gia and brought what she was going through at the time or what she might’ve been through previously. Before you cast that person, it could be so many things. Then, once you cast Tia as Gia, it feels like nobody else could play that role.

Cianfrance: I totally believe that.

Leaf: She had a child a year before but was still breastfeeding even when we were shooting. And I think she was training to become a doula at the time.

Cianfrance: Which makes so much sense.

Leaf: It makes a lot of sense. And she was really willing to just try stuff, you know? I think it’s really difficult to act in a film. Not to mention, she wasn’t pregnant at the time, so she’s carrying this fake belly, [which requires] many hours of prosthetics sometimes. She’s in almost every scene, it’s a very difficult role and we went through a wave of emotions while shooting. Sometimes she was frustrated because it’s tough.

Cianfrance: How would she get frustrated and why?

Leaf: You’re lacking sleep, wearing uncomfortable prosthetics, shooting many hours a day, then waking up and doing the same thing the next day, and you’re doing it for 26 days, and you’ve never done this before.

Cianfrance: And you’re the one making her do it.

Leaf: Exactly. I’m the one encouraging her to do it.

Cianfrance: OK, you’re not making her, you’re encouraging her. It’s consent.

Leaf: It’s really difficult, and I’m putting her in tough circumstances, not a happy script where you’re joking around all the time. So, it wasn’t easy. The beauty, looking back on it, is that Tia really kept going every day, “Yesterday was tough, but let me wake up and figure another angle of how to approach this today.” It’s not even about being better every day, it’s just, “How can I be as truthful today?” I think we were able to maneuver together through all the ups and downs that come with creating something and the difficulties of that.

Cianfrance: When you’re encouraging someone to do something and you see the cost that it takes, do you ever think about just letting them know, “Don’t worry about it, we don’t have to do that?”

Leaf: Yeah.

Cianfrance: As I’m producing my first film right now, I’m having some talks with the director about it. Where is the line where you push and where you stop pushing? What is more important, the real people behind the scenes or what you’re trying to make on the screen? This goes to our discussion about family, too.

Leaf: I just feel it out, scenario to scenario. As an athlete, I would sometimes be so upset with my coaches. There’s times where I walked out—I got kicked off a team and then brought back. And there were times where I felt like I was pushed too far. So, for me, it’s about trying to listen to one another, trying to figure out what each other needs. I’m constantly thinking about ways to make people feel safe while they’re doing stuff that’s so vulnerable, and it’s tough because you’ve got producers, directors, financiers—how does an actor trust all of those people? It takes honesty on both sides, [with] the director being as honest as possible. I try to show up and be vulnerable as well, and I think that’s the only way you can build that sort of trust. And the fact that I wrote the script and was putting myself on the line, too, helped her feel that I was being vulnerable, too. If it wasn’t my words or if I didn’t reveal stuff to her about my personal life while we’re prepping a scene or something like that, it would’ve been a whole different situation. Even with the women revealing their lives [who] open and close the film, I’m sitting right there next to the camera as they’re telling their experiences. That’s me off-camera telling them about myself. 

Cianfrance: I always think about sports when I make movies.

Leaf: I’ve heard you talk about this in an interview before—about being the coach?

Cianfrance: Yeah, I feel like a coach. But, like, your frustration with your coaches you walked out on [is] because coach can’t play.

Leaf: Yeah, coach can’t play.

Cianfrance: Coach can’t play, coach is telling me what to do. She’s pointing her finger and I’m supposed to go there.

Leaf: And I hate that feeling of being a robot. But I look at the best case scenario—maybe because I didn’t always love my coaches, I think directing is more like being a team captain. I used to run Marin [Avenue], which is this very steep hill in Berkeley, California. It’s really exhausting, And if you make it to the top, you’re just drenched in sweat, and it takes the [most] mental strength. So, I was like, “Maybe I should tell Tia this is what acting is like, and run to the top of it [together].” I thought it might’ve been too tough, too early on, but I kind of like the idea of doing a physical activity with an actor. Maybe next time, I’ll do something like that, where we can physically go through it together.

Cianfrance: Yeah, but you’re going to win. You’re going to get to the top of the mountain—you know, it’s unfair.

Leaf: No, because it’s like being on a team. You’ve got to do it together. Nobody makes it to the top without the other person.

Cianfrance: That’s what I was telling the director I’m working with right now. I was telling him, “You’re leading everyone to the top of Everest.” And he said, “People die going to Everest.” And I was like, “They’re not going to die with you. That’s the point.”

Leaf: Yeah, and they only go to the top when they’re with a squad.

Cianfrance: Exactly. You can’t go alone.

Leaf: I want to hear about how you relate filmmaking to sports.

Cianfrance: Every day that you start shooting, the dynamite is lit. You’ve been dreaming about this moment forever, and now you’re on set, and the dynamite is lit, and you have just the length of that wick to get it because once that dynamite goes, it’s over. When you’re making a low-budget film, it’s really, really hard to go back, so you have to get it that moment. To me, that’s like a shot clock, like a game. You can practice all you want, you can have all the team meetings you want, but when the game starts, it’s here and the clock is going, and there’s no way to reverse that. That’s where the pressure of making films comes from, but that’s also the joy of it. And I love sports.

