Just a few weeks after Taylor Swift’s appearance at New York University’s commencement ceremony where she received an honorary Doctorate degree, she treated her fans at Tribeca festival to an insight into her recent experience directing her first visual-audio work, “All Too Well.” On stage, she spoke to filmmaker Mike Mills about the transition between the two storytelling mediums of sound and image, and where there are parallels in artistic approach.
All Too Well
Released in November 2021, “All Too Well” is a visual re-imagining of the song originally heard in Swift’s hit album “Red” which was also re-recorded and re-released last year. The short 11-minute film chronicles the relationship between a young man and woman who fall in love, but slowly drift apart in time.
Swift attributes the decision to add visual narrative to this song to her fans. Ahead of a fan screening, she reveals that:
“…it was never a single, never had a video, it never had a visual element to it, but they pretty much created their own imaginary cinematic universe for it, so this is just me following through on what they started and what they told me they wanted.”
Whilst the storyline is somewhat autobiographical, the scenes of interaction between Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien are fictional. Indeed, the ‘kitchen argument’ scene, or turning point in the plot where the couple face their first problems, was “ad-libbed.” The scene was created especially for the film and viewers hear the music fade out to expose the rawness of the emotions involved in the fight.
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Relatable moments like this coupled with the emotive power of the music, and quite possibly the fact that millions of Swift’s fans want many more details on the relationship that has fuelled the musician’s songwriting career, have contributed to the astounding success of the video.
The film has amassed 86 million views on YouTube and has received positive reviews from critics, many of whom praise the “emotional power of [Swift’s] storytelling.” It seems to be a career shift that has been both lucrative and professionally rewarding for Swift.
A Change of Direction
At the recent Tribeca festival, Swift shared her thoughts on taking on the position of director. She described herself as thinking that directing “was something other people did.” However, her time spent on the sets of music videos and movies had given her more than enough experience to try her turn with filmmaking.
Mike Mills, who joined Swift on stage, praised the singer’s advice given to NYU graduates at commencement for its comparison to the advice needed for film directing. She told graduates to embrace mistakes as she’s found that “mistakes lead to the best things in life.”
"Learn to live alongside cringe"
— BBC News (World) (@BBCWorld) May 19, 2022
On stage at Tribeca, Mills says “in your life — your life as a film director — you will inevitably misspeak, trust the wrong people, underreact, overreact”. Whilst Taylor Swift had been referring to her past, being “cancelled on the internet” following her public feud with Kim Kardashian, Mills points her speech towards her new found directing career.
Mills and Taylor Swift also discussed how the processes of filmmaking and directing diverge and converge.
For instance, the idea of small-scale improvisation within the confines of longer narrative structures and making quick and confident decisions on character development come to mind. Sadie Sink, who plays the young female in the film, praises Swift’s directing for allowing moments of improvised freedom.
“There wasn’t a set script or movement that you had to stick to, so there was just so much freedom, and I think that’s how we got such real moments”, says Sink.
O’Brien, who plays the male character says “She possesses these innate qualities in a director,” “Trust, her ability to make a decision, her confidence.”
Swift now joins the likes of Beyoncé in the singer-songwriter cum director hall of fame. In many ways this would seem a natural progression for artists with numerous hours of experience on the sets of music videos and movies and perhaps Swift’s move will open the eyes of other artists.
Beyoncé’s audio-visual album ‘Lemonade’ was not only ground-breaking for its use of the visual, but for the possibilities the addition of visuals offered for the album’s narrative. Miriam Bale has called ‘Lemonade’ “a revolutionary work of Black feminism”, perhaps prompted by powerful scenes of Beyoncé striding through the streets, smashing up cars with a baseball bat.
Whilst Swift’s film is much less substantial, it offers us a glimpse of her potential in the role of director, in her ability to weave music and narrative together to create an incredibly powerful work of art that speaks to millions around the world. In her signwriting, her strength lies in her ability to write relatable lyrics, to mourn over relatable life events, and her film-directing seems no different.
In her speech to NYU graduates, Swift alludes to taking risks and making mistakes, but there is no doubt that this career shift, however risky, has proven a success and it is exciting to think about where the 32-year-old is headed next.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Taylor Swift in Sydney, Australia. Featured Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.