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Filmmaker and artist Miranda July

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Miranda July discusses how everyday connections, such as an unlikely friendship with her cab driver, can spark her creativity. She talks about some of her earliest works from childhood, explains her interdisciplinary approach to art and contemplates the double-edged nature of technology and social media.

Josh Hamilton: I’m Josh Hamilton.

Joe Skinner: And I’m Joe Skinner.

Josh Hamilton: And this is the American Masters Podcast, where we have conversations with the people who change us. Today, we talk to multi-hyphenate writer-director-actress and artist, Miranda July.

Miranda July: I’m so interested in the way that people both yearn for connection and very much get in their own way. That’s a form of creativity that’s an expression of self, is how you kind of fail to connect, and so I think people feel the yearning, and maybe less obvious is maybe all the interesting mistakes.

Josh Hamilton: Miranda July made her first big splash at Sundance in 2005 by writing, directing, and acting in her first feature film, “Me and You and Everyone We Know”. She won the Caméra d’Or at Cannes in 2006 with the film and went on to author a collection of short stories, a nonfiction story collection, and in 2015 released her first novel, “The First Bad Man”. July is first and foremost and artist, and is never confined to one medium over another. Joe recently had a chance to interview her.

Joe Skinner: I was really grateful that she allowed us to come over really early in the morning for this conversation. It’s the first time we’ve been able to interview somebody in their home for the podcast. We didn’t get a chance to talk about it, but one of my favorite projects of hers is her second film, “The Future”, which marries magical realism elements with an achingly honest and intimate relationship drama. I highly recommend it. I think Miranda’s work is always ahead of its time, and really has foretold many of the important conversations in the zeitgeist today. Especially issues around mass communication and around the politics of building creative spaces for women through their art.

Josh Hamilton: Right, because in the 90’s, Miranda was involved in the feminist punk movement, Riot Grrrl. And that’s where she started her first major video project, Joanie4Jackie, which is where Joe’s conversation begins.

Miranda July: I dropped out of college, moved to Portland was in a very kind of intense Riot Grrrl DIY punk music world and I really wanted to make movies. I was performing in bands but I wanted to do film and had not yet made a movie when I started this kind of underground distribution network that was really just the idea that if you sent me your short movie as a woman then I would send you back a tape with your movie and nine other movies on it made by other women and yeah it was just a very simple pre-YouTube idea of how we might see each other’s work so that we could feel like there was a context for what we were doing, and also a reason to make work that wasn’t- since I was outside any institution or any kind of support or context for why you might make a movie, I thought well you also kind of want a reason to make one. You know, that’s not a class, that’s not a contest. And so yeah that was called Joanie for Jackie. And eventually I did make my first movie and I put it on one of those tapes. It was the thing that kind of propelled me into action. I mean it served that purpose. It tried to be like a revolution and change everything but at very least it changed my life.

Joe Skinner: It feels like a premonition of the Internet almost, that project. Along with “Me and You and Everyone We Know” which I re-watched last night for the first time since it came out too. And just the context of that film in 2005 versus now it feels like a very different landscape, on the Internet at least.

Miranda July: Yeah I know. I’m always interested in sort of systems like how things can actually work, like what I loved about Joanie for Jackie, one of the things was just the post office. Just that there was already this mechanism set up that we could use for our own very personal means. Obviously other artists had come across that idea over the years. But I think I approach each technology, like you know, each next technology, kind of like that too. Like what could be done with this that’s not maybe intended, but what could a person like me get out of this?

Joe Skinner: I feel like there’s always communication and how we talk to each other and how we relate to each other in your work.

Miranda July: After that movie came out I remember people talking a lot about that, about how interested in connection I was. And I thought well that sounds nice but am I? Certainly looking around at my life, I don’t seem that interested, in the way I live. And then I thought well I think what it is, is I’m so interested in the way that people both yearn for connection and very much get in their own way and that we each kind of sabotage ourselves uniquely and that that’s a form of creativity that’s like an expression of self, is how you kind of fail to connect. And so I think people feel that the yearning and maybe less obvious is like all the interesting mistakes you know that to me are kind of what excites me.

