The Observer, Aug 2005
She’s overcome countless rejections, a tussle with the censors and an obsession with kitchen utensils to conquer Hollywood. Now, as her extraordinary debut movie scoops the awards at Sundance and Cannes, all artist and film maker Miranda July wants is to stay off the radar. No chance.
Also at The Observer
I’m having lunch with Miranda July at her local cafe, the Brite Spot in Los Angeles, when a couple of women come over to thank her for Me and You and Everyone We Know, one of the most stunning and poignant films of the year. When they leave, July smiles modestly. ‘This is about the only place – and obscure record stores – that I get to feel, I don’t know, like J-Lo or something.’ She laughs. ‘If I’m anywhere at all mainstream, nobody knows who I am.
It is hard to think of anyone more un-J-Lo than July. Kooky, with big watchful blue eyes, she pulled up at the cafe in a tatty little Nissan, wearing half-length brown corduroy trousers and a beaming open smile. For over a decade, July, 31, has lived just left of the entertainment radar, as a prolific avant-garde artist in Portland, Oregon. Buffs and curators may know of her mysterious, often surreal short films, her audio clips, web projects and performanceart pieces which have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and the Whitney. Readers of The Paris Review and the Harvard Review might remember one of her short stories.
Now, however, she is news. Her first feature – which she wrote, directed and starred in – has won awards at Sundance, Cannes, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Newport film festivals. Critics are using words like ‘fresh’, ‘moving’, ‘original’, ‘uplifting’, ‘poetic’, ‘daring’and all of them are true. ‘We got so many quotes from big newspapers it made me sceptical,’ she says. ‘I remember seeing an ad in the paper and thinking instinctively, “No, I’ll skip that, it looks too mainstream.”‘
Set in a modern, mundane American town, where everyday people young and old struggle to connect with each other in an increasingly dissociated digital culture, Me and You follows in the tradition of films like Magnolia, Crash and Short Cuts – films about lost and lonely souls whose stories unwittingly intersect and paint a larger picture. As per tradition, the fates of July’s characters remain unresolved and she doesn’t pretend to have the answers. But where July stands alone is in her optimism, her ability to find the transcendent in the everyday. Instead of irony, she finds tenderness and humour. Though her characters are filled with doubt, and appear fragile and bumbling, they remain undefeated and their efforts to reach out are brave, heart-wrenching and often hilarious.
July plays Christine, an artist struggling to get her work accepted by a snobbish art world. She also runs a cab service for the elderly and doggedly pursues the affections of Richard, a shoe salesman and father of two, played by the dishevelled John Hawkes of Deadwood. Christine’s advances are spurned, but she never loses heart. Richard’s wife has just left him, but still he wants to be swept off his feet – ‘I amª prepared for amazing things to happen.’ And they do. His six-year-old, Robby, is in an internet chatroom sharing a fantasy with a middle-aged woman. Robby’s older brother is being used as a test dummy for two teenage girls to practise oral sex. Richard’s colleague is leaving sexually explicit notes up in his window. A painting of a bird is propped up in a tree.
One of the most memorable scenes comes early on when Christine is giving one of her customers a ride – in July’s tatty little Nissan – and they see a man leave a goldfish in a bag on his car roof and drive off. Immediately our hearts are with the hapless fish. Afraid to alert the man in case he slows down or stops and the goldfish slides off, they instead decide that the only solution is to drive in front of the car, to keep him at a steady speed. Forever.
‘My feeling is that people don’t really have any rituals of coming together now – other than disaster,’ says July. ‘That’s what the goldfish is, in a way – a moment of coming together.’
Though she says she is ‘strewn across all the characters’, July most resembles her character Christine, who is also a performance artist who creates video art alone in her bedroom. Like Christine, she is airy and delicate, childlike in her curiosity, and at the same time, unstoppable in her determination. It was in her bedroom in Portland,after all, where July wrote the first draft of her movie four years ago. She’d never written a feature before, nor taken courses or seminars – everything July does, she taught herself. She just sat down one day and started typing.
And so began the film’s tortuous route to the screen – through various rewrites and not a little rejection. Yet July hung in there, every year submitting to the Sundance screenwriting laboratory – a weeklong course in which a panel of experts go through a few select scripts and give notes. In her third year she made the cut. It was an eye-opening experience. ‘I still remember someone gently taking me aside and saying things like, “The name doesn’t always have to be in caps.”‘ She smiles. ‘But I lived in Portland. I didn’t know anyone who had ever written a movie.’
July learned a lot at Sundance. First, to write less – ‘I thought they’d be pleased – like wow, look at how many pages I wrote!’ – but also to trust her instincts. ‘I had a bunch of established people telling me to stick to my guns. I remember thinking, “Well, Ed Harris said I didn’t have to cast stars, so I won’t!”‘
Finding funding was difficult. The filmmight not have been made had FilmFour not dared take the gamble. Commissioner Peter Carlton recalls July ‘performing bits to me when she was pitching it’. Though FilmFour typically looks for new British film projects – Shane Meadows is their auteur extraordinaire at present – Carlton insists, ‘Miranda told me her grandmother was Welsh. That’s good enough for me.’
