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Taylor Swift doesn’t care about your approval. Not anymore.
That’s the narrative that takes shape in the new Netflix documentary Miss Americana, in which director Lana Wilson follows Swift over the course of the pop star’s personal and professional redefinition of her career. As Swift, who broke out as a country singer at the age of 15, heads toward the milestone of turning 30, the singer-songwriter encounters and endures a series of events that forces her to reassess her own voice and platform.
Months before the film’s release, Wilson, Swift and Netflix hit a snag after the singer parted ways with Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Label group and saw her entire catalog of music sold to Scooter Braun, a move about which she voiced her unhappiness and added that Borchetta and Braun were refusing to allow the use of her music in the documentary.
“The film was quite close to done at that point, and I wasn’t really involved with all that, but we got the approval, full clearance for everything, which was awesome,” Wilson tells The Hollywood Reporter while at the Sundance Film Festival, where the documentary debuted on opening night. And while the Borchetta-Braun drama marked another chapter of Swift’s challenges in a male-dominated music industry, Wilson decided to not include the incident in the film because “I just feel like Taylor had put it out there in her own words already, and it’s been so extensively covered by the press that I was really interested in focusing on the story that people hadn’t heard before.”
To tell the story of Swift right, Wilson decided to begin the narrative on one fateful night in New York in 2009. It is the eve of the MTV Video Music Awards, and Swift is about to hit a career high and low in one simultaneous — and now infamous — moment on stage. The then 19-year-old singer, who had arrived at the show in a glittering gown in a horse-drawn carriage, won best female video for “You Belong With Me.” Within moments of accepting the award, she was interrupted by Kanye West, who declared, “Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you, Imma let you finish, but Beyonce had the one of the best videos of all time.”
“She just had this incredible meteoric rise when she got to the VMAs and had this experience, which I understood in a new way when I interviewed her about it,” Wilson says. “When Kanye West comes on stage and takes the microphone away and then the audience starts booing, that experience of an entire room and people booing you on what was this incredibly exciting big night for your career would be devastating to anyone, but especially to a young performing artist who thrives on this gratifying response from the crowd.”
This moment was a catalyst for Swift to seek the topmost recognition from her industry peers. She won the coveted album of the year Grammy award (twice) and constantly strived for perfection. It was also, as Wilson discovered, part of a cycle of events that negatively affected Swift, as she opens up for the first time about struggling with an eating disorder. “I don’t care as much if somebody points out that I have gained weight, it’s something that makes my life better. The fact that I’m a size six instead of a size double zero — that wasn’t how my body was supposed to be, I just didn’t really understand that at the time,” Swift says emotionally, speaking about not looking at paparazzi photos of herself.
Wilson captured the moment after Swift walked by throngs of screaming fans to get to her car from her hotel and talked about how she would mentally spiral after seeing photographs of herself where she didn’t feel she looked thin enough. To the filmmaker, it was an opportunity to document the singer’s thought process, questioning “the double standards that women are put under in terms of body image.”
“She never talked about that before, and I connected to that as a woman really deeply,” Wilson explains. “She’s someone who I think people think of as an icon of beauty, and the idea we had in the edit room with that scene was to include these little flashbacks to this period in her life, because I think you realize when you see those images, you’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I saw those images on magazine covers and online and I didn’t think she was unhealthily skinny. I think I thought that’s normal, because that’s the image I see everywhere.’ But when you look back at them now, you realize how serious it was, and especially when you see how amazing she looks now. Her body looks completely different now.”
Wilson broke out as the co-director of 2013’s After Tiller, a documentary looking at the diminishing group of doctors performing third-trimester abortions in the United States after the death of Dr. George Tiller. Her second feature, 2017’s The Departure, followed the life of a Buddhist monk. Swift, who said she watches a “lot of TV, a lot of documentaries and a lot of movies,” came across Wilson’s work in After Tiller via Lisa Nishimura, Netflix’s vp of independent films and documentary features. “I thought the way she so artfully maneuvered through such a touchy subject with such emotional intelligence, that was what made me a fan, and I just wanted to talk about your work,” Swift said on stage at the Sundance premiere of Miss Americana.
Shifting from independent filmmaking (Wilson said After Tiller was made for around $350,000 to $450,000) to Netflix, Wilson relished the resources that came with working with deeper-pocketed streamers (“I’m so used to a lot of my brain thinking about ‘When are we eating, and what are we eating?'”). She recruited an all-female crew to work on the project, adding that “I always had the person getting us snacks to be a guy. People need to see that men can fetch coffee for women and not just the other way around, because I’m so used to being treated on a film set where crew people think I’m the producer or people think I’m the production assistant and ask me to get them coffee,” Wilson says.
