For years, Nadia Hallgren would say that her best experience as a documentary cinematographer was shaking Michelle Obama’s hand in Liberia while shooting the 2016 CNN Films project “We Will Rise,” about the first lady’s efforts to expand education for girls worldwide. So when Hallgren got invited to meet with Obama one-on-one in 2018 to discuss filming the book tour for her memoir “Becoming,” she tried to re-create their first encounter.
“I awkwardly stick out my hand, and from the nervousness, our fingers kind of like weirdly intertwined with each other,” Hallgren says with a laugh. “It was a terrible handshake. And she was like, ‘I’m a hugger.’ She gave me a big hug. It really cut through that nervousness.”
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From that auspicious meeting came Hallgren’s debut as a feature documentary director, also titled “Becoming,” which premieres on Netflix on May 6 through the streamer’s exclusive partnership with Michelle and Barack Obama’s production company Higher Ground Prods. Shot over roughly six months in late 2018 and 2019, the film serves as a brisk biography of Michelle Obama’s life — from her childhood on the South Side of Chicago through her marriage to Barack Obama and his rapid ascent to the presidency — and as a record of her 34-city arena tour featuring candid conversations between the former first lady and luminaries like Oprah Winfrey, Gayle King, Stephen Colbert and Reese Witherspoon.
What Hallgren most wanted to capture, however, was the same grounded, disarming experience she had with the woman she still calls “Mrs. Obama” when they shared that hug in her office. She spoke with Variety over Zoom about how she pulled it off.
How did you approach filming one of the most famous and protected women in the world?
Most of the time, it was myself and a camera. On the tour, I got incredible access to her. We had spoken with her team about filming with her in the motorcade, and there’s very specific rules of how these things go. So I go to the motorcade vehicle, and there’s a Secret Service agent standing outside. I’m like, “Hello, sir. I’ll be riding with Mrs. Obama today.” He gave me a look of like, “You sure about that?” And I have a camera, so clearly, I’m not just her friend. So he’s like, “Give me one second,” and talks into his wrist. And then he’s like, “OK. This never happens,” but in a way of being like: This is special.
Were there any no-fly zones?
Yeah. One thing that was a real eye opener was how much a First Family has to sacrifice. Not filming with her daughters at home was one of the guardrails. I completely respected her privacy, and why that was something that she desired.
During the book tour, we see Michelle Obama be so much more candid than she could be as first lady.
She’s incredibly funny, especially when she talks about her marriage. I hate to use the word “relatable,” but I think whether you’re on one side of the relationship or another, you will be able to identify with some of the stories that she tells.
Her stories about meeting Barack Obama for the first time were especially frank — like when she calls him a “trifling black man” for being late on his first day on the job!
That’s one of my favorites. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, and that’s how she is. I think she really appreciates having that freedom now to express herself in that way.
It seemed deliberate that Barack Obama does not really appear until about 35 minutes into the film, and his time on screen is quite minimal. Did you interview him?
No, we didn’t. That was definitely a creative choice. We really wanted to tell the story of Mrs. Obama during this specific time in her life, reemerging after a couple of years of leaving the White House, going on this tour and telling her story. And it just didn’t feel like we needed to [interview him], you know?
There is a lovely moment when you’re following the Obamas walking out of an arena after one of her book tour Q&As, and she says to him, “Does it feel like a show that you would want to see?” She still needed the reassurance that what she’s doing is working.
That’s who Mrs. Obama is. She’s very honest about her insecurities. Those things never leave you, no matter who you are. I don’t think she knew I was behind her in that moment, perhaps, when she said that, but I think that’s a pure moment. She talks about those whispers of doubt, and that imposter syndrome. I think that resonates with many, many people, for sure.
There’s a sequence where Michelle Obama visits the home she grew up in with her mother, Marian Robinson. Whose idea was that?
It was my idea along with my creative producer Lauren Cioffi. So much of what she talks about happens in that home on Euclid Avenue in the South Side of Chicago. So we asked if we could see what the home looked like. My phone kind of blows up with all these images and I scroll through it. I’m like, “Oh my god, her childhood bedroom is perfectly intact. It looks exactly the way she left it. We have to go.”
How did it feel to be in that house with them?
One of the most special moments for me happened in that space. Mrs. Robinson hadn’t done a whole lot of press. She didn’t want me to film her. Every time she would see my camera, she would give me this look. And then in that space, when she’s sitting there and she says, “When I think about my husband coming up those stairs…” You know, I’m not sure how much it reads for an audience, but she was so emotional in a way that I hadn’t experienced at all in the whole time that I was filming her. That just felt like an incredible breakthrough.
There are several moments in the film when Michelle Obama meets with a small group of people — book groups, youth groups, church groups. And a couple of times, the film breaks off and follows a student that she has a meaningful interaction with during those breakouts. Was that always part of your plan?
It was, actually. It shows a slice of life of America that I think is really beautiful and maybe not what we always see on a documentary on television. And secondly, I really loved how the stories parallel Mrs. Obama’s story. That’s something that I had wanted to do. And when I was able to see those stories up against hers, I was like, this can actually work creatively.
You also filmed a secret service security briefing, and you interviewed Allen Taylor, the agent who’s been tasked to Michelle Obama since the 2008 campaign. How did you pull that off? I’ve never seen Secret Service get interviewed about anything!
It was really fun. As I spent time with her, I really appreciated the relationships of the people that she had around her. Many had been with her for 12 years at this point, so they had a very familial sort of relationship with each other. Allen Taylor was one of those relationships. They have this brother-sister vibe. It’s something I never imagined, because you see these agents and they’re so very serious, and then we pull the veil back a little bit and there’s just this wonderful relationship. We had to ask if that was possible.
How much of a negotiation did that take?
You know, it didn’t take much at all. When we proposed it, her team actually thought it was a great idea, because they also love Allen. It was like a very natural thing to do.
Finally, what was it like to revisit the hope and joy of the 2008 election amid the Trump presidency?
It was really nostalgic. I think to be able to sit with those memories in a way that, you know, I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t been making this film — it was a wonderful experience to think deeply about that time.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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