Documentarian Lauren Greenfield has established herself as a deft observer of youth and pop culture, gender politics, and consumerism, both as a photographer and as an award-winning documentarian. Her latest documentary, The Queen of Versailles is an intimate and revealing portrait of David and Jackie Siegel and their eight children. Siegel founded and is the President and CEO of Westgate Resorts, the world’s largest timeshare company. The Queen of Versailles documents the lives of the Siegels, first as one of the richest families in the country, building their $100 million dream home named “Versailles,” and then as a cautionary tale and Shakespearean tragedy, as they slowly lose everything in the wake of the financial crisis. With The Queen of Versailles, Greenfield crafted a meditation of the American Dream that is surprisingly touching, wickedly funny, and ultimately shocking, as the Siegels evolve in different and unexpected directions. The Queen of Versailles premiered at Sundance this year, where Greenfield won the U.S. Directing Award for documentary. Magnolia Pictures is opening the film in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, July 20th, before opening the film in various cities throughout the country into the fall. I recently enjoyed an insightful chat with Greenfield in anticipation of the film’s release. Here’s what she shared with me about the evolution of the film, where her skills as a photographer came into play, and crafting The Queen of Versailles.
Jackson Truax: I know you were invited to photograph the Siegels, and that lead to you filming them. What did you initially think would be the outcome of what you were filming, and what was the evolution from that to the final film?
Lauren Greenfield: In the beginning, I didn’t know what the outcome would be. But the parameters that I was interested in, what I proposed to them, what I thought would be the initial structure of the film, was the building of the house. Actually, when Jackie gives her friend the tour of the house, early in the film, they talk about what it would be like to have a party and the dances. I imagined there would be that party at the end of the film. In terms of the evolution…basically, because the beginning of the film was the premise of building the house, it wasn’t really until they put the house on the market, which was in the middle of 2010, and at that point, there was a very different atmosphere in the house. There was a lot of stress and strain and dysfunction… At that point, it was clear that the film was evolving in a different direction. Not just tonally and in terms of the story. But also…in the middle of 2010, I had been photographing stories about the crash. I had photographed “Foreclosure City” in California. I had photographed the crash in Dubai. So when Jackie and David had to put their dream house on the market, at that point I realized, that this was a symbolic allegory that was really about the overreaching of America. And about the international financial crisis and the subprime housing crisis and the mistakes we had all made. It became a much bigger film. And wasn’t about one family anymore. And wasn’t about the rich anymore.
JT: Obviously you had incredible access, and great characters and a great story that was evolving. Were you ever worried that an audience, especially those who typically watch feature documentaries, wouldn’t find these characters sympathetic or want to spend 100 minutes watching them?
LG: That was a really big risk… I really saw qualities in Jackie and David that for me, made them interesting and showed both our virtues and our flaws. They’re both self-made people. They embody the American Dream, even in its excess. Their failure, for me, showed all of our failures… I’ve been really pleased, in the final edit, how audiences have responded to them. Both in being sympathetic with their dilemma, their story. And also, seeing them as symbolic. Seeing them as a bigger-then-life version of the mistakes that so many of us made.
JT: From watching the film, it’s obvious you’re conducting all the interviews, but you didn’t shoot the film yourself and you had a sound recordist. Was that the full make-up of the crew? How did you maneuver following the Siegels throughout their everyday lives?
LG: We were four people. Cameraman, sound, field producer, and myself. And sometimes we would have a local PA. I think that, for me, coming from photography into film, it feels like a big crew. But I think we were really lucky in this environment… We were shooting in a 26,000 square foot house. So you could become a fly-on-the-wall with a four or five person crew in a way that is hard in a small space. The other thing was that they are used to having non-family members in their house, the domestic help, gardeners, repair people. So they don’t act differently in front of outsiders, in a way.
JT: Looking at the breadth of the people in the film, including employees and friends of the Siegels, how did you decide whom to approach for interviews? Were people generally excited to talk to you?
