Taylor Swift delivered surprise guests and a surprise acoustic performance All too well along with a thoughtful half-hour talk about filmmaking with writer-director Mike Mills at the Tribeca Festival.
After a screening of her short film All too well (set to their extended version of the song of the same name on the re-recorded version of the album Red published last year), she and Mills covered a range of topics. In addition to examining the short film, they talked about the challenges facing women directors, the pros and cons of working together, and efforts to dramatize a couple’s “failures to communicate”. Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien who play the main couple All too wellwere not billed as part of the afternoon session, but were brought on stage for the second half of the lecture.
Quoting John Cassavetes and describing her “secret agent” tactics of deliberately withholding information from the cast and crew, she displayed a serious attitude towards the craft of filmmaking, but also the unerring instinct of a popular entertainer. She welcomed a lengthy video Mills made for The National’s “I Am Easy to Find” (whose guitarist Aaron Dessner has been a key Swift collaborator of late), but found an accessible way to do it. “It really inspired me in a way that I can’t stress enough,” she said. She also added, “We are both members of the Aaron Dessner cinematic universe!”
The sold-out crowd at the Beacon Theater roared their adoration at intervals throughout the 90-minute event. Noting the concert-like feel on stage, Mills joked, “I’ll be so depressed if I bring up my work and they don’t,” he said, gesturing toward the audience. Swift then playfully contradicted and asked the crowd about Mills’ latest feature film. “Who saw C’mon C’mon?” She asked. As they let out a loud and sustained scream, Mills marveled, “I’m having an out-of-body experience.”
Swift said the push toward directing, along with many other aspects of her artistic drive, stemmed from the fact that “I wasn’t able to own my work.” While skipping the details, she referenced Scooter Braun’s 2020 purchase and resale of Big Machine Label Group, which controlled most of Swift’s master recordings. The transactions meant Swift couldn’t have a say in how her earlier recordings were marketed or packaged. Swiftologists have scrutinized the lyrics on their two Pandemic albums. folklore and alwaysfor allusions to the Braun saga.
The still evolving line of “Taylor’s Versions” of albums such as Red aim to reclaim her power, a sentiment similar to what she experienced behind the camera All too well. “It was a very difficult time for me,” she said of losing control over her master recordings. “Many of my toughest moments and moments of extreme sadness or loss have been transformed into what my life is now.”
The conversation didn’t touch on the real-life relationships that inspired “All Too Well,” but Swift and O’Brien described a scene midway through the film in which the two main characters argue, but eventually reconcile and hug. While the film’s overall concepts and framework were scripted and structured, sequences such as combat were largely improvised.
“We’re repeating ourselves – we’re going in circles, you know?” said O’Brien. In a conventional project, he added, such repetitions would often be omitted. “But that’s what counts.” Swift added, “The other person doesn’t hear you say it, so say it This Path. Maybe you say it louder. … They’re trying to be heard. It is the failure to communicate.”
Mills asked Swift, who has directed several shorter music videos, if she planned to make a feature film. “I’d like that,” she said. “It would be so amazing to write and direct something,” although it would likely be a human-scale project All too well. Later in the conversation, she also acknowledged her “privilege in being able to even pick up a camera,” noting that she fully funded the short film, which very few aspiring filmmakers (especially women) are unable to do.
In a final twist for an event billed as talk only, Swift performed “All Too Well,” singing and playing acoustic guitar. She previously noted that the extended version was only included because of fans’ appetites.
When she got to a crucial line — “fk the patriarchy!” — the crowd sing-along reached the highest volume.