Taylor Swift’s Directorial Debut Will Destroy You, Me, And The Internet

It was revealed last week that Taylor Swift is going to direct a feature for Searchlight Pictures based on a screenplay she wrote herself. I feel like I have had a fiery premonition. This is it. This is the thing that is going to kill me. I can think of nothing more perfectly suited to me specifically, and I am excited, terrified, confused, and optimistic. The nature of Swift’s fame means this is destined to be widely discussed by pretty much everyone on the internet, but as someone as close to the centre of it as a complete outsider can be, I want to dig into what Untitled Taylor Swift Directorial Debut means.

I’m a major Taylor Swift fan, but I’m also a currently alive human being, so what else is new? While Swift popped up on every Spotify Wrapped on Earth, she was top of mine with more listens than the rest of the top five combined. I’ve been with her since I’m Only Me When I’m With You on her debut album. I fought in the bear pit for Eras Tour tickets, which I’m flying halfway around the world for because dates for my country have not been announced yet. It’s a running joke at TheGamer that I can bring any conversation back to Taylor Swift. I’m not just an ‘I like her songs on the radio’ Swiftie. I’m an ‘I can tell you the year this photo was taken just by the hairstyle’ Swiftie.

‘Liking movies’ is as ubiquitous as ‘listening to Taylor Swift’, but again I think I’m in the upper percentiles. By the time this year ends, I will have seen 800 movies in 2022 and pushed TheGamer’s growth into film coverage, which will see us choose a Movie of the Year alongside Game of the Year for the first time. I have a tight enough grip on both worlds to know that one way or another, Swift’s movie will destroy me. But the big question remains – will it be any good?

That’s a difficult question to answer. It’s hard to say whether a movie will be good when all you know is that it exists (and even then, only kind of), but there are clues to be found if you know where to look. First, we should think of the environment the movie was written in. Swift wrote the movie over the pandemic, which coincides with her writing Folklore and Evermore – her two most lyrically ambitious and rewarding albums. Swift has always known her biggest asset is not her voice, but her words, and those sister albums are the magnum opus of this talent. A screenplay written in the midst of this hot streak bodes well, and given the albums’ tones, likely means a romantic tragedy.

I firmly believe Swift is the greatest lyricist working today. It’s hard to say this about a woman who breaks records as often as she sneezes, but it feels as if her talents in this field aren’t fully appreciated. In an age of stans and kweens, everything is zero sum. Everything Swift creates is perfect and everything [insert singer you don’t like] is trash. Above the tribalism, Swift is an all-time great song writer. However, on the rare occasions she has revealed her poetry or prose, it has never struck me the same.

Swift is an expert at loading her songs with clever and resonant imagery, telling tight narratives that are both self-contained and self-referential, often subverting expectations or transforming a song’s entire context with a clever twist in the bridge or final chorus. The brief snippets of writing we’ve seen away from music have always felt like they are cloyingly grabbing at this greatness she knows she has within her, but has never quite achieved without a melody behind her.

However, the screenplay itself feels secondary. All anyone is talking about is Swift the director. Directors are far more famous than screenwriters, and have a greater impact on the final movie, so that makes sense, but offers little to go off. Swift is passionate about artists owning their work, a passion intensified when she was not offered the chance to buy back her masters, leading to the current Taylor’s Version re-recordings. From Lover (the first album she owned herself from the start), she has self-directed all of her music videos, the apex of which is All Too Well – The Short Film.

All Too Well has an iconic place in Swift’s catalogue, as I’ve written about before. In short, it was never released as a single or given any promo, but was collectively recognised by the fans as her best work. In an interview, she let slip that a ten minute master exists, and when Red (Taylor’s Version) rolled around, the ten minute version was present, and was given a short film starring Dylan O’Brien, Sadie Sink, and Swift herself.

The short film intersects the song with various scenes of O’Brien and Sink, and has won numerous awards already. Swift is fairly transparently pushing for an Oscar by discussing the short film again, releasing a behind the scenes video, going on Directors on Directors, and announcing her feature debut all within a week of each other as nomination season begins. There have been some complaints that Swift is ‘taking’ a position that could go to an up-and-coming filmmaker, to which the only answer is: tough. The Oscars aren’t a charity. However, while I don’t keep up with short films the way I do feature releases, my gut says All Too Well isn’t quite on the level – though name brand recognition in a smaller category could carry her.

Her appearance on Directors on Directors has been questioned too. The show is usually for established directors to pick each others’ brains, and Swift is not an established director. Even assuming she wins her Oscar (a longshot), the guests are established feature directors with several acclaimed movies under their belts. But Swift offers something none of those directors can.

Swift is paired with Martin McDonagh, himself an Oscar winner for Live-Action Short, and also a nominee for Best Original Screenplay through In Bruges and Three Billboards, the latter of which was also up for Best Picture. McDonagh’s latest picture, The Banshees of Inisherin, is also expected to be up for numerous categories at this year’s ceremony (likely part of the reason McDonagh is on the show too). It’s clear he has achieved more in film than Swift has, and he’s not even the most successful one across the whole show. But those questioning Swift’s involvement cannot see the bigger picture.

Most people doing this are aiming for nominations across award season. That’s not unique to Swift. And her commitment to a feature-length directorial debut also points to a woman taking this very seriously. She has earned the right to be there. She was not born as the most successful woman in music. She’s not just ‘a singer’. Five of the ten biggest female album debuts in history belong to Swift. She just became the first person ever to hold the top ten on Billboard. She is a phenomenon. She has not achieved her place there through film, but her power in the entertainment business is so almighty there can be no better guest. The point of the show is for directors to grill each other on how they approach their work. The most successful musician of the decade deciding to transition mainstream industries is a noteworthy event.

The big question might be ‘why is she doing this?’, but there’s an answer here too. In Swift’s Miss Americana documentary, she talks about her then-upcoming album Lover – the final album she would release before turning 30, an age considered an expiration for many female pop stars. Swift left us in no doubt.

“This is probably one of my last opportunities as an artist to grasp onto that kind of success. So, I don't know, as I'm reaching thirty, I'm like, I want to work really hard while society is still tolerating me being successful,” Swift said in the documentary. Clearly, given the unprecedented streaming success of Folklore then her glorious return to pop stardom with Midnights, she was wrong about Lover being her last chance – but that thought process gives some insight into why Swift would consider making the jump in the first place.

Swift’s position in pop culture feels unique. She’s already one of the most discussed directors of the year and she’s yet to even begin this under-wraps feature. It invites a lot of pressure onto the production, and to whichever stars sign on for it. It’s a huge amount to put on a first timer, even one so used to the spotlight in other areas. Swift’s involvement means it will be heavily discussed and likely profitable (please ignore the man with a huge sign pointing to Cats), but good? We just don’t know yet. Whether it is or isn’t, it will be the end of me, you, and everyone else.

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