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“Is There a Difference Between Theater Improv and Doing a Psychic Reading?”: Lana Wilson On Her Sundance-Premiering Look Into My Eyes

Look Into My Eyes

It was 2016, the day after the presidential election, when filmmaker Lana Wilson (Miss Americana, After Tiller, Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields) was filming an omnibus film about the election night in Atlantic City, NJ. To her, the night was like living in a horror movie. It was when she was waiting for her ride back to New York that she noticed a sign that said, $5 Psychic Readings. “I was feeling depressed, sad, confused and really frightened of the future,” Wilson tells Filmmaker recently, before the Sundance premiere of her latest film, Look Into My Eyes. “Without even thinking, I just walked in.”

Until then, Wilson had never been to a psychic before. But the session she had in her most vulnerable place had such a profound impact on her that she decided to one day make a film about psychics. “There was an empty room with a table and two chairs,” she recalls. “I sat down and immediately felt incredibly emotional. Even though no one was there, I suddenly felt like I was looking in a mirror at my own desperate, fragile state. That had a really big effect on me.”

In the melancholic and deeply New York Look Into My Eyes, Wilson profiles several artistic NYC psychics, following them in and out of their sessions and delivering a mosaic of human connections in the city. Below, she discusses how she chose her subjects, allowing for privacy in her filming and maintaining a respectful tone throughout.

Filmmaker: Could you elaborate further on that first session and realizing that there is a story to be told there? Why was this the right time to tell it?

Wilson: When this woman came in, she gave me a pretty quick five-minute reading. She was very nice, gentle and comforting. I don’t really remember what she said, but I do remember I felt better afterwards. I was getting up to leave and she said, “What do you do for a living?” And I said I’m a documentary filmmaker. I was finishing The Departure, so I said, “I’m making this movie about a Zen priest who counsels these people considering suicide, but that takes a real toll on him. And he himself is very self-destructive and screwed up.” The psychic said, “It sounds like my life. I can’t tell you the situations people come in here with at real crossroads in their lives.”

That was the lightbulb moment. I would’ve thought of psychics as more frivolous than that, more of a party activity. But I realized this could be a really extraordinary window in to human beings when they have nowhere else to go. But then I got a call about making a movie about Taylor Swift and then my whole life took a total U-turn. And after finishing Miss Americana, I moved back home to New York from LA. And then the pandemic happened. A few months into the pandemic, it kind of hit me that now it could be the time to make the psychics film at a time when people were more uncertain about the future than ever. There was this new sense of isolation, a profound loneliness that set in for so many people. We came to cherish these simple human connections And I was like, maybe I should start trying to meet some psychics.

Filmmaker: A lot of the psychics you profiled are into or in creative arts. They are performance artists, script doctors, aspiring actors. The connection between art and psychics really surprised me.

Wilson: I started out meeting many different psychics. I would do an initial session with a psychic. And I started to work with a great producer named Kyle Martin, and he started to see psychics, and an associate producer also started to see psychics. And this group in Look Into My Eyes is pulled from over 100 psychics that we met. Once we started filming sessions with them, it was only later that I began to learn that they were all actors and movie lovers and script writers and all of that stuff. And I started to feel like I’d perhaps chosen people who reflected parts of myself.

And what I found so amazing is, because they were creative people, they could speak really openly about the connections and the overlap between creativity and psychic sessions. You know, you have like the woman in the middle of the film who has a background in theater. Is there a difference between theater improv and doing a psychic reading? I don’t know if there is. So because of those backgrounds, they could speak to the fact that whether it’s your imagination or whether it’s real, whatever that means. What matters is if the emotional experience that a person is having is real. And that also reminded me of watching a movie. Watching a movie is a totally contrived experience. Yet you can have these feelings in a movie theater and in a psychic session that are absolutely real. And honestly, an experience in a movie theater might be more emotional or more vivid than my experiences in my actual life. In the same way that a dream can feel just as vivid. So that’s the other reason I was drawn to this particular group.

Filmmaker: I’m wondering what it took to convince them to be on camera, both the psychics and the clients. How did you earn their trust, help them feel comfortable?

Wilson: I filmed with a few existing clients that the psychics had. They don’t usually have clients that are recurring [but when they do], I found those sessions hard to access because they knew each other already, and it wasn’t reflective of most of the work that they did. So what we ended up doing was setting up tables all over the city with signs that said “free psychic readings.” That’s how we found everyone. I wanted to replicate the process of just wandering into a psychic reading. I think everyone we used in the film fell into that camp of people who the psychic had never met before. And I had not met them in advance. I would talk to them in person before we started filming. “Do you have concerns? Do you have questions?” I explained what the approach of the film was.

And we filmed in a way where I wanted it to be like they were alone in the room with the psychic. [We used] two cameras during the sessions. There’s one camera on the client and the composition’s [centered]. That composition was inspired After Life, the Hirokazu Kore-eda movie [with] the newly dead people. And no one was behind it, someone was hidden in another room operating focus. And then the second camera was typically operated by our cinematographer, Stephen Maing and he was on the side. I had told him just try to stay out of the client’s eyeline. Steve also has a remarkable presence in rooms with subjects and radiates a warmth. You could trust him immediately. That allowed them to feel comfortable.

Filmmaker: How did you maintain a sensitive tone throughout? As you mentioned at the start, people might think of psychics as “unserious” or “frivolous,” but you sidestep those cliches in your tone.

