Taylor Swift made a rare public appearance at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday, in conversation with the indie director Mike Mills to discuss her short film for “All Too Well.” She spoke with Mills for an hour at New York’s Beacon Theatre, giving a fascinating look into her creative process. This was a whole new side of Dr. Swift — meet Film Geek (Taylor’s Version).
Taylor has gone radio silent on social media for most of the year. She gave her NYU commencement speech last month, but she got even more personal here, revealing how her filmmaking has been influenced by John Cassavetes and Barbara Stanwyck. (Her mind!) She screened the film and brought out stars Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien. And to top it all off, she ended with a solo acoustic performance of “All Too Well,” all 10 heartbreaking minutes.
Taylor went into hardcore cineaste mode, appropriate for such a prestige film festival. She summed up her goals with a quote from Cassavetes: “I’ve never seen an exploding helicopter. I’ve never seen anybody go and blow somebody’s head off. So why should I make films about them? But I have seen people destroy themselves in the smallest way.” Swift added, “Whoa — I felt that.”
Mills was a totally empathetic host — like the dad in the song, he was charmed by her self-effacing jokes. He’s directed videos for The National, so as Swift explained, “We’re both in the Aaron Dessner cinematic universe, which is a nice place to be.” She talked about how inspired she was by Mills’ 2019 short film I Am Easy To Find. They had perfect rapport — when he praised her narrative flair, he said, “You’re really good at…” She chimed in with “Drama?”
They also joked about her tenacious insistence on doing things her own way. She got one of the event’s biggest laughs when she said, “People often greatly underestimate me on how much I’ll inconvenience myself to prove a point.”
Mills is an artist who clearly isn’t used to hearing a theater full of screaming fans. As he quipped, “This is how all my Q&As go.” He was visibly shocked by the fan enthusiasm. There was a touching moment when Mills joked that he was going to feel depressed when he mentioned his movies and nobody screamed. Swift said, “I’ll show you. Who here has seen a film called Come On Come On?” After a massive roar from the fans, she told him, “They’re just really nice. Not just to me.”
She got into the nuts and bolts of her directorial process, right down to the fonts and camera lenses. “This is not a music video,” she explained. “We approached everything differently.” In the kitchen scene, she said, “I wanted to be so close we could count freckles.” She first got interested in filmmaking on the sets of her music videos. As she joked, “It started with meddling.” Her first time directing was her video for “The Man” in 2019. “Once I started directing music videos, I didn’t want to not do it.”
She talked about her identification with the heroine, played by Sadie Sink. “I really do write about girlhood a lot,” she said. “I’m very fascinated and always have been with this phase of becoming a young woman where you’re this very fragile and vulnerable age. I think 19 and 20 is such a profound age for young women.” She described the heroine as “an effervescent, curious young woman who ends up completely in over her head.”
Swift pointed out Easter eggs buried deep in the film, like the red typewriter that the heroine uses to write her novel first appeared in the dude’s apartment. As Swift sees the story, the typewriter is a gift he gave her, to encourage her as a writer, because he saw her creative spark early on. It was surprising to hear her discuss identifying with the male character, who she sees as positive as well as negative. Mills added, “It’s a fucked-up journey being a guy, let’s be honest. He’s swimming in guyness.”
In one of the most surprising revelations, she discussed how the ending of “All Too Well” was influenced by a 1930s film classic. That scene of the ex-boyfriend standing outside the heroine’s book reading, in the cold? Swift was inspired by the final scene of King Vidor’s 1937 film Stella Dallas when Stanwyck has to watch her daughter’s wedding through a window.
(The Swift/Stanwyck connections go deep — one of the most underrated Barbara weepers is My Reputation. FWIW, the movie legend was born in Brooklyn, where the song takes place, and she happened to die in 1989. I could go on, but let’s just say that right now is a great time to be a Swiftie who is also a Stanwyck fan.)
She brought out Sink and O’Brien to talk more about the characters. (“I named them Her and Him,” Swift said.) They revealed that the pivotal scenes — the kitchen argument, the final break-up — were scripted in advance, but when it came time to do the kitchen dialogue, they threw out the script. Swift said, “What you guys saw is mostly improv.”
They also discussed the song’s strange journey, which is unlike anything else in pop history — an underrated deep cut that turned into a Number One hit in its expanded 10-minute version. As Swift pointed out, it was never a single, “because the label was never going to pick it.” Yet the lost 10-minute version became a fan obsession. “I promoted so many albums, and went on so many tours, and did so many meet-and-greets. And every time, I got, ‘When are you going to release the 10-minute version of ‘All Too Well?’ You guys just wouldn’t let it go.”
She went into the Pablo Neruda quote that serves as her epigraph for the short film: “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” She called it “a line that haunted me and still haunts me. It’s a violent thing to read something that poignant.” (The great Chilean poet was a worldwide legend in his own lifetime, but even Neruda probably never imagined how future generations would literally scream at the sight of his name. One of the applauding folks in the house: Jim Jarmusch, one of the planet’s most legendary directors. Let’s pray for “Stranger Than Paradise (Taylor’s Version).”)
But the event’s highlight came at the end, when Swift grabbed her acoustic guitar and asked the crowd, “Do you guys have an extra 10 minutes?” Unsurprisingly, everyone did. Swift performed the full version of the song, strictly solo, which she’s only gotten to do once before at the film premiere last November. (Which was also on Broadway, just a few blocks away.) As in the film screening, the loudest moment was the audience yelling the line, “Fuck the patriarchy!”
The key line of the expanded “All Too Well” is when she asks, “Just between us, did the love affair maim you too.” One of the things that’s always set her apart as a songwriter is her unique knack to make even the grandest stadium-sized gestures feel like an intimate “Just between us.” Her Tribeca appearance was a rare in-depth look at how she makes that happen on film, just as she does in music.