Taylor Swift has never quite opened up like this before. In Miss Americana, Netflix’s recent documentary about the pop star, Taylor tackles her most haunting ghosts — everything from her 2017 sexual assault case against a radio DJ to her ongoing high-profile feud with Kanye West.
“It just feels like it’s more than music now at this point … it just gets loud sometimes,” Taylor says through tears in Miss Americana. She lets fans and critics in on her past battle with food and self-image and for the first time, lets cameras in the studio to watch her songwriting and recording process. Lana Wilson, the director of the film, tells us what it was like to capture the 30-year-old superstar throughout all aspects of her life.
Teen Vogue: What interesting scenes didn’t make it into the film?
Lana Wilson: The main thing was really more time in the studio, more songwriting stuff. It was so hard to whittle that stuff down because I loved it so much, and I think it’s so rare that you get to see one of the greatest songwriters of all time actually having ideas and developing those ideas into songs from start to finish. I love watching it because I think you get to know Taylor so well through seeing that process how she channels her life into her songs. We could have had a whole hour with just songwriting stuff and ultimately had to chop it down. No one had ever filmed her in the studio before, which made it extra special.
TV: How did you approach the Kim Kardashian and Kanye West drama?
LW: These were a couple of key moments in Taylor’s life, but I was less interested in Kanye West and making any evaluative judgements about it than I was on how it affected Taylor, as someone who cared about what people thought. For instance, when she went to the Video Music Awards in 2009, that night started out like a fairytale and then it ended with her standing alone on stage with an entire theater of people’s boos. And I remember when she told me about that aspect of the story, it was something that I hadn’t heard before. Hearing that helped me understand why that event had such a big impact on her. It’s not about Kanye. It’s about how if you’re a 19-year-old performing artist who loves applause, a room full of booing people can be a really devastating experience.
TV: How did you go about shooting the big political scene? What was the atmosphere in the room like?
LW: Taylor and I had been talking a bunch about the political stuff and how she was thinking about doing that. And I had told her, "If something comes up, even if it’s really last minute and for whatever reason I’m not in the room, please try to film it with a cellphone or get someone on your team or anyone to pick up any camera that they have." So that scene was actually filmed by someone on her team who was there because I wasn’t there at that moment. They filmed it and I got the footage immediately afterward and I can tell you when I saw the footage, I immediately thought this is going to be the most powerful scene in the movie. I thought that not just because of the politics — although that’s a part of it — but I think because it’s a scene where this woman is really coming into her own. I think we all have those moments in our lives where we disagree with the people who love us the most in the world. And you say, ‘I hear you, your point makes sense, but I don’t totally agree and I’m going to have to do it my own way this time.’ I related to it really powerfully as this incredible coming-of-age moment. That’s how I saw it in that scene.
TV: You didn’t interview anybody besides Taylor. Was that a conscious decision?
LW: Absolutely. We thought a lot about point-of-view in the editing room. We experimented with different edits and overall, I really wanted this film to feel like [an] exploration of Taylor’s inner life and ended up using her voice and personal experiences and that’s what got the audience closest to her.
TV: What did you learn about Taylor’s space in pop culture?
LW: God, so many things. I think one is that there’s no songwriter like her on earth. Another, I love watching a female artist at the top of her game be able to have ideas and then they just materialize — like that scene in the film where she describes the music video idea and we cut to what the video ends up being. I love just watching her creativity in action on all fronts, which I think is really special. But then on a bigger level, I think just because Taylor is a celebrity doesn’t mean she doesn’t deal with so many of the same hurts and feelings that we all go through. We’re all going through the world trying to feel confident in ourselves, and I think watching what Taylor has gone through in the last few years can be really inspiring for anyone who feels like their problems are bigger than [them]. She went through some hard times and then she stood up and became the person she wanted to be, and so I think it’s really special for young people to be able to see they can do that for themselves even if it’s on a much smaller scale than her celebrity.
TV: What was it like talking to her about the sexual assault? Was that something she wanted to talk about or was it something you had to dig out of her?
LW: I remember when I did the first interview with her, to make it as comfortable as possible, we did an audio-only interview, which is something I do with subjects sometimes because you can relax in a different way when you’re not being filmed. So when I did that interview, it was just her and me with a recorder in a room and the sexual assault trial was something she hadn’t talked that much about. But once we started talking, it felt like so much stuff came out — maybe because she hadn’t done an interview in three years, there was so much she wanted to say. What I thought was so powerful about how she described the sexual assault trial was it was this experience that fundamentally changed her as a person and that was an experience that gave her perspective because she went in with seven witnesses, a photo, the best lawyers that money could buy. We did a Q&A after the Sundance premiere, and she said, "I had all the privilege in the world," and she won the trial, but it was still a totally dehumanizing and humiliating experience. I think after going through that process, she thought, "You know, what if someone didn’t have all these advantages that I had?" The scene ends with her saying, "What if you get raped and it’s your word against his?" And I think that’s why that experience changed her. It opened her up to how much worse things could have been, which is hard to imagine because it was already such a horrible thing to go through.
TV: Did Taylor get final say on the editing of the documentary?
LW: The process was really set when we first met. We had talked about documentary filmmaking in general and storytelling and basically I started filming almost immediately and I filmed and filmed and filmed and then I went off and made a rough cut completely on my own and basically, Taylor gave feedback on a few cuts. I had a huge amount of creative freedom and I shaped the whole story with this amazing team of editors that I worked with and a producer and I would say that Taylor’s feedback was really excellent. She’s a great storyteller, so she has good ideas. There was never a moment when she said, ‘No, I don’t want to go there.’ That never happened. The only things we stayed away from were anything that could compromise her security. That was important, of course, and then her relationship. It was really important to her understandably to keep her relationship private, but we also wanted a way to indicate [its] significance in her life in the film and I think we found a way to do that, where you get a sense of what a big and positive role her relationship plays without ever seeing her boyfriend’s face.
TV: Would you ever make another Taylor documentary in 10, 15 years?
LW: Absolutely, I think that would be amazing. I think it would be even cooler to make a documentary of her like 50 years from now. I really would love to see Taylor at age 80 playing stadium shows. I would just love to know what songs she’s writing then. That would be awesome.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue