This interview was originally published on the Documentary Channel Blog on July 24, 2012.
The Queen of Versailles is one of my favorite surprises of the year. Here is a documentary that looks like it caters to both the superficial Real Housewives audience and also the 99-percenters looking for a takedown of the uber-rich, and really it is an exceptional, allegorical character study focused on the issue of Americans overreaching for the Dream through an extreme example of a family affected by the financial crisis.
Last week I talked with Versailles director Lauren Greenfield, whose photography work has once again led her to necessary documentary subjects, this time the garishly affluent Siegel family and their venture of constructing the largest home in the U.S. We discussed the tease of schadenfreude, the film’s relationship to reality TV, negative responses to the real-life characters, knowing when to end a true, ongoing story, and why it’s important for documentaries to look good.
Out of respect, I mostly avoided addressing the lawsuit David Siegel has filed against the film, though it does naturally come up through general questions pertaining to documentary.
I’d like to start by talking about the audience and critical responses to the Siegels. Do you think it’s wrong for people to keep talking about schadenfreude?
I think that’s the journey of the film and the unexpected part of the film. When it starts, you almost expect schadenfreude. You go in expecting to critique these people who you might not identify with. The beginning is very comedic, and the characters are larger than life, and their dream is excessive and huge and fun in a kind of voyeuristic way. You get sucked in by the over-the-top Gilded Age stuff.
And what happens in the course of the movie, as it progresses, this really changes, to where I think the characters go from being the one percent to being the everyman. It goes from looking at the other to becoming a mirror.
It is about America at this time, and it’s about our culture, but it’s also about us as individuals. Basically, in the journey of the film, I started it as this inside view of wealth, a look at the family building the ultimate American Dream. Rags-to-riches, self-made people. The American Dream is about home ownership and they’re building that ultimate home. The largest one ever built. It expresses every fantasy they could ever want.
After I started it became clear that David Siegel, “The Timeshare King,” had another dream that was even bigger and even more important. That was the building of the 52-story [Planet Hollywood Westgate Towers] that cost over $600 million. And that was the ultimate overreach.
So after their business is hit by the financial crisis, both buildings go into default, and when they have to look at the prospect of foreclosure on both of these buildings, at that point, the Dream becomes a nightmare. A nightmare that many people in America felt in different ways.
I’d been covering it in my photography here in America and also all around the world, foreclosures in cities in California to the crash in Dubai that left similarly fantastical structures frozen in time and in half-built form to the real estate debacle in Ireland that devastated the country economically and emotionally. It takes us into this other place that becomes tragedy, but not just tragedy for one family, and not just the rich either.
Right, and so if the film is meant to be an allegory and about all of us, the response of schadenfreude is really quite ironic.
I tried to make that point by including the stories of the minor characters, who make similar mistakes and have similar realizations. Like Cliff, the limo driver, who bought 19 homes and then lost them all and went through bankruptcy and the trauma of foreclosure. In a way, that’s not that different from David, but of course, it’s on a different scale.
The power of the story and the power of the Siegels and their generously sharing their life with me in such an intimate way is that they allow us to see ourselves. There’s something about their characters, maybe from their humble origins, where they kept a down to earth quality. I think it’s also because they’re so incredibly candid in front of the camera and open up their lives so much. There’s something about them that allows us to see our virtues and our flaws.
It’s not really schadenfreude in the sense that suggests we’re taking pleasure in someone else’s pain, and I think that’s kind of the trick of the movie. Maybe you start out thinking that, but by the end, what audiences have told me is they’re surprised that they have sympathy for the characters. They go in expecting not to and then go through a journey where that changes by the end.
I’ll admit, in spite of your name being attached, I felt like I was going to be watching a feature-length reality show pilot with this subject matter. Do you think that could be a possible appeal to audiences? I think it’s great if people will be surprised at how terrific and relevant the film is.
That’s exactly been a technique in my photography. I’ve talked about that before, like in a project like “Girl Culture.” Are you familiar with my photography at all?
I’ve seen some, and I know that this film came about through a picture you had taken of women and their Versace purses, one of which was Jackie.
Well, in my pictures there tend to be very saturated colors. At least with “Fast Forward” and “Girl Culture,” my first two books, which are very much about the popular culture, there are saturated colors, and the prints are glossy surfaces. In “Girl Culture” the project is about how the body has become the primary expression of identity for girls and women and the exhibitionism of modern femininity.
