Director of Netflix's Becoming shares what it's like to visit Michelle Obama's childhood home
Nadia Hallgren opens up about the time she spent inside Michelle Obama's modest childhood home in Chicago, surrounded by the former First Lady's memories.
The Bronx-born filmmaker tells EW about her favorite and most challenging moments while working on the documentary, which follows Michelle Obama's book tour for her best selling memoir of the same name, and whether or not she'd be interested in revisiting Obama's world in a future project.
"The moment when we go back to Mrs. Obama's childhood home was one of my favorite moments in real life and also in the film," Hallgren tells EW. "What I thought was extraordinary is that her childhood home is pretty much intact. We see her teenage bedroom, and there's still a Raggedy Ann doll on the bed. And the aspect of her mom not knowing her daughter was going to be such a famous and historical person one day but still kept her bedroom as it was.
"Moving through that space was so powerful. The idea that she and the President lived there when they were younger together and it's just this humble home on the south side of Chicago. I think he really understood their beginnings very well.
"And then there was that moment when Mrs. Obama and her mother are reflecting back on her father who passed and that was just a really emotional moment for both of them. I appreciated how they allowed themselves to be vulnerable with me there with the camera present. That was a really special moment for me as a filmmaker, how comfortable they felt to open up in that way. I also think it was quite a moving scene in the film."
When working around the Obama family, Hallgren had to learn early on how to navigate in their world. Something that can be complex due to the level of protection they have around them at all times.
"One of the biggest challenges I faced right at the beginning was understanding the way Mrs. Obama moves through the world," she explains. "Because she is a former first lady, she has a security detail that she will have for life. And she's kind of always surrounded by Secret Service, and they move very quickly. For the sake of spacing, I really had to figure out what that choreography was and how I could fit into that just so I can keep pace with her while also being able to stay close enough that we really felt like we were having these experiences with her."
Another highlight of working on the production for Hallgren was witnessing the private moments the former First Lady shared with teenage students in various cities. Not only did Obama provide a safe space to discuss their challenges but she listened intently to what they were saying. Some of the teens cried while others cheered, but each one left the meeting feeling that someone believed in them.
"It was really incredible to be in those rooms when Mrs. Obama engaged with young people. I don't think there's another person on this planet that can get that level of excitement out of young people that is not an entertainer," Hallgren explains. "She just really knows how to connect with young people. She's engaged with their stories and what it is that they're doing and she holds such a special place in their mind. It was really transformative to watch that.
"There was also something special that happened when she left the room, which I was able to witness that isn't in the film. The young people would just be glowing! You could see the confidence that she transferred to them. They were like, 'We can do this! We now have this understanding of who we can be.' And I just thought that was an extraordinary gift that I had never seen before. It's really something magical."
Since the documentary dropped on Netflix this week, the chatter on social media has focused on Obama's powerful — and very female — inner circle, as well as many of the students who appear in the film. Viewers want to know more about Obama's former senior advisor during her years in the White House, Melissa Winter, and her fashion stylist Meredith Koop. So would Hallgren consider another dive into the Obama-verse with a totally different angle?
"You know, that's something I hadn't thought about," she responds seemingly interested. "I know that Mrs. Obama said she's doing this once and this was definitely the story she wanted to tell. But in terms of the other people we meet in the documentary, like the young people from Whitney Young, have these really amazing stories that a lot of people are interested in. Yeah, I can't say either way right now but I'm glad people are interested in these other stories."
She adds, "It's been so moving to see all the excitement for the film since it was announced. I saw messages from people saying they'd be watching with their family and their plans to stay up late the night before so they could catch it when it dropped at midnight. That for me was really special knowing the joy it was going to bring to people at this moment."
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