Great Expectations: 'First Comes Love' Takes a Journey to Motherhood
Intimate, smart, witty, complicated, moving, messy: All apt descriptions of producer/ director/writer Nina Davenport's new documentary, First Comes Love. On the surface, the film is a story about the journey of first choosing to be, and then becoming, a single mother, but the strength of the film's message lies in what it means to be an adult and what it takes to create the family you want while still navigating the thorny, well-trod paths of the one you were born into.
As she moves forward in her quest to become a parent without a formal partner, Davenport's closest relationships with friends, family, her boyfriend and the friend who is the biological father of her child unfold and evolve in the most unexpected ways. The film also serves as an unsentimental love letter to her late mother, who dies shortly before Davenport finds out she's pregnant. Her personality is so indelible and her understanding of her only daughter so remarkable, that the loss is palpable throughout the story.
Aided by Ilan Isakov's (Ai Wei Wei: Never Sorry) score, the film is bound to resonate, particularly with GenXers contemplating family, aging and fertility.
Documentary spoke with Davenport by phone from her home in New York.
Documentary: One of your skills as a filmmaker is your ability to successfully tap into a generational zeitgeist. We saw this in Always a Bridesmaid as well. Was this one of the reasons you picked up the camera when you became serious about having a baby?
Nina Davenport: For better or worse I sort of became known for Always a Bridesmaid. People seemed to love it and it did well. Then I found myself, like many women I know, starting to struggle with the issue of the biological clock and how long I should wait to have a baby and if I should have a baby on my own. It's something that many, many women of my generation grapple with. One day we realize that we're 35 and we've all had it drummed into our heads that it gets much more difficult. Since I'm in the center of this age group, and having already told a personal story with Bridesmaid, even though it would continue to be my story, it would speak to a whole lot of women. So I felt, How could I not make this film? How could I turn my back on this story?
D: It's easily the most intimate childbirth I've seen on film. Was it difficult to decide what to include? How did you deal with shooting while in labor?
ND: It's arguably the most memorable scene in the film. Clearly, when I was planning the film I had no idea if I was even going to get pregnant, so it wasn't thought out from the get-go. It felt like, With such a level of intimacy everywhere else, how could I not include it? Also, I feel that I've never seen a depiction of labor in a movie that was in any remote way realistic. This was a chance to show something that is so central to life. I could kind of settle the score and make it more real.
I filmed as much as I could but there were times I would need to be in front of the camera (laughs), so I hired someone to film me in labor. I didn't know him very well, and once I got the epidural I was actually directing him in-between contractions and cracking up at the whole thing. Here I am in labor and still...directing the camera. I remember asking him to get a POV shot from behind my head because there were all these people around me cheering me on. I felt like I was in the Olympics. It was very exciting (laughs).
D: Were you surprised when your friends camped out in your apartment after Jasper was born?
ND: I was probably in a daze for the first couple of months, but looking at it from this vantage point I feel that it was amazing and surprising, although I wish there was a better word than surprising, how all these people gathered around and helped me begin Jasper's life. When I decided to do this by myself, my biggest fear was that I would wind up lonely and miserable and depressed, but in fact, it made me feel even more connected to the people I already knew. Then of course I didn't have any idea about the strength of feeling I'd have for my own child and what an incredible bond there is. When you think about it in the abstract, before you have that child, you have no idea.
D: Your father's reaction to your pregnancy was upsetting, and of course there's his personal history, which brings so much more to the table.
ND: I was definitely nervous to tell him, as you can see in the film, but I didn't expect it to be as bad as it was. He comes around as much as he's able to, and then you find out what his limitations are and why he can't embrace certain things about me. He's very focused on security, to the exclusion of all else.
D: Using the home movies that your grandfather filmed really helped illustrate the complexity of your relationship with your father. Were you aware of your grandfather's backstory?
ND: I knew the story, but I had never seen that footage of my dad as a child until I was making the film. I didn't even know it existed. I was going through everything because a long time ago he had transferred some footage that my grandfather shot that wasn't interesting, so finding this particular stuff was revelatory. We hear these stories over and over again as children, but there comes a point in adulthood where you take it in from the standpoint of an adult. That happened for me. I actually really listened and was able to hear it in a new way.
D: You have a growing-up-on-camera scene that's pretty profound. It's that moment when you appear to move out of your role as your father's child. How did you find that sweet spot?
ND: I think the challenge of making a personal film is that you have to actually find a way to synthesize and express what you really feel and learn over the course of the years that you're documenting. You have to make it seem as if the audience is having these revelations the same time as you are, but that's not the case because you're in an editing room crafting a film. That's why I think people generally underestimate how difficult it is to write voiceovers, to be a character in your own documentary. It's much harder to make it good. You're less likely to be appreciated for it and it's easy to be accused of being self-absorbed. Yet when it's done in a way that people can relate to and the story resonates on a broad scale, I think sharing a personal history is a very generous thing to do.
D: Are you planning on documenting Jasper as he grows up?
ND: He's such an eccentric, hilarious kid and has so much personality that I kind of feel like I need to keep filming him, whether or not it will work its way into another film. I don't know, but there's a good chance that it will. I feel I have this overarching, lofty goal of creating a body of personal films—at least one more, if not two or three—and when one saw them all together, it would be that much more interesting and meaningful. Although I can say that I don't want the next film to be personal. I need a break from personal films. That much I do know (laughs).
First Comes Love opens July 24 at the IFC Film Center in New York and airs July 29 on HBO. Davenport has launched a Kickstarter campaign to support a national tour of the film.
Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson is a Los Angeles-based writer whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Documentary, Movie City News, Dice.com, Health Callings and more. Her stories have covered the gamut from movies, music and culture to IT and healthcare.