Watching the Michelle Obama documentary, “Becoming,” is an emotional experience that needed to be addressed by its director, Nadia Hallgren. The cinematographer turned director, who helmed the equally affecting documentary short “After Maria” for Netflix, understood the power and need for this story, now more than ever.
Hallgren spoke to IndieWire about working with Michelle Obama, sharing the former First Lady’s book tour and interactions with the young women of America, and how she balanced the woman versus the media icon.
What drew you to documenting this part of Michelle Obama’s life?
Nadia Hallgren: It’s almost like the story found me. I got a call from Priya Swaminathan, who is one of the heads of Higher Ground [the Obamas’ production company] and she’s like, “We’re working with the Obamas. Mrs. Obama is getting ready to go on this book tour, and we’re floating the idea of documenting it. We don’t know what it will be yet; it could be a documentary or it could just be footage to live in Mrs. Obama’s archives. Would you be interested?” I’ve been a cinematographer for over 15 years and the idea of having the opportunity to do that was very exciting to me.
Did being a cinematographer aid in how you composed certain shots in the documentary?
Absolutely. Cinematography is probably what got me this job. The way Mrs. Obama moves through the world is quite quick, and you need to have a small footprint. Someone who can work alone at times was really important. So I was a pretty good candidate for that because of my background. As I went out with her, I was having these experiences and I was like, “Man, this is so powerful. How do I translate what I’m feeling right now to an audience in a real, visual way, because this is the only way I can hope to get this across?” So one thing is that it was really important to me to be close to her. I felt like we really needed that intimacy because of her body language and the way she connects with people that is sometimes nonverbal.
So one challenge is just physically getting close to Mrs. Obama, not because she doesn’t want you there — she is such a warm person — but because she’s flanked by Secret Service all the time. It’s always like this layer between her and the rest of the world and everyone’s like, “Move, move, move.” It’s so much protocol. So it was like choreography I had to learn quickly so that I could figure out how to get in there and move with her while still making sure I didn’t mess anything up. Once I had that figured out then it was just locking in to the way she is in the world, it’s just so unique to me. From someone who has been observing people for such a long time, she has a quality of the way she does it that is special, and I wanted people to see that as closely as possible.
A key portion of the documentary is following the former First Lady as she interacts with various female students. Why did you want to focus on a few of their personal experiences alongside hers?
The original idea of this film was not just to tell a story about Mrs. Obama, or Mrs. Obama’s story, but to make a film about storytelling; about the act of telling stories and how that changes us, and the transformative experience that happens when we tell stories. So, Mrs. Obama has these incredible interactions with young people, and as I witnessed them I was like, “I want to know more about these young people. I want to go home with them. I want to see what their lives are like” — and that’s exactly what we did. There was this parallel that emerged.
When I went to Shayla’s house I was like, “Shayla is a young Michelle Robinson [Michelle Obama’s maiden name]. There were so many things about Shayla that reminded me of Mrs. Obama and her story from when she was younger, even down to the family dynamic that Shayla had with her mother and her brother that mirrored, to me, the one Mrs. Obama has with her big brother Craig and her mom that we also see in the film.
Courtesy of Netflix
How did you strike the balance between focusing on Michelle’s personal life versus her public life?
We have this luxury of being with Mrs. Obama in the moment, the opportunity to capture this vérité, and really just know who she is was a real gift. Filming her with her family, with her brother as he’s teasing her about her outfit, all these things were a great way to reveal how much of a normal person she is and then contrast that experience with seeing all the backlash that happened with her when the President was first running. It was important to get to know her — like really know her — and see her, and see her mom and her brother, and the folks who love her for being who she is, not because she’s just a historical high-profile individual. And [you] also see her when she’s in the public eye at the same time.
Can you talk about focusing on her, specifically, as a black woman? I think of that sequence where the student is telling her how black women are often invisible.