Joe Skinner: Do you think people fail or succeed at communication more today than they did in 2005?

Miranda July: Gosh I mean, I don’t think we’ve changed although I think that that’s yet to be discovered with young people who’ve only ever been on the phone. I do think the confusion about what is real, like what is really happening. That’s always been hard. People have always fantasized and only been able to conceive of reality within their own bubble. I mean that’s a very human thing to do. But certainly technology kind of counts on that and thrives on it. And so I don’t even know if I could any longer call them miscommunications I mean, or mistakes. They are like hardwired into the medium and it’s almost like it’s a new instrument with a different pitch or something, you know if you communicate mostly through texting well then it’s like you just you have a different mouth. You know, you have different eyes that see and hear differently. You know you can’t expect the same thing.

Joe Skinner: This is kind of a 180 but when you were a kid do you remember the first creative act that you engaged in?

Miranda July: Like it was yesterday. Well I know that I’ve, I’ve gone at it pretty hard consistently. So there is a kind of feeling of like I can still get kind of stressed out thinking about “Oh Rats” this play that I did with my friend Monet when we were in first or second grade. And I remember mimeographing the programs for “Oh Rats,” I think I still have one, and just being very stressed out about these two performances of it we were going to do. And in retrospect thinking – especially now that I have a kid who’s that age – thinking, I don’t think “Oh Rats” was, I think it had the trappings of a usual play like an audience and a program, but I think we may have more or less just been playing in front of an audience like I’m not sure how scripted it was or how similar the two performances were to each other. But I think the rigor was there nonetheless.

Joe Skinner: Do you remember what “Oh Rats” was about?

Miranda July: Um well it was written in the program, is the only reason I remember. There was a pet shop owner named Mr. Pinkley. There were a lot of characters circling this character, Jen, which I thought was a really cool, normal name. And my friend, Monet, who I’m still friends with, played all the other characters and then I was Jen. That’s all I know. And then something involving rats, clearly.

Joe Skinner: Have you always written with you in the lead role?

Miranda July: Well, I’m making a movie right now that I’m not in at all. And because I write fiction and I’m not in that, and all these movies essentially start as just a fiction document, the me being in it part kinda comes later, and often feels like sort of an afterthought, you know.

Joe Skinner: So when you’re writing, you don’t think, “This is the Miranda July character.”

Miranda July: No, in fact, “Me and You and Everyone We Know” was the first movie where I had a character like me in it. Even like all the performances I did before that, I acted in them, but I was always playing like an old man, or a little girl, or a mother, not that I was like a character actor but I wasn’t trying to be like an artist in the performance, you know. And this movie I think I in a way it was maybe a little bit out of nervousness, like well I’d never actually thought about acting, like can I act? Would I be convincing as an old man or a child or a mother, these other roles I’d played? Maybe I should play someone rather like myself in this debut thing that I’m hoping will get out there more, because that’ll be easy and I won’t have to think too hard about that. So it was almost like a cute simple easier version of me, not really me, but like a placeholder for someone. And that was a real one-off thing and I remember my best friend being like, “Whoa, this movie’s so normal because it has like this artist-girl in it.” She thought of that as like a real crowd-pleaser, like I was really trying to like go mainstream by playing someone who was a fitting role for me. And that actually turned out to be true, that really set a course. People really thought of me as that character and less like an old man, or a child. You know, like the other things I’d played that I related to, in a way, more. And I sort of rejoiced, then, at writing fiction where there wasn’t someone like me, and then regretted, in a way, doing it again with my next movie and then with this movie was like, “Ok finally I’m awake, I know what I’m doing, I don’t have to do that again, I don’t even need to be in the movie.”

Joe Skinner: Do you find it hard to balance acting in your films with directing?

