For hundreds of Swifties in New York City, today was a fairy tale.
That’s because Taylor Swift made a rare public appearance, at Tribeca Festival, to screen her short film “All Too Well” and talk with filmmaker Mike Mills (“C’mon C’mon,” “20th Century Women”) about bringing the 10-minute track to the big screen.
“This is not a music video,” she informed the audience at the Beacon Theatre on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “We approached everything differently.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, the notoriously private pop star also revealed easter eggs in the short film, discussed her ambitions to direct a movie and treated fans to a surprise performance of “All Too Well.” Seated near the stage, Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds were among the many in the crowd who enthusiastically sung along, clapped and took videos of Swift throughout the lengthy track.
Long before Swift broke out her red guitar, Mills remarked the 90-minute conversation felt like a concert because of the energetic crowd’s nonstop cheering.
“Sorry I’m not Taylor Swift,” he joked as he took the stage. By the way… how did Mills, best known for indies like “C’mon, C’mon,” come to moderate a panel with Swift? As it turns out, she’s a die-hard fan of his 2019 short film “I Am Easy to Find” and texted him “out of the blue.”
Swift, 32, has been writing and performing her own songs since she was a teenager. After spending a lot of time on the sets of music videos, she became interested in stepping behind the camera herself.
“I was always curious,” she said. “I started to venture into the edit [for music videos] and making changes and meddling… it started with meddling.”
Swift, who wrote and directed “All Too Well: The Short Film,” admitted she felt out of her depth at times.
“I had this imposter syndrome in my head saying, ‘No, you don’t do that. Other people do that who went to school to do that.’”
Mills interjected: “I didn’t go to school to do that.”
An assured Swift continued, “Oh! It’s fantastic to know that. That makes me feel better. Don’t you feel like it’s an amazing exercise in trusting gut instinct? There are so many decisions you have to make. Saying ‘I don’t know’ really isn’t an option most of the time.”
Mills gently disagreed, telling Swift that directors do not need to have the right answer every single time.
“Maybe that’s just being a female director,” Swift offered, to which Mills replied, “Word.”
As for filmmaking, Swift has been bitten by the bug and would “love to” continue working in the medium.
“It would be so fantastic to write and direct something… a feature,” she said. “I don’t see it being bigger, in terms of scale. I loved making a film that was so intimate.”
She called being on set “such a fulfilling experience,” adding, “I’m really secret agent-y about people not finding out what we’re making. Everything was [discussed using] code words. I’m so weird.”
To this day, Swift has never detailed the origins of “All Too Well.” But she told the audience, “I wanted to make a film about an effervescent, curious young woman who ends up completely out of her depth.” She elaborated, “You know when you’re walking into the ocean? It’s so fun, the idea of going out so far your feet don’t touch the ground, but you can get swept away.”
Sadie Sink, of “Stranger Things” fame, and “Teen Wolf” star Dylan O’Brien — who made a surprise appearance at Saturday’s talk — star in the short film. Sink plays a younger version of Swift, while O’Brien’s character is widely rumored to be based on the singer’s ex-boyfriend Jake Gyllenhaal. In real life, Gyllenhaal is 9 years older than Swift.
Though, of course, Swift remained coy about that pesky detail, O’Brien shed some light on the first conversation he had with Swift.
“I’ll never forget — you said, ‘We need this guy to be likable even though he’s going to execute some really unlikable things,’” O’Brien recalled.
“It’s such a nuanced perspective Taylor has. It’s not black and white. He’s not a monster. He’s just a narcissistic, egomaniacal child,” he said to loud applause. Though his character is much older, O’Brien notes “he’s really the child.”
Swift offered, “I wanted it to feel like them falling together was inevitable and them falling apart was just as inevitable. I wanted it to feel like there were forces at play and they couldn’t stop from colliding or being dismantled.”
Swift also spoke at length about hidden meaning in Sink’s character, who, like Swift, is a writer. “It’s one of the narrative devices I loved sprinkling through the short film,” Swift gushed. It’s teased from the very beginning; the short is preceded by a literary quote from Pablo Neruda, “Love is so short, forgetting is so long.” It’s meant to reference her inner author.
Likewise, when Sink’s character says to O’Brien’s, “‘Are you for real? I feel like I made you up,’ she foreshadows the fact that she will one day write a book and fictionalize his character in a novel,” Swift revealed. The title cards throughout the 15-minute film are meant to indicate the chapter titles in Sink’s future book.
“But,” Swift teased, “there’s more…”
“There’s this red typewriter,” she started. “We meet [O’Brien’s character] for the first time; we pan across a red typewriter. Later on, we see her typing on that typewriter. We assume he gave it to her: she complimented it and he gave it to her. He’s taken a lot from her in the course of this [song], but he’s also given her something: this dream and hope of being a writer. This experience is what galvanized her life and career.”
Swift continued, “There are a lot of ways in which I do feel both characters are protagonists. I spent a lot of time thinking about the way they are.”
In the short film, Swift appears in a cameo as herself at the end. It takes place in a sequence set 13 years later, where she has written a book called “All Too Well.” The film concludes with her ex looks through a window of a bookstore as she’s doing a reading, though Swift intentionally did not show his face while he walks away.
“I wanted us to wonder: Was he just seeing if she was OK? Was he about to walk in but leaving thinking, ‘It’s time to leave well enough alone. I’ve put her through enough?’”
If you came expecting answers, you may be a fan of the wrong songwriter. “We will always wonder, we will never know,” Swift said coyly.