Documentary is having a strong run on Netflix this spring. The streamer’s latest high-profile release is “Becoming,” a documentary on Michelle Obama. The film, which follows the former first lady’s book tour in 2018 and 2019, was produced by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions company, which signed a multi-year agreement with Netflix in 2018.
The movie marks the feature directorial debut of Nadia Hallgren, who was selected to helm the project. During her 15-year career as a cinematographer, Hallgren’s subjects have included the Koch brothers, the foster care system, LGBTQ rights in the black community, a war criminal trial in Sierra Leone, and Zac Posen. Now she’s paving her path as a director. Her 2019 short documentary “After Maria,” which told the story of several women during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, was short listed for the Academy Awards.
From her home in New York, the director jumped on the phone to discuss the making of the documentary shortly after its release.
WWD: How are you feeling the day after having the documentary out in the world?
Nadia Hallgren: It’s an interesting time, and interesting feeling. But mostly excited that the film is bringing people so many feelings and a lot of joy and laughs, and hopefully some happy tears.
WWD: You were contacted by Michelle Obama’s production company, Higher Ground, about filming the book tour. What is the backstory to that? At what point did the conversation turn to making a documentary?
N.H.: I was sitting at my kitchen table, just like I am right now, and I get a phone call from Priya Swaminathan, who’s one of the heads of Higher Ground. And she says, “Ms. Obama is getting ready to go on a book tour, and we’re floating the idea of documenting it. And it could end up becoming a documentary, or it could be something that lives in her archives, we’re just not sure, but would you be interested?” And I was like, of course, whatever it becomes, I would love to have the opportunity to film the former first lady. There were a few calls after that, and then I get this email that says “You have an appointment with the office of Michelle and Barack Obama,” and my jaw dropped. I was like wow, this is happening — this is crazy.
I did my best to prepare — I went back and looked at old speeches and magazine features, I read both of the president’s books, just getting back into that headspace. And then my date comes, I go to D.C., I’m at her office, and [feeling] a little bit of nervousness. I meet her and give her the most awkward handshake one could imagine, and we both laughed and she was like, “I’m a hugger,” and I was like, me too. She gave me a big hug and we sat down and we talked for 30 minutes. I think the idea was if you guys connect, you have the job. And we had a great conversation. We talked about our moms and our neighborhoods, and how we grew up, and by the end of that she was like, “Let’s do this.” And then we pretty much hit the ground running from that point on.
WWD: Had they seen some of your past work when they contacted you?
N.H.: My background in documentary filmmaking is that I’ve been a cinematographer for more than 15 years, and I had within the last few years started doing some directing. Priya had been familiar with my work, and so that was a huge reason why she reached out to me. And also the idea that I could have a very small footprint in the field — that I could shoot and direct — was really helpful just for the sheer fact that Ms. Obama moves very quickly through time and space. And the operation allows for only one person to be present sometimes; for example, when I’m in her motorcade car. So my experience being able to do that was very helpful.
WWD: Much of the documentary is shot vérité style. In the situations particularly where there is a high level of intimacy — like riding with her in her car — what was that dynamic like during those situations? Was it your intention to be a fly on the wall or was there a lot of interaction while you were with her?
N.H.: When I was in her motorcade car there was definitely a lot of interaction. Ms Obama is incredibly warm and friendly, so she quite enjoyed having me in the car. We’d talk and have conversations, and I just filmed them. It was a great opportunity to get to know her more, and we spent a lot of time driving from place to place — you know, we were on a very large world tour.
And then when you have more vérité fly-on-the-wall moments, that was me just being present, hanging out, just doing what I do. Trying to be this quiet presence and when things are happening and unfolding, capture them. For me that’s where my strength really lies in cinematography. So for some scenes in the film it was really exciting for me to be able to do that.
WWD: You were given incredible access. Were you given any parameters about who you were able to shoot and what you were able to shoot? What was preproduction for a documentary like this?
N.H.: It was pretty amazing, the access I was given to Ms. Obama was completely unprecedented. I love to tell the story when I first arranged to ride with her in the motorcade vehicle. Lots of people have to be informed, Secret Service, and there are all these instructions to do it. And I get to the vehicle, and i clearly have my camera in my hand — which is large — and I go up to the agent and I’m like, “Hi, I’ll be riding with Ms. Obama today.” And the agent just looked at me with the most puzzled look on his face and he’s like, “Are you sure about that?” I was like, “oh yeah, we sorted it out,” and he said, “give me one second.”
He was back to me and was like, “wow, this never happens,” with the biggest smile on his face. He was so happy for me, and he opened the door and helped me load in. Even something that seemed relatively simple, like riding with her, was something that hadn’t been done. So in that case, it was huge. And I’m with her in her hotel rooms and backstage, and when she’s having these really intimate moments with family.
