Taylor Swift is arguably the world’s most successful pop star. At only 30 years old, Swift has managed to earn 32 Grammy nominations, 10 Grammy wins, 23 Billboard Music Awards, and has numerous other awards under her belt. While Swift has experienced great accomplishments, she has also endured unimaginable criticism and heartbreak. Director Lana Wilson tackles this and so much more in regards to Taylor Swift and her hit documentary Miss Americana. As a fan of Swift myself, I was honored to be able to have an in-depth interview with Wilson about anything and everything Taylor Swift, and what it was like to craft an amazing film about a fascinating subject.
Kendall Tinston: First of all, thank you so much for taking time today to discuss Miss Americana. As a huge Taylor Swift fan, this is easily one of my favorite documentaries of 2020 and I’m so excited for this opportunity. When you began filming, did you have a general idea of what you were going to cover or did you plan on letting Taylor tell her story and see what that involved? There is so much you could talk about in regards to her life.
Lana Wilson: Thank you. Well, I came in with a lot of curiosity and questions that I think were kind of specific to me, who I am, and what I’m most interested in when I start making films. For example, I was curious what it was like for Taylor to have the extraordinary level of success and accomplishments that she’s had that brings so many wonderful things but also brings a lot of pressure and scrutiny. I was curious about what it was like to be such a powerful female artist in a male dominated industry. I was curious about how she navigated the challenges we all have—everyone has challenges in their lives—but how she navigated that on the world’s biggest stage. I really wanted to go deep and see what she has experienced, and what she’s learned in her life that is stuff that we can all relate to and learn from. I didn’t want it to be a ‘fans only’ documentary. I wanted to explore these bigger questions about finding your voice, standing up for what you believe in, navigating the difference between who other people want you to be and who you are. I wanted to see how all of that connected to who she is as an artist and as a creative person. So I would say I came in with all those questions in my head and then when I met her in person it was clear that she was at a transformational moment in her life and her career. When we met she had just come out of basically being in hiding for over a year. She had gone off the grid because she had experienced a big media backlash. She had gotten away from the world for a while, reevaluating her priorities and how she wanted to live life and keep making music in a new way. She hadn’t done an interview in three years when we met. I think what was so compelling to me was that this is someone who wants to change some things both in their art and in their life and they know there’s a transformation happening here, that this is a pivot point for them, but they don’t know exactly what it is yet. I don’t think she knew exactly where she’d be a year from now and I didn’t know either, so while I brought a focus, perspective and interest in certain things it is a little bit of, “Well, how will this manifest over time?” So you’re doing both. You’re coming in with an initial instinct and vision but then you’re being curious and open and seeing what comes out of your time together and what rises to the surface.
KT: Wow, that must have been such an amazing experience. How long were you filming with Taylor? It seems to begin with the Reputation tour in May 2018 and end with Lover’s release in August 2019.
LW: Yeah, I started filming during the Reputation tour so that’s about right. Of course, there’s a bunch of archival footage from earlier in her career and life too.
KT: There were also a lot of moments that seemed very intimate and like Taylor filmed them personally in her house. For example when she finds out she didn’t receive any Grammy nominations, or when she was brainstorming songs like “Lover” or “Getaway Car.” Did Taylor do a lot of recording for the film on her own?
LW: Yes, those three shots you just named were all her cellphone. The “Getaway Car” thing was when she was writing Reputation so that was before we met; it was a cellphone recording she made of her and Jack Antonoff writing that song. The Grammy one was a little different because I was filming by then but I couldn’t be with her the day the Grammy nominations were being announced. I knew that whatever happens will be a big moment for her so I asked her if she would record it herself. I loved the phone stuff—it happened when she’s writing “Lover” and she’s propped her phone up on the piano—because it has this incredibly raw, intimate texture and it’s just really fun to work with. I like it too because Taylor uses her phone as a song writing tool. Whenever she has an idea she makes a voice memo, or she writes a note, or she makes a quick video. It’s so natural for her to record that kind of thing because she’s always using it to record song writing ideas. It was great to use in that way. We have that but also we have these moments during song writing where of course I was filming, or filming with the cinematographer. I think both of those approaches bring different things. They bring different qualities to the footage when you’re filming yourself writing the song with your cellphone versus when someone else is filming you writing a song in a studio. They give different perspectives on the same thing.
KT: Absolutely, and then versus seeing her perform those songs like “Getaway Car” on stage during the Reputation tour. Also, you see her home videos that add another element to the film.
