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How Miss Americana director Lana Wilson found the real Taylor Swift

Why the acclaimed feminist filmmaker decided to make a documentary on one of the world’s biggest pop stars.

Taylor Swift and Lana Wilson at the Sundance 2020 premiere of Miss Americana.
Kevin Mazur/Netflix via Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

I first met documentarian Lana Wilson on a panel I was moderating about making documentaries in difficult and intimate spaces. Wilson was a perfect fit for the conversation — her 2013 film After Tiller, for instance, documents the lives of the only four doctors in the United States who perform late-term abortions. Her 2017 documentary The Departure explores the epidemic of death by suicide in Japan through a portrait of a Buddhist monk.

So I was a little surprised when I found out that her new film was a portrait of a very different subject: Taylor Swift, one of the most well-known people on the planet. But once you see the movie, it makes sense that Wilson would want to be involved.

Miss Americana captures a much more intimate portrait than your typical pop star documentary. While Wilson was making the film, largely during the recording of Swift’s 2019 album Lover, Swift went through a series of events that shifted her view of herself — most notably, countersuing a man who sued her after she accused him of groping her. Swift won the suit and gained some confidence to speak out about other things, including her political views.

In Miss Americana, Swift both explains that journey and lets audiences in on some aspects of her life, especially her songwriting process, which is delightful to behold. (Her relationship with actor Joe Alwyn remains largely off-screen; she’s still a private person.) She’s frank about her experiences with eating disorders, fame, paparazzi, and her emotional spiral after Kanye West famously hijacked Swift’s VMAs speech in 2009.

I talked with Wilson after the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, which Swift attended. Our conversation, which has been lightly edited, follows.

Alissa Wilkinson

At the premiere, Taylor said that you two weren’t really sure what kind of movie you were going to be making when you first got started. So how did this project end up happening?

Lana Wilson

I was introduced to Taylor by Morgan Neville, who’s a producer on the film. I went to meet her in person, and she had watched some of my work. We talked for an hour about documentaries and storytelling.

I knew and loved her albums. I would tell friends, “Oh, you should listen to her early country stuff, because it’s such great songwriting.” I don’t know much about country music, but I knew she was an extraordinary songwriter. So I admired her, and knew she’d been writing her own songs for 15 years, and all of that. But I didn’t know anything about her personal life, or what she was really like beyond her songs.

So, when first met, we had a mutual admiration for each other’s work. She appreciated that my documentaries give audiences space to come to their own conclusions. They’re about gray areas and complexity. She really responded to all of that.

We talked about doing a documentary that felt raw and intimate and complex and messy. She was coming out of an important time in her life. She’d been out of the public eye for a year, and she was coming back. She wanted to keep making work and going out into the world, but she wanted to do it in a way where she wasn’t caring as much about getting everyone’s approval and getting everyone to like her.

That was something I related to, as a creative person. It’s terrifying to put your art into the world. You always hope everyone likes it, even though you know not everyone will like it. We’re all on social media and more conscious than ever of how we measure up to other people, and if people like us or not.

And I related to her as a female artist in a male-dominated industry. There is something different about needing to be liked by the people in your industry, by the people that you work with. You’re judged based on whether you’re likable or not if you’re a woman, in a way that you’re not if you’re a man. I immediately thought this could be incredibly rich and deep, and started filming. The evolution of her political, feminist consciousness leading to this decision to speak out politically, for me, was extraordinarily powerful to witness.

Alissa Wilkinson

A lot of the big public events in the movie are familiar to most people who pay any attention to pop culture, but this movie feels like we’re getting access to behind-the-scenes footage. A lot of people thought they knew what was going on with Swift behind the news headlines, but that’s not necessarily true.

Lana Wilson

Right. It was a challenge and a joy in the edit room to figure out how to do this. The film primarily covers about two years. But then, you have to ask, what elements of her backstory and her past do you need to know in order to have the context for the emotional journey she’s on now?

She’s had this 15-year career already, so we had an overwhelming amount of material to choose from. We ended up, in the edit room, deciding to use the archival footage as sparingly as possible; we just used what you needed to know to understand where she was coming from, and why [the decision to speak out] was so profound for her.

Taylor Swift in Miss Americana by Lana Wilson, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Sundance Institute

Alissa Wilkinson

It seems like putting together this story would be especially hard with a subject about whom everyone has preconceptions. Everyone thinks they know who Taylor Swift is. Your other films are about people who aren’t celebrities (though they’re public figures in their own way). Did it feel like you had to do something different to find what the story would be for this one?

Lana Wilson

Well, yes and no. I do feel like my other films are about people living in extraordinary circumstances. And they’re about giving audiences the chance to intimately experience [the subjects’] lives, even though their lives could probably not be more different than the audience members. So my approach was certainly common here. I was surprised by moments [in Taylor’s life] that I thought people could relate to, especially women and girls. So those were really the focus.

But of course, it was very different in some ways than my other films, in terms of the amount of information that was publicly available about this person. And you’re right that people have all kinds of preconceptions about Taylor Swift.

Alissa Wilkinson

I think my favorite thing about the movie is how much we get to watch Taylor just work! Documentaries about artists’ processes fascinate me, and that’s a huge part of this movie. We get to just watch her write songs. I think it may also help show some skeptics she’s the real deal as a songwriter, especially for people who assume she’s just a manufactured pop star because she’s young and pretty and successful.

