Becoming director reflects on capturing the true essence of Michelle Obama
Director Nadia Hallgren is having a busy Wednesday morning. As she speaks with EW about her latest documentary Becoming (streaming now on Netflix), her doorbell rings several times with the arrival of celebratory gifts. She sounds surprised but always knew she landed something special when she agreed to bring to life the 2018 best selling memoir of former First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama.
The Netflix project takes viewers on a personal journey with Obama as she tours the country promoting her book, making stops along the way to visit with family members, and for intimate conversations with diverse groups of young people.
Hallgren is now part of Obama's intimate inner circle, consisting of powerful women that support the mom-of-two in various aspects of her life. Many of her confidants are introduced in the documentary, including Obama's former senior advisor during her time at the White House, Melissa Winter.
"The experience was so incredible," Hallgren tells EW exclusively about her experience working on Becoming. "The team that Mrs. Obama works with, which is primarily women, have been working with her since the early days. Some were with her from even before her time at the White House. They have such a familial work environment. Everyone knows each other, they work so hard and they very much have a rhythm with the way they do things. And then here I come in the middle of it all as a stranger! But they all welcomed me warmly, and I appreciated that so much. It was really cool to be in that environment while I was filming."
Those personal moments, like when Hallgren joins Obama and her mom Marian Shields Robinson for a visit to her childhood home in Chicago, bring the memoir to life. Her brother Craig Robinson shares a glass of wine with his younger sister at his home, too. And yes, former President Barack Obama and her daughters Sasha and Malia also make appearances in the documentary.
"It was important for me to make this film feel as intimate as possible. And as I started spending time with Mrs. Obama, I knew I wanted the audience to be able to feel the incredible experience that I was. In order to do that, you have to go close. So I would stay close to her when I was shooting her, focusing on these experiences that are very revealing to us about who she is. Spending time with her mother and her brother was always so incredible. Those are the moments when she's Michelle Robinson; Craig's little sister who gets teased for her outfits. Her family has this incredible dynamic. And I think that those moments are some of the most revealing in the film, and also very intimate."
She adds, "It was really important to highlight that Mrs. Obama was going out into the world and sharing her story from her perspective with audiences. We didn't feel like we needed to have people speaking to her story for her, she tells it from her perspective and she does it so well. The time when President Obama does come on the scene, it's just really fun to see them interacting with each other. They have a very playful and loving relationship, and I think some of those moments speak much louder than any words could express. Like that moment when they're leaving the arena during her tour and she asks him what he thought of the show. It's such a revealing moment of the type of relationship they have and it also talks to the point that even though she is who she is, she wants encouragement and reassurance from her husband and she really values his opinion."
The documentary also dives into some of the personal attacks Obama received before and during her husband's presidency, including many of the hurtful things she was unfairly criticized for.
"It was important for me and Mrs. Obama to show the struggles that she has gone through," Hallgren explains. "Where she is now hasn't been without struggles, that was such a significant part of her life experience. She says she was totally blindsided by the [personal attacks] and how she didn't see it coming. It changed her in ways and it felt really important that if we're going to tell her story that we tell the whole story. I also think it's important that, when we think of people who are very successful that I admire, to have an understanding of the difficulties that they go through. Both the highs and the lows are the things that make up who we are, not just the good parts."