It kinda seduces you with bright colors, shiny surfaces, sexy bodies and the kind of language of the popular culture. It takes you in for a much darker journey about how girls define themselves this way, and how it’s become really a self-esteem crisis for girls and with emotional and physical and all kinds of very serious consequences.
I remember there was a museum show at the Center for Creative Photography in Arizona, and this docent told me that this jock came in from the University of Arizona and he saw this picture that was in the front. It was of this beautiful model at the beach in Miami, unbuttoning her bra and being photographed. You see the camera on one side and the model on the other. And he said, “Oh yeah, I’m gonna like this show.” Then he went through the expedition, and when he came out the other side, he said to the docent, “Hey, man, I’m really sorry. I had no idea what this show was about.”
So that’s kinda what I love. The reason why we have to look at these issues is because they’re part of the popular culture that is so influential in our lives. For me, The Queen of Versailles is nothing like a reality show, and when I started, the idea was to show a cinema verite portrayal of wealth, because we never see what it’s really like. We always see this fabricated, sensationalized, constructed, fictionalized, packaged portrayal, which is so influential in shaping our values and aspirations.
Because that kind of aspirational wealth is so important in our culture, I think it’s really important to examine, for a deeper investigation into why these things are important to us and why we obsess over them and what does it say about us as a culture and our values. So the reference to reality TV is important because it’s a sociological look at what is underneath that.
Without getting too much into the lawsuit if you’d rather not, what is your take on the seemingly increasing issue of subjects going public with dissatisfaction with how they’re portrayed in documentaries? This also fits with audience and critical response because Tabloid and The Imposter subjects have gotten upset with laughs and personal attacks. Obviously The Queen of Versailles has been met with a lot of laughs as well.
I think that’s hard. Jackie has been to several film festivals and really loves the film. She was with me two days ago at the premiere in New York and did the Today show with me and is out promoting the film. But when she saw it — and actually when David saw it too, he seemed quite happy with it — what’s hard is seeing how other people see you. And there’s no way to really know what that’s going to be like. Jackie really likes the film, but she’s been hurt by some of the blogs and what people say about her online.
That’s always kind of a risk in something that happens with — I don’t want to say a private person in this case, because David and Jackie Siegel were public people, and this is not the first time that that experience has happened. You don’t see yourself the way other people see you, even if you’re fully aware of the whole process and what the film is about, and you’re there for all the footage.
As a filmmaker, the way I address that is by spending a lot of time, doing as much research as possible, really being careful about the storytelling process, and the integrity of that, and honoring the access that I’m given. That’s why it was important to me, and I was really pleased, that audiences felt empathetic with the characters, especially with Jackie. And part of that is their candor in front of the camera.
Yeah, it upsets me that those who debate me on the issue, their response is that, “Well, they agreed to be on camera, so they’re fair game.” I don’t agree with that.
You have a lot of responsibility as a documentarian telling stories about people’s lives. You have a responsibility to the truth. You have a responsibility to treat them with respect and honor what you saw. And I take that really seriously. And many subjects in the film, by the way, have seen the film and liked it.
In the case of David Siegel, we’re talking about very specific business interests. And I definitely feel like that is not what I can use as the guiding force in my editing. I need to be honest about what I saw and not use either concerns of vanity or concerns of business get in the way of telling the story either.
How do you know when a story of a real life concludes?
This story was amazing. It was very clear in a way I had never experienced before. With THIN, my last feature-length film, it probably could have gone on forever, although Sheila Nevins at HBO gave me really good advice to stay in the clinic and don’t go home with the girls. So when “my girls” left, that was the end, even though I did a tiny bit of postscript. But it was very hard to know when to end that film.
This film was very clear, because I came in on the dream of the house, that then got surpassed by the tower, and that was the most important thing to David. It was what he spent the last year and a half just fighting for his life for. And when he lost it, and the Versailles house was also in foreclosure and being put up for auction by Bank of America, that was the end for me.
I was wondering where you thought the film was headed narratively or thematically before the financial crash came and sort of helped steer the story. And it’s interesting that there’s the scene with David signaling that it’s time to wrap. Might he have now preferred you kept documenting them until his fortune was back up?
