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For nearly two years, Nadia Hallgren has been keeping the biggest moment of her career a secret from even her closest friends. The Bronx-born cinematographer just directed her first feature, Becoming, a documentary about Michelle Obama, which Netflix announced just a week before premiering the film on its service May 6.
The Obamas’ Higher Ground production company hired Hallgren to follow Michelle Obama on the 34-city, 2018-19 book tour for her memoir, Becoming, during which the filmmaker captured intimate moments with family, staff and the thousands of mostly female fans who flocked to see the groundbreaking former first lady. Hallgren, who finished the movie at Skywalker Sound the day before San Francisco went on lockdown in mid-March, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter from her home in Rockaway Beach, Queens.
How did you keep this production a secret?
I can’t believe we did it. I would have these nightmares that some article would come out. Even my closest friends didn’t know what I was doing. I finally just started telling people, “It’s a secret project. I really can’t talk about it. Don’t press me.” But I had one friend who would be like, “Every time I text you and you tell me you’re somewhere, it’s the same place Michelle Obama is.” I was like, “That’s a coincidence.” But it managed to stay a secret, and I think the surprise of the film is really fun, especially in this moment.
The Obamas’ production company, Higher Ground, contacted you about this project in 2018. What was the process of getting the gig?
I get a phone call from [Higher Ground executive] Priya Swaminathan and she says, “Mrs. Obama is getting ready to go on her book tour and we’re floating the idea of documenting it. It may be a film or it may just be footage that ends up living in Mrs. Obama’s archives.” I had worked with a friend of Priya’s on a series before. The idea was that having someone with her who could have a small footprint in the field was really important. As a documentary cinematographer for over 15 years, if I had to work alone, I could. After a couple of phone calls, I get an email that says, “You have an appointment with the office of Michelle and Barack Obama.”
That meeting obviously went well. What did you talk about with Michelle Obama?
Most of the talk was about where we came from, our neighborhoods, how they shaped us. We talked about our moms a lot, and then she was sort of like, “So what ideas do you have for making a film?” Initially there were two ideas to this film: one was of course to tell Mrs. Obama’s story. The other was to make a film about storytelling. What does it mean for people to go out and tell their stories to others and share stories? I pitched that to her, and she really liked that idea. We just talked like friends, and at the end of our conversation she was like, “Let’s do this.” And so I got the job right there. Mrs. Obama is very committed to uplifting people and to giving people a shot. I think my work and my commitment to the craft was something that was very clear to her.
How big was your crew?
About half the time, it was just me. The other half of the time, the crew was myself, my producer Lauren Cioffi, and we had a sound person. One of the biggest challenges immediately was the way that Mrs. Obama moves through the world. She is flanked by Secret Service everywhere that she goes. She moves very, very quickly. And then there was always almost this actual physical barrier between her and the world. And so for me, I have to figure out how to get physically close to her in order to make this film feel intimate. I really wanted to make it feel like the experience I was having when I was close to her. There’s this choreography that happens around her, and I had to learn that dance fast so that I could get past that barrier and be able to be close with them.
Was there any moment you shot where she said, “That’s too personal, you can’t include it.”
Actually she didn’t. There were times when she was like, “That story that you’re telling, there’s another layer to it.” And she would give me tips on how to deepen this part of her story and that was quite helpful to me. When we did the backlash section of the film, her experience in that time when the president was running, she had memories of specific events that we could go look for that would be helpful for us to be able to expand that part of the film.
You capture a private moment between Michelle and Malia Obama, where Malia comes up behind her mother on the book tour and hugs her and then starts talking about how the crowds show that “those eight years weren’t for nothing.” It’s the most footage I’ve ever seen of either of the Obamas’ daughters. Can you explain how you got that moment?
Mrs. Obama is signing books and Malia happens to walk into the shot and this amazing scene plays out that was completely unexpected. I had a sound person with me that time, and he was on this long boom, and thank God he was there, because I was far away, in order to frame the shot to get them both in it, since Malia was standing and Mrs. Obama was sitting and Malia’s also quite tall.
And there’s the day the president joins the book tour …
At the end of that scene where the president joins her on her arena tour, we get this lovely moment. It’s a very private moment with them after the show, and Mrs. Obama is looking for some reassurance from her husband. An idea that some people have is that she’s so confident, that there’s no moment of doubt in her mind about what’s happening, but she was quite nervous to go out into the world and tell her story in this way. And so having him there and having the reassurances, it meant a lot to her and it was really wonderful that we were able to be there to capture that part of her.
When you look at those packed arenas of Michelle Obama having all these physical interactions with strangers, the handshakes and the hugs, it almost feels like a time capsule because of where we’re at now. What’s it like for you having the film come out in this socially distanced environment?
I’m still like, “This is weird, I’m sitting alone in my house when this is happening.” But I’m just hoping that in this time, this film can bring joy to people and families can watch together. That will be part of this film release that none of us planned for.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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