Miranda July: Well, in retrospect, yes. I didn’t really know anything else so I didn’t quite know how hard it was until now. I didn’t have to do it this time and I was like, well first of all the actors are so good. They’re so good at their job and they’re so focused on their job, and nothing else. And that’s sort of what you want out of your stars or leads. And I also acted in a movie that I didn’t direct a little while back, a movie by Josephine Decker called “Madeline’s Madeline”. That was such a joy, and acting in my movies had never been a joy. I mean it’d been sort of like just work, a thing I had to do to sort of fill in the middle bingo piece, you know, like ok there’s me, that piece is done. So that was kind of a revelation and also I understood that it should be joyful. I kind of understood the actor’s role more. Like, oh, you are here to be a child and not be responsible and to feel your feelings and be free and make mistakes and I got to do that finally. So I was at least attempting to cultivate that this time for my actors, whereas I don’t think I thought too much about it either way in my previous movies.

Joe Skinner: A few years back I was a nanny for some kids, and I just remember working with them gave me such a rush of creative inspiration after I’d begun working with them because of this childlike imagination I feel like little kids have. Have you found that kind of inspiration from having a child of your own now?

Miranda July: No, I wouldn’t say that. I mean, I’d say the inspiration I’ve gotten from having a child is more to do with sort of the heaviness of it. It’s a very…it kind of thrusts you into the marrow of life in terms of mortality, life and death, you’re trying to keep this thing alive, you would be devastated forever if it died, and each day you try and make sure it doesn’t die and you don’t die. And then in addition you’re now a waitress and a cook and a cleaning person. So those things are not inspiring. So it’s like this really heavy thing, and then this really menial and for a woman, kind of an awkward job if you’ve worked your whole life to identify yourself sort of outside of domesticity. And then there are these kind of sublime moments that are just as fleeting as the sublime moments in any other relationship, you know, it’s not like a faucet that’s on the whole childhood. It’s just like flashes of light where you believe it’s gonna be that way forever and then it’s just that flash of light. And that’s wonderful. And then you’re kind of also in this big narrative that is gonna play out in a relatively short amount of time. Like this child is gonna grow up and become a person within your lifetime, so you get very curious, like how will it end? And so that’s a little bit, I guess if you’re thinking about narrative and about time, like I’ve always been really interested in time, it does kind of intensify that, yeah.

Joe Skinner: You wrote “The First Bad Man” during your pregnancy, right?

Miranda July: Right. Right. Yeah I started it. I thought of it before I got pregnant then I wrote the first draft when I was pregnant.

Joe Skinner: Where did that novel come from?

Miranda July: You know it was funny going back to that thing of myself being in my work. I I knew I wanted to write a novel. I had to like, you know write something and then sell it you know. Write at least like 60 pages and you have to have an idea. And the idea I thought of well I was like, “well what’s a big story, like a novel-like story? And I thought of the essentially the same story that my first play, “The Lifer’s” was about which was my correspondence with this man in prison that I had when I was a teenager. There was a many-year relationship and very formative for me and I thought well that seems I can so imagine that being a book and I set out writing it and then I actually made this movie “The Future” and that I was in and as I was making that I was like, “a ha! My least favorite parts of this movie are the parts that seem to be about me that are most kind of literal or seem autobiographical. And why would I write a whole book that is literally, you know, my story like this is a chance to totally get away from that.” And I’d already sold it as this other idea. So I thought well I can change course. I just have to come up with another idea that’s even better you know and this sometimes happens. I just, it just comes in a flash. I always want to underline for other writers: It comes in a flash after making a huge mistake that takes years out of your life.  Because this is a real practice of mine like I often do false starts and whole drafts of other projects and then the idea I want to do suddenly comes in ten minutes. That happened with the novel just on a drive kind of the whole arc of it. And so yeah then I turned around and went to my editor at Scribner and said, ‘Well the bad news is, not going to do that other thing. Hope you like this.’ And then it turns out you’re allowed to do that. People do it all the time.

