Photo Courtesy of Savanah Leaf
As a former Olympian turned director, Savanah Leaf is proof that anything is possible. In her lifetime, she's not only competed in the Olympics, repping Britain's national volleyball team, she's also earned Grammy nominations for directing music videos. While those two vocations seem wildly disconnected, on the contrary, they've helped cultivate Leaf's signature filmmaking style, one marked by intimate truth, trust, and teamwork. Leaf compares directing to being a team captain: in many ways, it’s about looking for the talents around you and encouraging them to work together.
When she got injured while playing professionally in Puerto Rico, she revisited her childhood passion for the arts. She did a quick music video production crash course, read a ton of books, and saved up enough money from playing professional volleyball to make her first personal short film, “F Word.”
The rest is history, and right here. After directing a music video for Common’s “Her Love," Savanah was connected with his social justice initiative, Imagine Justice. This led to the creation of her most recent PSA, “Arc x Imagine Justice," which documents the growing coronavirus pandemic’s effect in jails across the country. Savanah is now one of the leading filmmakers behind Change the Lens, an industry pledge to ensure that the representation of Black filmmakers within the commercial and music video film industry is reflective of the greater population. Here, Savanah discusses her latest projects, her grounded approach to telling politically charged stories, and how to get hired for socially conscious work.
FTW: Across the board, you’ve solidified yourself as a director who tells stories with a social impact. I think it’s sometimes hard for younger filmmakers to feel like they can make a difference with their voice while paying the bills. Sometimes you have to settle for a commercial or a music video that’ll pay, but lacks the social impact. How do you suggest people change the work they’re getting hired for to be more impactful?
Savanah Leaf: There’s a few things. We all get into this industry differently. I don’t know two people that have the same trajectory. I started out telling the story of my dad who I’ve never met before. I wanted it to be super honest and personal because I felt like I hadn’t seen people do those stories before. Make something that is uniquely yourself, a story no one else could tell, because it’s the experiences you’ve lived through or lived around. If something is connecting to you on a personal level, someone else is going to connect to it too. When you make visually-driven personal films or art, it often attracts commercial clients.
In terms of creating financial stability, that’s always tough. Every artist is going to be thinking, how do I maintain financial stability and not sell out? That’s unique to every individual. Some people might think some of the things I do are selling out but I just try to do what is honest to myself.
I know other people who have gotten financial support from grants, etc. Financial stability no matter what is going to be difficult, I’m always struggling with it. It's always going to be difficult at first, unless you were born into financial stability.
When you were earlier in your career, how have you gone about turning projects down while still establishing yourself? How do you balance a potential opportunity while staying true to yourself?
To be honest, there’s a lot of stuff that’s not on my reel and I think every director will say that. What’s on your reel or what’s on your website tends to be either things that you like or things that you’re trying to sell yourself as. Every director has at least 10 projects that they’ve probably never shown anyone. It’s important to remind yourself that everything that people put out is very curated. I’ve done pop music videos that I’m so embarrassed about, but they also shaped how I select my projects now.
Early on, I was not selective at all. I actually worked as an in-house director at a production company getting paid a pretty low salary. I was directing anything and everything. That would be weird branded content or commercials that the brand wouldn’t even want to show to anybody. It would be an internal video that’s just an edit of stock footage. I haven't always been as selective as people might think I am. I’ve only started to be selective in the past year and that comes with the influx of jobs that I like.
I saw that you were born in the UK but have spent most of your life in the US. A lot of your films revolve around American social issues. Do you think coming from the UK gives you an ability to take a step back and tell these stories from an outside perspective?
It’s two things. I spent a lot of my formative years in the US—high school, middle school, college—and those years really influence your life and your outlook. At the same time, my mom is from the north of England. I don’t have a dad and I was born in London. I was thinking about this the other day, I grew up in London in this community with all single mothers. It was very multicultural and diverse; everyone is from Chile to Jamaica to India, all over the world. and I didn’t feel like an outsider.
As soon as I came to the US, I went to an almost all-white school. I felt like such an outsider and it was nowhere close to the diversity from my upbringing as a child. That outsider perspective made the social issues that I was experiencing so upsetting. I never experienced that outside of the US. It hit me pretty hard as soon as I started to involve myself in US society.
When do you feel like you first became socially conscious? Were there any landmarks in your life that made you aware of social issues?
My mom has always been socially aware and encouraged me to get involved in issues that are important to me. She’s a single mom who raised me my whole life.
In college, it was a huge shift for me as an athlete. Around the Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner cases, athletes started wearing “I Can’t Breathe” shirts and getting involved in the Black Lives Matter movement. I knew I needed to get involved. As athletes, you’re thrown into social issues just as the pure fact that you’re a Black person in entertainment and you have a predominantly white audience. I wore my “I Can’t Breathe” shirt to the All-American award ceremony, which was a huge deal at the time.
I feel like I’m not very good at speaking in public, but I feel like I can convey my voice through my art.
Where did the idea for the "We Matter Too" campaign come from?
