Why Taylor Swift could succeed as a director and what to expect from her first film

Swift's feature film might be “more comedic, irreverent” than her heartbreaking songs — and it could actually work

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published December 16, 2022 3:00PM (EST)

Taylor Swift (Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)
Taylor Swift (Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images)

The Variety headline reads: "Taylor Swift, Film Director, In Conversation . . ." Swift, the singer-songwriter, 11-time Grammy Award winner? Swift, whose upcoming "Eras" tour broke the record for most concert tickets ever sold in a single day, launching a presale so mismanaged, Ticketmaster became the subject of an antitrust investigation at the Justice Department? Swift is a director now? 

Swift has been a director for a long time, but the brief Dec. 9 announcement that she'll direct a feature film for Searchlight Pictures, based on her own script, sent the internet into a spiral. Vulture joke tweeted that she would helm a "Twilight" film while others in the industry or hoping to be expressed frustration that the already famous Swift could get a deal. 

The news of her feature film debut comes right on the heels of another Swift controversy, whose timing seems impeccably intentional now. The Variety headline was attached to her interview this week with Martin McDonagh for a series called "Directors on Directors." In the annual series, directors who have both had a project released with the year meet in conversation. Many balked at Swift's inclusion, with Buzzfeed airing detractors' concerns, including "that Taylor could be depriving other directors of some much-needed exposure."

Does she know what she's doing? What is she doing? What in Swift's past body of work has prepared her for this? What might we expect from the feature film, and is there a precedence for musicians like Swift occupying a director's chair and actually succeeding?

One of the most bestselling musical artists of all time started in Nashville, where Swift and her family moved when she was 14 to advance her music career. Her first studio album reached No. 5 on the Billboard 200, and she was off. There have been multiple reinventions along the way, as with most artists with any staying power. She started as a country singer, has found a handhold firmly in pop, but albums like "Reputation" have a more gritty and experimental feel.

Past directing experience

One of her transformations included playing a male character with extensive prosthetics for the video for her 2019 song "The Man"— a video she directed, according to Swift in her Variety conversation with McDonagh, "out of necessity." Swift wanted a female director for the video, but everyone she contacted was busy. "I was like, 'I could do it, maybe,'" she told McDonagh. "And when I did direct, I just thought, 'This is actually more fulfilling than I ever could have imagined.'"

While some have taken offense to the fact that Swift said she simply couldn't find any female directors, thus had to become one, stepping behind the camera became a familiar, welcoming place for Swift. She writes all of her music videos, and has directed or co-directed nearly a dozen. Swift directed both of the released videos for her most recent album "Midnights"— and there are plans for a music video for every song.

The style of Swift

As a director, Swift's style is playful and eccentric. Videos like the one for her song "Me!", which she co-directed with Dave Meyers, highlight pastel, candy-colored visuals that dip into the surreal. A unicorn has a pink waterfall mane that is also Swift's voluminous tulle skirt tumbling off a building. In the kitschy "You Need to Calm Down," set in an epic trailer park, she plays with shapes: a round swimming pool, a round float, a crown that dissolves into a bowl of shrimp dip. Her cuts are fast, as befitting a music video, and she says she edits them on-set, sometimes with only one take, though she was quick to assure McDonagh that's "not now I would approach doing a feature film."

She doesn't always focus on herself in her videos. "Lover," co-directed with Drew Kirsch, who also co-directed "You Need to Calm Down," is more interested in the scene than in the star. She's also not afraid to poke fun of herself, to look monstrous or ridiculous, screaming in French, mascara running down her face, or throwing up on herself (blue glitter) in "Anti-Hero." Lingering shots on minor characters in videos like "The Man" may indicate her proclivity for an ensemble piece. She's interested in the reaction of others. 


Her storytelling is born of her background.

She also seems interested in time. "Lover" is all about the build-up, the accumulation of a life story. Time and memory happen in painful ways (and keep happening) in "All Too Well," her most ambitious directorial project to date: the 2022 short film produced in conjunction with Swift's re-recording a 10-minute version of her song of the same name. The short stars Sadie Sink of "Stranger Things" and Dylan O'Brien in a love affair gone wrong.

