Lana Wilson was taking a risk — albeit a pretty good bet — when she set out to make what turned out to be “Miss Americana,” her new Netflix documentary. As Taylor Swift told Variety: “When I began thinking about maybe possibly having a documentary-type thing happen, it was really just because I felt like I would want to have footage of what was happening in my life, just to have later on in my life, even if we never put it out, or even if we put it out decades down the line. When we brought Lana on board, I was pretty open with her about the fact that this may be something that I wasn’t actually ready to put out. So I think we began the process without a lot of pressure, because I didn’t necessarily think that it was an actual eventuality to put out the documentary.”
Wilson was too fascinated by what she was getting early on to worry much about whether her subject would sign off on releasing it. At the outset, she was catching Swift at the end of the “Reputation” album/tour cycle, when Swift was finding a more contented place in her personal life and finally exorcising Kanye-gate from her system. The star quickly moved on to the making of “Lover,” her most upbeat album, with Wilson getting fly-on-wall footage that captures the joy of creation and eureka moments in the writing process in a way few films ever have. And then things got more interesting altogether when Swift decided that the days she could afford to be standoffish about what was happening in the country had come to an end. The movie — and by now, it wasa movie — had its third act.
Variety spoke with Wilson for the magazine’s cover story last week on Swift, prior to “Miss Americana’s” Sundance premiere. Here’s a breakout of more of that conversation.
There is some footage in the movie that goes back a few years that clearly predates your involvement. When did you start filming — was it during the “Lover” writing and recording sessions or the “Reputation” tour before that?
I came on during the tour. She had been collecting bits and pieces of footage; she often filmed stuff with her own cell phone — songwriting stuff. Netflix introduced us, and we really hit it off the first time we met. She had watched my previous work, and I had admired her for years, not just for her music, but also the fact that she had written all of her own songs since she was 15, and that she’s the sole creative force behind the whole shape of her career. When we met, I remember being excited that she didn’t want to make a traditional pop star documentary. She knew that she was in the middle of a really important time in her life, coming out of a very dark period, and wanted me to collaborate on something that captured what she was going through that was raw and honest and emotionally intimate.
When we first talked about it, she immediately wanted me to bring my perspective as a director to what was going on with her now and to make a film that really had something to say. I think the first time we met, we talked for 20 minutes about narrative structure in documentaries, and we even talked about film score in documentaries. At one point she said that she didn’t like documentaries that are like propaganda, and I was thrilled to hear that. In my work, I take stories that are often told through sound bites and headlines and bring depth and complexity to them. My goal is always to reveal the humanity that’s beneath the oversimplification. And to me, there are few things more frequently diminished and reduced by others than female creative forces.
It could be seen as a feminist statement, or at least some kind of intention on her part, that she picked someone who’d made an abortion documentary (“After Tiller”). It could also mean that she was just more comfortable with a woman.
I think that’s totally true. When I started filming, it was before she’d come out politically. But that said, even before meeting her, I could only imagine how much pressure and scrutiny she’d faced as a powerful and successful female artist. And I definitely sensed that those pressures would be ones that other people and especially other women and girls could relate to. Obviously, yeah, I’m a female artist working in a male-dominated industry. So although Taylor and I inhabit very different worlds, I figured that we’d have some shared experiences. And I also worked with an all-female crew, which I do think helped her feel comfortable right off the bat, and a small crew. When I met her, she hadn’t done an interview in almost three years. The first one she did was an audio (-only) interview with me for this film. So it was a big deal, and trust was a big part of that.
You had an all-female crew, but Morgan Neville’s name is on there as a producer, and he’s not a gal. [Laughter.] What’s his role in it?
He was a part of the creative process, and it was wonderful to get to work with him, as a creative sounding board, from start to finish. On the crew, I will say that we did always have male production assistants, because I like trying to show people that men can fetch coffee for women, and not just the other way around! So that was the only exception to the all-female rule.
It had to have been a small crew, when you were filming the fly-on-the-wall creative stuff in the recording studios, sometimes in very small control rooms.
It was often just me and one or two other people in the room with her, trying to keep the footprint as small as possible. You know, no one had filmed her writing songs before. That was some of my favorite stuff to film, but it was also the stuff where we tried to really be the most low-key presence possible. You’re just in a tiny room, and it feels so amazing to watch her get in the zone creatively. One of the most fun parts for me as a director is when it feels like you’ve been in the studio for enough hours that everyone is so relaxed that you really feel invisible in a wonderful, exciting way.
When she’s having the talk with her team about wanting to make endorsements for the midterm elections, which is maybe the most important scene in the film, it’s not clear if that is something you shot or if that was something that was on the spur of the moment, where she had someone get a camera in your absence.