LW: Yeah, and there was this idea throughout that I was very interested in: there are very few people on Earth who you can see coming up with an idea, like coming up with that line for “Getaway Car,” or coming up with a music video idea and you can capture them having the idea spur of the moment and they’re with one other person in a room. Then you can immediately cut to them in front of tens of thousands of people on stage performing that song and those tens of thousands of people are all singing along to that song and they know all those lyrics. Or in the case of the music video, you can cut to seeing these wild, incredibly ambitious ideas being realized on the biggest possible level. She can just make stuff happen on this extraordinary scale very quickly and that was incredible to see. I think it’s so inspiring for artists to see, especially female artists. You know, “Here’s the idea, I’m saying it out loud, and now I’m manifesting it.” It was really fun to play with that kind of thing, and that great mash cut of “Getaway Car” writing in the studio to “Getaway Car” thanks to the idea of my amazing editor Greg O’Toole. In the film too that part is functioning as a metaphor. I didn’t want to do a parade of greatest hits kind of thing; I did not want to open the film with a 10-minute montage of Taylor Swift’s greatest hits. I wanted to use slightly more obscure songs—a bunch of them are my favorite songs—but I also wanted to use songs that are a metaphor for something that Taylor is going through then. Her songs are her autobiography and she channels her feelings and experiences into those songs. “Getaway Car” is used as this moment of her freedom and escape from the immense weight of other people’s expectations and of trying to make everyone in the world happy with her. “Getaway Car” which has one meaning as a song: it’s about a romantic relationship. In the context of the film, it’s more about this extraordinary freedom of rejecting needing to satisfy everyone on Earth, her freedom from other people’s opinions. It’s a similar thing with the home movies in a way in that it’s just so cool to see this 12 year old stepping up to a karaoke stage and then to intercut that through time up to the present day. The final sequence of the film is Taylor stepping out onto stage one more time and we decided to use these little mash cut, archival moments of her stepping out onto stage over the course of 15 years because I think when you see that all together it’s so moving. As someone who’s seen so many of her home videos I can say that Taylor has really been the same person her whole life in a lot of ways that I think is very rare for a celebrity. This film is about one big way in which she changed in this huge kind of coming of age decision to speak out in a new way and harness the power of her voice in a new way. I think when you also see that montage of her over 15 years stepping out onto those stages to perform her music again and again, for me the cumulative effect—especially if you’ve seen the film—is, “God, this takes so much courage.” She’s stepping out there, you don’t know what you’re going to face when you step out on the stage, when you put your music out into the world, and I think that’s true for any creative person—or really any person—making a stand, putting themselves out there, opening themselves up in some way. People can like it, they can not like it, they can celebrate you, they can criticize you. You kind of can’t control it once it’s out there, but what I think is moving and inspiring is the courage in going out there, in trying, in working hard, and in trying to learn, change, grow and evolve as an artist and as a human being.
KT: Like you said, especially with Taylor, she is basically going on stage and reading her diary to everyone whenever she performs. And she actually did read her diary to you!
LW: I love that section of the diary that we use in the film. I remember when I first read that in her diary, I think she wrote that entry when she was about 14 or 15 and she’s saying, “Oh, this is a lot of pressure.” She was preparing to perform for someone she was hoping she could get a record deal from or something like that. “Oh, this is a lot of pressure, oh this is a lot to handle. You can do it!” Don’t quote me on this portion of the film, but you know the part I’m talking about where she’s like, “Relax, stay calm, you’re talented, you’re young, they’ll see it in you!” When I read that I was like, “Oh my God, that’s kind of my own monologue to myself before a scary moment and I’m 37.” I was so struck by how that inner monologue she was having at age 15 reminded me of my inner monologue now and I thought it was something so many different people would be able to relate to and would be surprised by. We all have those moments of self-doubt and trying to pump ourselves up and give ourselves the courage to get out there and do something that we believe in even though its risky. That’s why I love adult Taylor reading that out loud from her journal at age 15 over this sequence of Taylor from age 12 to the present stepping out every time. You know from the film that she still has those same butterflies in her stomach every time she goes out there to perform no matter how accomplished and experienced she is.
KT: I also related to her rolling her eyes at the angsty sayings on the front of her diary like, “My life. My journey. My talent.” I did also want to talk about the song from the film, “Only The Young.” I love that song, and it goes hand in hand with her taking a political stance for the first time. I was wondering if you always had the idea of having a song to release with the documentary or if it was more of a stroke of luck that you were able to release this song with the film?
