Sundance 2020: Lana Wilson talks ‘Taylor Swift: Miss Americana’

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

Lana Wilson sat down with FF2 Media during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to discuss the recently premiered Taylor Swift documentary, Miss Americana.

Following the Sundance premiere, Miss Americana will be available to stream on Netflix on January 31, 2020.

How thrilled were you that Miss Americana was selected as an opening night film during Sundance?

Lana Wilson: Totally thrilled beyond belief. I mean, it’s every filmmaker’s dream, I think so. It’s a real honor.

You announced at the premiere that your family didn’t even know you were making the film.

Lana Wilson: I made the film in secret. We kept it totally secret, which could lead to some weird things in friendships especially with other filmmakers, because they’ll say “But I told you who my secret project was about, why won’t you tell me yours?!?” I’m just like, “This is different. I can’t tell you. I’m sorry.” So it was wonderful to have it out there—even better for it to be opening night at Sundance was amazing. My family was very patient. At a certain point, they just stopped asking questions and accepted they would find out soon enough what it was about.

What did you think of the reception at the world premiere?

Lana Wilson: It was incredible. It was fantastic. It’s always a nerve-wracking moment to watch a film with an audience for the first time. How will they react? What will it be like in the room? It was such a warm and verbal response—laughter and there was kind of applause and cheering at certain points during the movie. Then, a standing ovation. It was amazing.

I found it interesting how you’re able to capture Taylor Swift at her most raw and vulnerable.

Lana Wilson: Thank you. That means so much. Yeah, that was the goal. When I first met her in person, she said, “I don’t want to do a conventional pop star documentary. I’m not interested in the kind of movie where you do interviews with an elementary school music teacher talking about how talented you are, and it’s a biopic of your life.” I was so excited by that because I really wanted to make something that felt raw and genuine and real and something that really told a story and had something to say.

The whole lead up to her braving her political silence—just to watch that unfold and be a fly in the room.

Lana Wilson: Yeah, totally. I agree with you. That’s probably my favorite sequence in the film. Because by that point, we understand some of the layers and the things that brought her to this moment but even politics aside, I think it’s so powerful to see as this moment that we all experience in our lives where we disagree with the people who love us the most. And we say, I need to do things my own way so kind of a coming-of-age moment in that way. I really connected to it on multiple levels. It is really fun to watch especially when you know what a huge impact that had.

What was the most interesting thing you learned about Taylor in the process of making the film?

Lana Wilson: I was fascinated by her creative process. That was my favorite thing maybe because I’m a filmmaker, creative storyteller, too. I just loved—she’s been writing songs for 15 years and she’s so, so good at it that I loved getting to see the moments of inspiration and how she catches them, whether by like recording a voice memo on her phone or writing a line or a lyric on her phone, and then just the craft of taking the seed of an idea and fleshing it out into a whole song. I think that was my favorite thing. It was cool to film because no one had ever filmed with her in the studio before.

What was the most challenging part of the production?

Lana Wilson: I think the most challenging part was building trust. When I started the film, she hadn’t done an interview in three years. You just have to spend time with someone to get to a place where they’ll open up to you. I think it also helped that Taylor had seen some of my previous work she really responded to the storytelling approach. I think she knew from seeing my previous work that this was going to be something that was complex, deep, and nuanced so that was a big part of the trust building, too.

How did you decide on which songs to use in the film especially considering the size and sale of the catalog?

Lana Wilson: Well, all of that stuff happened towards the end of the process. We had kind of made the film before the Big Machine stuff happened. When we were putting it together, I didn’t want to use number one hits. I didn’t want to use just the songs everyone knows. I wanted to do slightly deeper cuts but it was really all about picking songs that emotionally and thematically fit the moment. “All Too Well” comes up in this solo piano performance in the dark, where she’s talking about really difficult period in her life and how her work ethic as a songwriter is the place where she channeled all of that. “Out of the Woods,” for instance—there’s this massive performance of “Out of the Woods” that is when she’s at her peak at the top of the pop mountain and the film. That’s what it was for those songs.

I really love how we use “Getaway Car.” That’s probably my personal favorite use of a song in the movie because we track her being out of the public eye for a long period of time, then going back to the studio, and returning back into performing for audiences again. “Getaway Car” is a song that just has such freedom to it. We cut from her writing the song in the studio with Jack Antonoff directly to her on stage performing it in front of 70,000 people, which I just think is thrilling because there’s almost no one else on earth I think who when you’re writing a song, you know this is going to be heard and sung along to by millions of people.

Lana Wilson, director of Miss Americana
Lana Wilson, director of Miss Americana, an official selection of the Documentary Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

How long was the initial cut?

Lana Wilson: The first cut we ever did was 72 minutes. I like having a really tight cut and then kind of enriching and expanding it from there. The final film is 86 minutes. The first cut—the main difference was that it didn’t have a lot of back story and flashbacks. That’s really what we added to give more context and depth to the present tense story.

So there wasn’t one of those four-hour cuts that we’re so used to hearing about?

Lana Wilson: I don’t do that. That’s never been a part of my process. I like figuring out what the story is and that’s the spine, and then fleshing out, expanding and deepening around that.

Can you talk about the relationship with Netflix in terms of making this film?

Lana Wilson: Yeah, they were wonderful. I think they’re working with such an interesting group of artists and directors right now. I loved working with Netflix. It was basically like they see some cuts and give feedback. They had really great feedback and were supportive every step of the way.

I was just thinking earlier today that it feels like not so long ago that they were just a company mailing out DVDs. And now…

Lana Wilson: I know! The last time I was at Sundance with a film in 2013, I was ordering DVDs in the mail from Netflix. It is wild how different things are now.

And what advice do you get first-time filmmakers going to Sundance,

Lana Wilson: Going to Sundance? You’ve got to bring zinc, vitamin C, water. You have to treat this like you’re camping in the wilderness and have food on you at all times. I think that layers—that’s the main thing. Also, just to enjoy every moment because it is such an honor and a privilege to be at this festival out of so many worthy films that are submitted every year. It’s a really rare and special thing so just to enjoy it.

Tags: Lana Wilson, Miss Americana, Taylor Swift

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Danielle Solzman is a Chicago-based film critic and an aspiring filmmaker if she can ever put enough time aside to work on her feature-length trans-led political comedy script. When not in Chicago, she attends various film festivals such as Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca, and Toronto. She graduated from Northern Kentucky University with a BA in Public Relations while earning a Masters in Media Communications from Webster University after writing a thesis paper on comic books against the backdrop of the American political culture.
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