'Generation Wealth' Cinematographer Shana Hagan on How Cinematography Requires Human Connection

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We talk to her about the intimate process of documentary filmmaking, her experience on set for ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ and more.

One of the documentaries that shook up Sundance this year was Lauren Greenfield’s Generation Wealth. A deep retrospective look at her body of work and even her own life in terms of wealth and it’s grappling influence, Generation Wealth is a remarkable and daring documentary. The cinematographer behind many of the most memorable scenes of the film is Shana Hagan, seasoned cinematographer of all genres, including documentaries like Queen of Versailles, television shows like Parks & Rec and Arrested Development, and reality television shows like Survivor. We caught up with her to talk about Generation Wealth on the eve of its wide release in the United States and inquisitively about her experience as a cinematographer in general over her very exciting career.

What do you do to establish a relationship with your subject in order to get the footage you need for an interview or any scene?

In my work mainly as a documentary cinematographer, I really rely on my interpersonal skills. You have to develop a trust with your subjects. I shot a documentary called Shakespeare Behind Bars in 2004 about a group of prison inmates in Kentucky. We developed a deep bond and a trust by opening up a dialogue between the crew, subjects, and the warden at the prison in the several meetings without cameras. Those first few meetings were tough because we really wanted to start shooting right away. In the end, getting to know each other before we started shooting was the right way to begin that project. In a perfect world, you’re able to meet your subject before filming begins to get a sense of what everybody is expecting.

Often times, though, you don’t get the luxury of that. For example, with all the sequences I did with Lauren [Greenfield] on Generation Wealth, I didn’t even meet Florian [Homm] before the interview. I think our sound person met him before he walked in the door to mic him. I was rolling as Florian walked into the door, he sat down, and then we immediately started doing the interview. It was only on a break that I was able to introduce myself.

It’s an interesting process. I think with each project, each director, each subject there’s always a method to get to that level of trust. There is a sense that I’m constantly trying to be as respectful as possible with people. In my documentary world, we obviously work with real people, right? They have lives. Understanding that these are real people that have schedules and responsibilities and lives and certain quirks is important. Even just something as simple as offering them a bottle of water to just make them feel them at ease from the get-go is a great thing. You have to treat it like you’re an invited guest. I feel very honored to be telling these people’s stories, so I treat them as best as I can with tremendous trust and respect. After a while, that starts to pay off in the footage. Each director is different, but my personal approach as a very sensitive being is that I can sense when people are kind of getting uneasy or emotional for whatever reason. Sometimes that’s actually a good thing in a documentary. If somebody is getting really sad and that’s all part of the scene, I can kind of feed off my emotional response to that and try to respond visually, try to be in that moment with them rather than just being an outsider.

Only after you develop that trust can you kind of invite yourself into that intimate moment. Part of what I love to do in filmmaking is getting into those intimate moments with people. It’s an interesting question. I think a key to my own approach to documentary filmmaking is that my people skills come first and my cinematography skills come second. Listening is a huge part of what I do. And sometimes that involves understanding how a subject is feeling. If you are a good human first then I find you can elicit some really nice, intimate moments down the road.

What sort of distance is required between you and your subject in order to get the most authentic response?

My simple answer to this is that once my relationship with the subject is established, I don’t talk when I’m shooting. The only person I’m talking to is the director or maybe a sound mixer, but often times I am silent when I’m shooting. Even when people ask me questions or subjects ask me questions, I don’t respond because that almost instantly defines a boundary with me behind the camera. I am here to document, I am here to observe, and I’m not here to participate or influence the outcome of a scene. I’m very aware when I’m moving around a room. I’m very careful not to make any noise and move kind of stealthily. I’m just kind of observing like a fly on the wall because I like to just let people be in their natural space without any outside interference. I think that’s where the intimacy comes from. For me, that’s true cinema verité filmmaking in its purest form. This method creates sort of a comfortable distance, while still maintaining that intimacy.

That being said, that’s not at all what it’s like when you’re doing reality TV or scripted, because of course, you’re participating, creating, and crafting everything. For me, my definition of true cinema verité is pure intimate observation. As a cinematographer I kind of let the director be on the front line of any kind of dialogue with a subject, so that’s another way for me to create a little bit of space. Everyone’s answer to this is different and that’s one of the reasons why I love documentaries–there are no rules. It’s just what I prefer to do. I can be intimate with a subject but I can also be disconnected from them and observe them in ways that they may not be able to observe themselves or each other.