Ultimately FilmFour and the Independent Film Channel (IFC) roughly split the$1 million costs – still cheap, even by indie standards. But before she could move to Los Angeles to shoot there were issues with the script – in particular the scene in which the two teenage girls practise oral sex on the teenage boy. The IFC needed assurance that hot teen sex wasn’t going to somehow define the movie. ‘So I flew to New York to talk through the blowjob scene with the head of IFC,’ says July. ‘He had his family pictures in the background. I think one of his sons is a teenager.’
Then the Child Labor Board got wind of the scene and insisted that the girls could not say the word ‘blowjob’. So July came up with ‘Jimmy Ha Ha’ instead. ‘It’s interesting, the power of language,’ she muses. ‘They can look like they’re doing it, but so long as they don’t say the word, it’s OK.’
There was no mention, however, of arguably the most contentious scene of all – the one where Robby, the six-year-old in an internet chatroom, describes his fantasy of ‘pooping back and forth’. ‘I wanted to make it clear that this sexuality is his and he’s six,’ says July. ‘I wanted it to be unreal – because he has no idea what he’s talking about – but still grounded in some physical reality that he could imagine what it felt like.’
The resulting scene is startling, funny and oddly touching. It had the support of the young actor’s mother, who helped him feel that there was nothing to be ashamed of with all this poop talk. But inevitably it upset some viewers, for whom children on sex chatrooms is a subject to be treated with gravity. ‘I knew I’d lose some people,’ says July. ‘But as long as I can stay clear where I am, I don’t have to concern myself with what other people are thinking.’ The children in July’s film are drawn with sophistication and respect. Often they have a surer grip on the world than the adults, and become a source of strength. And conversely, their weaknesses and doubts are as complex as anything their parents are going through. ‘It wasn’t a conscious decision to make the children adultlike and the adults childlike,’ says July. ‘But it’s more interesting that way.’ One girl, Sylvie, has a ‘hope chest’ where she collects kitchen implements, blenders and toasters and pink shower curtains for the family she will have one day. July understands her obsession. As a child she too would fetishise the household goods advertised in the Sunday magazines. ‘Oh I loved those supplements,’ she says. ‘Because I grew up in a sort of not hippy, but not a materialistic household, so I wanted all that stuff, deeply. Stuff takes on a really magical quality when you’re a kid.’
She grew up in Berkeley, California, the daughter of two writers and publishers of New-Age literature or, as July describes them, ‘sciencey-type books, but more metaphysical’. Her parents were more intellectual than artistic. They taught her to work hard and wrestle through problems with reason and argument. But Miranda never quite took to academia in the way that they had hoped. Ultimately her brother proved pivotal. Though only four years older, and now a land historian, he was a gifted carpenter as a child and built her dollhouses and playhouses. ‘He was making hardwood furniture in high school,’ says July. ‘He taught me the joy of making my own little worlds. Which is all I still do.’
She rebelled at school, but not in any conventional sense. It was the silliness of doing things that ‘were not real. It was embarrassing. I always thought if you’re going to write, then you should get published!’ So she started writing and putting on plays. At 16, she wrote one about her real-life correspondence with a convicted murderer. ‘It was the first thing that I experienced that I couldn’t articulate by talking about it. It was too big. Things like that force you to be an artist.’
College didn’t hold her attention, and she dropped out after 18 months. Her parents were out of town at the time – she chose her moment well – so, with typical drama, she made a performance out of it. ‘My brother had the job of picking them up from the airport and putting in this cassette I’d made: “By the time you hear this…”‘
It might seem odd for a committed artist to move to Portland. But, in fact, it shows maturity of intent. ‘I wanted to be off the radar,’ she says. ‘I was quite impressionable, and if I was in New York or Los Angeles, I might get off my course. The thing to do was to make art and just begin. I didn’t need to be at the epicentre of anything. In New York I’d have been working full-time just to support myself.’ Now she lives in Los Angeles – she moved here just prior to shooting Me and You – and few cities suit her themes of isolation and disconnection quite so well. ‘When I drive across the freeways, I feel like I’m emailing myself,’ she says. ‘You know how you never know where an email goes in between? I feel like that. I’m nowhere in transit. I disintegrate and reform at my destination.’
It’s not so much the email she needs to avoid these days as the phone. On Hollywood’s doorstep, the hottest young director in town is in high demand. But July isn’t interested. ‘I have pretty thick filters. You get the sense that it’s obligatory to go after someone with a certain number of awards,’ she says, amused by it all. ‘I’m just waiting for my time to pass. What I do is so self-generated, I don’t really need any contact with anyone,’ she says. ‘It’s not like I’m waiting for some deal, I just need time to write at home.’
So what’s next? ‘I’m finishing a book of short stories, which is very exciting. And there’s my next script, which I’m writing and directing, but that’s the thing I’m least concerned with. It’s my third project I can’t wait to do.’ She lights up. ‘It’s a big multimedia performance. It has video in it. It’s audience-participatory. It’s whatever I want. And nobody cares about it because the chance of it making any money for anyone is basically nil. Which makes it incredibly appealing for me.’