Nina Davenport Directed A Film And Gave Birth At The Same Time
The filmmaker and single mother behind HBO documentary First Comes Love talks about the making of her new movie and the making of her son.
"I just woke up from a nap, if you want to know the truth," filmmaker Nina Davenport said not too long into the interview. This is the kind of confession you would expect from the documentarian — she is charming and unapologetic in her dishevelment.
Davenport's new film, First Comes Love (premiering July 29 on HBO), follows the lead up to and the aftermath of the single woman's decision, at age 41, to have a child on her own through in vitro fertilization. The documentary takes the audience through the sometimes cruel judgment of family members, the hormone shots, the pregnancy tests, the sonograms, the weight gain, and the graphic and ugly labor, all the way to the first steps of her son, Jasper. As Davenport navigates her relationship with her friends and with her father, a stoic and acerbic man of old-school values, First Comes Love shies away from neither uncomfortable conversations nor double chins. The film is perhaps flawed in its myopia — Davenport, a white college graduate from an affluent background, isn't exactly the Everywoman — but it is a deeply personal work. That seems to be the point.
Davenport is supported by a network of friends, including her best friend Amy, who administers hormone shots on screen and is to this day (Jasper is now 4) a huge part of the child's life. "She treats him like her own kid," said the filmmaker. And indeed, the movie explores the ways people build families out of what they've got. The sperm donor, her friend Eric, didn't want to have children, but he falls in love with Jasper; Amy, who "probably" doesn't want children of her own, cries at his birth; the man Davenport starts dating while she's pregnant wrestles with what he would do if they broke up; Davenport's father, initially unsupportive of the pregnancy, bounces his new grandson on his knee and claims he never said those terrible things he said.
It's ultimately a movie about coming to terms with reality, rolling with the punches, and loving what's in front of you, even if it's not quite the way you imagined it. What follows is an edited transcript of BuzzFeed's conversation with Davenport.
The movie starts with you asking people for advice on whether you should become a single parent. Did you actually feel conflicted or did you just want to hear what people said?
Nina Davenport: I definitely felt conflicted — not conflicted about wanting a baby, but just scared. If someone tells me I can't or shouldn't do something, it will only propel me towards doing it, so maybe that's why I went into the — what's that expression? — the jaw of the tiger, and asked people who who might be predisposed against the idea for advice.
How long has the movie been in the making then?
ND: A long time. It was a lot of work. I'm not enjoying the handful of negative reviews that have come out, but luckily the experience is mostly extremely positive ones to offset those.
When did you start working on the movie?
ND: Right around the time that I started thinking about this, so I think I shot the first scene in late 2007, and then I ended up getting pregnant in March 2008. The time that I went from very seriously thinking about this to action was not that long because I just, I had it in my head that after 42, it was over. Even though obviously, it's all statistics and gambling, so who knows.
When you first set out to make this movie and made the decision that you wanted to try and have a kid on your own, did you feel like if that didn't happen, you were still going to make the movie? How far were you willing to follow it?
ND: Knowing me, and knowing my previous work, I imagine I would have continued with the movie and it just would have gone in a different direction, but I was certainly way more concerned about getting pregnant than the movie, especially at that point. There were definitely times when I had to prioritize one or the other, and I always prioritized getting pregnant.
The first part of the movie where you're onscreen, where it's not a still shot of you but it's actually you filming yourself, is when it seems like your friend is saying no, he doesn't want to be a sperm donor. Can you talk about that choice and why that was the first time we see a moving image of you?
ND: When I was shooting it, I'm not sure what I was thinking. I know that at some point fairly early on, I realized that I should be on camera more than maybe in other films because my body would be changing, and my body would be a character in the film if I got pregnant, so that may have been why I handed him the camera.
I think that part in particular stuck out to me because you're not really afraid to be messy on camera, and I thought that was really impressive.
ND: Well, thank you. I'm not vain, it's true, but also it would be really alienating if I looked great in every scene; it would not help the film. I think it would be alienating because then I would start to seem like an actress rather than a real person.