How does the subject’s personality dictate how you shoot an interview, specifically Florian Homm?

Absolutely, we knew from the get-go that this was a big interview. Lauren knew him from Harvard and we were on our way to shoot in Russia and we just stopped by Frankfurt to shoot this for a couple of days. Even though Lauren hadn’t seen him in years, Florian agreed to do this interview. She explained that he was this larger than life character with hundreds of millions of dollars of net worth at one point. He allegedly fled to South America with some of that money and was under house arrest in Germany when we interviewed him.

Lauren chose the location of a large lavish suite in an old hotel in Frankfurt. We actually ended up, in true documentary form, staying in that very room. It was a two bedroom suite, so we basically had all our gear in the room right behind him. We ended up lighting the interview one day and then doing some B-roll around Frankfurt. Then his interview was the next day. We wanted to show off the room in an effort to reflect his larger than life personality. We shot with two cameras. One on a dedicated wide shot, and the second on an intimate close up. I’ve worked with Lauren on Queen of Versailles and on Generation Wealth, and both films’ visual styles really emulate her style of still photography. There are very standalone wide images that have a character amidst an amazing, incredible background and you have close-ups like the cigar in Florian’s hands. Those kinds of details tell a great story.

To answer your question, Lauren loves to plan ahead, and I really like that about working with her. We have a sense of what she’s after location wise. We try to see what we are up for like with any lighting or sound challenges. She likes to set up the interviews to illustrate the subjects’ character almost immediately. One example is an interview I shot with Jackie Siegel for Queen of Versailles lounging in her bedroom with one of the dogs in her lap. She’s very lavishly sitting back with her feet up. You don’t even have to hear a word from her to know that this is somebody who is living a life of luxury and loving it.

How do you try to get beneath the facade that people are projecting through their wealth with the cinematography?

In interviews, I roll before a subject sits in and I also keep rolling after the director says cut. When people think an interview is “over”, often people open up and are more apt to be themselves, not like they’re on camera or putting on an act. Even if the interview appears to be over, sometimes that may be where something begins. Ideally, the director gets to a place in an interview where the person is really opening up. It’s really magical when that happens. In Florian’s case, knowing he would come in and start talking right away, I lit the room in such a way so you couldn’t see any of the lighting and grip gear when he walked in. Sure enough, he comes in, sits down and just owns the room. That moment is in the film and to me, it was an instantly character-defining moment and I’m grateful we had planned for it.

In interviews, I always try to get a lot of character-defining close-ups. I remember shooting Florian fidgeting with a cross and caressing and then lighting his cigar. These are the types of visuals that can help show how a character is feeling – anxious or nervous or happy or whatever. I like to help tell the story with these small little details. Most editors love those because they can help break up an interview and also help define a character.

At the end of the film, a key part of the Florian interview is intercut with some footage we shot while we were out in Frankfurt. It was raining, and initially, we were kind of bummed because we couldn’t get any shots of him walking around. He was just driving us around the city. He showed us the bull and the bear statues outside the Frankfurt stock exchange building. It was unclear how it could be used. We were in a small German sports car, so we were shooting with a smaller camera – the Canon 1DC in the car with him. I shot the rain on the windshield, him driving, looking out the window, lighting a cigar. It was kind of dark and moody and sure enough, the editor intercut it with a key moment in his interview. It’s a classic example of how you never know how the b-roll you shoot is going to be used. It happens in every film.

You have a wide range of cinematography, with you documentary work and then some of the stuff with television, but is there anything that is constant throughout all genres?

I’ve done documentaries, narrative features, a fair amount of commercials. and I was a camera operator on Parks & Rec for four years, which was a really unique way for me to use my documentary skills in a part scripted/part improv comedy series. I really appreciated that job,

because it brought together my narrative and documentary skills together. I also loved to be able to laugh every day at work! To answer your question, what comes to mind first is my connection to the subject and a connection to the story. To me, it’s all about connection and that can mean with people, cast, script, or with the subject. Maybe it’s my Irish heritage. We’re oral storytellers and like to tell stories. In a documentary, sometimes you don’t know what the story will be, but once you connect with it, you can focus on why you’re there. Cluing into the story really informs my work.

You did another perfect documentary that came out this year called ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ and some of what you shot didn’t get into the theatrical release, but maybe in the DVD extras. What was it like being on that set with the lingering influence of Mr. Rogers?

