Inside the fascinating world of New York City Psychics

Lana Wilson sees many similarities between the filming of the documentary about Taylor Swift and a documentary on psychology. «We all want to be understood – it’s very easy to follow people, look at them and judge them, but to actually witness someone is unique.» Miss Americana says the filmmaker. “That’s what I often do as a filmmaker. Watching her exciting new movie Look into my eyes, which premieres at the Sundance Film Festival next week, it’s easy to see the connection happening. Wilson makes films with extraordinary intimacy and paves cinematic paths of self-realization. So it was only natural that she looked to the world of psychics for her next subject.

Look into my eyes, which has been more than seven years in the works, also signals an exciting step forward for Wilson as she expands her vision toward the entire community. Created as a unique portrait of contemporary New York, the Doctor hops from apartment to apartment, from park bench to park bench, pointing the camera at groups of people desperate for answers about themselves – both clients hoping to connect with what they’ve lost , and psychics who themselves struggle with loneliness and sadness. As Wilson follows seven unique, strict psychics around town, he gets a fascinating look at why they’re suited for the job, how their personal experiences influence their approach to reading, and exactly what their lives look like. The final shot literally spells out the film’s title and quite heartbreakingly demonstrates the power of small connections between people.

Does the film come up with any answers as to whether psychics actually connect with the other side? As Wilson explains in an extensive interview with Vanity Fairthat question is way off the mark.

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Vanity Fair: What made you want to make this film? where did it start

Lana Wilson: It’s been a long time. I’ve never actually worked on a film for so long. The idea came the day after Trump was elected in 2016. It was the morning after the election and I was working as a TV writer, so I was waiting to get back into town. It was about 8:00 and I felt so devastated, broken, grieving. I noticed this sign in the mall where I was standing, it said, «$5 psychic reading.» I walked in without thinking. I had never been to a psychologist before. I pulled back the curtain and the room was empty. There was only a table and two chairs, but no one was there. I sat down and immediately felt very emotional. I really felt at that moment that I was looking at my despair in the mirror. And it was very powerful. And then this woman came in. She gave me a reading. She was very reassuring and kind. I don’t remember what she said but I remember it was short but then I felt better. And I paid her five bucks.

As I was leaving she said, «What do you do for a living?» And I said, «I’m a documentary filmmaker.» She said, «Oh, what are you making movies about?» And I said, «Well, I’m finishing this one about a punk rocker turned Zen priest who tries to convince suicidal people to keep living, but he kind of destroys it.» And she said, «That sounds like my life.» I was like, «What?» And she said, «Yeah, you wouldn’t believe the situations people come in here for.» People are coming to these real crossroads in their lives.” That was a light bulb moment for me. I would never expect that from a psychic. I didn’t know how serious and deep it could be.

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You follow a group of psychics through their lives. How did you build that network?

It was around the time the pandemic started that I started thinking that maybe now is the right moment to make a film about the psyche that I had in the back of my mind for so long. It was coming from this very powerful place of being in New York during the pandemic—it was obviously a scary place, but then it quickly became an amazing place because people were really there for each other. It was just incredible. I probably thought the psychic business was growing and I’m sure we’re less certain about the future than ever before. I started seeing psychics during the pandemic. We have seen over 100 psychics as a (production) group. In the end, maybe it was a total of four people, a total of five people who read.

We started with the idea that maybe they were psychics, but I quickly gravitated towards people who do these longer sessions that are more at the intersection of psychotherapy. I just loved long, deep sessions. The short ones felt more like someone reading a weather report; I loved what was possible for an hour and a half. At first, I thought: Maybe it’s just seances, this kaleidoscope of humanity in New York during the pandemic. But as I got to know psychics better, I became more and more curious about them. I learned about their own origin stories with being psychic, which often started with being a client of a psychic and having their life change in some way – I realized they had a lot of shared experiences of loss and loneliness and that I wanted more that in movie. It became such a collective story of these seven psychics. There’s a lot more psychology to the film than I ever expected at first.

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You can see in the edit the way their perspectives and their experiences inform these sessions – and perhaps the way they understand the people they work with.

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