Wilson: The first thing that we filmed was the sessions. And I always knew I wanted two slightly different styles, that the overall trajectory in the film would be going from clients to psychics. As I got to know the psychics, I started to understand how much their own past, their own experiences with pain, loss and trauma informed the work that they did. And so that’s when I started to see how this could be interwoven. I wanted the visual style to [be a] really minimalist, austere approach for the sessions. And then I always knew I wanted there to be a bit of a formal rupture, which is when you first go home with a psychic, and suddenly it’s handheld and you’re in their house. There’s stuff everywhere and everything changes and you get a little glimpse of the connections you mentioned.

Then I realized my questions [to the psychics] were increasingly seeming like the questions the psychic would ask during sessions. It’s not my style usually to do these “talk towards the camera” interviews. But in part because of the psychics are themselves so performative and such big personalities, it just worked. Just like the clients who come to them, they want to be witnessed like any documentary subject. There’s a difference between being watched and truly being witnessed. I was really moved by how much of themselves they were willing to share with me. They do comfort people, obviously. But they could drop that and be really vulnerable.

Filmmaker: You said you don’t recall what the psychic told you during that first reading of yours. Do you remember anything you were told in later readings?

Wilson: It was the first session that really affected me. And the people I saw later, I don’t remember what they said either. But I was also in the mindset of “I’m looking for subjects.” So the thing that affected me about it was [that] I was struck by it not mattering what she said. What mattered was that I felt comforted. I felt better. I did feel like she saw something about me, something quite simple, probably. We as human beings seek out and need that connection so deeply. We want to be seen and understood for who we really are. And I think the idea of a stranger seeing something about us makes it feel hyper real in a way: If this stranger can see this, this must be really real about me. It’s not about, you know, “Is this literally your dead grandmother in the room or not?” Well, we’ll never know. I don’t know what happens when we die. And I didn’t want to come at it from that mindset. I wanted to come at it from the experience in the room emotionally that that person has. That is absolutely real.

Filmmaker: Did you question whether you believe what you were seeing or hearing? Like about a ghost being in the room or something like that? Or did you remove yourself from that question as a filmmaker?

Wilson: All the time, I was always wondering about that. But for me, it became less about real vs. not real. A part of me was just thinking, these are all deeply empathetic people, and they’re saying everything they see and hear and feel and sense out loud. And I was wondering, “Can I do that to some degree with people?” I am not a psychic. I would not say I’m intuitive. I would say I’m empathetic. I do believe that humans have energetic connections to each other where you can feel and sense things about each other sometimes. That is the part that I was most interested in: about imagination and those kind of liminal senses we have of each other through empathy and the fundamental internal experiences we have of life. We all experience loss. We share enough that we can do a little mind reading of each other.

Filmmaker: I love that you started the movie with a medical professional at a psychic’s office. That doesn’t seem obvious at all: a scientist, seeing a psychic. Her being a doctor pulled me in immediately.

Wilson: As soon as we filmed that, I had a feeling like this is the opening of the film because exactly—her being a doctor is kind of shocking, right? Science and medicine…it’s not black and white. And there is spirituality in the world where the doctor is working in the emergency room, big time. So I guess thinking about the doctor and how she was in this position where she had no way of coping with this loss that she witnessed, this trauma that she went through, she had no one to go to, no one to talk to. She was the healer, but no one could heal her. There was that very direct connection there. I just love the way she told that story, and then the surprise of her saying about this dead girl, “So, how is she?” It was cutting against so many expectations you might have, and that is what made it so exciting to me. I’m glad that you were gripped by it.

Filmmaker: Has making this movie changed or evolved you as a person, or evolved the way you see New York? Because among other things, this is a great New York film, about the countless stories we walk by every day but don’t see or think about. Everyone has a story.

Wilson: Towards the end of the editing process when I watched this film [I noticed] it really does capture so much of New York City to me. Even though there’s probably less than 10 shots of NYC in it. It’s like this inside-out New York experience. All of these characters coming here with these big dreams of making it in show business or art or writing movies, and all of the energy and the passion that they have for those things. Also, this is a city where I feel it’s okay to be lonely. You can have an unconventional life. A lot of people who move to New York are not pursuing the conventional dreams. It’s okay to be different and oddly, other New Yorkers are there for you in these surprising ways. And even though Covid is barely mentioned in the film, for me, it reflects that human beings are there for each other in this profound way that was really specific to the experience of living here during the pandemic. That is very much in the movie. That’s what I’m most moved by what the psychics do. This would not exactly be happening in this exact way in any other city on earth.

Filmmaker: I had this crazy experience with a psychic once, when I was a teenager. A few of the improbable things she said came true. I still can’t believe it. But I didn’t want to see a psychic again after that.

Wilson: You only want to do that once, because you don’t want to mess with the magic. She sounds amazing by the way.

Filmmaker: I don’t know, it was a bit freaky. But my point was, I noticed in the film that for this group of psychics, it’s less a guessing session about what’s going to happen in the future, and more like therapy.

Wilson: I’m so glad you brought that up, because that’s the other thing that actually makes this group different. I kind of moved away from the psychics doing a guessing game like, “You’ll be the mother to twins.” I gravitate towards people at the intersection of a psychic reading and psychotherapy. In fact, one of the psychics in the film used to be a therapist, the woman who talks to the doctor. She literally has a master’s degree as a therapist. But I love that you had that experience. I think what’s so cool about it is it’s just so interesting, for you to remember that for years.

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