'Becoming,' Produced by Faculty and Alumni, Releases on Netflix
BY Felix van Kann, May 13, 2020
Becoming, a film following Michelle Obama by director Nadia Hallgren, was released on Netflix last week. Multiple alumni and faculty members participated in the making of the documentary about the former first lady with associate professor Maureen Ryan serving as co-producer, alumna and adjunct assistant professor Veronica Nickel ’10 as production supervisor, alumnus and adjunct assistant professor Jamund Washington ’10 as line producer and alumnus Kevin Contento ’18 as a production assistant. Former Professor Marilyn Ness was the film’s producer, and former Professor Rick Siegel was the lighting designer.
Becoming was announced as a surprise in late April and counts as the third title to come out of the production deal between Netflix and the Obamas. The documentary of the eponymous title as Michelle Obama’s memoir, tracks her traveling the country in late 2018 and early 2019 during the book tour. The film features interviews with Obama, her mother Marian Shields Robinson, her brother Craig Robinson and others.
When asked how she got involved with the project, Ryan said, “I had worked with producers Marilyn Ness and Katy Chevigny on past feature film projects including Dick Johnson Is Dead and 1971. I was initially brought onto the Becoming film to consult on the budget and then was asked to produce the live, multi-cam event shoots with Gayle King at the State Farm Arena in Atlanta, GA and Stephen Colbert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN. It was a massive undertaking with not enough lead time but it was incredibly rewarding.”
The experience was also enhanced by her close collaboration with her fellow Columbia co-workers. “When it came time to put together the crew, I was looking for the best and the brightest for each role and naturally looked to CU Film alumni to work with,” Ryan said. “I had taught and worked with Jamund Washington and Veronica Nickel in the past and wanted them on the team. When we shot in Florida I was able to bring on recent alum Kevin Contento as well. Lastly, I was thrilled to get award-winning DP Rick Siegel to be the lighting designer for the incredibly complicated venue events. On such an intense and challenging project, it was great to work with Columbia people who you have a common language with and a similar work ethic.”
The documentary has been received by a public audience that has been eagerly awaiting more news from the Obamas in the expected fashion. According to Vulture’s Alison Willmore “much of Becoming is about the brutal nature of and the toll exacted by the scrutiny that comes with the highest office in the land — how hard it was to weather the judgments, the racism, the threats, and the need to always rise above, and what a relief it is to be loosed of those burdens.” The film is “being billed as a ‘rare and up-close look’ at the former first lady’s life. While many elements of the documentary feel stagy, Obama’s more interesting responses are instigated during community events, when she speaks to smaller groups of people, often young students,” according to Lovia Gyarkye from the New York Times.
Maureen A. Ryan is a producer based in New York concentrating on narrative and documentary feature films. She is co-producer of James Marsh’s Man on Wire, a documentary about Philippe Petit, the wirewalker who stunned the world when he walked between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Her most recent projects include serving as the Co-Producer for two feature documentaries for Netflix that will air in 2020 and as the Production Advisor for Making a Murderer’s second season.
Veronica Nickel is an independent producer based in New York and Florida. Her fifth feature film, the Netflix Original entitled First Match, won the Audience Award and Gamechanger Award at the 2018 South by Southwest film festival. Her recent credits include A24’s critically acclaimed feature Moonlight. Nickel’s time is spent on producing her own projects as well as working as a line producer in the industry.
Jamund Washington is a New York based filmmaker. His producing work includes the 2016 Emmy Award-nominated television film Silenced, South by Southwest Grand Jury Prize winner and Independent Spirit Award-nominated Gimme the Loot, and the Netflix original Tramps, which he also co-wrote. He is an Executive Producer, Writer, and Director on the Peabody Award-winning HBO series Random Acts of Flyness, which was recently renewed for a second season.
Kevin Contento is a Colombian-American filmmaker who grew up in South Florida. His thesis film, Hierophany, world premiered at the 2018 LA film festival, in 2019 it played at over a dozen festivals including Slamdance in Park City, Utah. The Conference of the Birds, his debut feature film, continues to explore the theme of divine unity with a cast of Florida teenagers.
You can watch the trailer for Becoming below or stream the film in its entirety on Netflix today.