Her identity as a black woman played so much of a part in her experiences in life, before she even came to the White House. But then, as a historical First Lady, the idea was to lean into that part of her identity and highlight to have a better understanding of the role it played. Seeing her interact with this young woman from Spelman [College] that can connect in a very real way to Mrs. Obama and have her talk about her own insecurities, and her own things she’s had to do in the world.
And how did you come at that being a woman of color yourself?
It’s funny, my mom called me at eight o’clock in the morning and she was like, “I just watched the film.” She’s my mom so, of course, she said she loved it. But what I appreciated about what she said was, “How many of Mrs. Obama’s experiences are the same experiences you’ve had? People telling you you can’t do that?” I remember telling a family member when I was quite young, “I’m going to be a filmmaker” and he was like, “You’re wasting your time. You’re never gonna be that.” It’s this moment where [either] you allow that to crush you or it’s an “I’ll show you.” And I had that “I’ll show you.”
I, fortunately, didn’t allow that moment to crush my dreams, but every minute of the way I’m thinking he was probably right, and if things didn’t go well, or I didn’t get a job that I really wanted, I was like, “He was probably right.” Those voices of doubt really weigh on your psyche throughout your whole life. Being a filmmaker and all the doors I’ve had to break down — I’m a very quiet person, so I wasn’t kicking the door. I was there; I showed up; I worked hard. To understand Mrs. Obama’s experiences that she had on a personal level had an influence on the way I made this film.
Mrs. Obama says she has an eclectic taste in music. How did you wish to reflect that in the movie?
The music was an incredible journey. The original score for the film was done by Kamasi Washington, which was an extraordinary experience to work with him. His music in the film was more than I ever dreamed. Growing up as a child, the way [Mrs. Obama] described the Southside of Chicago she [said] it was like heaven, and the way she envisioned heaven was a place full of jazz. The minute I read that I was like, “Kamasi Washington.” He’s a contemporary artist who also has this timeless sound to his music, so being able to collaborate with him on the original score was just wonderful.
We were [also] really interested in Frank Ocean’s sound right now as a contemporary sound of the film. … The opening song, that Kurt Franklin song, Mrs. Obama was listening to that on her phone. She got in [the car] and she’s like, “This is my song that I like.” [Later] she’s dancing to Drake in her dressing room. So that was all her music that she was playing, that’s what she likes.
People might be surprised how few moments there are with the former President and Mrs. Obama’s daughters. Was that just the nature of filming or did you intend to have them be smaller figures in this?
Both of the girls were in school when we were on the book tour. Mrs. Obama was out, she was doing her thing. Malia came to visit at some point and so did Sasha, but I wanted this film to be as true to the vérité elements and the actual events that were happening versus setting things up.
This is an emotionally charged movie. What was it like capturing some emotionally fraught moments without getting emotional yourself?
It was an emotional experience for me, too. Just the sheer energy that was happening around us was incredible, and there were times when we cried, we laughed. … That was a testament to the power of it and how much we hoped it would resonate with audiences. That energy, you almost can’t help yourself for being so moved.
How do you look at that power considering the current times? How do you hope audiences will take this with what’s going on in the world?
I didn’t know what to expect around the announcement, but people’s response to just knowing this film was coming out — the joy it was bringing people. People were commenting “I’m gonna watch this with my four daughters. I can’t wait. We’re so excited. We’re going to stay up all night to wait for it to drop.” We’re all struggling with this time and something that’s so joyful and important can be there for people. I didn’t expect to be so moved. I didn’t even know that would happen. And also, the idea of the power of community, even in this moment, we can’t gather the way that we did. Now, when you see that, it’s like “Oh, my God, remember what that felt like?” There’s a real longing for us not to forget how powerful it is when we all come together.
How would you best sum up Michelle Obama?
I could say Michelle Obama is incredibly warm, kind, thoughtful, and generous. I didn’t have any expectations when I went into this, but it’s so much more than I could ever imagine. Her stamina for giving is off the charts and it’s not a quality often assigned to people, but when I saw it I recognized it.
“Becoming” is streaming now on Netflix.