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Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Lauren Greenfield--'Beauty CULTure'

By KJ Relth

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeks™ Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 3 through August 30 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films—the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Lauren Greenfield, director of Beauty CULTure.

Synopsis: Beauty CULTure explores how feminine beauty is defined and revered, and the consequences for female body image. Through an examination of the photography industry and iconic fashion images, the film investigates our age-old obsession with beauty, its biological origins, and the role of the media and technology in narrowing its definition with ubiquitous imagery. Fashion photographers, avant-garde artists, celebrated models, child pageant stars, body builders, teenagers, and intellectuals engage in a provocative dialogue about the "beauty contest" of modern life.


IDA: A lot of your work deals with the very real impact of the same issues you bring up in this film—our overexposure, as a society, to images of unattainable beauty. Your film Thin in particular comes to mind. So what inspired you to take it a step back and look at the causes, instead of just the effect?

Lauren Greenfield: Before this in my work, I had worked at the beauty industry and the pressure on female bodies, and how the body had become the primary expression of identity for girls and women. I had done it mostly from the point of view of first-person research in the field, my own reportage shooting of girls and how they are affected in contemporary culture. So the film Beauty CULTure gave me an opportunity to step back and look at how beauty has been an obsession in our culture historically—instead of just looking from the cultural context, looking at from an evolutionary point of view. [This] was a perspective that Nancy Etcoff gave me in the film and in her work.

Beauty CULTure was a commission from the Annenberg Space for Photography to go with the exhibition "Beauty Culture." I didn’t originate Beauty CULTure. I was one of the artists in the show, and when I was meeting with the curator Kohle Yohannan, there was [so much] overlap between the themes that I’d explored in my photography in the last 20 years. It was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up, even though it was in the middle of The Queen of Versailles.

This was also an opportunity for me to [...] look at the role of photography and specifically beauty and fashion photography in shaping these images. In the film, I got to deconstruct that even further and look at the image makers: the make-up artists, the clothes, the models, the model agents. In the process of making the film, I also wanted to kind of break down the fourth wall and deconstruct those boundaries, so we also filmed the behind-the-scenes on our own set. As our people were getting ready for their interviews, we did verite footage of them and then also built two-way mirrors in the studios in LA and New York where we could film the subjects getting ready for their moment of their interview through the make-up mirror.


IDA: What was the process you went through to gather so many well-known figures from the beauty and entertainment industries? Did those contacts come through the exhibit at Annenberg?

LG: It was totally crazy because I think I got the commission in February, we had about two or three weeks to prepare and find all the people, and then we had to fit them into these crazy slots. We basically had two days in Paris, four days in New York, and three days in LA. And these are important people who have to fit into our schedule!

In terms of getting to the different people, it was a variety of ways. Some of the people were familiar with my work and responded [very] positively. Jamie Lee Curtis both knew my work and also was a supporter of the Annenberg Space. Some were my own photographic subjects. One of the things I wanted to do in the project was also see what it was like to be in front of the camera both as a model but also as a real person. So Ms. Senior California was somebody I’d photographed before, as was Cathy Grant, the woman who got plastic surgery in Brazil. Some of them were subjects of other photographers in the show—the bodybuilder was a subject of the photographer Martin Schoeller, so he introduced me [to her]. The photographers were also photographers in the show—Albert Watson, Melvin Sokolsky, Tyen and Orlan also were represented in the museum show. We did it all in studio so that we could see so many people in this short space of time.

We just kind of worked the phones madly. Through the Annenberg, through the curator, through my own relationships, we put together a really great research team. We had to move so quickly, so we researched different people who would make sense for this. It was a much more diverse group than I usually interview and also so many at once, so for me it was like being in college again. I basically went into a room for like three weeks and just read, and just tried to kind of educate myself. Even though I had been steeped in a lot of the issues of the film for a long time, there really were a lot new perspectives that I was coming to brand new. Something that I was really excited to look into was the part about the color of beauty that Beth Ann Hardison speaks to and that the teenagers speak to. In a way, that was something that I had missed out on in the process of making Girl Culture. The book touches on it, but I felt like the book didn’t go deep enough. This was a chance to look into that.



IDA: One of the things I found fascinating was your choice to comment on the culture of beauty while also showing that your interview subjects went through a regimented process of getting their makeup and hair done before sitting down in your interview chair. Can you explain why you chose to show those "behind the scenes" moments?

LG: I wanted to break down the fourth wall and deconstruct what goes into a film shoot. And so since the whole "beauty culture" was kind of about the artifice of what do we do to present and have a public face. Particularly for models—for all the people in a different way, whether it’s the teenager or the model, or the challenges of getting older. It just seemed like we had to expose our own process. And for me that’s, as image makers, looking at our own complicity in the process, too. Almost all of us in the film—and I include myself as a director—are part of making these images that then have this kind of effect in the world. So whether it was Albert Watson talking about how he thinks about women when he’s photographing them, or Tyen showing us the process of how he makes somebody up, and then I put myself on camera for the first time too.


IDA: I was going to ask about that. Why did you choose to include that "interview" of yourself in the film?

