Director Lana Wilson shares filmmaking advice, discusses recent Taylor Swift documentary

by Lucy Turnipseed | 5/25/20 3:00am

Anyone who recommends watching two movies a day gives good advice, at least in my book. One of those people is filmmaker Lana Wilson, who recently directed the Taylor Swift documentary “Miss Americana.” The film debuted at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is now streaming on Netflix.

The Hopkins Center for the Arts launched its remote Hop@Home campaign, which included a #SmallScreenFun series, at the beginning of this term. The series — which sought to create a digital space for movie lovers — ended with a May 20 YouTube Live Q&A with Wilson as its finale.

Michael Bodel, director of external affairs for the Hop, moderated the YouTube Live event along with film students Matthew Gannon ’22 and Nizhoni Redmond ’20. About 40 people tuned into the livestream, but the video on the Hop’s channel now has over 400 views.

Bodel started Wilson off with a few of his own questions before the student moderators began to ask Wilson questions submitted live through YouTube’s chat box. 

Queries ranged from “Do you come into a project open or with an idea of the narrative structure/message?” to “How did you decide on which songs ended up in the film?” 

Referencing her latest documentary, Wilson described Swift as “an extraordinary character who explores her life through songs.” 

She said she was a fan of Swift as a musician before she started working on the film but did not want to make the documentary focus only on Swift’s greatest hits. Wilson began working with Swift during her “Reputation” tour in 2018, right as the star was emerging from a period out of the spotlight — she had not done any interviews for three years.

Swift was at a pivotal point in her career, and Wilson followed the singer’s journey to find a new voice.

“She felt there had been a muzzle on her,” Wilson said, one created both by society and herself, and the documentary followed the story of how Swift broke that silence.

Wilson said the title, “Miss Americana,” is a play on many different ideas, including Swift’s status as America’s sweetheart and the flipside of holding that title that the public does not get to see. 

Additionally, fans would connect the documentary’s title to Swift’s song “Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince” from her album “Lover.” The song, which contains vague yet evident political themes in its lyrics, is not featured in the movie at all, but the allusion speaks to Swift engaging with politics publicly for the first time, a major focus of the film. After remaining apolitical in the beginning of her career, Swift gained attention for endorsing two Democratic candidates in her home state of Tennessee in the fall of 2018.

Natalie Dameron ’21, a film major, asked Wilson how she balances her personal vision with the advice she receives.

According to Wilson, she had total artistic license with the documentary, so Swift did not always provide feedback. But when she did, Wilson said she valued it because Swift “is a great storyteller.”

Wilson detailed her process of obtaining crowdsourced feedback by screening small, rough cuts of the documentary to test groups that knew nothing about the film and who were not associated with the film industry. At the end of each screening, she asked everyone to write down one-sentence takeaways that captured the film’s message.

“That’ll be what the reviews say later,” Wilson said. 

She said that she didn’t take every bit of advice that the test groups provided to heart, but she tried to fix the underlying issues that the groups identified.

Sydney Stowe, the Hop’s director of film, said that the Hop had been planning to screen “Miss Americana” in the spring before classes moved online, and the Hop would have enjoyed having Wilson as a guest on campus.

“Just because we don’t have a theater doesn’t mean we can’t still talk about movies,” Stowe said. “The Hop is determined to keep putting stuff out into the ether. Art connects us, and we tend to consume it together.”

Stowe added that “art is one of those things like the outdoors that you never appreciate all the time until you don’t have it.”

Gannon was asked to be a moderator after his short film “Under the Bridge,” which first screened at the Hop, was selected for the Global Impact Film Festival. 

“Wilson’s work as a documentarian is deeply inspiring,” Gannon said. “She combines journalistic objectivity with gripping narrative.”

Wilson said that the goal was never for Swift to forget that a camera was present, but for Swift to communicate to people her side of the story.

“Miss Americana” was filmed on many different cameras, including bits shot on Swift’s iPhone when the documentary team could not be with her. 

“I am never invisible in the room — you can feel someone with a point of view,” Wilson said. She advised filmmakers to be compassionate presences and to avoid leaning in to moments that could make the subject feel exploited.

Wilson said that the value of documentaries lies in the power that subjects have to share an impactful story that can resonate with someone else.

“I think one of the best ways to learn is to listen to the advice of people who are where you hope to be one day,” Dameron said. “I’m so glad I went, even if ‘went’ means I watched from my living room.”

Wilson left the audience with a few movie recommendations — the Romanian film “Child’s Pose” and Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” — as well as a teaser of her next project.

Currently, she is working on a fiction screenplay called “Back Seat” about a single mom who leaves her son alone in a car for a few minutes and ends up fighting for custody of her children.

Wilson added that in a time of social distancing, no one should be hard on themselves for not being as productive as possible. But, if you are looking for something to do, I recommend taking Wilson’s advice and watching two movies today, one of them being “Miss Americana.”

Dameron is a former member of The Dartmouth staff.

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