With Taylor Swift's new Netflix documentary Miss Americana, she does something nearly unheard of for a pop star: she stops trying to control every aspect of her narrative. While most celebrities are obsessed with the Sisyphean task of influencing how the public views them, there came a time in Swift's life, not long ago, when she realized that pleasing and impressing everyone – being the so-called "good girl" – wasn't just impossible, but toxic.
Coincidentally, that realization came around the time that director Lana Wilson -- a documentarian whose first film, After Tiller, followed the most targeted abortion providers in the U.S., and second, The Departure, tells the story of a punk who became a Buddhist priest and works to prevent suicide in Japan -- was filming Swift's life on stage and behind the curtains for a documentary. So it's only fitting that for Miss Americana, Swift also let go -- she's not the executive producer of her own documentary, micromanaging camera angles and demanding cuts. Instead, she chose a filmmaker whose work she respected and allowed her to share a fresh perspective on her ongoing personal and artistic evolution.
With Miss Americana and its accompanying song "Only the Young" out now, Billboard spoke with director Lana Wilson about everything from capturing Swift's political 'coming out' to deciding how much of Swift's pets audiences needed to see.
The documentary is quite illuminating, especially compared to how pop star documentaries usually go. How did you and her team approach the subject of 'final approval'?
When I first met Taylor, she made really clear she wanted my perspective as a director and for me to come in and find the story I wanted to tell -- which is always great to hear for any artist. She really wanted an outside perspective on what she was going through.
We shot and edited the film, showed Taylor a few cuts, and she gave really great feedback. She was never like, "No, I don't want to go there" -- nothing like that. You always show rough cuts of your film to other documentary filmmakers and get feedback from another storyteller and her thoughts were very like that. It was another excellent set of reactions to the film. She loved it from the first rough cut, she was on board.
She is a storyteller herself.
Yeah, that's something we both connected on from the beginning, both being storytellers. It was awesome she wanted to give me the freedom to find and tell the story and then was so excited about it.
As a storyteller, did you start envisioning the narrative while in the thick of it, or did it emerge afterward?
A little bit of both. I come in with curiosity and questions and an open mind. That's how you get to know someone and see what emerges. Right when I met Taylor I, of course, wondered what it would be like to be such an extraordinarily successful and powerful female artist in a male-dominated industry. Someone who for 15 years has had this incredible career, but also faced all those pressures from the public eye and getting so much feedback not just on her music, but on her as a person. So I came in with a lot of questions about all of that.
Her decision to speak out politically was this incredible coming-of-age moment I thought a lot of people would be able to connect to. We all have those moments in our life where we disagree with the people who love us the most and we say, "I love you, but I have to do things my way this time." That was all stuff that came through over the course of filming. And in putting the film together, I didn't want to make the Wikipedia account of her life and give an exhaustive survey of her career. I wanted to tell this really specific, powerful story of someone who is a good girl deciding to speak out. Then the question was: What moments earlier in her career were important to give depth and layer and context?
I appreciate that this wasn't an exhaustive, exhausting look at every part of her life.
We all know those movies where you're plodding through the years and it can feel obligatory. And I also wanted this to be something people could connect to even if they weren't a fan of Taylor's music. I wanted everyone to get something out of this as a human being.
One very relatable moment finds her arguing with her dad about speaking out politically: He's worried she'll alienate fans and even endanger her life. It's intimate footage – was part of you like, "I can't believe we're getting this?"
That was something – we'd been filming before and Taylor told me she was thinking of speaking out politically in this way. And I was like, "Okay if anything comes up last minute that you feel could be important to what's going on, please, if I'm not there, film it in some way. Use a cell phone. Get someone around you to hold a camera." That was actually someone on her team who had a little DSLR camera filming it. And then I got the footage immediately afterward and I was stunned when I saw it.
I thought it was incredibly powerful and moving. The people on her team love her more than anything, they've supported her her whole career, and their feelings are totally understandable. She cares so much about her fans -- of course they don't want to alienate any of them. And her dad's concerns about her safety are completely understandable. It was an amazing thing to get to see.
Time-wise, how much on-the-ground filming did you get with her and her team?
A lot of time. I started filming during the Reputation Tour and then through the making of Lover. Taylor has a crazy schedule, but as much as possible. And it was important for me not to film just the big moments, the performances and album coming out, but the more mundane, everyday life moments. It's been so fun to see how people are loving the scene where she eats a burrito. [Laughs.] t's people's favorite scene. It might be counterintuitive, but those are some of the hardest moments to get with any documentary subject. "Oh really, you want to film me eating lunch? But that's so boring!" Actually, it's not boring because those are the human moments everyone can connect to.
I love this contrast between the ordinary and the extraordinary in Taylor's life. That was one of the things I was so drawn to from the beginning. I love that we can film her onstage in front of 60,000 people, and then hard cut to her alone in her car riding back to her hotel room after a long night. When I film moments like that, those are the moments I felt a special intimacy, and knew it would translate to audiences watching at home.
You were filming throughout Lover and capture the creation of her new song "Only the Young." Was that a predetermined thing, like, "We'll save a song from these sessions to release with the movie?"
No, it wasn’t like that. We filmed it, put together a cut of the movie, I showed Taylor the rough cut and it was like, "Wow." I think she saw it in this context of the film and it's almost like the song means even more if you see it in the context of the film. That's why the decision was made to release the song with the film.
You received unprecedented access. Was there something you saw or learned that the public might not know?
My favorite thing was seeing her write songs. As you know she's been writing her own songs since she was 12, but I don't think a lot of people know that -- or they don't know what it's like. I think often people imagine there's a giant pop machine and it is tons and tons of people contributing to every song, but it was so cool for me to see it was just Taylor and one other person in a room making these songs start to finish.
For any creative person, there's so much to learn watching her process. There's a mixture of this incredible work ethic, but also you have to develop this skill of catching ideas as they come -- because if you miss an idea, it might not come back again. It was great to watch her catching a bit of a melody, or a lyric she writes down, or recording Voice Memos into her phone. There are tools she's developed to catch these moments of inspiration, and then the craft it takes to push it forward and develop it and make it into a song.
It was especially impressive watching her spitball the lyrics to "The Man," when we see her figuring out one unfinished lyric. It was so quick!
Yeah. With that one it was especially cool to watch because you see stuff that's going on in her life, and stuff she's thinking through, is channeled directly into the studio. There's another layer of reflection. With "The Man," I feel that was stuff she'd been thinking about for a long time, and finally had the chance to express it. It felt like watching someone who had these thoughts and ideas for years at last have the chance to pour them into the lyrics to this song.
One of the narratives, as you mentioned, is of this person realizing that being a "good girl" who pleases everyone isn't sustainable. Did that come up in your early conversations with her about this movie?
I would say it developed. We talked mostly about documentaries. She responded to my work because I make films about people living in extraordinary circumstances and they're often subjects talked about in headlines and through soundbites, and I try to give some complexity and depth to them. I like to focus on the grey area instead of making things black and white. I think she responded to that and I remember her saying she didn't like documentaries that felt like propaganda, and I was like, "Yes, me either."
If you feel like a point of view is being pushed on you, you'll pull away. Whether as an audience member or a person talking to someone, you feel the most respected and are able to think through stuff if you have the space to have your own reactions and takeaways. So we talked a lot about that when first we met. But all of the major themes emerged while shooting.
Finally, I wanted to say I loved the scene of the cat in the backpack.
When my editor put together that scene I was like, "This is amazing, but is this too long to spend with the cat in the backpack?" And he looked at me and was like, "No. Definitely not." And I was like, "You're right."