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“As Authentic as Any Psychic Interaction Can Be”: Lana Wilson on ‘Look Into My Eyes’

By Lauren Wissot

Two figures sit at a small round table, which has a candle on it.

A still from Look Into My Eyes, an official selection of the Premieres program at Sundance 2024. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

A revelatory portrait of psychics and their clients, Lana Wilson’s Look Into My Eyes is also an unexpectedly poignant love letter to the myriad artists and performers that fake it till they make it in NYC—as well as to the city itself. Birthed during the pandemic that took a particularly heavy toll across the five boroughs, the doc follows a group of psychics who are all movie-fluent performers who similarly view their low-paying, psychic side gigs as more a calling than a job. Wilson, along with her much-in-demand DP Stephen Maing (whose own Union, co-directed with Brett Story, premiered over the weekend at Sundance) takes us from readings with clients (selected by the filmmaking team from table auditions) in barebones rooms (sets likewise provided by Wilson and her crew), to the psychics’ actual apartments (it’s not hoarding, it’s NYC). In the process, we learn less about predicting the future and more about connecting in the present. As Wilson herself puts it, whether ESP is “real” might just be beside the point.

A few days prior to the film’s January 22 premiere at Sundance, Documentary was fortunate to catch up with the busy director, whose impressively eclectic oeuvre ranges from 2013’s Emmy Award-winning After Tiller (co-directed with Martha Shane) and 2017’s Independent Spirit Award-nominated The Departure, to the celebrity-centric studies of 2020’s Miss Americana and last year’s Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields. Look Into My Eyes had its first public screening yesterday. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


DOCUMENTARY: Could you discuss how this project came about? I read in the press notes that Donald Trump’s election prompted your first visit to a psychic— how did you get from that feeling of helplessness to a feature film? 

LANA WILSON: I had my first psychic reading the morning after Trump’s election. I walked into a little psychic shop and there was just a small table and two chairs. I sat down at the table and was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. I felt like I was looking in the mirror at my own desperate, vulnerable state. I remember being struck by how much feeling and clarity I felt just entering that situation, even though no one else was there.

After the psychic came in, and gave me a very gentle, comforting, five-minute reading, she asked what I did for a living. I told her I was a documentary filmmaker, finishing a movie [The Departure] about a punk rocker turned Zen priest who tries to convince suicidal people to keep on living, but is himself very self-destructive. “Sounds like my life!” the psychic said. I was baffled. She explained to me that people considering suicide, and other people at major crossroads in their lives, were often coming through her doors—and that dealing with such intense situations all the time took a toll on her. I had no idea that people were going to psychics in such dire straits. That made me think this could be an incredible setting for a film. What would it be like to see the wash of humanity that comes through a psychic’s doors? What would it reveal about who we are as humans, to get to be inside those rooms, hear those questions, and see what kinds of connections are created?

I had that idea in 2016 but didn’t have the chance to actually make the film until 2020. After spending a couple of years in LA, I moved back to New York, my home of almost 20 years, when the pandemic began. I realized that now is the time to make the psychics film. People are more uncertain and frightened about the future than ever before. People are lonelier and more isolated than ever. The preciousness of human connection is something we are all understanding in a new way. And I bet psychics are busier than ever, too.  

D: The film reminded me a bit of the HBO series How to With John Wilson, in the sense that it’s so NYC-character-specific. Which in turn made me wonder about your audition process. How did you cast all your participants?

LW: I, my producer Kyle Martin, and a few other collaborators (story producer Aine Pennello and story APs Tracy Hopkins and Sarah Fineman) started getting psychic readings from people all over the city. We hit the city on foot, combing neighborhoods in all five boroughs, and talking to all kinds of different psychics. We got readings from over 100 different psychics in total. Then we would compare notes and I identified the people I wanted to go back to and say, “Hey, we’re making a documentary about psychics—would you be interested in participating?”

We started out talking to storefront psychics, but I quickly found a type of psychic that was very different, and which I was much more interested in—psychics operating more at the intersection with psychotherapy. I was drawn to people who all had a lot of depth to them. These were also psychics doing this work not for money, but because it was a calling. I think there’s an overlap between psychic readings and therapy, and also between psychic readings and religious belief systems. The people I ended up being drawn to were people who do longer, deeper, hour-plus-long sessions where the emotional experience the client is having during the session is just as important as what’s being said. They’re giving their clients a real experience.

D: I was also quite surprised that you chose to film with psychics who are likewise actors and performers—folks trained to play to the camera and to bury their real selves beneath a role. Or was that innate theatricality precisely what you were looking for?

LW: I didn’t mean to choose so many psychics who were performers—it was something I came to learn about them over time. It was funny, because with some I learned that quickly, with others much later. It would be like, “What? You also have an undergraduate degree in theater?” Two of them even realized they went to the same acting school!

