Before reading Kirsten Dunst’s and Lena Dunham’s emails for her newest art project We Think Alone, we sat down with Miranda July to discuss her film The Future, as well as her own destiny.
This interview first appeared in Issue 28 of Wonderland, November/December 2011
Artist-writer-filmmaker, Miranda July looks way too delicate for this world, and, moments before we meet, nearly pays the price for her fragility. Stepping down the street to meet Wonderland in her hip east LA, Silver Lake neighbourhood, a man hacking trees nearly snuffs out the leading light of the indie world with a single slice. Sitting down to join me for a light lunch, she’s altogether flustered by her brush with the tumbling trunk of doom, and takes a moment to compose herself and shake off the discomfort.
Not that Ms July, or Miranda Jennifer Grossinger to her writer mum and dad, ever seems spectacularly comfortable in her skin. She seems distracted and a little irritable, her sing-songy LA-twang forcing each answer to rise at the end like a question. “You work across multiple mediums, what would you call yourself?” I ask. To which she replies, “I don’t have to.”
The 37-year-old hasn’t had to answer to anyone for quite some time, forging a distinctly unique, virtually compromise-free path through the arts. It was 15 years ago, in a pre-internet era, that Miranda launched Joanie 4 Jackie, a VHS compilation of short films by women, which were distributed around the States like a chain letter. Fast forward a decade and a half and she’s here to talk about her second feature, The Future, a film narrated by a talking stray cat called Paw Paw who follows a couple as they face their increasingly grown-up responsibilities.
In between, she’s released CDs (her first EP, Margie Ruskie Stops Time, was released in 1996); acted in her own and others’ movies (she wrote, directed and starred in Me and You and Everyone We Know, which won the Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film festival in 2005); written books (No One Belongs Here More Than You, a collection of short stories, which was released in 2007, and her next project will be a novel); and continues to work on her art (despite promotional duties on The Future, the day after our interview she launched a sculpture show, Eleven Heavy Things, at MOCA Pacific Design Centre in Los Angeles).
Today, tumbling logs be damned, we’re talking to Miranda July the filmmaker on the cusp of the release of her second feature. Salad is ordered, nerves are calmed, and the somewhat stilted conversation begins.
You’ve explained how you don’t have to define your position across the artistic spectrum but do you have a preference for any medium?
Okay. Is filmmaking the spark for what you do?
It’s the thing I wanted to do the longest, since high school, but I’ve been performing the whole time, and writing too. So the spark is the thing that makes me want to make the thing – film itself doesn’t make me want to make something: it’s just the medium. Right now I’m working on a novel so the ideas that I have are for the novel. If they’re not I’ll make a little note.
Where does inspiration strike?
There are so many different things. It can be someone else’s work, it can be something that happened to me, it can be someone I see. I think it’s the same for every artist – there’s not one light.
Is simply being aware of everything around you what’s important?
Yes, and also being aware of what I’m feeling. You end up putting a lot of meaning and emotional content on things in the world, which are not necessarily resonant on their own. It’s just through living: I’m not sitting in a corner with a notebook, observing.
What was the inspiration for The Future?
There are so many feelings before you even sit down, but I remember when I was making the first movie I knew I definitely wanted it to be just about two people. I consciously wanted this one to be sadder and darker, but I think in some way I was surprised by how much of a comedy it is. Sure, I wrote jokes and stuff, but when I was editing the movie I was kind of in a dark place, though I wrote this over six years. You stick with something and stay true to it as it evolves.
How do you stay focused on a project over six years?
Well it wasn’t just the movie the whole time: over those six years I did a lot of other stuff. I wrote a book of short stories, I toured with that around the world, and I made a performance, which eventually evolved into the movie. Then while I was turning it into a movie I did a couple of big art projects too, so it’s not quite as disciplined as it sounds.
So not a solid six years locked in a room with a word processor?
Not at all. For better or worse, I’m not that kind of filmmaker.
Your protagonists in the movie disconnect from the internet. Is this something you’ve tried yourself?
Not for 30 days but I do it every day when I write. It was a very handy way to externalise an internal crisis. We all know that panicky feeling when you lose your phone or your internet isn’t working. I think that feeling predates the internet, it’s the feeling of having too much time, of not enough distraction, of being faced with the void of whatever’s uncomfortable, of what you’re trying to dodge.
That being said, do you think our always-on culture is a good or a bad thing?
It’s both, right? It’s certainly not helpful at all with regards to making ideas out of nothing, which is what a lot of book writing is. New ideas often come from that unknown, empty place, where you’re not sure that something will come and you have to sit with it. The fact is that we don’t really sit with it anymore. I don’t think younger people even know that it’s a virtue. Or maybe it’s not – maybe that’s just an old fashioned way of thinking. But for me it’s not a good thing, because I already have the way I work and it depends on that space.
Having said that, you’re pretty active online, your website/blog is a virtual public journal.
I don’t usually blog but right now I have to blog twice a week for the movie. This is part of the job but it’s a problem as I have a lot to do. For a movie that doesn’t have a huge marketing budget, I’m all there is; it’s a big part of what generates publicity. I get it, and I’m not unhappy about it, but it’s a lot of work.
Things have changed a lot since you had to mail out compilation VHS tapes to a select few.
I know. That’s why I think I’m open to working with it. The internet does feel very DIY; it’s great that I don’t have to go through anyone. I may have imagined back then that to have such a big audience I would have to have sold out somehow. Back then, you would have probably been looking for a major studio to reach an audience.
Does that make it harder or easier to get yourself noticed now?
I think it’s the same thing: if there’s a gap, or you’re fulfilling a need, then it works, only now it works a lot quicker. But there aren’t as many gaps. The chance that you are going to be the only girl filmmaker trying to start a community is small. Maybe it forces people to up their game.
Are you surprised at the kind of success you’ve had?
I’m not totally surprised. The lack of surprise comes from not leaving yourself any other options mentally.
You mean never having a Plan B?
Right. I didn’t know that then but nothing else I could imagine seemed real. I could never even entertain the thought that there might be some other option.
After your success, is there a danger of going mainstream?
No… that all happened after the first movie and I didn’t do it. There is an aspect to it I would love – I would have loved some money because it’s never quite enough to make the movies – but I was nervous about messing up my way of working. They offer you things like “first look”, basically where you’re being paid to write, which is great, but they’d probably want some amount of control. That felt like a move backwards, I’d been free making things since I was 16. Why would I give that up now?
What would you advise people that may find you an inspiration?
I think it’s the same thing. The way my friends and I thought was “yes, you’re making your own work, but you’re also trying to create a community.” So when you have an event, you need all those other people playing, because just your friends is never going to be enough. The people who you think of as your competitors are the people you need the most, and they create a world that’s more fun. Start your revolution together.
Words: Tony Horkins
Photographer: Brigitte Sire