You don't really turn the camera toward you until he's telling you no, you're getting rejected, and we're watching your face as you're getting rejected. Even though he ultimately says yes.
ND: It's possible that I just handed it to him, now that you mention that and remind me, because I wanted to really make my case and not be distracted by the filming. I really don't know — it's so long ago that I can't say for sure. But that's what I mean, as an example of prioritizing getting pregnant. Eric, I would say he was more reluctant to be on camera than he was to donate his sperm. Every scene with him was hard-won. I made some choices along the way. I didn't — I chose my battles, let's put it that way.
Was he the only person you asked? You don't have to answer that if you don't want to, obviously.
ND: Well, I did have one other friend who I did talk to about it, but he wasn't as close of a friend, whereas Eric I've known for 20 years. I just know him so well; we lived together for two years. Also, I think straight men are not as likely to part with their seed, so to speak, as gay men, but you know, that may change as having children and getting married gets more common with gay people. So, yeah. He was definitely always my first choice. And now, of course, I can't imagine it any other way.
In your movie, you also waited a while to reveal that your mother had died.
ND: My relationship with her, it's almost the reason why I was so driven to have a baby myself... To me, she basically is still alive in a lot of ways.
I thought that that really came through in the movie, her presence. Your dad says some really mean things to you, particularly his reaction when you first tell him that you're pregnant and he tells you you should get an abortion. It kind of took the wind out of me. Did you feel conflicted about putting that in the movie?
ND: Well, I think it's always tempting with people you love, people you're related to, to protect them and present an image of them to the world as perfect, but it's a question of priorities. For me, I just prioritized making a universal story that people can relate to that is insightful and moving over thinking too much about any particular person's privacy or vanity. In the case of my father, I don't think he's gonna be upset by this movie. I think he'll experience a moment of discomfort when he watches those scenes, and then he'll move on. If it were something deeply saddening and offensive to him, it would be a different story, but I don't think it's going to be. I know him very well; it's not that hard to predict his reactions. It's not about my father being a bad person, it's about a whole generation of men who were told to suffocate their emotions, who are therefore not so great at dealing with other people's. It's not really their fault. I think people relate to it because for so many people, it reminds them of one or the other of their parents.
At the end of the film, you discover the newspaper clippings about your father's house burning down when he was a kid, and how his father died in that fire. Did you know that before the movie, or did you discover that?
ND: I knew the story, but I didn't know about that footage [of my father as a child], I didn't know that they had clippings, and I certainly never thought about the story, or hadn't thought about the story yet, from the point of view of someone who is a parent. The maturity that that brings to you allowed me to see the story in a much deeper way, and really feel more, and maybe even having a boy affected this too, feel what it was like for my father, the pain of his own childhood. It really did make me feel more compassion for him, and that beautiful Super 8 footage shot by my grandfather of my father as a boy, it was chilling. I just wanted to cry when I saw it. It's had a permanent effect on the way I see my dad, seeing that footage, so in the end, the film is a testament to the power of cinema, which is something I chose to leave unspoken at the end of the film, but I think it's there. I also chose not to comment on the fact that my grandfather is the person I get this propensity to film my family and to be a filmmaker from. His footage was very beautifully shot, and he even set up the camera on tripods and did self-portraits and really knew what he was doing, despite the fact that he was a dermatologist for a living.
Had you actually talked to your dad about that event, or did you just know about it from your mom or someone?
ND: As a child, you hear these stories. I feel like I remember my mother saying many times, "Your father was 11 when his father died, and he didn't cry at the funeral." That's kind of what it boils down to. "He died in a fire; he didn't cry at the funeral." It was almost like a sound bite. A lot of things that you hear as children, you don't really register until you're older.
What did it feel like to have someone filming you in labor and did you specifically choose someone knowing that they would be filming you in labor?