Joe Skinner: Yeah I think of this playwright Suzan-Lori Parks that we talked to last year and she has a play called “F’ing A” that she wrote in its entirety and then erased the entire thing.

Miranda July: Oh wow. I know and it ultimately never seems laborious to me at the end I always feel like I did some sort of labor over the last few years. And then at the very end they said OK you’ve labored enough. We’re going to hand you this finished work. And you just are like, “Really? This movie? I get to say I made this? I’ve done nothing.” That’s always how I feel. And it’s like all that labor was just a sort of thing you had to do to show you were worthy to be handed the thing.

Joe Skinner: There really is this connecting theme that I noticed in your work of finding connection with people across generations and across fields and disciplines and people from all walks of life trying to connect with each other. I’m reminded a little bit of the interview you did with Rihanna too where you ended up finding a really deep connection with the Uber driver on the way to the interview.

Miranda July: Yeah so I was all set to meet Rihanna and had this really long drive across L.A. to like Malibu proper and my Uber cab driver was this guy Oumarou Idrissa. And I think it was just you know, sometimes you don’t want to talk at all to your driver but I may have been the one who started it because I was so nervous and out of my mind with like, “Oh my God at the end of this drive I will be sitting down with Rihanna,” and I think I just blurted out like, “I’m on my way interview Rihanna!” And he was he was super into it although now I know knowing him like it’s also like he takes that in stride and sort of randomly ends up he’d already met Rihanna for example. He had a selfie with her that he showed me on the drive. I was like super dubious you know and then he shows me the picture I’m like, “Okay how is she?” You know, he’s like, “she’s so nice.” But he told me his whole life story which starts in Niger and in West Africa. And he’s driving here and sending money back to there and really as many people do sort of living in two places and two very different identities and spanning reality that’s like, I mean so impoverished. Like that’s I don’t know. Like really even the right words that aren’t just newspaper words like what I’ve come to know as all the casualties, all the things that can happen there. I mean we kept in touch. I interviewed Rihanna and he actually stayed. With Uber you don’t usually have the same driver on the way back but he had, he’d given me a question to ask her and he wanted to know the answer and, and he stuck around. And I called him and he drove me back and we talked all the way back. And then we kept in touch. We texted now and then and he went home, his mom died. He lost his place when he went home, his place where he lived and because I knew from that drive he had described how sometimes he’d been homeless and sometimes lived in the cars that he’d leased to drive in, and that that was actually pretty common for those Uber Black car drivers. And so when he told me lost his place I suddenly like, ah OK he’s got he’s not going to say this to me but I know enough now to know he’s going to sleep in the car. And I said, “You know I have an office, this office that I’m in 9 to 5, but if you want to be there 5 to 9 that’s fine. There’s a bed you know. No one’s using it.” And so we did that for what ended up being seven months. And he always wanted me to tell his story, as we all do, kind of you know it’s like that’s sort of the ultimate like, “I will feel OK one day when my story is told.” And part of his story that I was learning was that he didn’t sleep. He just barely slept at all. And that was this kind of leftover PTSD from all these years where he was illegal here. Now he’s a citizen. But he had some, you know, times where the immigration authorities knocked on his door and he you know he knew they were after him. And that to sleep at all felt very unsafe and he was often living in like sheds and stuff that didn’t feel secure and that just had not gotten out of his body yet, and still hasn’t. And just a little while ago I was commissioned to make a piece for the Victoria and Albert Museum for a big show about kind of design of the future. Art and technology essentially. And I got really interested in curtains in these smart curtains that are supposed to kind of reflect your habits. You can program them to open different times of day. They’re thought to be somewhat surveilling you know because of course that data, where does that go? You know nobody should really know they can sort of present a kind of intimacy with your daily life that you maybe don’t want to be sharing. But I thought that was you know maybe it’d be useful to point that out and use that oddly emotional quality of that data in some other way and I was trying to… Because the curtains would be in a museum in London, but I wanted the person here to be triggering them, somehow their actions be triggering them, I thought well the problem is the time difference. Like anyone here would be asleep when the museum is opened and then I thought, not Oumarou. Because he doesn’t sleep, and so the piece that we made together, with a very good technologist Russell Quinn, when he wakes up the these beautiful blue velvet curtains open, when he opens Instagram another pair of curtains opens, when he opens WhatsApp another one opens, when you opens Uber another one opens. So they’re all day long in the museum these four curtains, different colored curtains are opening and shutting according to the live data that’s coming to them. And he’s on his phone all night long. And I know that’s not wildly unusual. That’s what people do when they’re awake. They’re on their phones. I think I was interested in how is it different for someone whose home is dispersed? You know, he, the people he cares about are in another time zone. Niger is actually happened to be basically the same time zone as London. So everyone he loves is awake at night. That’s like another reason why you might want to be awake and why you’d be WhatsApp-ing like crazy. And then he’s also occasionally driving at night making money for those people like we all want to be more present and not be on our phones and really like be you know connected to our loved ones. And for him I think being present, to his real reality which is partly here and partly there involves being on his phone. Like I think the way the technology functions in his like deepest cell for in his heart is a little different when you don’t have the privilege of everyone you care about being right there with you. And of course we all know about that from like traveling. But if your whole life is lived that way your whole lifetime, you might judge those habits differently.

