Taylor Swift is already well-known as a singer-songwriter, but on Saturday she appeared at the Tribeca Festival as a director, a role she’s only taken on in recent years, first helming her music video for “The Man” and, just months ago, directing her short film, All Too Well, soundtracked by the 10-minute version of the song of the same name.
Joined by surprise guests Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien, who play the couple at the center of the film, Swift explained her approach to crafting All Too Well and how she moved into directing, in a conversation with director Mike Mills.
She explained that early in her career she started to get involved with the editing process of her videos and making changes.
“It started with meddling,” she said. About 10 years ago, she explained, she started writing elaborate treatments for her videos and “outsourcing the directing,” but she saw taking the lens as a “natural extension of storytelling and writing.”
“It felt very natural to extend writing a song and visualizing it in my head to making a shot list and storyboarding it and picking who we wanted as the head of each department and who would help put all of this puzzle together,” Swift, who has also helmed the music videos for “Cardigan” and “Willow,” said. “And it’s been a different approach for each [project].”
But she conceded that she began directing “almost out of necessity” on “The Man.”
“My first instinct was to write the treatment, send it out. I wanted a female director to direct it,” she said. “And all of my favorite female directors were booked and busy, which is great. We love that. That’s fantastic. So I just figured maybe I could do it?”
Swift said for a while she grappled with “imposter syndrome,” feeling like directing was “something that other people did.”
“I would just be around it and be in my head like, ‘I love that they did that’; ‘I would have done that differently,’” she said. “So the list of things that I was absorbing became so long that eventually I thought, ‘I really want to do this.’”
And then once she started directing she didn’t want to stop, saying, “I found it incredibly fulfilling.”
While conceding that she’s still learning, Swift was clear that she approached the 15-minute All Too Well as a short film, “not a music video.”
And she said she “would love” to helm a movie.
“It would be so fantastic to write and direct a feature,” she said. “I don’t see it being bigger in terms of scale. I loved making a film that was so intimate with a group that was really small and a really solid group of people that I trusted.”
Still, she explained, she’s very much aware of the challenges faced by female filmmakers.
“I’m also extremely aware of my privilege when it comes to being a female filmmaker, because I was able to finance this film myself,” she said. “I have to constantly be aware that, as much as it’s a constant challenge for me to be doing something new, I also understand that it’s still extremely hard for women to make films, and I am always keeping an eye on that reality.”
Speaking specifically about All Too Well, Swift explained how she used visual clues as forms of foreshadowing and to better reflect the characters’ emotions.
Sink’s character, as viewers see in All Too Well, is a writer, and Swift explained that she foreshadowed that with the Pablo Neruda quote at the beginning of the film and Sink’s character wondering if she made up O’Brien’s character.
“One day she’ll write a book and she’ll fictionalize his character into a main character in the novel,” Swift said, adding that the chapter markers in the film are “chapters in her novel.”
There’s also, as Swift fans have come to expect, an Easter egg in the form of a red typewriter that first appears in a quick pan when viewers meet O’Brien’s character.
“Later we see her typing on this typewriter and we assume that he gave it to her. She complimented it and he gave it to her,” Swift explained. “He’s taken a lot from her in the course of this story but he’s also given her something. This dream and hope that she had of being a writer, I think her experience with him is what galvanized her into her life and her career.”
Something similar, Swift said, has happened in her own life, as she recalled how not owning her masters led to her rerecording her old albums, which included releasing the 10-minute version of “All Too Well” as part of the Red rerelease.
“I’m in this situation talking about a short film that I am incredibly proud of because I lost all of my work. I was not able to own my work and I had wanted to since I could remember,” she said. “It was a very hard time for me. … A lot of my hardest moments and moments of extreme grief or loss were galvanized into what my life looks like now. I’m very happy with where my life is now.”
Swift later offered some good advice about perspective for anyone else going through a tough time: “Timing and perspective just adds such a better view,” she said. “The further back you are from something, the more of it you can see.”
And indeed, that’s exactly what she did with the All Too Well film.
“I wanted to show [the couple’s] closeness in handheld shots. I wanted to be so close we could count freckles,” Swift explained. “And then as things transpire and things fall apart, I wanted our shots to reflect the remoteness she feels, this desperate isolation that she feels because her world opened up to this incredible, big, passionate, intense love, and then it just — all of a sudden, overnight, it boiled down to nothing. The floor fell through. And she just feels so far away from her friends in her old life because she’s been in this adult, mature world that she never quite felt fit either.”
The audience at the Beacon Theatre was full of enthusiastic Taylor Swift fans who screamed and gasped throughout her time onstage, and Swift closed with another surprise: a live performance of the 10-minute version of “All Too Well,” during which the fans sang along.