Pregnant and single at 41 -- and on camera

"First Comes Love" director Nina Davenport talks about her HBO documentary, feminist parenting and bad hair days

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 29, 2013 2:52PM (EDT)

Nina and Jasper Davenport     (HBO)
Nina and Jasper Davenport (HBO)

It's a tough job making a feature film. It's no easy feat making a brand new human being either. Nina Davenport accomplished both – at the same time.

Facing her forties as a single New York woman with a "rapidly diminishing ovarian reserve" and a desire for motherhood, the documentary filmmaker decided to chronicle her adventures through fertilization, pregnancy and early solo parenting. The result is "First Comes Love," Davenport's witty, touching and at times brutally honest look at the world of modern reproduction. She doesn't flinch from sharing the bliss of her experience – she easily conceives via a handsome gay sperm donor pal, has her enviably supportive best friend Amy for a birth partner, and ultimately winds up in her tasteful apartment with an insanely beautiful son named Jasper. She's also candid about the ugliness of it, from her dad's stinging criticisms (his immediate response to her pregnancy is to advise an abortion) to relationship complications to wildly tangled postpartum hair. Or, as she puts it at one point, "Overnight I became a geriatric invalid."

Salon spoke to Davenport recently about the final result of her efforts -- a sweet, frank exploration of one woman's transformation, and all the bumps along the road. "First Comes Love" airs on HBO Monday night.

What was the impetus for deciding that your experience with becoming a single mother would be your next film project?

I made a film in 2008 [about love and dating] called "Always a Bridesmaid." Having a history of personal films and freaking out about my biological clock, I felt I was the person to tell this story. I saw what other people were going through, and what I was going through. Every party I went to, it seemed people were talking about these things. I tried to allude to that via other characters in the film, about what it's like every time you get a wedding invitation or birth announcement, or when you've dated guys who ran away because they didn't want children.

You started the movie before you'd even begun the process of trying to get pregnant -- were you concerned about the creative risk of what would happen if the story didn't unfold as you'd imagined?

I never even got to the point where I wondered what would happen if I didn't get pregnant because I got pregnant on the first try. There was so much emotional momentum building, I wasn't thinking much beyond that.

But I did feel a need to say that I was very lucky to get pregnant at 41, because I didn't want to mislead people to think that everyone can do that with their first child. I was thinking about being responsible. I was trying to clarify what the odds really are.

There's a lot that's very frank in the film – like that scene of you with the breast pump. How did you decide how much to reveal, so vividly?

I started with the guiding principle of what was going to make the best film. But I tried to minimize the images of my erogenous zones -- like in the birth scene. There are so many things that got cut out I don’t even know where to start.

You've talked in previous interviews about how you've had to detach somewhat in the process of creating your projects, in order to be the storyteller. The scenes with your father, for instance -- he emerges as this incredibly complex character. How did you balance creating your narrative with maintaining your real relationships?

It made me feel more compassionate in real life to portray my father as a character. That gave me a certain distance. I think it was a combination of becoming a parent and creating him as that character that made it work.

Anyone who has a camera, especially parents, you are always looking for moments. Even now Amy and I have moments where we feel we're still in the movie. The process does take you out of your experience but it also makes you focus more intently.

Pregnancy and creating a new family are unpredictable even without making a movie. Were there things that surprised you as you went deeper into the process?

I didn't even know I was going to get pregnant, let alone have this cute baby! I also didn't realize how funny it would turn out to be. People laugh a lot, which is great. The reaction that it seems to elicit is very loving.

I definitely didn't know that my father would be as big a part of the film as he would turn out to be. The scenes with him are so intense; they kind of structured the whole film. Other things had to be built around him and his story. When he tells of his own childhood, it's so devastating and so powerful, the film had to start winding around that aspect of his life. I had no idea.

What are you working on next?

I do want to make another personal film. I envision "Always a Bridesmaid" and "First Comes Love" as part of a trilogy -- or more than a trilogy -- and that the films together will make something interesting.

It feels like one of the feminist taboos is this idea of having it all, whenever we want it. I really loved how you were so open about the biological reality of how things change for a woman after 40. That seems a very feminist statement.

One of the things I find most powerful in the film is when I ask a friend's mother if she think we're better off now, and she says, "I would choose what you've had, being your own person."

If I can help somebody get closer to their dream and feel empowered by doing it and being happy, it's a feminist film. In a way, one thing that needs to happen for equality is for women to feel like they can have something they're wanting, something that they don’t have to feel men are withholding from them. But we have a long way to go.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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