ND: That was kind of a crazy last-minute scramble, as a matter of fact. I thought it was potentially going to go on for so long that I needed to have a bunch of different people lined up. Jacob Okada, who shot it, was someone I did not know very well; he'd only shot with me one other time. I was thinking he was just gonna do the first shift, but of course I forgot about the fact that I wasn't gonna really be able to schedule a transfer of cinematographers while I was in labor, so poor Jacob, who did an amazing job, had to shoot the entire thing, and was exhausted by the end, and he did a fabulous job. People are really blown away by that scene, and also by how well shot it is. What's even funnier is that I was actually directing him at times between contractions. When it zoomed in on Amy, my best friend, crying after the birth, I said to him — and I wouldn't have remembered it were it not on camera — I said, "Jacob, the wife is crying. Zoom in on the wife!" And then I also remember saying, "You have to stand behind my head: This is an incredible POV shot," because I had all these people around me cheering me on. But he was so good that even if I hadn't directed him, it would have been amazing.
What was it like to watch the raw footage of yourself in labor?
ND: I can't watch it without feeling a physical tug in my body. When I watch it, I have to move around in my chair. I have a physical reaction. I'm of two minds. One is, "Well, it doesn't look anywhere near as painful as it was." But the other is, "Oh my god, it's almost worse to be these poor, helpless people trying to figure out what to do than it is to be the person going through it."
I also felt like I was in a little pain and felt a little queasy when I watched that scene.
ND: It's pretty intense. I'm just happy that I've been able to add to the record a real birth scene, instead of all these ridiculously sanitized birth scenes in Hollywood movies. I think it's much better for people to know what's really going on, and to see it as a beautiful thing rather than something to be afraid of.
What I took away from the movie is not even necessarily that these things are beautiful, it's just, this is what it is, and you just have to take it as it is. It seemed like your attitude.
ND: Exactly. What is the point of sanitizing it? Like the women, they still look gorgeous in Hollywood movies, and there's kind of just like one push.
How long were you actually in labor?
ND: Looking back on it, I would say 24 hours, but I woke up at 7 with a contraction, and then by the second contraction I was sure, and then he was born at 10:31 p.m. that night.
How long was Jacob Okada filming?
ND: I think Jacob arrived around 10, so Jacob was filming for like 12 hours straight. Twelve hours of heightened intensity. I also had what's called back labor, which is where instead of the face against your spine, it's the head, and it's known to be more painful, so for the first couple of hours, I was completely out of my mind. Then I got the epidural, which is a very funny scene, when I cave and get the epidural. You have these dreams and then you can't realize them. But I'm glad that I tried. I think it's good to aim to try to stick it out, if you can.
Was there ever a point where you hesitated to be messy onscreen or maybe not show the best side of yourself?
ND: No, I did not hesitate about that. I made this film, Always a Bridesmaid, and it's like the prequel to First Comes Love, where the film was about how I was a wedding videographer wanting to get married myself, but meanwhile the guy I was dating was a commitment-phobe. I have scenes in that film of my friends telling me I'm needy. I'm just not that vain, and I always prioritize the movie over my vanity.
Do you have any larger goal that you want the movie to achieve?
ND: I feel that it's a feminist film, in the sense that I was really unhappy for a long time when I really, desperately wanted a baby and felt like I had to find a man in order to get a baby, and that pressure is just not good for beginning a relationship, and a lot of men, especially in New York, they run from that. I feel like, if we're gonna even the scales in the power dynamic between men and women in dating, one thing that can do that is if women feel that it's an option for them to do it on their own. It's not about advocating that people do it on their own, but it's about feeling like, "This is an option." I felt like it could empower women. I would have been a lot happier during those years if I had felt like having a baby on my own was a perfectly good option rather than a last resort. I so don't see it as a last resort now that I've experienced it. I had to get over a big hurdle in my mind to take the plunge and do it alone. Amy, my friend, was very helpful with that — she said that she would participate, so I didn't really feel like I was in it alone. Amy was there with me.