You think you know Taylor Swift, but, to quote a bygone MTV series, "you have no idea."
Enter Miss Americana, the new documentary from Emmy-winning director Lana Wilson, which attempts to fill the blank spaces in the Swiftian mythology. The film, which premiered last month at Sundance and is now on Netflix, charts the pop star's transformation from a people-pleaser who measured her worth in pats on the head to a 30-year-old woman who's stopped worrying and learned to speak her mind.
"When I started, there wasn't a set, 'This is the story,' or anything like that," Wilson told MTV News about the doc. "I just started filming immediately after meeting her and then just filmed, filmed, filmed, and saw what emerged."
Wilson followed Swift everywhere, intent on capturing what she calls "the contrast between the ordinary and extraordinary" of the superstar's life. That means seeing Swift command the stage during her spectacle of a stadium show, trailed by remarkably more thrilling footage of her curled up on a studio sofa, fumbling through rough drafts of eventual hit songs. More vitally, we get a glimpse into her mindset as she resurfaced from a period of self-imposed exile to grapple with a sexual assault case, an eating disorder, an impassioned political awakening, and, oh yeah, the making of last year's swooning No. 1 album, Lover.
Below, Wilson tells MTV News about how Miss Americana is a coming-of-age story, the delicate balance of portraying Swift's romantic relationship, the studio footage she left on the cutting room floor, and the now-infamous "cat backpack."
MTV News: This film made me really excited to see what kind of artist Taylor Swift is going to be in her 30s, now that she's seemingly more comfortable speaking her mind and isn't as worried about being a quote-unquote "good girl." Do you see it as capturing a turning point in her life?
Wilson: Absolutely. I think it's a coming-of-age story about this woman at a pivot point in her life and career. Taylor went through all of this pain and then stood up and became the person she wanted to be, but didn't have the ability to be for so many years, because of the leash that she put on herself. To be able to take that leash off, I think it's really amazing for people to see that. It's amazing from a documentary director's perspective when you get to go with a subject who really changes in the time that you film with them. That's what I was lucky enough to get to see.
MTV News: You do get that sense that she doesn't feel the need to constantly reinvent herself anymore. How do you think the film sets a tone or an expectation for her going forward?
Wilson: I think she's always going to artistically challenge herself no matter what. What I saw when I saw her writing songs, and even from the videos of her when she's 11 years old writing her first songs on the guitar, is that she's someone who is always going to write something she hasn't written about before and do something new and experiment. I do think she's more comfortable with who she is now, though. It's about her journey to self-acceptance. She's less focused on being the person other people want her to be and more focused on being the person who she wants to be and who she is.
MTV News: You definitely saw that throughout the film. At the same time, I loved seeing those moments where she's insecure, like when she finds out that Reputation didn't get nominated for a Grammy or when she's criticizing the way her face looks while shooting the "ME!" video. She even says at one point that she feels like there's a better version of herself out there. Why do you think those moments are important to see as well?
Wilson: I think when you see any insecurity coming out of the mouth of a superstar, that's a really powerful thing. And in fact, how we deal with insecurity is really what defines our strength. Taylor writes so candidly in her lyrics about the hardest times and the times when things didn't go well. That's what her fans love her for. We all want to feel less alone, and that's one reason why people turn to art. It's great for people to see that their heroes are human.
MTV News: I found it really effective how her ages showed up on screen throughout the film. It really made you realize that she was so young when all of these big, formative life events were happening to her. Why did you decide to highlight her ages like that?
Wilson: That was my editor Greg O'Toole's idea, and I thought it was brilliant. It changes the way you see everything. When we think about Taylor Swift, I think we tend to forget how young she was when she started. You feel that amazement of, "Wow! She was writing those songs at that age?!" But then there's also, "Oh my god, she had to go through that when she was a teenager?!" You see the good things and the hard things at once. It gives context, but it’s also this reminder throughout the film that this is a coming-of-age story.
MTV News: Totally. When it came to portraying Taylor’s relationship with her boyfriend, that three or so minutes where he's shown backstage and then you see cell phone footage that looks like it was shot by him — I found that particularly moving and a nice way to acknowledge something that is an important part of her life but is also sacred and private. What kind of care went into achieving that balance?
Wilson: It really was a balance. Taylor's had so many relationships go through the public ringer, so it was important to respect her desire to keep her relationship private, while still acknowledging the important role that relationship plays in her life. I remember we had done the first rough cut and we had this whole section of her writing Reputation. She was like, "I do have a few videos on my phone that I think could capture the fact that while I was out of the public eye, it was one of the happiest times of my life." When I saw those videos, I was so moved by them. Especially by her singing "Call It What You Want" when she's in the slippers. I was like, "This is everything. This is all we need to know." It's really special. You don't even have to see her boyfriend's face; you could feel it.
MTV News: I loved that scene and I loved the song choices in general. "Out Of the Woods," "Getaway Car," "Call It What You Want"... I thought it was really cool how you didn't just use "Shake It Off" and all the big hits.
Wilson: I so appreciate you saying that because not a lot of people have commented on that. I really did not want to do, "here's all of Taylor's greatest hits in the first 10 minutes of the movie," which you often see in this type of project. I wanted to use songs that were emotionally and thematically related to what was going on in the story at that time. With "Getaway Car," it's this moment of total freedom for her in the story of the film. Or "Clean," after the sexual assault trial, for example.
MTV News: When you're making this kind of film and you're capturing Taylor during such a long stretch of time, how do you know when it's done? What was the moment when you realized you had enough of the story you wanted to tell?
Wilson: My sense was that we had to film through the Lover album release. I think you feel at that point in the film that Taylor isn't as concerned with what people will think of the album. It's more like, it was a joy for her to make and to put out into the world. She went through this period where she went away from the public eye, but she wants to keep entertaining people and making music, and nothing is going to stop her from that. I loved the idea of ending the movie with her walking onstage, and that idea of this bravery she's had since she was 12 years old, of walking out to perform. I wanted to end it with her going back out into the world again to face the public, but you have the sense that something's a little bit different about her now. That's the sense I hope the audience has.
MTV News: Was there anything you had to leave out of the film that you were particularly bummed about cutting?
Wilson: There was so much more songwriting and recording in the studio. It's so special to see something come from just the seed of an idea — a fragment of a melody or a lyric typed in her phone — and get to then hear it as a finished song. That's some of my favorite stuff in the film, but there was a lot that we had to leave on the cutting room floor, heartbreakingly.
MTV News: I'd imagine. Do you think that footage will ever be used for anything?
Wilson: I don't know. People have asked me about it, so it's giving me hope that maybe we could just release the 40-minute version of Taylor writing "Only the Young" as a standalone film or something.
MTV News: Honestly, I would watch. A lot of people would watch!
Wilson: I think a lot of people would.
MTV News: Last question: How long did it take for Meredith and Olivia to warm up to you?
Wilson: I don't know if they ever did, honestly! They're very cute and they're quite friendly. They're often hiding under things. They just kind of pop out from somewhere, so you do have this feeling of, "There are cats everywhere!"
MTV News: I loved the screen time they got. Especially the cat backpack.
Wilson: I remember watching the cat backpack scene with one of my editors and I was like, "Is this too long? Are we spending too long on the cat backpack?" He looked at me and he was like, "Definitely not." And he was absolutely right.