“Taylor Swift: Miss Americana” director Lana Wilson is developing a documentary feature about psychics that she’ll be presenting this week at CPH:FORUM, the international financing and co-production event held during the Copenhagen Intl. Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX), which runs March 23-April 3.
“Look Into My Eyes” is a poetic exploration of what Wilson describes as “the oldest and most popular form of therapy,” told through a series of intimate sessions with psychics and their clients. Pulling the curtain back on a centuries-old practice, the film will present a kaleidoscopic portrait of anxiety, hope and human resilience at a time of widespread turmoil and uncertainty.
It is a documentary, the director believes, that is arriving at just the right moment. “We’re certainly less certain about the future than we ever have been right now,” says Wilson. “People are more isolated and alone than they ever have been. I thought this could be an extraordinary moment to start to make this film.”
The inspiration for “Look Into My Eyes” came to Wilson on a somber November morning in Atlantic City, the day after Donald Trump had won the 2016 U.S. presidential election, when she found herself standing before a storefront offering $5 psychic readings.
“I had a very depressing, horrifying night, like a lot of people did,” she says. “It was 8:30 a.m., feeling kind of hopeless.” Wilson had never taken the idea of psychic readings seriously – “I thought people would go to a psychic at a bachelorette party,” she admits – but she somehow found herself stepping inside, into a small room ringed by red velvet curtains.
“I immediately felt incredibly emotional – almost like I was looking in a mirror,” she says. “I had this thought [that] there is something so vulnerable about going to ask a complete stranger for help and advice, and I thought, ‘This is a really powerful experience, even if no one comes into this room right now.’”
A psychic did arrive, and Wilson duly forked over her five bucks. After the reading, as the two fell into conversation, she was surprised by the range of clients who had previously occupied that same chair: everyday folks grappling with job loss, financial disaster, loneliness, strained family relationships, romantic failure.
“[These were] people who are on a search for meaning, wanting to know if their life has impact on the world,” she says, “wanting to feel like, ‘Am I on a path in the world where I’m doing something only I can do, where it has meaning? Is there a purpose to my existence?’”
In a sense – and in the manner of the most fruitful psychic sessions – that reading set Wilson down an unexpected path, as she began to conceive of the stories and characters that would populate “Look Into My Eyes.” “I am really drawn to these intense emotional exchanges between two people, whether it’s in the abortion clinic [‘After Tiller’], or at a Zen temple [‘The Departure’], or a neuroscientist carrying phobias [‘A Cure for Fear’], or, in this case, a psychic reading,” she says. “It just felt really connected to me [and] to everything I’m interested in exploring in my work.”
Before Wilson could take the project any further, however, fate intervened, in the form of a Netflix documentary about the biggest pop star on the planet. By the time she was ready to tackle “Look Into My Eyes,” the world was gripped by the greatest health crisis since the Spanish Flu swept the globe a century ago.
That interim has brought a new dimension to the film – “I think there are all these [existential] questions that we have even more of during the pandemic,” she says – and has also given Wilson some perspective on the unlikely parallels between “Miss Americana” and “Look Into My Eyes.” “On the outside, they seem very different,” she says. “But I do think there’s a kind of sensitivity and seeking that kind of emotional intensity, a cathartic experience.”
Wilson and producer Kyle Martin (“Tiny Furniture”), who is producing through his shingle Electric Chinoland, have begun financing “Look Into My Eyes” and are looking for additional financing and pre-sales in Copenhagen. In the search for like-minded partners, Wilson wants to maintain creative control over a documentary that she believes requires a deft touch. “I really see this as an art film that is exploring this timeless relationship in a kaleidoscopic way,” she says. “And I think to get it right, it has to be the most specific, sensitive balance.”
That includes Wilson’s ability to overcome her own skepticism on that dreary November morning in Atlantic City. “Personally, I don’t believe in psychics,” she says. “But I think the experience itself is incredibly powerful and transformative.” She adds: “[‘Look Into My Eyes’] is about this tradition that’s existed everywhere since the beginning of time, and why it is that we need psychics, whether we believe in them or not. What does this mean?”