There were only two men on the crew for Taylor Swift documentary Miss Americana — and one was an assistant. “I always have a male production assistant because I feel like it’s important to show that men can get coffee for women,” director Lana Wilson tells Rolling Stone.
“I’ve usually worked with an all-female crew; there are a lot of great female directors of photography and sound mixers who I want to work with,” she adds. “I think it allows for this extra level of intimacy and comfort.”
Miss Americana definitely hits the intimacy mark. The documentary, which premiered at Sundance and hits Netflix Friday, is both a deep-dive into a pop star’s life and a probing look at what it’s like to be a woman. In it, Swift emerges from a period of self-imposed exile to grapple with her urge to please everyone around her, her experience with sexual assault, and an eating disorder. Plus, we finally learn more about her entrée into the political world. Oh, and she also records a Number One album, Lover.
“I think girls in our society are taught that other people’s approval is of paramount importance to their self-worth,” Wilson says. “I really related to those questions of: ‘Was I nice enough? Do they like me? Are people mad at me?’ When I heard Taylor verbalize that, I was just like, ‘Oh my God. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.’ And I thought it would be so comforting and relatable to so many women to know that, even if you’re a celebrity at the highest level, you still ask yourself those questions.”
Netflix did a concert film with Swift in 2018, but they took the doc plunge soon after — just a few years after the fallout form Kanye West’s “Famous,” in which the rapper called Swift a “bitch” and ruminated about having sex with her. West said Swift gave him permission, she denied it, and Kim Kardashian, West’s wife, leaked a phone call between the two that suggested otherwise. (Although the video didn’t show Swift confirming the “bitch” part specifically.) Swift was branded a “snake,” a persona she embraced on the markedly dark 2017 album Reputation. That year, she also endured at attack by a radio DJ who claimed she got him fired when she publicly stated that he groped her. She won out in the end, but it’s safe to say Swift was worn out — and in need of a rebirth. Wilson caught all that on camera.
“Taylor hadn’t done an interview for three years when I first met her, so it was a big deal,” Wilson recalls. “We actually did the first interview as an audio-only interview, which I think made a big difference. So, it was just her and me alone in a room. It was amazing to me that she has managed to hold on to her humanity and sense of humor in the face of all of that.”
The duo talked for hours about documentary films and what they’d like to see this one become, citing 1991 Madonna doc Truth or Dare as inspiration. “She doesn’t like documentaries that are propaganda. And I was thrilled to hear that because I don’t either,” Wilson says. “In my work as a filmmaker, I’ve tried to reveal the humanity and the complexity and depth behind the headlines and the soundbites.”
Wilson says Swift’s assault trial became a central touchstone for the piece, since it fundamentally changed the way the singer saw herself. “She went into this trial with a photo [of the DJ groping her], seven witnesses, the best lawyers that money could buy. She had all the privilege in the world and she won the trial, but it was still this incredibly humiliating, dehumanizing experience,” Wilson says.
“I found myself really emotional about her speech on stage to the crowd on the one-year anniversary of her sexual assault trial, when she talks about how she’s lucky that people believed her,” Wilson adds, referring to a particularly stirring moment in the doc. “For a lot of people, that’s not the case. I thought that was very raw moment and extremely emotional to talk about, even though it’s in front of a crowd of tens of thousands of people. I cried the first time I saw it and I think it says a lot about what a connection to her fans she has.”
Wilson says the trial galvanized Swift politically. A former country star with deep roots in Nashville, Swift learned her lesson from the Dixie Chicks, who were publicly shamed in 2003 for speaking out against then-President George W. Bush. She had been famously quiet on politics up until that point — even though she was no fan of President Trump — but all that changed in 2018.
First, she endorsed Tennessee democrats Phil Bredesen (Senate) and Jim Cooper (House of Representatives) via a public post on Instagram. Then, in June of 2019, she penned a letter to Republican senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to ask for his support in passing the Equality Act when the bill reaches the U.S. Senate. She posted that letter to Instagram as well. These moments come across as particularly tense in the documentary, as not everyone, including her father, agreed with her decision to tread into politics.
“It felt like she gathered this strength from all the stuff that she’s been through, all the challenges she’d experienced and now she was standing up and deciding to be true to herself in this very new way,” Wilson recalls. “She ultimately has the talk with her family and I think it’s incredible to see — not only because it’s about politics, but because it’s a moment that I think a lot of people have in their lives where they disagree with people who love them. So, I think for her it was all a part of this growing-up process. It’s coming-of-age moment in her life. I felt like what I was watching was her taking that leash off.”
In another deeply personal moment, Swift mulls over her eating disorder, a decision Wilson calls “brave.” When editing that sequence, Wilson montaged a collection of photos of Swift during an era when her eating was particularly disordered (when 2014’s 1989 was coming out). “I vaguely remember seeing some of those images on magazine covers or online,” Wilson says. “And what’s crazy is that I didn’t think she looked too skinny. I wanted to make a larger statement about how our standards of beauty are so impossible to achieve and so warped and dangerous that those images can be seen as normal.”
The doc isn’t all trauma, though. Wilson got the unique opportunity to join Swift in the studio during the recording of Lover. “No one had ever filmed with her in the studio before,” she says. “I think you could see in the movie, it’s like her happy place and she’s so in the zone. It’s amazing to watch her work.”