In some ways this movie's subtitle is revenge of the 99%. The film gives you a behind the scenes look of an absurdly wealthy couple — David and Jackie Siegel– who are building the largest house in America. 10 kitchens, including a sushi kitchen and a baseball field. Things most people could never dream of. Director Lauren Greenfield brings us into their world of private jets and stretch limos and one of the most surprising things of this allegory of the financial crisis is how much you like Jackie. She's totally engaging, and even though she's rich beyond any of our comprehension, she still feels real. Granted she has nannies, maids and drivers taking care of her and her family but you never get a sense that she feels she is better than anyone else. That's one reason why the film works so well.
When the financial crisis hits she does not understand the magnitude of the family's exposure but since she came from no money she figures she could get by on much less than she has now. Her problem is scale – what is much less when you always have everything you want? The film shows her conflict and how both she and David handle the crisis. She's in denial and he's got the weight of the world on his shoulders. The film takes you inside the recession at the highest level, and as you can imagine, at times it is not a very pretty picture.
Women and Hollywood: Where does the story come from?
Lauren Greenfield: It really came out of my photography. I've been a documentary photographer for much longer than I have been a filmmaker. I focus on a lot of women's issues. I did a book called Girl Culture and a film called Beauty Culture, and for many years I've been working on a project about wealth and consumerism.
I was photographing Donatella Versace in Beverly Hills because she was opening a new store. Jackie Siegel was there because in 2007 she was one of Donatella's best customers. Jackie told me she was building the biggest house in America which immediately intrigued me. I was interested in this connection between the American dream and home ownership and how in the boom your home became more than just place to live and raise your family. It was an expression of self and identity and success.
So I went to start filming. I was interested in a cinema verite life unfolding of the wealth with the backdrop being the building of the biggest house in America.
WaH: Talk about your transition from photography to film.
LG: I'm still doing both. All my film ideas and subjects have come from photography. My photography allows me to tell other stories and the Queen of Versailles was a way to tell this allegory about the consequences of the culture of consumerism and the financial crisis.
It wasn't until 2006 which was 14 years after I started working as a photographer that I got the opportunity to make a film. It really came from the success of Girl Culture. I brought that book to HBO with RJ Cutler and they agreed to do a feature length documentary on eating disorders. That appealed to me because I looked at the whole gamut of the project and eating disorders was the most pathological and the most extreme and a compelling example of how girls use their bodies as their voice. I am very lucky that my first film was fully commissioned by HBO.
WaH: Talk about the title – Jackie is almost an object in certain respects in this movie. She seems at times to be like one of David's possessions but her wonderful personality shines through.
LG: I think that's the surprise about Jackie. Part of why I put her background as an engineer in the front of the movie is because it changes the way you think about her. You realize that she is in control of these choices and she decided at a young age that she could get further in her life through her beauty than through her engineering degree. There is this great quote which I had to leave on the cutting room floor from the minister in her home town where he says "Jackie knows how to trade", and he talks about how she trades on her beauty and how she trades on her wealth. I think that she is very genuine and what you see in the movie is a kind of reversal. In the beginning you don't know what the basis of her relationship with David is. Is she in it for love or is she in it for money? He's 30 years older, he's a billionaire and he seems to be head over heels in love with her and she was a little bit more reluctant. But by the end you realize that she really loves him and really yearns for his affection and attention which is really harder and harder to get as the financial pressure escalate.
WaH: Why do you think the film has become so controversial?
LG: I don't know about controversial but I think it has become a piece of conversation because of where we are in this country. I had the opportunity a few weeks ago to show it to the Secretary of Housing and the whole department of Housing and Urban Development There are problems we are not yet through and so to have a chance to see this allegory about what we've gone through and see it in these big terms that are also comedic with a kind of better you than me feeling is interesting.
WaH: Maybe controversy is not the right word. I've read about the lawsuit and I feel that David did it to himself. He said everything in the movie and you really hate him when he talks about how he got George W. Bush elected. He has this sense of entitlement and comes off as an ass.
LG: I disagree with that. The surprise for audience is that they have empathy for even David.
WaH: I had empathy for him but you still think he's an ass.
LG: I think it's kind of a Rorschach test, people respond differently. For me as he goes deeper and deeper into a depression you also see that he has the world on his shoulders and Jackie is still flitting around in her fantasy world. They both have endearing qualities and they both have qualities that show their flaws and you see the real struggle that they are going through. I think people in the scenes you are talking about have that reaction to David and I had an evolution in my relationship with him. In that first scene when he is on the gold throne and he is bragging about getting George W. Bush elected he is very boastful and he is somewhat intimidating. When he opens up that kind of made me love him in a filmmaker subject kind of way because here was this powerful man who was allowing himself to be vulnerable. So I guess I have a different feeling about that.
WaH: The house is a character. How was it like having a character that was not a person?
LG: That was my idea from the beginning. The house was one of the things I fell in love with at the beginning. I loved the photographic representations of how David and Jackie presented themselves. Yhey always did these Christmas Cards they would blow up and also commissioned portraits of themselves. There is this portrait of David and Jackie where he is in a king's robe. I'm as always excited by the decor in the house and wanted that to be a part of the film.
WaH: Did you tell the story that you expected to tell?
LG: I didn't tell the story I expected to tell but I ended up telling a more compelling and universal story. It was a deeper cut on what I started out going for because I started out looking at the American dream and our values and then it ended up becoming a morality tale of the consequences of that dream. It ended up being more affecting and I also think that people might not have related to David and Jackie if it had just stayed kind of up there.
WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film.
LG: We had huge financial challenges. It was totally by hook and by crook on every trip. At the beginning nobody could understand why I was interested in this story. It wasn't until their story changed that people even began to get interested in it and by then things were happening so fast that I couldn't wait for the funding. It was a real struggle along the way. In the documentary world a lot of the granting organizations have pretty limited social issue agenda and films about rich people do not fit into that. I think it ended up being a blessing to stay independent. This is the first film I've had in the theaters. It is very exciting. Quite frankly if a broadcaster had come in with all the money before Sundance we probably would have had to did it. The story is so compelling that is what drives me. I knew it was important and the access was special and that it was an important story for our times. And my husband who's an executive producer fully supported that. It was crazy though.
WaH: What did you learn about yourself form this experience?
LG: I learned a lot about filmmaking. I brought this film to the Sundance lab and worked with great editors and it was transformational. I took a hard look at the problems and continued to shoot afterwards and also really grew as a filmmaker. It is a much different film than I have ever done before and it is the first film to bring the voice of my photography into filmmaking.
WaH: Any advice for other female filmmakers?
LG: The advice that I got in college that I still totally believe in is follow your heart. Even though financially doing an independent project is hard, creatively was the best thing in the world. There was total freedom, a mandate to tell your story and no one to blame but yourself for whatever you don't achieve.
The Queen of Versailles is now playing in select theatres.