2 Minutes With ... Filmmaker Savanah Leaf

On Zalando, The Heart Still Hums, and making space for actors to be vulnerable

Savanah Leaf has transitioned from a 2012 Olympian to a 2020 Grammy-nominated filmmaker, photographer and musician. Her work weaves magical realism with deep humanity and poignant social commentary. Her latest film, The Heart Still Hums (2020), is a short documentary following the stories of five women as they fight for their children through the cycle of homelessness, drug addiction and neglect from their own parents.

Other recent work include: What's Going On, a film made for Marvin Gaye's 1971 hit song; Dream, a film set to Nikki Giovanni's poem and Flying Lotus' music; and We Matter Too, a visualization of phone calls she conducted with incarcerated people during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Savanah is repped by Park Pictures for commercials. Her reel includes work for Nike, Dick's Sporting Goods and Samsung. She is also a member of the Film Craft: Direction & Cinematography jury at the 2022 Clio Awards.

We spent two minutes with Savanah to learn more about her background, her creative inspirations, and recent work she's admired.

Savanah, tell us...

Where you grew up, and where you live now.

I was born in London, grew up half of my life there and half in the Bay Area in Northern California. Now I live in New York.

How you first realized you were creative.

I first realized that I was creative early on in my life. My mom is an artist herself, so she always encouraged me to explore that side of me. I painted and drew a lot as a child. My mom always took me to exhibitions along the South Bank. Her boyfriend when I was young was a jazz musician and I remember learning a lot about music and improvisation from him. So I feel like it has just kind of surrounded me ever since I can remember.

A person you idolized creatively early on.

My first biography report I did in elementary school was on Quincy Jones. He was very inspiring to me.

A moment from high school or college that changed your life.

My sister was born when I was 16 years old. I was an only child for most of my upbringing, so when she was born, it really taught me a lot about myself. Changing her diapers, feeding her, laughing with her, napping next to her and just generally looking after her at such a formative time in my life.

A visual artist or band/musician you admire.

Kara Walker.

A book, movie, TV show or podcast you recently found inspiring.

I really enjoyed the show Scenes from a Marriage.

Your favorite fictional character.


Someone or something worth following on social media.

I'm not sure, I tend to mute everything on social media.

How Covid-19 changed your life, personally or professionally.

Covid-19 forced me to slow down and create more art for myself. I learned to make music. I have always been playing piano but this past year and a half I learned how to use Ableton. It opened my eyes to a different sort of appreciation for sound. This has affected how I write, make films and just develop new ideas.

One of your favorite creative projects you've ever worked on.

I did a documentary with a small group of four people a few years ago called The Heart Still Hums. It was a very personal project for me and felt important to share it.

The Heart Still Hums | Trailer
A recent project you're proud of.

I just did a campaign for Zalando that I'm proud of. We had such an incredible cast—they were from all over the world—with unique and inspiring stories. I felt honored to have gotten to work with them.

#JoyIsOurs I Zalando
Someone else's work that inspired you years ago.

Akira Kurosawa's film Rashomon.

Rashomon (1950) Trailer
Someone else's work you admired lately.

Memoria, Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new film.

Memoria Trailer
Your main strength as a creative person.

I think probably being sensitive to the people in front of the camera. I am very conscious of how they feel and if the working environment is conducive to them being vulnerable and honest.

Your biggest weakness.

I'm not a super technical person. I like to hire other people for that. But sometimes that can be limiting creatively.

One thing that always makes you happy.

Tasty food.

One thing that always makes you sad.

Bad food.

What you'd be doing if you weren't in advertising.

Making feature films.

2 Minutes With is our regular interview series where we chat with creatives about their backgrounds, creative inspirations, work they admire and more. For more about 2 Minutes With, or to be considered for the series, please get in touch.

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Ashley Epping
Ashley Epping is art director of Muse by Clio and program lead at the Clio Awards.

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