Lines of young fans stretch down Broadway. Selfies aplenty snapped in a crowded lobby. Wild cheers as anticipation built inside, followed by intermittent shrieks during an opening speech from Tribeca film festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal. A short film screening that morphed into a pop concert, complete with sing-along.
It’s safe to say this wasn’t your standard film festival event. But what else do you expect when the festival, now in its 20th year, decided to trot out the newly-minted Dr Taylor Swift to muse about film-making in honor of her dela music video-slash-short film aptly dubbed All Too Well: The Short Film? Released in November and directed by Swift herself, it fit like a glove into the festival as production partly took place in the current Tribeca neighborhood in New York.
Swift herself chose the moderator: Mike Mills, a close director with fellow Swift collaborators The National, including their short film, 2019’s I Am Easy to Find. “I’ve watched it so many times, but every time I watch it I go through every single range of the most intense types of emotions,” Swift gushed of her reasoning, proving that even for events like this the artist is scheming about every detail.
Following a screening of the 15 minute short starring Stranger Things actor Sadie Sink, during which the audience sang along to key lyrics (“fuck the patriarchy!”) and clapped for every individual frame of the credits, Swift and Mills discussed her approach in vivid detail; one artist a fan of the other, and vice versa.
“(This is) me stepping out of what I usually do, which is writing songs and singing them,” explained Swift who noted that she first decided to direct after trying to find a female director for her 2020 music video for The Man, except for the fact all of her top choices were booked. So Swift just directed it herself.
“It was a vulnerable moment where you’re of on the precipice of finding something new and you’re just really hoping you do perfectly,” said Swift who the craft with trepidation addressed such a detailed plan for her video Mills said he had never seen anything like it. “It is also important to remind yourself you shouldn’t do everything perfectly because you need to learn and grow.”
Swift’s initial hesitancy to put on her director’s hat became a recurring theme. “I had this imposter syndrome in my head saying, ‘No, you don’t do that. Other people who went to school do that,” to which Mills interjected: “I didn’t go to school for it.” “Oh that’s fantastic to hear that,” replied Swift. “It makes me feel better.” Swift also noted that a life of being on sets pushed her to try her hand at directing. “In my head I’d say, ‘I love that they did that’ or ‘I would have done that differently.’ So the list of things I was absorbing became so long that eventually I thought, ‘I really want to do this.’”
However, Swift’s inherent power when it comes to making that decision and executing it isn’t lost on her. “I’m extremely aware of my privilege when it comes to being a female film-maker, because I was able to finance this film myself,” she noted. “I have to constantly be aware that as much as it’s an exciting challenge to do this, I also understand it’s extremely hard for women to make films and always keeping one eye on that reality, it’s how lucky I am to even get to go near the camera.”
Meanwhile, the story of the song itself is an oft-repeated legend, all supposedly ripped from the real life tale of her and actor Jake Gyllenhaal’s tumultuous age-gap romance, red scarf and all. Would Swift bring up the reality behind what she concocted? “The kind of journey Sadie’s character is on in the video is very reminiscent of some experiences that I’ve had,” she said with a wink. “I think that one thing that I’ve learned through this whole process is to really lean on supportive people who believe in you.” Meanwhile, it was All Too Well star Dylan O’Brien, who surprised the audience by taking some questions alongside co-star Sink, who perhaps had the biggest dig at Gyllenhal, whose character he’s believed to portray: “My character (in the video ) is not a monster. He’s a narcissist, egonimanical child.”
There was of course a nod to another Swift villain, Scooter Braun, who famously sold Swift’s catalog which led Swift to re-record the entirety of it. Swift regarded it as a devastating blow, explaining the brouhaha: “I lost all my work … It was a very hard time for me,” she explained to a hushed crowd while choosing her words carefully. “A lot of my hardest moments, or moments of extreme grief or loss, were galvanized into what my life looks like now and I’m very happy where my life is now.”
As for where the music industry itself is now, Swift saluted the resurgence of vinyl, and the democratizing effect apps like TikTok have on the industry. “The fans have kind of subverted the label model of: ‘We sit in a conference room and we pick the songs that you’re going to like.’ And you guys are like, ‘Um, no!’ I find it so radical and wonderful.’”
As the conversation wrapped up, before Swift found herself alone on stage strumming a red guitar for what else but a live rendition of All Too Well, she reflected on the longevity of what’s become a 16 year career.
“I’m just trying to listen to the heartbeat of what the fans want,” she said. “It’s so exciting to have gotten to do this for this long and have this many memories. I’m just kind of listening along and having fun and making stuff. It’s very cool that they want me to keep doing it.”