That was spur of the moment. So that was something someone on her team shot who was pretty good with the camera. That was very last minute. I’d been starting to work with her and talk with her before that, and I’d say, “If something’s happening last-minute that could be at all important or meaningful, film it with your cell phone, of if there’s someone around you that has a little DSLR camera or something, they could film it.” It allowed us to get really powerful, crucial scenes like that one that might’ve been hard logistically to get otherwise. And I love the personal quality of that material from especially the few little bits of stuff from her cell phone.
She told us she wasn’t sure she wanted to actually make or release a movie when filming started. Did she make that clear to you when it started? Like, this might be on spec, and might not come out?
Well, it was less talking about the end result and more, honestly, just talking about what she was going through emotionally at that time and the kind of things that were on her mind. Then we’d brainstorm stuff that could be cool to film. I love the idea of filming really quiet, almost more mundane moments, because I think that ordinary/extraordinary contradiction that’s so central to the life of someone in the public eye is really interesting. I loved that moment early in the film where she’s alone in the car in the dark after the show riding to her hotel room — the idea of going from being on a massive stage in front of tens of thousands of people to being an ordinary person alone just going to bed at the end of the night.
She’s already been pretty candid with her fans. There are moments in the film where she’s shown as being annoyed with the fans and photographers gathered outside her door and that sort of thing. Do you think she felt okay with being portrayed as not being happy at all times?
Oh yeah, totally. She’s a complex human being, and I think whether you like her music or not, if you watch this movie, you really get to know her as a human. And as you say, she writes so candidly in her lyrics about the hardest times, the times when she made mistakes. And that is what her fans love her for. But a lot of people don’t share their hard times. The most popular photos on Instagram are of weddings and babies, when what’s really relatable and what’s meaningful is connecting with someone over that time things weren’t perfect, or the friendship or relationship that didn’t work out, or the argument you had with your mom or something. You know, everyone wants to feel less alone in the more difficult experiences in life. And that’s one reason why they turn to art. And I think it’s why people watch movies. And the happy moments are meaningful when you’ve also been through the sad ones. Young girls need to see that their heroes are just as human as they are. And I think girls and boys of all ages could benefit from that reminder.
I want people to be surprised by it because I think that Taylor Swift is someone who everyone thinks they know. But I think if people start watching this film, they’ll realize they’re watching a film about this iconic artist deciding to live life on her own terms, and it’s a feminist coming of age story. I think they’ll be surprised by her sense of humor and her self-awareness, and they can appreciate the craft of songwriting, for instance. So I hope that even if people are not fans, that they’ll watch the movie and be really surprised and also feel like they’ve just met a complicated, layered human being.
Very few people at the superstar level have the gift of healthy self-awareness that she seems to have. Self-consciousness, yes, but self-awareness, that’s more rare.
Yeah, it’s so true. I’m sure you’ve seen bits of the home movies in some of her videos in the past. When I looked at the home movies, what struck me the most about them is that she really always has been the same person. She’s been kind and generous and smart and imaginative and very hardworking since she was a girl. At age 11 she knew exactly what she wanted to do with her life. One of my favorite moments in the archives in the film is this clip of her, where she’s like in a diner and it’s just after the release of her first album, and she’s 16. Her childhood dream has just come true. And she tells the interviewer that she wakes up everyday being like, “Yes, this is happening.” But then she tells herself, “Now you have to figure out how to make it last.” That is so her. She had so much maturity and precociousness then, and she knew she wanted this to be her career and her life, and she wanted to write songs forever. It’s incredible to see a person at that age that self-possessed and cognizant.
At one point she says she wants to use her platform to speak out because she’s aware she won’t be in this position forever, where her opinions have some kind of import. Not that she’s predicting a major downfall, but she knows she won’t always have this attention. That’s undoubtedly true, but at the same time, she’s one of the only ones besides Beyonce that we would imagine being almost as big a star in 20 years, and not necessarily subject to the normal standards of diminishment of interest.
She’s conscious of the historically short lifespan of female pop stars, and it’s so poignant when she says that. But it’s hard to know what will happen, though, because she issuch a trailblazer. I mean, there’s just been no one like her, and her fan base and the relationship she has with her fans is so unique, and, I mean, she’s already done so many things that no one else has done before — who knows what will happen in the future? She is cognizant of what’s happened in the past and what’s going to happen in the future … but it could be anything, because she’s different than anyone that’s come before.
We can hope we all live long enough to find out what a 50- or 60-year-old Taylor Swift is like.
I love that idea too. I want to go to the arena tour of a 60-year-old Taylor Swift. I want to know what the songs she’s writing then are.
The last third of the film focuses on her decision to make a political statement and what comes after.
It was a profound decision for her to make, and a multilayered one. In that, I saw this feminist coming-of-age story that I personally connected with, and that I really think women and girls around the world will see themselves in.
You didn’t actually have the “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” song in the movie, but that’s the song on the album that most speaks to her political turn. So it seemed like a good thing to title the movie after?
