When director Lana Wilson heard that Taylor Swift was interested in having her direct a documentary about her life — which would eventually become Netflix’s Miss Americana — she was excited but bewildered.
“I was nervous going into the meeting, in part because I knew that Taylor was, at that point, not political. She was kind of notoriously apolitical,” Wilson, whose work includes the 2013 doc After Tiller, about the nation’s few remaining doctors providing late-term abortions, said Tuesday during an online conversation about the film, led by actress Jameela Jamil. “And I remember thinking, you know, I’m best known for this film about abortion providers. What is this going to be like? And I remember, I went to meet her, she opened the door and she immediately said, After Tiller is a masterpiece,’ and she gave me a hug. And right from that moment, I knew there [were] a lot of misconceptions about this person.”
Wilson filmed for about two years, at a time when Swift shifted from being someone who didn’t speak out on political issues to a woman who vocally fights for her beliefs. For instance, Wilson follows along as Swift comes out against Republican Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn for her stance on LGBTQ rights and women’s rights.
“Even though I came in thinking, she must be brilliant: She manages her whole career, she’s written these albums for 15 years, even so, right when I first met her and when I started filming, I remember seeing her at the heads of those conference room tables, being the boss, being in charge of people who are much older than her, you know, there are lots of men in her company, and I was still surprised,” Wilson said. “And I remember thinking to myself, ‘Why are you surprised, Lana? You knew she did all this on her own, yet this is still an image that you’re surprised to see.’ And that said something to me. That we don’t often get to see women in those sorts of leadership roles.”
In January, Swift explained to Variety that she had been “terrified” to comment on politics, because of the vitriolic backlash she’d seen the Chicks encounter after they criticized then-President George W. Bush in 2003. But, as the audience sees in the film, she overcomes that fear. She’s able to stand up for herself in other situations, too, such as when she publicly accused a DJ of groping her. We watch as Swift becomes aware that she — not the people who hand out the Grammys, not Kanye West, not anyone else — controls her happiness.
“You see Taylor go from being this young prodigy who everyone just applauds, adores. When she grows up, though, and starts making more and more albums and accomplishing more and more things, what I saw in the media reaction is that that started to get annoying to people,” Wilson explained. “People started accusing Taylor of being calculated and strategizing too much, planning too much. I think what it is is that we like seeing this girl who’s in there… you can see it as a fairy tale, as a happy accident. But when it’s a long career of considerable, constant success, that takes ambition, strategy, you know, thinking stuff through, wanting that level of success. And I think that can be threatening to people.”
Since Miss Americana was released in January, Wilson has heard from many people, especially teenagers, who say they were inspired by Swift’s transformation.
“So I loved hearing these variations of, you know, I had a horrible day or I’m hating myself, but I watched Miss Americana and that made me feel better,” Wilson said. “I hope that the film encourages people to accept themselves, flaws and all. But it also encourages people to think twice about how they judge other people.”
Of course, Swift has only become more successful since the movie debuted. She released her eighth album, Folklore, which she recorded at home during the pandemic, in July. Within three months, it became the first album this year to sell a million copies.
Miss Americana is available on Netflix.
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