A version of this story about “Becoming” and “Hillary” first appeared in the Emmy Host List issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.
Recent first ladies are a mini-trend at the Emmys this year, courtesy of the Hulu nonfiction series “Hillary” and the Netflix documentary “Becoming.” The former, a four-part look at Hillary Clinton that focuses on the former secretary of state’s 2016 campaign for president, is nominated in the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Series category along with “The Last Dance” and “Tiger King”; the latter, a documentary film about Michelle Obama, landed four nominations, including one in the Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special category and another for director Nadia Hallgren.
“I think that in 2016, with Hillary losing the election, a lot of people wondered how much of that was misogyny, how much was gender-related,” “Hillary” director Nanette Burstein said. “And Michelle Obama was also criticized in various ways. But a focus on women’s rights has made people rethink some of these recent women in our politics.”
Hallgren added, “Stories of women, especially public figures like these women, who are icons or role models, are long overdue. They’re so needed and so important, because they provide a road map for what is possible and how we got where we are.”
A documentary cinematographer for most of her career, Hallgren had never directed a feature when she was hired by Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions to direct “Becoming,” which is set around Michelle Obama’s tour to promote her book of the same name.
“The film chose me,” she said. “I would never have dreamed big enough to ask if I could make a film about Michelle Obama. But when I first met with Mrs. Obama, I told her that I wanted to make a film about her in this particular moment. I thought it was a great verité opportunity, not an archival film about her past. And I also wanted to make a film that explored the act of storytelling.”
The first major challenge, she added, “was getting past my own insecurities. I wanted the film to be intimate, and I had to get physically close to her to do that. And she never backed away or made me feel like she was uncomfortable.
“And the second big challenge was editorial. There was a lot of material to work with, and the emotional beats of the story are tricky. There’s her humor, because she’s just so funny, but also some of the low points she experienced that are very emotional, as well as the highs of the election. And we had to be able to weave that all in.”
For Burstein, meanwhile, a big hurdle in making “Hillary” was trying to figure out how to use footage that the Clinton campaign had shot during her election battles against Sen. Bernie Sanders and then Donald Trump. “They weren’t sure what they wanted to do,” she said of the Clinton camp. “They knew they had this asset, but they weren’t sure if there should be a film. The logic was, ‘Let’s bring in a filmmaker and use their vision to think about what this could be.'”
Her initial thought, she said, was, “I didn’t want to re-litigate 2016. But I thought there was an opportunity to really show Secretary Clinton in a more unvarnished, fly-on-the-wall way.”
She also sat down with Clinton for extensive interviews, which were themselves a challenge. “I remember her press secretary saying, ‘Good luck getting thorough 50 years of scar tissue.’ But Secretary Clinton has never been interviewed in this way. She’s always been interviewed with an agenda of the news of the day, so this is a very different experience for her. We could speak for so many hours in a situation where I didn’t have an agenda or a gotcha moment, and she realized that she wasn’t being trapped or judged in the way she normally is. She wasn’t in office or running for office for the first time in her adult life.”
But while she weaved the campaign footage through the entire four hours, her focus was on larger themes. “I really wanted to tell her story in a way that we could ask, ‘Why is she such a polarizing figure?'” she said. “I realized I could connect her to the arc of the women’s movement, and equally to understand why we’re such a divided country by looking at our history of partisan politics, which the Clintons were part of. I thought this was a great opportunity to cover things I care deeply about, so I came up with this structure of interweaving the ’16 election with her whole life story.”
Read more of the Emmy Hot List issue here.