I think he did prefer that. I kept that in about “can we wrap it up” because in that moment he was impatient with talking about what was such a painful subject. So that’s why I included it, and it kind of signaled to the audience that the end of the film was coming. But actually he did want me to come back. He said he wanted me to come back in a few months.
When he first lost possession of the tower, it was too painful to talk about. And he didn’t want to talk. So I talked to Richard instead, and he laid out the whole thing that happened, and he said that it was like losing a loved one. He said that his dad said it was like he pulled the plug on a spouse when he lost Vegas. Jackie said the same thing, that it looked like he was in mourning. So he said come back in a few months.
But for David, he really would have liked me to document a victorious ending, which hasn’t happened. What’s in the film is basically what has happened. He says in the film that he’ll work ‘til he’s a hundred and fifty years old if that’s what it takes to make things right or get back on top. Only time will tell if that actually happens.
He says in that scene where he’s in the den at night and the papers are all piled up around him and he’s talking to his dog, “Maybe we’ll just move into the house on our own.” He’s so depressed. He said to me later, “If I save Vegas, if I find an investor in Vegas, that will be my greatest achievement.” I think he does say it on camera. But then he said later, “If I find that investor, I will fly out to L.A. so you can interview me. I’ll save you the trip. No, we should meet in Vegas. You should do it in Vegas.”
And he said, “If I lose Vegas, you’ll be there, and if it blows up you’ll be there.” He put all the options on the table, of what could happen. He often was great in his honesty about the options, whether it was bankruptcy or losing it to the lenders or keeping it by finding another investor. But in the end, he’s a man who likes to win. He wants to win, and that’s a part of his character. So in a way, the lawsuit is also consistent with his character. But surprising, of course, given the access and the cooperation through the end of the filming.
As a photographer, is it really important for you to have a good looking film? Many documentarians don’t seem to put that as a priority, and in certain cases, it’s not even that possible.
Did you like the look of the film?
Yeah. It looks great. You obviously put thought into the cinematography and I’m guessing did some post-production work to make it look like a good movie.
Well, definitely in the cinematography, and yes, it is important to me as a photographer. The aesthetic language is one of our greatest tools in filmmaking. The colors and the composition are really important in the storytelling process. At the same time, I also learned from THIN that the moment trumps everything.
I had a wonderful cinematographer, Tom Hurwitz, and then a couple other shooters who worked on it at other times — Shana Hagan and Sarah Levy, who are all extraordinary — but there were times when I was the only one there, and I’m not as good a shooter as they are, and if I got it on a little camera, some of that’s in there too. Because I think at the end of the day, people do forgive the image quality for the story. And I would never sacrifice the story for the image quality. I feel like I work with editors who know that and will let me do that. Even if I say, “Oh no, that shot looks bad. Don’t put it in.”
In this film, there are a lot of interviews, so in the interviews I framed those like what we call environmental portraits in photography, where the whole composition and what’s around the person tells as much story about that person, and in this case also about the narrative arc, as what the person is saying. It’s really clear in this film — and there are five interviews with Jackie, five interviews with David, and multiple interviews with most of the other characters — there’s even a physical transformation that goes on. David, in the little less than three years that I shot, looks like he ages 10 years. And Victoria, the daughter, has a similar kind of transformation.
So yes, it is important to me. I guess the way I express it is I work with good cinematographers who also have a feel for my look as a photographer. Tom Hurwitz and Shana Hagan both were very knowledgeable about my photography and steeped in it, and they tried to take a point of view that was consistent or similar to my photography — very close, wide-angle, very intimate. I think it’s the first film that I’ve done that actually translates the sociological and aesthetic voice of my photography into the film.
With THIN, I felt like the access and my relationship with the subjects was just like my photography. But the look of it was not. And maybe that wouldn’t have been appropriate for that film. There’s a monotony to the imagery in THIN that was appropriate to the claustrophobic nature of that film, but that’s not how my photography is. My photography is colorful and different and brings together a lot of contrasts and has a lot of irony and social commentary in it.
That’s one of the things that attracted me to the film, was the space, the characters, their larger-than-life quality, their big, fun, exaggerated quality. And also the space in the house. I was fascinated by the decor, what it said about them, what it said about our values. I was fascinated by the photographic representations of themselves, the way they commissioned portraiture, their choice in art. There was a lot of aesthetic components to the space and to their lives that really drew me to the subject. And in the end, I was able to make portraits of both of the houses and have them kind of become characters.