Leaf: Yeah, I think about this a lot. When I was an athlete, I really resonated with AI in the sentiment of not loving to practice.

Cianfrance: What A.I.? The Spielberg movie?

Leaf: No, Allen Iverson.

Cianfrance: Oh, OK, gotcha. Practice.

Leaf: Practice. I loved the game. I loved being physically in the game. I loved reacting. My best self was never in practice. I was not a practice player. I needed to be in the game to show myself. I thrive in that countdown mode. I love the pressure.

Cianfrance: And getting what you get in the moment.

Leaf: And making a mistake, then having to figure out how to correct it in that moment.

Cianfrance: I think in athletics, confidence is very important. And in art, or at least making movies, I think confidence is dangerous.

Leaf: Yeah, while you’re physically making it. But I guess it also helps you get it made.

Cianfrance: Well, yeah, but confidence has never helped me out in art. It can be too much like cockiness or something. You have to embrace your own delusion but know that what you’re believing in may be a delusion at the time.

Leaf: Yeah, how do you deal with that idea of what you’re believing in might be a delusion?

Cianfrance: I just embrace it. I embrace that it doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to be loved, it doesn’t have to be right, it doesn’t have to be wrong. It’s what it is at that moment. Follow that inner voice and follow everyone else’s inner voice in trying to make something, and hopefully it’s not too much of a disaster and you get money to make something else.

OK, I wanted to bring up this. The first line of your movie is off screen: “Why should we care if you make it?” And the person on screen, Tiffany [Garner], responds, “It’s my journey. No one else’s journey. Nobody can walk in my shoes. You can hold my hand; you can look back from a distance. You still won’t feel what I feel. You still won’t look at that from my point of view.” I think that’s such a beautiful opening statement about empathy and whose stories we tell, and who’s worthy of a story and who’s worthy of our attention.

Leaf: When she was talking in that moment, it felt like it really needed to open the film because it is a statement about empathy—not being able to walk in my shoes, but you can stand right by me. And that is like a challenge. We always talk about fully empathizing by imagining or putting
yourself in somebody else’s shoes. It’s not actually possible in a lot of scenarios, you know? That doesn’t mean you can’t feel or connect. I feel myself as a very emotional and empathetic person, so I always feel like when someone says a story and I connect, I feel like I’m imagining myself as that person. But I think I really connect to what they’re feeling, rather than imagining myself as that person. I wanted to challenge people to feel for her and not make these quick judgments off of people [who] might be different than them or have gone through difficult situations that led them to make difficult decisions.

Cianfrance: So, you didn’t write that line?

Leaf: No.

Cianfrance: Did you ask the question to get it out of her?

Leaf: No, what happened was I started asking questions. It’s just me talking to Tiffany, because Tiffany’s also in the short film and I know her and I’m sitting by the camera. Then, halfway through, Erika [Alexander], who plays Miss Carmen, starts asking questions. And I think I might’ve given her a couple of questions, but a lot of them were her just genuinely asking them. That particular moment was completely unscripted.

Cianfrance: And did you know when it was happening that you were getting the opening of your film? Or did you find it later in the edit?

Leaf: I knew that she could be the beginning of the film. I didn’t know how it would fit into anything else other than the beginning or the ending, and it didn’t make sense in the ending. But I knew when we were filming it, there’s about 15 minutes that she’s speaking that completely moved me

Cianfrance: I know. When I heard it, it spoke so clearly to me, too. 

Leaf: Yeah. That and the ending, too.

Cianfrance: About wanting to protect her kids because no one was there to protect her?

Leaf: Exactly. That was also unscripted. I was asking her questions, and she’s just saying how she feels. And that ties back in with these generations and the weight that you carry from your parents, and then maybe pass on or don’t want to pass on. How do you stop a cycle from happening? And the heartbreak of knowing some things are just destined to happen. Breaking the cycle—I hate that term, but it’s just so difficult. I really relate to that, this need to protect someone you care so deeply about, even though you know you might be hurting them at the same time sometimes.

Cianfrance: How would you be hurting them?

Leaf: Maybe mistakes you make sometimes, bad habits you have. You’ve learned something at some point in your life, and you do it and you don’t want to be doing it.

Cianfrance: Epigenetics, I think?

Leaf: Yeah, maybe. Do you ever feel that way? 

Cianfrance: I mean, that’s what I make all my movies about, basically. I heard that some scientists did an experiment on mice. They hooked a mouse up to all these electrodes, and every time it would sniff a cherry blossom, they would shock the mouse. Then, the mouse had babies, the babies came out, no electrodes on them, and those babies would not go near the cherry blossoms. So, there’s an idea of DNA, that it takes thousands of years to turn something on, but I think it can be just get turned on in a moment. And then, how long does it take to turn that off? I think it’s generations and generations.

Leaf: I definitely feel that in myself.

Cianfrance: Maybe that’s why you’re making movies.

Leaf: Definitely why I’m making them. I’m still learning. That’s a really beautiful analogy. I’ve never heard of that.

Cianfrance: The mouse? It might not have really happened. Who knows what stories we tell? But I think it’s true.

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