I directed a music video for Common last year for his song “Her Love." Common and his team are great people. They all have great perspectives on the world and I love what they’re doing. They wanted to get me involved with their social justice initiative, Imagine Justice. We collaborated with ARC (Anti-Recidivism Coalition) and the ACLU.
At the time, coronavirus was not prevalent in the US, so I had come up with this whole other shooting technique to speak about how many innocent people are being jailed in this country. Then coronavirus hit, and everything shifted to: What is going to happen to everyone who’s been incarcerated? When we were hit with coronavirus, I refocused everything. I couldn’t shoot in jail, so I wanted to make sure their voices were heard. We decided to do phone calls. There were about 15 different incarcerated people from across the US. I recorded these phone calls and created a soundscape from that and worked with animators at Art Camp to create visuals that go along with it.
How much did you know about the participants beforehand? Was there an introductory phone call or were those the first times speaking to them?
Those were the first times I was speaking to them. Obviously other people had spoken to them before. Everybody on the call was either a contact given to us or through our outreach. Our numbers were being handed out to a lot of different kinds of lawyers around the US who would tell their clients, “Call this number if you want to speak about your issues with coronavirus, and it’s going to go into an animation.”
Sometimes we would just get phone calls from people we didn’t know anything about and they would just tell us everything. It was very difficult because they had 20 minutes on the call and they wanted to tell us everything in that time frame. Every phone call was different.
I read that you wish you could create a longer form edit of the film. What do you think you would’ve expanded on in a longer version of this?
The most powerful thing for me was that within each phone call itself you learn so much. We had one person call us and say everything was fine in jail, and then two weeks later called to say, "I want to have another phone call because everything has changed since that last call." I wanted to leave it to the caller to guide the conversation so viewers can see how things develop in the course of the call. Some people would say, “I only have 15 minutes so I just want to tell you everything," and would just talk as I was tried to write down any notes I could.
I want people to be able to hear the conversation breathe and let everyone experience what it’s like to be on the phone with these people. The most powerful thing for me was hearing the full conversation rather than cutting bits and pieces together to string a story through it all.
If we weren’t in the time of COVID, would you have seen this being live action? Now that it obviously is animated, what strengths do you think that brought to the project?
The textures of the animations were really strong in that they feel like the sound itself. The sound was not perfect. There were lots of different sounds in the background and we can’t clean that out because that’s just what’s going on. And I wouldn’t want to clean that out. It’s the truth, it’s the honesty, and I think with live action, things can sometimes look too perfect.
There’s something really honest about having these phone calls and the participants not being aware of what they look like while being filmed. Phone calls can sometimes be more honest than filming someone and doing an interview on camera just because they’re not as aware of themselves.
The animation allows audiences to feel the textures and hold a lot more weight. Through the animation, we’re creating feelings rather than people pinpointing like, “who is this on this call and what is the jail that they were in?” It’s more about this is the feeling people are going through. More than anything, that’s what it is about.
It just feels like you’re part of the conversation rather than focusing on this cinematic, live action, beautiful storytelling. I approached this more as, how can we make it engaged with the sound so that you’re part of the story.
How do you think fellow creatives can use their own unique voices to incite social change in an authentic way?
Every single person has an incredibly unique story and has been through shit. If you sit down and talk to anybody in the world, you could find out something about their family, their best friend, or whatever it is.
If you believe in listening to people, try to strip yourself away from making things too beautiful. Instead, focus on giving a balanced, honest portrayal of someone else. I start with myself and being honest with why I’m telling the story. Are you willing to give a piece of yourself? Because if you’re not, it’s probably not going to be very honest.
You’ve got to be willing to contribute just as much as other people are willing to contribute to your piece.
The beauty of storytelling is that you’re put into someone else’s perspective. You’ve said that your process for politically toned storytelling is to stay grounded so that audiences can connect and the topic doesn’t feel out of grasp. Can you expand upon this?
I want to make sure the people behind the scenes reflect the population I’m talking to or working with. I also want to make sure that I am listening as much as possible. I’m always asking myself: What can I do to be a better listener? Am I willing to share my own story/experiences with the talent? What is my reason for telling this story? Am I the right person to tell this story? What do I want the audience to take away from this? Constantly questioning myself is a really difficult process, but it’s the only way I feel like I can tell honest stories.
What kinds of stories do you aspire to tell?
I tend to gravitate towards stories like my own or that I have a connection to in one way or the other. That goes anywhere from athlete stories to stories about being a child of a single mother to being mixed race to being Black in America. All of these stories have some sort of connection to me. I think that’s reflected in all my work.
What are your goals for the future generations of storytellers and filmmakers?
I want to see financial support for stories that aren’t being told and haven’t been told yet. I would also love to see more people feeling empowered to make films. I know so many incredible people with inspiring stories that are terrified to get into our industry because of the many barriers to entry.
If we had the support system in place or encouraged people to make films, we would get incredible stories that are super honest. Right now is a great opportunity for any financiers or production companies to support these filmmakers and broaden their horizon. There's nothing stronger than using your unique voice to tell a story.