Swift loves a callback, a throughline; at the end of "All Too Well," Swift plays Sink's character, grown up and apparently a successful novelist while O'Brien's character observes her doing a reading through a window in the snow, "Stella Dallas"-style, wearing that infamous scarf. Swift's short film is character-centric, laser-focused on the female character. O'Brien starts the film but the camera quickly shifts to Sink's reaction. We're taking it all in through her eyes. In the film's only scene with audible dialogue, O'Brien speaks largely unseen. The camera stays with Sink, leaning over the dishes, staying with her stunned response as her male partner explodes in anger.

It's a lush, romantic film, despite the emotional unraveling that occurs. The Swift aesthetic is one of nostalgia, the ache of childhood. Many of her directed videos have clear narratives, but with highly stylized magical elements, like the golden, glowing rope in "Cardigan" and "Willow," linked videos which show, like "All Too Well," how she might connect with an extended story. 

Her storytelling is born of her background: country musicwhich has a focus on telling a tale and is people-driven. She's always been a character in her songs, even if the character is a past version or persona of herself (though in more recent albums, it seems not to be).

The film industry

What Swift is doing is not a completely clear path, but it has been blazed before. From Spike Jonze to Daniels – the director duo behind this year's smash "Everything Everywhere All At Once" – music video directors have spring-boarded their experiences into larger screens and longer stories. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" director Michel Gondry started with directing music videos for the likes of Björk, Radiohead, The White Stripes, Daft Punk and many others. Hiro Murai went on to direct episodes of "Atlanta." Mark Romanek ("Never Let Me Go") first made his mark with music videos like "Closer" for Nine Inch Nails.

What distinguishes Swift from this group is that music video directors who have found later success in cinema are primarily men.

The musician to film creator pipeline is also a popular one, for acting (like David Bowie), writing, directing and composing. Nick Cave and Wayne Coyne are some of the musical artists who have contributed to or made films. Rob Zombie has made a second career for himself as a filmmaker, directing such now-classic horror films as "House of 1000 Corpses," "The Devil's Rejects," the 2007 remake "Halloween" and its sequel, "Halloween II." 

"I don't think I would go headlong into another heartbreak story … just did that, takes a lot out of you."

The list of musical artists who direct their own videos, if nothing else, includes more women, especially in recent years. Madonna and Beyoncé are some of the female musicians who direct, as do FKA Twigs and Grimes, shaping the visuals as well as the songs. M.I.A. and Azealia Banks have directed their videos. In 2011, Lana Del Rey launched herself into the wider world through the aptly titled, "Video Games," a collage of vintage film clips and webcam performances she had directed and edited herself.

The storyline of Swift's movie

As for what Swift's movie could be about? Details have not yet been released, but audiences should not necessarily expect a heart-wrenching examination of love like "All Too Well," or like some of her stated influences such as "Marriage Story." As she told McDonagh, "I don't think I would go headlong into another heartbreak story . . . just did that, takes a lot out of you."

Clues as to the subject matter and tone of Swift's first feature film may be found in her past videos, many of which display a surprising side of the singer of often-earnest, heartbreaking songs: humor. 

In "Me!" she describes her cats as her "two daughters." "Bejeweled" skewers the Cinderella story and the notion of the happily ever after. "Anti-Hero" includes a brawl at a funeral and a portrait of Swift as an elderly woman surrounded by felines (she frequently mocks her cat lady tendencies). In a fall 2022 conversation with TIFF, she said of a (then hypothetical) feature film of hers, "I could see it going in a more comedic, irreverent place. I don't always see myself telling stories about extreme, guttural heartbreak at your most formative age . . . I think I've done that."

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

One thing is certain, whatever her film may be about and whether it is a success or not (given her fan base, it will likely be popular), Swift is the kind of creative type who keeps going, keeps moving and changing not only to survive as an artist but to survive in general. As she said to McDonagh, "The more things I make, the more things I make, and the happier I am."

By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

MORE FROM Alison Stine

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Albums All Too Well Analysis Directing Movies Music Music Videos Screenwriting Taylor Swift