The one thing that she asked was not filming at home with her daughters. I respect everyone’s privacy when I’m filming, but understanding too that the Obamas have given up so much privacy already to be in the White House, and their time. So that was like, of course. Then when her daughters came on tour, we filmed that — there weren’t huge levels of restricted access.
WWD: This is Ms. Obama’s story, and Barack is almost a background character in the documentary. What were the conversations around how much of him to show, and had you hoped to interview him?
N.H.: It was a very conscious decision not to include an extensive sit-down interview with the president. I wanted as much as possible to tell this story from Ms. Obama’s perspective and her point of view, the way she sees the world. So that was the choice in not doing that. And when we do film the president, it was the time when he came to visit her out on tour. They have such a fun and lovely dynamic together, which we were able to capture. And one moment that I really love is when she’s leaving the D.C. show, and they’re having this private moment walking down the hallway. She’s like, “Do you think my show’s good, is it something you’d want to see?” Her looking for reassurance, and him comforting her in that moment of nervousness — that felt really personal.
WWD: In terms of your sit-down interview with Ms. Obama, How did you prepare for that? You shot that all in one day it seems from her outfit.
N.H.: I decided to wait some time before arranging the sit down interview with Ms. Obama, until a place where we as a creative team knew the film that we were making. We wanted to do some storytelling that wasn’t in the other elements of film we had, either the stage show or vérité. We had been making the film for quite some time before we made that arrangement. The questions I asked her were in some ways deeper questions that I wanted to address, that were maybe more personal and aren’t on stage.
WWD: How did you decide who else to interview? There are obvious choices — her brother, for example — but then also people like her security detail, which I loved, because those people you rarely get to hear from and there’s a level of secrecy there.
N.H.: As I started understanding the way Ms. Obama’s world works and all the people that are involved, there were just some really special relationships that we wanted to highlight. And also, how interesting is the Secret Service? Even for me I was like, this is so interesting, and if I think this is interesting, other people are going to find it interesting. And so those were folks that meant a lot to her, and vice versa, who are part of examining how she moves through the world.
The same with Meredith Koop, her stylist. Meredith has played such a specific role in Ms. Obama’s life, even during the years in the White House. She talks about using this idea of fashion, that people are going to talk about what she’s wearing all the time. She’s like, “well, I’m gonna do something that I care about that I want people to talk about, while I’m wearing something that I know they’ll talk about.” And actually use [fashion] to talk more about girls’ education and other things that meant something to her.
WWD: What was the biggest misconception you had about her, or her story or her world, that through filming you found surprising to be proven wrong?
N.H.: I wouldn’t say it’s a misconception, but for me, as an average person that reads quite a bit and was very interested in Ms. Obama prior to making this film, what I hoped to do with the film was to deepen some ideas that people have of her. Something like — which we can all relate to — how difficult it is to blend the lives to two ambitious people who are working towards something, and what that meant. Her story of meeting the president and dating, getting married, and then having children — I’d never thought about the details of what that might have been like. What it might have been like to be with a partner that is so ambitious and in pursuit of these goals. She’s very honest about having to dial back some of her own ambitions, and I think that’s something that is very relatable. But I’d never thought about it from the perspective of Ms. Obama.
WWD: In terms of the final cut of the film, what was the a dialogue like with Ms. Obama, and was there anything that ultimately wasn’t able to make it into the film? How much creative control did you get to keep?
N.H.: The agreement with making this film was I’d go out and film, we would film and edit concurrently, and I’d come up with a version of the film that I wanted to make and then share it with her. And when Ms. Obama watched the film, she was quite happy with what she saw. If anything her notes were very helpful — she knows her story better than anyone, so she’d be like, “oh that idea you have there, here’s a way to deepen it.” I’d be like “thank you, that’s an incredibly helpful note.” Ms Obama wanted to tell an honest and meaningful story about her life that included the ups and the downs of it, and so there was nothing that we filmed that she asked not to be included.
WWD: We are all homebound at the moment, but what are you working on next, or what do you hope to work on next?
N.H.: We were in the sound mix for the film when this all this started to happen. The team ended up having to come home — we were working in San Francisco — and the day after I got home, San Francisco went into shutdown. This is so recently finished, so I left the mix and went straight into quarantine and have not come out.
All productions around the world have been halted, so we’re just waiting to see when we can all get back to work. But at the same time developing ideas and trying to still work and be creative when possible. But I’m not in a film right at the moment. “Becoming” was one of those films where I was like, I can only do one thing at a time. I think there are times when you can have multipole projects happening, but this one took all of my mental and physical everything to complete.