LW: I didn’t even know you could do that honestly! It was just this thing where after the midterms she was writing one of these songs. Some of her songs are autobiographical, other songs are about characters and other people and she’s kind of imagining what it’s like to be someone else or to be living in another world, and then there are songs that she writes that I think are kind of like messages to herself. Almost in the same way that that journal entry was encouragement to herself, I think she wrote this song to herself to kind of help herself have some perspective after that devastating midterm defeat in the Tennessee senate race. That really struck me as I watched her write the song. It was towards the end of our filming; we had been filming for a little bit in the studio before then so she was really comfortable with the cameras in the studio at that point and I love the way that footage came out. It felt incredibly intimate, it was only me and the cinematographer, Stephen Maing, in the room. I remember filming that song so clearly because it’s one of those moments where you feel like the camera isn’t there, I think, when you watch the footage. It was just really special and it tied in to what ultimately was the most important theme of the film which is Taylor deciding to take the muzzle off in this new way: a “good girl” deciding to speak out. She did that, and this song was her reflecting on how, “You can do that and it still doesn’t work out sometimes, so where do we go from here?” It was just really kind of filming it naturally and I never thought it would have a special release or anything like that but it’s certainly very timely right now.
KT: Now more than ever with the upcoming election. You mentioned earlier while watching her home videos that she’s seemed to be the same person throughout her entire life, which is very rare for a celebrity. Being a Taylor Swift fan, I am aware of the many misconceptions regarding who she is. I was wondering, now that you know her personally, what do you believe is the biggest misconception regarding Taylor Swift?
LW: I think people underestimate two things. I think people underestimate how intelligent she is, and how funny she is. I think people know now that she’s a great songwriter, but I think that the way that she has navigated her entire career, the way that she’s run her business, she is the boss. It’s not intelligence really; I think people underestimate who she is as a leader. I remember the first time I was in a room with her and her team, I knew that she had been the single vision behind her career, but still when you see it in the room it’s like, “This young woman is the boss of all these other people.” I loved watching her leadership style. I think that’s what people don’t realize. I do think there’s this misconception, before the film was released to when it was announced that it had been made, people would often say to me, “Is Taylor controlled by this whole huge company of 50 people who tell her what to say and do?” I was like, “No! She is the boss! She’s in charge of this.” People couldn’t believe that, I think they don’t understand that about her. People say, “She doesn’t really write all the songs alone, she has 10 other people in the room with her, right? She’s just part of a group.” I was like, “No! She writes all her own songs.” I do think there is a tendency in general with her and with a lot of female artists and leaders to diminish who they are as leaders, and the credit they deserve, and the autonomy that they have. So there’s that but I also do think people underestimate how funny she is. She has a very dry sense of humor, she’s extremely self-deprecating and I was just like, “Wow, she’s hilarious!” the first time I met her. She’s not just earnest at all. To be both a nice person, and have a dark sense of humor, it’s possible!
KT: That’s awesome. Last question because I’m sure a lot of readers are wondering: what was it like to work with the world’s biggest pop star and what did you learn from seeing things from her perspective?
LW: I think one of the things I was struck by was just because you’re the world’s biggest pop star doesn’t mean you don’t have challenges and problems of your own. It doesn’t mean that you don’t hurt and feel pain. You’re a human being too, and I think sometimes we have these expectations of celebrities and of icons that they be perfect, that they always be happy, that they never complain, and also that if they have money and they’re famous that their life must be easy. That’s just not true, and I hope that people watching the film can be surprised by how much they have in common with Taylor because ultimately we all have very different life circumstances, but there are some things that we as human beings all share. I hope people can see a little of themselves in some surprising ways in her. For me, I’m an artist and a filmmaker and I loved getting to see someone who is such a master of their craft. I think for anyone who’s interested in the creative process or in being an artist in any way, seeing this combination of being able to touch the ideas when they come, always being ready for them, and then just the work ethic and the time that it takes to develop the craft. In her case, to make a great song, and then also get through the stress of being looked at by the world for people to judge and connect to you and whatever happens there. I really related to that. Even though she’s very young, she’s had 15 years experience of that process so I loved watching and learning from her in that way.
If you’d like to watch Miss Americana, you can find it streaming on Netflix. The poignant song “Only The Young” is available on iTunes, Pandora, Spotify and wherever else you listen to music. Look out for a possible nomination from the Academy for the timely song, and be sure to check out Lana Wilson’s other memorable documentaries.