The biggest change I experienced when I went from making pictures to making films was the sense of an arc—of creating a story over time, and capturing a change in my characters.
I’ve assembled photographs in sequences, and in a way, you could think about that as being the storyboard for a film, or the beginning of an unfolding narrative. But the newness of moviemaking was in having to convey an evolution.
In my photographs, I always try to tell a story in one moment. For that reason, when I did my first film, Thin, about an eating disorder clinic, I initially thought that one of my characters wasn’t a “good character,” because there were aspects of her that would be really unappealing to audiences. What I learned was that Thin became a compelling story, and she a compelling character, because she gradually changed. Thin was a good case study in the transition from photography to moviemaking: I did it in book form and as a photography series as well, but it was really the movie that had the experiential quality I wanted to deliver.
When I first met billionaires David and Jackie Siegel in Florida, my plan was to take portraits of them and their family. At their mansion, there were incredible visual elements—paintings of them on the wall, their dogs, their nannies—and I put them all together to make portraits that same day. But after my experience of being in that house—seeing the chaos of their seven kids, the contrast between their lifestyle and the lives of their maids, and the craziness of their American dream—I knew that I had to make a movie. At the time, I didn’t know that the Siegels would fall on hard times and that that would be the essence of The Queen of Versailles, but I did know that their three-dimensional life hit on all the themes that interested me, and that there was more there than I could capture in a photograph, or even a single series.
That’s also what happened with my new film, Generation Wealth. I made pictures that told very good stories in small pieces, but to bring it together, I needed to add the director’s voice. My photographic source material had data points that suggested how we can change our culture, but to back up these data points from a better viewpoint, I’d need to have a meta narrative that only film could achieve. Beyond that intellectual side of the film, I wanted to tell a story that people could see themselves in, about the lives we’re all living.
Ultimately, what draws me to cinema is its emotional charge. There’s a feeling of objectivity about a photograph that, on one level, allows you to more readily accept what’s in it for what it is. On the other hand, sometimes in a photograph, the subject might be more easily objectified: “Oh, that porn star is not someone I would have a conversation with.” In film, the emotional content of an interview allows you to understand what makes that person tick. Although the judgments we make about people when we first meet them apply to film as much as they do to photography, the context of characters’ motivations cinema provides can make for a more compassionate, albeit captive, audience.
With Generation Wealth, it was as if my photography was 25 years of research, and the film is my conclusion about what I’ve learned from what I’ve seen and shot. My goal is to gain access and capture moments, but I don’t necessarily have a specific point of view. Compared to photography, for which expenses are generally much lower, selling an idea without knowing how it will culminate makes finding funding for documentaries more than a little tricky. (That’s probably why it took many years before we financed The Queen of Versailles.) But what I love about both photojournalism and documentary moviemaking is that I go into both in an observational mode, so it’s important that I don’t know what my ending will be.
As a moviemaker, you’re connecting the dots between the different phenomena you’d see as a photographer. By the time I made a photography book in 2002 called Girl Culture, I’d spent three years looking at the commodification of the body, which had become the primary expression of identity for girls; at the exhibitionistic quality of modern femininity; at the precocious sexualization of kids and teenagers; and at how all that relates to, say, Kim Kardashian becoming famous with a sex tape. My job was to make connections between a little girl who vamps in front of a mirror, a girl who competes in a beauty pageant, and a prostitute. Over a five-year period, I dove into the photographs, interviews, and film footage I had recorded to solve the puzzle presented by the raw material. Some discoveries you’ll already have made, and making a film will be your chance to express those, but others will happen only as you’re out making it.
To find the ideal visual metaphor—like, you know, the biggest house in America—you have to delve into the research. The only way I was able to recognize both the Siegels’ house and what losing the house meant was because I had already photographed foreclosure across the world. The U.S. housing crisis had started in 2008, and I had seen the big houses in middle-class neighborhoods, the crazy pools with waterfalls and how they became empty and decrepit after the crash.
By the time the Siegels put their dream home up for sale, I was like, “Holy shit, this is big. This is a larger version of the same story we’ve been seeing everywhere.” I had friends and crew members who had been on my first shoot with me who said, “Oh no, your film is ruined! Your film is about the building of the biggest house in America, and now the house is for sale.” But I understood what was in front of me. If you enmesh yourself in the research out in the world, when something unexpected happens, you’ll realize, “This is what will tell my story.”
When I’m out in the field, I’m not thinking about formal elements like sound, music, or narration. My first concern is structure and storytelling, which is done more with film footage. I use voice-over narration to connect ideas, but my ideas already exist in my photography. It’s a pretty integrated process, and it’s hard to explain which comes first, but one thing I can say for sure is that my photographs really influence the look of my moviemaking.
I hate the 60 Minutes-style interview, in which everything in the background is very neutral and thrown out of focus, with the subject hogging the whole frame. It’s boring, and I would never shoot a still that way. When I was a film student discovering Arnold Newman’s portraits, I learned from his work that the environment of the subject tells as much about the person in a portrait. My stills always use their environments.
In the first interview in The Queen of Versailles, David and Jackie are sitting on a golden throne, surrounded by gold everything. It’s a big frame with a lot in the background: elephant tusks, giant mirrors, tacky paintings. As the film progresses, each interview takes on a different environment, and in the final interviews, David sits in a wooden chair in a much darker room, and Jackie’s usual makeup is gone and she has no shoes on. These scenes are handheld, more spontaneous than the rest of the film, and almost verité in that the shots are telling you a lot more than what any person is saying. When you’re making a photograph, you’re telling a story about someone who can’t say anything. I try to do that in my films.
When I first made the transition to moviemaking, I spoke with my cinematographer about my desired look and felt a lot before we got into the field. I usually work with DPs who are focused on having their footage feel like my photographs: wide-angle shots, full, rich color, and use of flash to get brighter colors. If I was making narrative films, I could spend more time telling my DP what I want very closely, but because I make documentaries, if I do that, I’ll probably miss a crucial moment. Working in vérité, you have to trust that your DP is going to find all the elements that will tell a story.
One thing I’ve just started doing when making my last two movies is I’ll carry a small, light, wireless monitor with me. On say, a commercial, you’ll always have a monitor, but on Queen of Versailles I never had one because it would have been too bulky then. Now, with advances in technology, it’s really light, and while not every DP would like me having this, some do because they know I’m seeing what they’re getting, and I can direct them from there.
Photography is useful to explain to crew members what you’re trying to do—a great way of doing sketches. If you have a story or character in your head, you have to somehow get it in the heads of your collaborators, so you should use photographs like storyboards. That’s how I started making commercials: One day, my production company said, “We’ve seen so many treatments with your pictures. Why don’t we just work with the person who made those pictures?”
It’s hard for me to know what to say to moviemakers who are not photographers. Now, when my crew and I are shooting interviews, my DPs have a program on their iPhones that takes pictures that mimic their lenses, and that’s really useful. If you’re planning a pivotal scene, making pictures as you scout locations will help you find the right angles ahead of time.
I remember working with Queen of Versailles cinematographer Tom Hurwitz because he knew photography so well. Generally, he’d go with my desired aesthetic, but sometimes if we were shooting a landscape he’d say, “Are you looking for Walker Evans or Lee Friedlander?” He’d use photographers’ points of view as reference points. Something about a still photograph sticks in your mind in an iconic way. MM
– As told to Max Weinstein
This article appears in MovieMaker’s Summer 2018 issue. Generation Wealth opens in theaters July 20, 2018, courtesy of Amazon Studios. Featured image photograph by Lauren Greenfield, courtesy of Amazon Studios.