Lana Wilson

No one had ever filmed with her in the studio before.

Alissa Wilkinson


Lana Wilson

Ever. She had occasionally used her own cellphone to film, which you see a little bit of in the film.

It was fun for me, as a creative person too, to see the process. She’s always recording voice memos, or writing notes of lyrics in her phone. You have to do this as a writer — you have to catch ideas as they come. She’s such a pro at that.

It’s fun to watch someone who’s just been such an extraordinary songwriter for 15 years, who has the craft down. I loved watching that. But no one had ever filmed with her in the studio before, so it was a process. I went in alone with a camera and planted myself in the corner. On day two, I might move around a little more. On day three, I might bring in a sound recordist. I try to make as small of a footprint as possible — just me, or me and one other person, in the room.

It was a challenge. But I think in the end, she came to enjoy having us there. It’s different, but in my past films, with sensitive filming situations, I’ve tried to just be still and radiate support. I know I’m not invisible, and I’m not going to disappear. But I can become part of the process in a silent way.

Alissa Wilkinson

That’s the funny thing about documentary — it’s kind of like a science experiment. Things change under observation. But I do wonder, since Taylor is so used to the spotlight, if it’s different in her case. Did you feel like she was more or less aware of the cameras, aware of managing her image for the cameras, than someone else might have been?

Lana Wilson

You’d have to ask her, honestly. I think my presence felt different than those of other people filming her have been in the past. I mean, this is someone who has paparazzi after her all the time. And just seeing a camera out of nowhere — it’s scary. A camera has the potential to be a destructive — and has been — a destructive force in her life. The microscope she’s been put under by the media and by the public, and it’s not just about her music. It’s about her as a person. She is without peers, in a lot of ways. She’s writing all her own songs. A totally self-created artist who’s been doing this for 15 years, at the top of her game.

But to say she has no peers is both a compliment and a quandary, because there aren’t a lot of role models to look at. She’s doing this under intense layers of public scrutiny, both about her as an artist and a person. And she’s somehow managed to maintain her humanity and her sense of humor despite all of that. That was amazing for me to see.

Alissa Wilkinson

I think some people are going to assume she really managed this portrait of her, too. Which might be because you don’t really appear in the documentary.

Lana Wilson

Yes. I don’t put myself in my documentaries. I never have. There’s one point in the film where you hear my voice, and that was the idea of one of our editors, Lindsay Utz. I thought it was a great idea.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s you asking Taylor a follow-up question, right?

Lana Wilson

Yeah. She says there’s no such thing as a bitch or a slut, and then apologizes, then asks herself why she’s apologizing. You can hear me saying, “Well, we’re trained to say sorry.” It was a great thing to have in there, because it relates to something a lot of women experience. If you speak out too much or go too far, or you’re too strong or assertive, you’re like, “Oh, God. I’m so sorry. Did I offend you? Is that okay?”

Taylor really wanted a director to bring her perspective to the documentary, and working with her, I felt like I had the freedom to tell the story. So I don’t put myself in my movies, but I do feel like I chose the story I wanted to tell.

And when I showed her the film, she loved it. She was never not game for anything. She didn’t have some plan for what the documentary should be. She really wanted someone to come in, film her life, and then make a story.

Alissa Wilkinson

There’s something very comforting about that idea, of having someone else make sense of your own journey.

Lana Wilson

I think a lot of documentary subjects agree to be in films because they’re curious about the story they’ll be told about their life. They want an outside perspective. I mean, that’s part of why I go to therapy. My therapist is telling me a novel about my life, and I learn so much from that. I think it can be similar with documentary subjects. I saw this person going through this transformational chapter in her life that was a moment of reflection and self-assessment.

That’s why I wanted to bookend the film with her looking at her childhood diary. I wanted to start it in a provocative way, where we’re situating ourselves in her inner voice.

I wanted the movie to start in a way that would signal this movie is going to be different from other pop star movies, by having us hear her, over images of her at the peak of her fame, saying, “I became the person who everyone wanted me to be.” I always knew I wanted to end the film with her walking back out to the stage, back out into the public eye. Putting her art out there — putting herself out there again — but with this new self-knowledge and self-awareness.

I think that it’s brave of her to do this documentary, because she’s not someone who needs to do this. She had the bestselling album on earth last year. But I think she wants to be able to communicate with people.

And there’s so much that I hope is comforting and inspiring and relatable for so many people in sharing this experience with them. Even though a lot of it is hard.

Alissa Wilkinson

I think people have this idea that stars who got famous when they were young are just born with that ability, that they’re never dealing with fear or self-doubt. Miss Americana really complicates that narrative, making us clear of how much fear and need to please has been part of her life.

Lana Wilson

We’re all trying to be confident people in the world. You might be a creative person putting your work out there. Or you might need to have a difficult conversation with your family that you’ve been avoiding, which we also see Taylor do in the film. We’re all trying to find ways to be true to ourselves and be confident people, but we all inevitably have insecurities and challenges. I wanted to show all of that contradiction and complexity in this movie.

Miss Americana opened the Sundance Film Festival on January 23 and premieres on Netflix on January 31.

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