It was cool because it’s obviously, yeah, a reference to this song she wrote that has political themes. It was interesting that when the documentary was announced, her fans instantly understood some of the themes the film would have, because of the song title. And then for me, even if you don’t know the song, I see the movie as in some ways looking at the flip side of being America’s sweetheart. So I like how the title evokes that, too.
You have the twin moments of disappointment in the movie. Early on, you have the Grammy disappointment, and then later there’s the midterm result disappointment. Those are the parallel scenes, almost, where she’s having to deal with the results not turning out as she planned and one of these ultimately being more important than the other.
I’m glad you noticed that. That means a lot. One thing that I think is amazing about her is that she goes to the studio and to songwriting as a place to process what she’s going through. I loved how, when she got the Grammys news, this isn’t someone who’s going to feel sorry for herself or say “That wasn’t right.” She’s like, “Okay, I’m going to work even harder.” And I think it’s amazing how you see her strength of character in that moment when she gets that news. Then with the election results, I loved how she channeled so many of her thoughts and feelings into this song (“Only the Young”). It was a great way to kind of show how stuff that happens in her life goes directly into the songs. You get to actually witness that in both cases.
Were you surprised that she addressed having had what could be described as an eating disorder? She seems hesitant to use that term but finally does. She’s been open about so many things, but that’s not something that she’s revealed.
No, that’s one of my favorite sequences of the film. I was surprised, of course. But when you hear her talk about it, I love how she’s kind of thinking out loud. And yeah, she’s an icon of beauty, but even for an icon of beauty, as she articulates so beautifully, women are in this double bind situation. It’s impossible for anyone to meet every standard of beauty. It’s an impossible situation. And every woman will see herself in that sequence. I just have no doubt. And I do think people will be really surprised by it.
I tend to be clueless about these minor shifts in weight or body size, until people point them out en masse. It never would have occurred to me that she was any less thin on the “Reputation” tour until I started seeing comments about weight gain. But there are those who have their antennae out for the slightest change, and often it’s women, maybe it’s because you’re under that scrutiny yourselves.
But you can also just not notice people being really skinny, because we’re all so accustomed to seeing women on magazine covers who are unhealthy skinny, and that’s become normalized. I think it’s interesting what you say about what you read during “Reputation” about her weight, because you really can’t win. There is a moment in the film where you see that part of the media backlash she experienced during 2016 was people saying, “Oh, she’s too skinny.” People complain if you’re too skinny, and if you’re not too skinny, you’re too fat. It’s incessant, and I can say this as a woman: It’s amazing to me how people are constantly like “You look skinny” or “You’ve gained weight.” People you barely know say this to you. And it feels awful, and you can’t win. So I think it’s really powerful to see someone who is a role model for so many girls and women be really honest about that. It’s a brave thing of her to do, and I think it will have a huge impact.
Her interactions with Kanye West are such an essential part of the story, but that’s not a name that has really ever escaped her lips publicly since 2010; she’ll say “a person” or something euphemistic if she has to address it. So I was in suspense to see whether or how much it would come up in your film, given how little capital she wants to give this guy in her life. It’s a crux, twice, of her journey of self-acceptance, but it’s easy to imagine her not wanting it in the film.
I think it’s an important part of the story, but I wanted to position… Like, with the 2009 VMAs, what was surprising to me when I asked her about it was that she talked about how the whole crowd was booing, and she thought that they were booing her, and how devastating that was. That was something I hadn’t thought about or heard before. And it meant a lot more to me because it made more sense in the context of her being this extraordinary young artist who is doing so well, and who, like so many performing artists, loves applause. And then she is on stage [still as a teenager] and it felt like all these people were booing her. When you put it that way, it’s so much more relatable to me, and it’s understandable to anyone, because we all want people to like us. And being on stage with a giant crowd booing would be horrible for anyone. So we tried to use it in a way that showed it in a slightly different light than people have seen before. … We all care about what people think about us. It’s not a celebrity problem. It’s a universal one. It’s something everyone goes through, and I think the difference is that with Taylor, it plays out on a massive international stage.
At the outset, you’ve got her in voiceover talking about how she wanted to be the good girl and be accepted. And in the end, she is a good girl, so maybe that’s not a bad thing to want to be, but there are gradations of that. She’s played around with bad girl archetypes in the “Reputation” imagery and songs, but it was role-playing to a degree. Where do you think she ended up on the scale of all that?
She starts out as a good girl and she ends up as a good girl who’s decided to speak out. You know, we live in a society in which girls are taught that other people’s approval is of paramount importance to our self-worth. “Do they like me? Was I nice enough? Are they mad at me?” Every woman I know is constantly asking herself these questions. So it’s so relatable in that way. But it’s not about not being a good person. I think that the arc in the film and what Taylor went through was letting go a little bit of what other people think of her, deciding to live on her own terms, and to put her own values first. The transformation that you see is going through this period where she lets go a little bit of that. She’s a good girl speaking out now, in a way. You can’t win everyone over. No one can. I think she’s really accepted that in a deep way.