LG: I shot it not knowing whether I would use it or not, but thinking I had to at least shoot the interview of myself mostly because of the issues that I wanted to bring up. I actually told my editor "Let’s not use the part about me unless we absolutely have to." And then it turned out that we did have to. There are a couple of places where I come in. Once was to talk about the precocious sexuality of girls, and how a girl learns at an early age that her value or her currency comes from her body. That was just a really important concept for me in my own work, and nobody else had said it. If somebody else had said it, I probably would have used it!

As a director, there’s certain things you have to get across, and a lot of times it can emerge from the material. But it didn’t. In the end, it did make sense for me to be on there, because why should I be hiding behind the camera, too? So we also included my photographing in the project, too, and then you also see Tyen photographing and Albert Watson photographing. And then I also got to talk about my experience photographing Cathy. It just seemed to close the loop and close the circle and offer a kind of transparency about the process that was the subject of the piece.


IDA: This film had to be pretty structured—it’s sort of a departure from what you did with Thin, which was sort of following these girls around, watching their lives unfold and not knowing exactly what you were going to use in the film. I’m sure that there was a little bit of that uncertainty in this project too, but it’s shot almost entirely in one studio room, or at least it appears that way.

LG: It’s shot in three locations, in New York, in LA and in Paris. In New York and LA we were in a studio. This was a really compressed production schedule. It was nothing like Thin. With Thin, we spent two years developing the idea and then were shooting for ten weeks over a six month period and then editing for six months. This was about 10 days of shooting. It was very structured.

From the beginning, we knew it was really going to be an interview-based piece. We had the photographs, we had the interviews, the b-roll of the part in the studio, and then we used some archival footage, too. That evolved in the edit room—we didn’t really know how we would use that when we were thinking about it. It’s a really different kind of piece. I guess the main thing was, it’s really a conversation about beauty from a lot of different points of view, from a lot of different kind of data points. It’s really about these people and how they fit together, and how they’re all part of this industry. Also, social commentators like Alex Kozinski and Nancy Etcoff can give us another way to consider our contemporary notions of beauty.

Stylistically, part of the film is you’re kind of getting bombarded with imagery by using all the photographs. In a way, that’s also what the film is about: the ubiquitous imagery of beauty images in our lives and how that affects us, too.


IDA: Did your vision of the outcome of the piece, your vision of what the film would eventually be change at all, or do you feel like it evolved?

LG: I’m not somebody who writes out how things go. I’m not a writer. I don’t really do documentaries that way. My new film Queen of Versailles is a lot more like Thin in the sense of going out there and just getting stuff in the field, then putting it together. I don’t write a script or anything. This film really came together in the edit room. I worked really closely with Catherine Bull, who is a commercial editor. I think it was only a commercial editor who could have made something of the material in this time frame. I mean, we worked so fast. She really helped me weave it together. We really did a paper edit in the edit room and wove the story together first. And then we had these boards full of all the photographs. I was working on sequencing those, and kind of putting them together with the words. It was like a jigsaw puzzle.


IDA: So I think you kind of explained what some of the challenges were—time constraints and that sort of thing. But what were some other things that you didn’t necessarily anticipate and how did you get through those things when they were happening?

LG: One thing that was fun about doing this in a studio and having all these people come there was seeing some of the matchups and meetings that were not planned at all. Like Eden Wood from Toddlers and Tiaras just started talking with the bodybuilder. And between the outfits and the crazy gender-bender stuff, it was just really fun to see that and to get to document a little bit of it. I mean, that’s the kind of thing where if we had had more time, I probably would have gone much more into. Even though it was so structured, in terms of the interviews and how much time we had with everybody, we still had a verite crew going so that we were able to catch unexpected moments. For me, in the way that I work, those are always the most exciting moments.

It was great to get to meet some of my idols. Gilles Bensimon was the art director at Elle [and] he was the person who gave me my first fashion assignment. I’m not a fashion photographer but he saw my documentary work and my style, and said to try that but in fashion. And so it was really fun to get to kind of turn the tables and interview him, having remembered the time I was invited into his office as this kind of pivotal moment in my career. When we filmed Albert Watson, half of my camera crew had been through his studio in some way, assisting or working on camera. It was really fun to get to talk to all of these people who were, many of them, icons on this business. Nancy Etcoff’s book Survival of the Prettiest just turned me on my head in terms of thinking about these issues of beauty and why so many of the clothes, so much of the surgery is about expressing these symbols of fertility. I’d never really thought about that—the big lips and the big breasts and the small waists. It was just really exciting to get new perspectives on old themes.


IDA: With this film playing at DocuWeeks and then Best Director Award that you just won at Sundance for The Queen of Versailles, you’ve had a really big year. So what’s next for you?

LG: I have to say my head is spinning right now! It has been crazy. It was a great opportunity to get to make Beauty CULTure and also crazy making it in the middle of what was The Queen of Versailles. It was a great year but also a totally crazy one. What I’m working on now is a book about wealth, which was actually kind of where The Queen of Versailles came from—this photographic project I’ve been working on for years about wealth. I’m hoping to finish the book and the museum show for late 2013.


Beauty CULTure will be screening August 10 - August 16 at Laemmle NoHo 7 in Los Angeles.

Complete DocuWeeks™ 2012 program

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