LG: I was always interested in the nannies and the domestic help. They were shyer at first. I started with Marisa, who was relatively open. But Virginia was a later interview. Wendy, the housekeeper was somebody who we interviewed at the Siegel house. But she…wasn’t comfortable at her house. So everybody’s access was a little bit different. I really believe that you have to earn your access. And you can’t expect anything. Cliff [the Siegel’s limo driver], was an amazing story, and was a really important story for me. Because he really embodied what most of America went through. He was somebody who was middle class, who speculated on the real estate market, bought 19 homes eventually, and ending up losing them all. And losing his own to bankruptcy… He was shyer at first. He came to see at the screening at the Sarasota Film Festival and had tears in his eyes, and his daughter was there with tears. I actually thought the Siegel kids might be a more important part of the movie in the beginning. But as the film progressed, I realized it was David and Jackie’s story, and really their love story. In a way, the Versailles house was their love child. That all the individual stories of the kids were not as important to my story.
JT: Of the Siegel’s eight kids, the two you seemed to do formal interviews with throughout the film were Victoria, and their “inherited” child Jonquil. How did you come to single them out to include?
LG: Jonquil, I was always really interested in. Because she had this really amazing story that mirrored Jackie’s story, but compressed in time… She came from Binghamton, which is where Jackie came from. She came from poverty and overnight was in the mansion. In a way, she was this wonderful case study for how money affects you. In the end, she fulfills on that by saying, “When I used to see rich people on TV, I would think they woke up everyday with a smile on their face. But now that I live in that situation, I realize that you just want more and more. That it basically doesn’t bring you happiness or satisfaction.” So, that was her arc. I actually thought she might be an even bigger part of the film in the beginning. Victoria was very shy in the beginning. I didn’t know that she would really pan out as a character. I think that there was an amazing development that happens at the end… Physically, she’s completely transformed, as are David and Jackie. During the course of the film, there’s this incredible physical transformation in their interviews. Victoria was twelve when we started, so she was not yet in puberty, had a lot of baby fat. By the end, she shed the baby fat. She’s kind of become a woman. And then on the very last trip, stands up to her Dad in a very unexpected way and becomes the only person to stand up to her Dad, and actually try to defend her Mom. So I think that if that hadn’t happened, she might not have been as important a part of the end film. But there was this incredible evolution to her character that made me feel her story was really important.
JT: As an acclaimed photographer, I would imagine you have a lot of experience engaging with a subject and immediately creating a sense of intimacy, gaining a lot of trust, and evoking a lot of emotion. How did those experiences help or inform you when approaching and interviewing the range of subjects in The Queen of Versailles?
LG: I feel like that’s the part that totally translates from my photography… This film is the first film that brings my aesthetic look and feel and sociological perspective into a movie in same way as my photography. I feel that’s taken me time to figure out. And the narrative, and character development, and music are things that I’m learning… The access, and the emotion, and the interviewing, those are skills that I’ve been honing for 20 years. Making relationships with people, embedding, trying to see their point of view, thinking about what their story and their characters reveal about the greater culture. That’s the part that does come from my photography and translates pretty seamlessly.
JT: When you were in the process of spending time with the Siegels and conducting these interviews, what did you see, or hear, or learn that surprised you the most?
LG: There were so many things that surprised me… It surprised me that David gambled everything on the business. I never expected billionaires to be vulnerable in this kind of way. The only reason he was vulnerable was because he never took anything off the table. He believed in his business so much, that he personally signed for everything in the business. So not even putting aside money for college, that was a huge surprise. I think the surprise with Jackie was what a survivor she was. And how in the end, she had these core values that were more important to her. And had this love for David, too, that was more important to her than the money and all the stuff.
JT: After Magnolia Pictures releases the movie on July 20th and it everyone gets a chance to see it, is there any ultimate impact you hope the film might have, either on audience members, or the American culture on a broader scale?
LG: I hope that it’s a provocation to think about the American Dream and our values. And whether or not the crisis is an opportunity to reflect on those values. I had an opportunity to show the film a couple of weeks ago to the Secretary of Housing and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The Secretary said, he felt it was about values, and “When is enough, enough?” I think that is a really important conversation for us to have as Americans.
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