At first I found it hilarious, but then I realized it made perfect sense. There is an inherent layer of theatricality to what psychics do. They have to have a real presence to do this work. They’re also working with their intuition, as many creative people do. The fact that so many of them had a performance background and the ability to “turn it on” during sessions then made it electrifying, to me, when they later became totally raw and vulnerable in front of the camera. Those are the moments when their real humanity comes through. 

The other aspect that was exciting to me about the acting background several of them had was that it allowed me to explore how performance is inherent to the documentary form. Without giving any spoilers, there’s a moment in the film where the veneer of nonfiction falls away and you’re told, “This whole thing was orchestrated.” Is that the same thing as inauthenticity, or is it as authentic as any psychic interaction might be? In this age of inauthenticity we find ourselves living in, my provocation to the audience is: if it moves you, changes you, or affects you, is the question of reality beside the point?

D: Since this doc does feel more “staged” than your previous films, what were the discussions like with the creative team—specifically your DP Stephen Maing and editor Hannah Buck—surrounding the look and texture of the film?

LW: The overall premise of the film was to have two slightly different visual styles that would be in conversation with each other: the more minimalist and austere look of the sessions, and the more freewheeling and chaotic look of the psychics at home. 

For the sessions, because we were filming during Covid, many of the psychics had either lost the spaces they rented to do readings in or had switched completely to phone or Zoom readings. So we had to find spaces to film the readings in. I wanted spaces that felt like they were similar to spaces the psychics might have rented pre-pandemic, but that weren’t distracting in their details. So we essentially created stripped-down “sets” for the psychics to do readings from.

That sessions’ look was then a real contrast with the psychics’ homes, where we filmed handheld, and which are classic New York City apartments—small, jam-packed with interesting things, and shrines to all the movies, books, and art that’s most meaningful to them. My own apartment looks like a weird combination of all the psychics’ apartments, actually. When filming at home with the psychics I wanted to commit to realism in an extreme, almost Dogme-like way.

I’m very lucky to have persuaded Steve Maing to DP this film since he’s obviously very busy directing his own work! There is a unique humanity and magic to everything Steve films. We created a shooting style for the sessions that was partly inspired by Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life (1998)a film in which counselors help the newly dead adjust to their afterlives. It's a very “clean” composition—totally flat, with the subject’s face dead center; I liked the neutrality of perspective that implied. For the stuff at home with the psychics, Steve has amazing instincts when filming looser on-the-fly type material and he'll take risks and experiment and push me to try new things. For example, I am allergic to unmotivated camera movements. But Steve would move the camera in a way that would bring playfulness, tenderness, or a sense of curiosity, to verité stuff with the psychics, and that ended up being an important part of the film. There’s a gritty, deeply un-glamorous texture to all of the at-home stuff that felt essential to me.

Hannah Buck is an extraordinary editor and really shaped this entire film with me. She worked with me very early on for a few months, then went away for a year, then came back to the project, which was great because it meant she could be deeply conceptually involved. She and I collaborated closely, along with Kyle, on exactly how the two stylistic worlds would be interwoven over the course of the film. Hannah pushed me to embrace the reflexive aspects of the documentary— including my voice asking questions, letting the psychics talk directly to camera, and revealing at one point that a psychic is sitting on a set. That layer of artificial vs. real in the film had a fascinating relationship to the psychic readings and the psychics themselves, and ultimately is what brings us to this big picture idea that an artificial connection can be just as meaningful as a real one. That’s what psychic readings and art fundamentally have in common. Hannah also made this movie a thousand times funnier than it would have been if anyone else was editing it. She has a great sense of humor and is brilliant with tone in general, so she was able to bring out the humor in the material, but in a way that always felt respectful and tender towards everyone involved.

D: The psychic sessions are quite reminiscent of improv theater, right down to the possibility of completely bombing. So did any of the psychics request that certain scenes be cut? What agreements were reached with all the participants? How much say did everyone have in the final film?

LW: I had full creative control, but I always want my subjects to feel comfortable with what’s in a film. I only just started showing it to the psychics a few days ago because I went down to the wire finishing it. So far their reactions have been great.

It's true that the film shows the psychics not nailing it a hundred percent of the time—if they were, the audience wouldn’t like them, because that’s not how life is. Perfection isn't real. Perfection isn't human. I think that failing and then talking in a candid, insightful way about what that’s like and what it means is way more interesting and relatable than pretending like you have all the answers and everything’s amazing all the time. The psychics know better than anyone that nothing is more powerful than feeling a genuine connection to another human being, and it is their imperfections and flaws that allow audience members to connect to them in this film.

Lauren Wissot is a film critic and journalist, filmmaker and programmer, and a contributing editor at both Filmmaker magazine and Documentary magazine. She also writes regularly for Modern Times Review (The European Documentary Magazine) and has served as the director of programming at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the Santa Fe Independent Film Festival.