Miss Americana director on how the doc itself is like a Taylor Swift song
Filmmaker Lana Wilson opens up about connecting with the pop star and names her favorite Swift track.
It’s now been a month since Lana Wilson’s Taylor Swift portrait Miss Americana debuted at Sundance — a week before it dropped on Netflix — and the personal, political pop star documentary still has Swifties buzzing.
“It’s been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before,” Wilson tells EW of the response to the doc, which collected positive reviews (including from EW) following its Park City premiere. “I think what’s so gratifying is that people are connecting to it and relating to it on a really deep level,” Wilson says. “I also keep hearing variations, just from audience members, of people being like, ‘This is my story,’ or ‘We are all Taylor.’”
That’s quite a takeaway from a doc about one of the biggest pop stars of all time. The intimate film, however, fully enters Swift’s world, capturing the singer not just in her public-facing moments but also in her personal spaces, poring over old diaries, cooking with friends, and becoming emotional as she fiercely debates a critical image decision with her advisors. For viewers to see her as being a person rather than a pop icon, though, Wilson had to get to that point first — but the filmmaker says that wall broke down right when the pair first met.
“I am also a female artist working in a male-dominated industry,” Wilson says. “So I thought — as weird as it seems! — there might be some experiences that we share even though we’re in extremely different worlds.” It turns out there were, and the pair hit it off immediately, bonding in particular over documentaries.
“When I met her in person, she was extremely smart, very funny, and made really clear that she wanted this to be a real film,” Wilson recalls of their first meeting, which took place after Netflix and the film’s producers reached out to her about helming the project. “[Swift] mentioned she doesn’t like documentaries that feel like propaganda, and I was like, ‘Great! Neither do I!’ I think the thing that anyone is worried about when they watch a documentary about a celebrity is: Is this going to be a puff piece? Is this going to be superficial? And I wanted to make something that was really deep and subtle and emotionally powerful.”
Going for that emotional core was a fine line to walk without swinging too far in the other direction, from being propagandistic to exploitative — but the trust between the documentarian and subject allowed Wilson to maintain that fragile balance. “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,” Swift said to the director in the Q&A following the Sundance premiere. “You never did that to me. I really want to thank you for that.”
Miss Americana is largely about Swift finding her voice and giving herself permission to use it — particularly when it comes to politics — but the very existence of the doc is part of that journey too, as it enables her to reclaim her own narrative, which been shaped so much by outside forces. “We thought a lot about point of view in the editing room, and experimented with different ways of approaching it, and ended up feeling that framing this around Taylor’s voice and personal experience is what got audiences the closest to her,” Wilson says. “I was really interested in capturing Taylor’s inner life, in bringing people inside.”
But allowing the film to be a chance for the singer to tell her own story without becoming a 90-minute Taylor Swift commercial, as both artists wanted to avoid, was another tricky balance for Wilson. “I think the reason it can work in this case is because Taylor is reflective and self-critical,” she says. “She can be her own toughest critic sometimes. And I think that’s what enabled us to keep it in her voice but have her voice be a complicated one. Be complicated and deep and make it an experience that was profound and emotional rather that fluffy and superficial.”
Swift’s “complicated” voice is what makes her so easy to relate to in the film — and what has made her a superstar in the first place. Her expressive, confessional, precise lyrics, which she’s written for herself since the beginning of her career, are essential to her artistry and part of what made the project appealing to Wilson in the first place. “I knew her music inside-out,” she says, “and I think a lot of people who know her music feel like they know her, you know?”
Her own favorite Swift song isn’t one of the Lover tracks she got to witness in progress during the making of the Miss Americana, but a beloved classic: “It’s ‘All Too Well,’” Wilson says. “It has that specificity, you know?”
“I think what’s incredible about any art form, and the reason we all watch movies and read books and listen to music, is it’s amazing if someone — especially if it’s someone who seems like they could not be more different than you — if you realize that your underlying emotional experience is the same,” Wilson adds. “You’re like, ‘Oh my God, that happened to me, and Taylor wrote about it in this song with such specificity.’ I hope that people find moments in the film that are like that for them.”
Miss Americana is currently streaming on Netflix.