Taylor Swift delivered surprise guests and a surprise acoustic performance of All Too Well along with a thoughtful half-hour of conversation about filmmaking with writer-director Mike Mills at the Tribeca Festival.
After a screening of her short film All Too Well (set to her elongated version of the song of the same name on the re-recorded version of the album Red released last year), she and Mills covered a range of topics. In addition to drilling down on the short, they talked about the challenges for female directors, the ins and outs of collaboration and the effort to dramatize a couple’s “failure to communicate.” Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien, who play the main couple in All Too Well, were not billed to be part of the afternoon but they were brought onstage for the latter half of the talk.
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Quoting John Cassavetes and describing her “secret-agent-y” tactics of intentionally withholding information from cast and crew, she displayed a serious-mindedness about the craft of filmmaking but also the unerring instincts of a popular entertainer. She gave a shoutout to a longform video Mills directed for “I Am Easy to Find” by The National (whose guitarist, Aaron Dessner, has been a key collaborator with Swift recently) but found an accessable way to do it. “It really inspired me in ways that I can’t possibly overstate,” she said. Plus, she added, “We are both members of the Aaron Dessner cinematic universe!”
The sellout crowd at the Beacon Theatre roared its adoration at intervals throughout the 90-minute event. Mills remarked on the concert-like feel onstage and joked, “I’m going to be so depressed when I bring up my work and they don’t do this,” he said, gesturing at the audience. Swift then playfully disagreed, asking the crowd about Mills’ most recent feature film. “Who’s seen C’mon C’mon?” she asked. When they let out a loud and prolonged scream, Mills marveled, “I’m having an out-of-body experience.”
Swift said the push into directing, along with many other aspects of her artistic drive, stemmed from the fact that “I was not able to own my work.” While she omitted the details, she was referring to Scooter Braun’s purchase and 2020 resale of Big Machine Label Group, which controlled most of Swift’s master recordings. The transactions meant that Swift was not able to have a say in how her past recordings were marketed or packaged. Swiftologists have scrutinized lyrics on her twin pandemic albums, Folklore and Evermore, for allusions to the Braun saga.
The still-unfolding series of “Taylor’s versions” of albums like Red are aimed at reclaiming her power, a feeling similar to what she experienced behind the camera on All Too Well. “It was a very hard time for me,” she said of the loss of control over her master recordings. “A lot of my hardest moments and moments of extreme grief or loss were galvanized into what my life looks like now.”
The conversation did not touch on the real-life relationships that inspired “All Too Well,” but Swift and O’Brien described a scene in the middle of the film in which the two lead characters have a fight but then ultimately make up and embrace. While the overall concepts and framework of the film were scripted and structured, sequences like the fight were largely improvised.
“We repeat ourselves – we go in circles, you know?” O’Brien said. In a conventional project, he added, those kinds of repetition often gets cut. “But that’s what makes it.” Swift added, “The other person isn’t hearing you say it, so you say it this way. Maybe you say it louder. … You’re trying to be heard. It’s the failure to communicate.”
Mills asked Swift, who has directed several shorter music videos, if she intended to pursue a feature film. “I would love to,” she said. “It would be so fantastic to write and direct something,” though it would likely be a project with a human scale akin to All Too Well. She also at a later point in the conversation acknowledged her “privilege in even being able to pick up a camera,” noting she fully financed the short, something very few emerging filmmakers (particularly women) are unable to do.
In a final twist for an event that was billed as talk-only, Swift performed “All Too Well,” singing and playing acoustic guitar. Earlier, she had noted that the extended version had come to be recorded only because of fans’ appetite for it.
When she got to a crucial line — “f–k the patriarchy!” — the crowd sing-along reached peak volume.
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