She started filming with Swift around the time of the Reputation tour in 2018, following her through her political awakening and the recording of her latest album, Lover. Swift had never allowed any cameras into the recording studio, for fear of disrupting her creative process, but Wilson made herself invisible in the room (“I was often curled in a ball under the piano,” she says, laughing) and captured the singer’s songwriting and composing prowess.
“I just always refused to have any cameras at the studios when I’m writing because I just feel like, what if I can’t do it and then I’ve wasted a day and I’ve wasted another creator’s time, I’ve wasted a producer’s time, I’ve wasted a co-writer’s time, and I can’t write if somebody’s there,” Swift explained. But the singer added that she felt secure in the knowledge that Wilson wasn’t seeking to exploit her vulnerable moments.
“For so much of my life in the public eye, when I get sad or upset or humiliated or angry or go through a really horrible time, I feel people lean in with this hunger, and you never did that to me, and that was what made me feel okay about feeling sadness, anger, humiliation around you, because I felt like when I got sad, you did too, and so it made all of that all right,” Swift said to Wilson on stage.
Wilson said it “took a little time to build the trust for that, because she was understandably worried that having another person or two or three other people in there could interfere with the creative process, which is her happy space, and the space where you can see in the film, she is just in the zone. It’s incredible to watch.”
The documentary is interspersed with flashbacks, interviews, concert footage, home videos and Swift’s own cellphone videos, such as sweet moments captured with her boyfriend, British actor Joe Alwyn (whose face is never shown), or when she’s workshopping her songs on the piano. Wilson also liked capturing what she called “the more mundane and ordinary” moments “where I felt a real intimacy with her while filming” — such as watching Swift devour a burrito (she says she had never eaten a burrito until she was 27) and a backstage scene with Swift in a eye-catching silver dress before she heads to a red carpet, taking a freight elevator and walking through industrial kitchens.
“That was the kind of stuff that I most enjoyed — the extraordinary ordinary contradictions,” Wilson says.
These are milestones that document a changing Swift, but it was another unexpected and unwanted encounter at a Denver radio station that once again redefined the singer’s course. Swift was sued by a DJ after she alleged he had groped her during a photo op and he was fired from his job — she countersued him, testified during the trial in a Denver courthouse and won the case, demanding a symbolic dollar in damages. But even though she won, the incident had a lasting impact on her, and in the documentary, she talks about the “dehumanizing” process.
“It’s a backstory moment that felt so crucial to understanding the layers that led her to this really profound decision to speak out politically,” Wilson says. “What was interesting to me is the way she talked about that trial and how for her, it was this completely perspective-changing experience, because she went to trial. She had seven witnesses. She had the best lawyers money could buy, She had all the privilege in the world. And she won. Yet this was still such a humiliating and dehumanizing experience for her. And I’m really proud, in the film at the end of that sequence, that she realized, what if you get raped and it’s your word against his? It just really opened her eyes to a lot of stuff. It changed her forever.”
Indeed, the most emotional we see Swift being in the film is in a heated conversation with her parents and managers as she decides she’s going to finally break her long-standing silence on politics to endorse the Democratic opponent of Tennessee’s Republican senator Marsha Blackburn ahead of the state elections in 2018, citing her trial and Blackburn’s track record of voting against women’s rights (and calling her “Trump in a wig.”).
“What I really connected to was being a young woman disagreeing with her dad,” Wilson says of her experience of being in the room. “Her team’s arguments and her dad’s arguments I thought made sense, I think you see by that point in the film how much her fans mean to her, so the chance of risking alienating any of them is scary. … But for her at this point in her life, because of what she’s gone through, she needs to do things in her own way.”
And so concludes Swift’s third decade, as she embraces turning 30 and “not feeling muzzled anymore.” Her new song “Only The Young,” released with the debut of the film, rose out of her frustration that Blackburn won the senate seat, but that motivated Swift to keep speaking out and putting hope in the younger generation as they become of voting age.
As for Wilson’s next step, she’s already broadening her horizons. She’s working on a script for a film called Back Seat (which was awarded a $20,000 grant from the San Francisco Film group), a narrative feature about a mother who leaves her son in the back seat of the car while she runs a quick errand, only for someone to videotape her boy left alone and for it to go viral, making her into a pariah.
“I want to keep making documentaries,” Wilson says, “but I’m also working on a fiction script, and I am really curious about how different it will feel.”
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