That was a fantastic film to be involved with. I did about four interviews and I think three made the cut. There was a sequence in China that I shot that documented Junlei Li who runs the Fred Rogers Center there in Pittsburgh. Twice a year he goes to an orphanage in rural China for special needs kids. Junlei uses footage from Mr. Rogers’ commencement speeches, his child development techniques and clips from the actual show as training for the staff, some of who are volunteers from the village. They’re so grateful for the training, and it’s also great validation for them that they’re doing amazing work.

Shooting the interviews for Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was so wonderful. I grew up with the show. To prepare for the interviews, the Producers showed me a rough reel that they put together with behind the scenes of the last day on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. I was weeping. The minute I saw the puppets, the trolley, the castle, it brought back so much emotion, so much happiness from my early childhood. I remembered how happy and accepted I felt watching the show.

I loved working with Morgan Neville [the director]. He is fantastic. An incredible interviewer, so engaged and involved. During production, we all asked each other, “Where is Fred Rogers now?” We all wished he was here now. He’d be a beacon of hope amidst this world of chaos we live in now. It’s a universal story of someone who did his own thing, did it well, and knew that he was doing something good for the world. He made it a point of connecting person-to-person. Getting back to the connection I was talking about before, for me, it’s all about our interpersonal connection. Being a good human in this world will begin to make it a better place. I love working on docs that are fulfilling both professionally and personally, and that one was fantastic.

All of us were sad that Fred wasn’t here to continue his work, but we were also contemplating like who is the Fred Rogers of now? Then we got back to, well maybe it’s all of us, maybe we can make a little bit of a difference. We can start with ourselves and be kind to each other and strangers.

Do you think the industry is taking female cinematographers more seriously and respecting their work more than when you started your career?

Honestly, when I was coming up around 30 years ago, there were definitely not many women shooting. There was maybe a handful in the union. Now, I think there are hundreds through the ICFC (International Collective of Female Cinematographers) and CXX (Cinematographers XX). Those groups are giving female cinematographers a platform to show their work, share each other’s stories, support each other, and help find jobs. Nowadays we are supporting each other and really lifting each other up. I was never really hired just because I was a woman, maybe once. I just happen to be a very sensitive, empathetic cinematographer. Early on in my career and even today, what makes my work different is my perspective. We all see the world differently, you know? I think there are times when I’ve seen the world differently than a male cinematographer or even the next female cinematographer. We all have a unique worldview. I keep bringing Shakespeare Behind Bars back because the more I think about it, I realized that the men in the prison might not have opened up to me the way that they did if I was a man. I don’t know if that was because I was a woman or because I’m particularly sensitive, empathetic and also a great listener. I think some of the rougher guys would not have opened emotionally to a man as easily.

I think there are so many opportunities now for cinematographers in general, but women especially. There’s just so much content out there. There’s Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Youtube Red, tv, features, commercials, branded content, documentaries, just so much content. That’s why I think a lot of women are getting a break these days is because there’s so much work. There are so many voices out there that need to be heard, not only women but people of color and LGBTQ. That allows for situations where we can see true representation. For example, when a transgender cinematographer identifying as a woman can shoot a story that she identifies with and has experienced herself, think about how authentic the work will be. It’s a super exciting time to be starting in the industry.

Do you have any anecdotes from shooting abroad for ‘Generation Wealth’?

In Generation Wealth, we needed a few shots of Red Square in Moscow. We were told by our local fixers that there were restrictions on shooting in public places like malls, the Metro and especially in a place like Red Square (which is right next to the Kremlin) so we knew we couldn’t use our larger cameras. We had researched this before we arrived so we brought the Canon 1D C with a few EF L Series lenses along with us to shoot in these situations. The camera is an HDSLR, shoots 4k video, and provided us exactly the low profile, small footprint camera we needed to grab the shots we wanted. Problem solved and several of those shots are in Generation Wealth.

Not only did we want to shoot the iconic St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square but also the old GUM Department Store, which was a state-run store where people lined up to buy bread and supplies. Today, the old GUM building is a shopping mall that sells luxury brands. To complement the Russian debutante ball footage we shot, Lauren wanted me to get shots of the Hermès and Louis Vuitton window displays with Red Square in the background. We were told by our local fixers that there were restrictions on shooting in public places like malls, so we knew we couldn’t use our larger cameras. I think those shots in the film perfectly illustrate the influence of affluence and show the spread of capitalism and commercialism in a communist country. Even wealthy Russians want luxury!

Generation Wealth is playing in select theaters now.

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