Joe Skinner: It’s really interesting the way the thought process on this project came together so organically but then you’ve arrived at this kind of rich theme and rich meditation on migration and the way we use media. And I’m just curious, you know, do you always conceive of projects in that way or do you think of an idea sometimes and then you apply a medium to it?

Miranda July: Yeah I don’t. I don’t usually think of an idea and then apply a medium. I know the genre first you know because that’s usually part of what’s inspiring. I mean, that piece started out just by liking how curtains looked. I mean it was so banal and in a way wanting to make something that involved technology that didn’t look like a app you know. Yeah, there are sometimes larger ideas that manifest, end up manifesting in many projects. And I think that’s just because you live for a while, you know and stay interested in things for a while and they just end up spilling over into different mediums. I can see that very much like my first book of short stories and my first movie have a kind of commingling of interests.

Joe Skinner: You know, going back to that fateful interview with Rihanna. There’s one exact question that you asked her that I thought would be a good one to end this interview on. Can you describe what it’s like in your head?

Miranda July: Oh no, what did she say? Was she able to do that? The first word that came into my mind was relentless. I mean it’s just a pounding relentless, like narration of things to do. And I guess I think of my mind as this tool and I almost like a dog, like a really intense dog that’s being like held back on a chain. And I like hold it back and then I find I have to point it really carefully at things because I know it’s really going to attack. And so then I release it on something and it doesn’t have a mind of its own, this mind. So it doesn’t know when to stop, it doesn’t have a sense of anything else, but the thing that it’s attacking it’s just full on and I have to then pull it back and really, really consciously calm it down when I want to calm it down, like it takes all sorts of training and skills and it doesn’t do its, it’s not a chill dog, not a good dog for children…funny that I’ve come up with this metaphor since I actually have a dog phobia. I’m terrified of dogs. But yeah I guess that’s the best I can do to describe how it is in my head. But that leaves out a level of fun-ness. I wouldn’t say it’s fun but it’s kind of exciting to have like a dog that can kill.

Joe Skinner: Thank you, thank you for bringing us into your home. I really appreciate it.

Miranda July: Yeah. Thank you so much.

Josh Hamilton: Artist Patti Smith is often cited as an influence for the punk ethos of Riot Grrrl. Here she is in an outtake from the American Masters digital archive.

Patti Smith: There’s a part of me that believes it’s very important that artists monitor themselves and develop a conscience in terms of what they give the people. I think the masses don’t need, don’t want, and are not going to be informed nor helped by all of art. There’s just certain things that are not for everyone. I don’t think what we need in American is a race of artists. I believe that artists have to maintain their strength outside of society, and permeate it and help to elevate it or spiritually inspire society. But society must move on its own.

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