When Michelle Obama sat down with first-time feature director Nadia Hallgren to discuss Becoming, the documentary about Obama’s life that was filmed during the 34-city tour for her 2018 memoir, the former first lady was adamant that one element of her family’s story remain off-limits: the personal lives of her and Barack Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sasha.
“That was one thing that she had asked,” said Hallgren. Otherwise, the filmmaker told Vanity Fair, she was granted unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to the former first lady—joining her, her mother Marian Robinson, and her brother Craig Robinson for a relaxed family dinner in Milwaukee and a trip to the family’s home in the South Side of Chicago—where Obama’s childhood bedroom remained uncannily intact, down to the Raggedy Ann doll on her bed. Hallgren was also on-hand in hotel rooms, seeing Obama and her staff prepare for sold-out Becoming tour stops; backstage at one venue when Obama’s husband, former president Barack Obama, dropped by to surprise his wife with flowers; and with Obama inside her motorcade, where the former first lady joked with security detail and listened to pump-up music.
But it was at one book signing where Hallgren was graced with an unexpected cameo.
“On tours, the same things happen over and over again—you travel, you do the thing, you move on,” explained Hallgren. “So it was pretty much any other shoot, and Mrs. Obama was signing books…And so I’m filming Mrs. Obama, and Malia—I didn’t even see her coming—must’ve walked behind me. She came around to talk to her mom, and just said this amazingly thoughtful reflection that she had in that moment.”
In the moving cameo, Malia—who had just watched her mother speak to another stadium full of people—tells Obama how proud of her she is.
“You’re so good. I love you too much,” Malia says. “I cried again.”
Speaking about the supportive audience, and making an oblique reference to Obama’s White House successors, Malia continues, “This has demonstrated in a way—just, like, damn, those eight years weren’t for nothing, you know? You see that huge crowd out there…people are here because people really believe in love and hope and other people.”
When Hallgren showed Obama a rough edit of the documentary, the filmmaker was not sure how her subject would feel about the surprisingly intimate scene between former first lady and daughter. But Hallgren was relieved to hear that Obama appreciated the interaction as much as she did.
“Mrs. Obama loved that scene with Malia in it,” said Hallgren. “She also felt like it was very insightful.”
Hallgren said that she wanted to introduce audiences to a post–White House Michelle Obama. “She had been two years out of the White House, and it was her first time really reemerging on a large public scale. Part of what [I wanted to know] was, ‘What does Mrs. Obama’s life feel like right now? What is she facing?’ And really be in the present moment with her. Being a former first lady and such a high-profile person means going back into the world is not the easiest thing to do given the security measures in place, even to go for a walk. For her, this is a really special time, and one that was meaningful to her. And so I really wanted to capture that.”
Hallgren, who has been making documentaries for about a decade, said that the project was a surreal one—not only because she had unprecedented access to a world-famous, heavily security-protected subject, but because it required an extremely tight turnaround. Hallgren said she met Obama in October of 2018, essentially got the directing job after their first conversation, and then went on tour with Obama after only a few days of preliminary shooting. A longtime cinematographer, Hallgren was often operating as both director and camerawoman—meaning that the documentary crew was a one-person footprint in Obama’s traveling entourage of security and support staff. When Hallgren wrapped filming each day, she immediately began editing her footage so that Becoming would be ready to turn around within seven months. The responsibility, Hallgren said, was daunting.
Originally posted 2020-05-07 01:53:22.