Miranda July Interview Transcript
Ed Note: The following is the (almost) unedited transcript of Annie Wagner’s interview with filmmaker Miranda July for the release of July’s feature debut, Me, You, and Everyone We Know.
The movie is filmed in L.A. but there are a lot of references to Portland—Burnside and Laurelhurst Park. Did you originally plan to do the movie in Portland?
Yeah, I wrote most of it in Portland but I’ve never been that interested in place—like, I would never do a movie where it’s really important where it takes place. So when I realized that I was going to shoot it [in L.A.], it didn’t even really occur to me to change the names.
A lot of critics have described it as being set in suburbia.
Portland, by way of certain parts of L.A., might just look like suburbia. And that’s fine. The point was kind of a place of a certain size. I didn’t want it to look like a great big city.
In the movie, your character Christine does work that’s vaguely similar to the sound and video art you’ve done in the past. I’m curious what you think about the kind of art she makes as opposed to work you’ve done.
Yeah, it was hard. I always cringe at art in movies—usually it’s so bad. I do realize now partly why it is so bad. It’s like you don’t want the art to necessarily be that important; it’s just this placeholder so that the character can be an artist. I, of course, didn’t want it to be totally meaningless and yet it’s so simple and, in most cases, it doesn’t totally hold up in the way I would want my art to. But then, she’s at a different place in her development.
It seems that if Christine is sort of a stand-in for yourself as an immature performing artist, then maybe Sylvie is a stand-in for yourself as an immature director, like in the scene where she’s getting all the neighborhood kids to—
Oh, right. That’s funny, yeah, that’s probably true. I see parts of myself in all the characters and definitely she has a sort of meticulousness that I have, as well as being kind of messy in certain ways too. I also really relate to her being very in control, or liking to be, at least.
Did you ever have a stage like that when you were growing up, an incredibly materialistic stage?
Yeah, definitely. You know, I grew up in Berkeley, and my parents were definitely not materialistic. It was sort of frowned upon, so of course I was completely fixated on the entire Laura Ashley line of sheets and wallpaper—none of which was I ever going to get. But I think all that wanting of stuff is meaningful in a way that it stops being so much when you’re older. These objects carry qualities of the real world that you’re longing for.
How do you approach directing children differently than you do when you’re working with adults?
Sometimes I think, “Wow, I should really use how I approach children to teach me how to approach adults,” because for one thing I’m less intimidated, which is always a good start if you’re trying to help someone. I’m also so curious about where the kids are at—that’s the first thing I want to know: “Wow, what are you thinking about today?” “How are you feeling?” That way of feeling lends itself pretty well to making them feel important and capable and stuff. And I wish I was as good at being that way with adults. I think I get kind of daunted and insecure myself, and in some ways I become less curious, because I’m more self-involved. I mean, I’m exaggerating. But [that approach] probably helps, because there’s other things that are much harder about kids, as far as sort of the nuts and bolts of actually getting line-by-line, what you need in a certain amount of time.
I know you’ve gotten the question about children and sexuality so many times, probably just today. But what I love about Robby’s character is his infant sexuality is so closely tied with the rest of his character, the way Peter talks about titties and Robby’s immediately asking questions about his mom. I’m wondering how you wrote that character and whether it was inspired by anyone in particular.
It’s like when you’re writing anything, you’re trying to be so intuitive and connected to your unconscious, and when you’re writing for a six-year-old, you can just stay in there and speak from that place more directly. You can actually just say the first thing that comes to mind, rather than thinking, “Well, how do people really talk?” So it actually feels easier to me. And then, you know, I try to carry that through in the directing, staying very close to that instinctual place.
In your short movie Nest of Tens, the children hardly say anything; the adults are the ones who are sort of pushing the conversations.
Yeah, I was sort of nervous then about how much you could really get kids to act or talk—which in a way was a good lesson to learn, about how much there is on their faces, and also to let them be a little bit blank, the way kids often are. I think kids’ faces actually have less expression than we do, when we’re desperately trying to spell everything out with every inch of our abilities. So I think in watching them in Nest of Tens, I carried that into this movie. Actually letting them be expressionless, and a little bit blank, ends up looking kind of mature because we’re so used to seeing cute-kid stuff, which is kid-like in movies, but not much in real life.
There’s such a huge contrast between the scene when Christine and Richard’s walk past the ice skating rink and neither of you are looking at each other, and the scene at the end of the movie when Robby is just staring. It’s almost eerie.
Yeah, and his face and his intensity of focus—I have to say, I would have wanted that but I’m not sure I would have thought of it to that degree, if it wasn’t Brandon. Like, Brandon really is that way and is totally kid-like and spaced out and says a million irrelevant things, but he also has that super intentness—when I’d be looking through the footage, I’d sometimes be like, “God, what was going on here? I don’t even remember telling him to do that.” And it’s of course just like a miracle for cutting together scenes.
Robby has a weird incomprehension of where he ends and the world begins. I’m specifically thinking of when he’s kicking that cardboard box and talking on its behalf, saying, “Ow, stop kicking me, ow, stop kicking me.”
Well, gosh, I’m—suddenly when you said that, I had a wave of like—that’s so a problem that I deal with all the time, and I’m like, Wait, I wrote that line—the kicking the box thing. And then I was like, ah, this is often one of my big issues, boundaries, just sort of melting into things.
When Sylvie’s talking to Peter at the end and she has this whole world built up around her belongings but she imagines this freakish upside-down world where belongings could just crush people—that sort of reversal, was that built into your conception of her materialism from the beginning?
I wrote that scene pretty early on, and it’s funny, I always feel surprised, when people say she’s kind of cold or has turned on him, with the line “They would crush you and you would die.” I guess I always feel like she’s just been very vulnerable and said the thing about her daughter, and then there’s a kind of braveness in her when she says the line about everything falling. Kind of like, “But we’re here. We’re in this world. Even though I may pretend all this stuff, I know we’re here.” And it’s, like, gravely sad. And yet, there’s something kind of intimate in it, just like they’re like sharing the truth. I don’t know if that comes across at all. If it doesn’t, just spread the word, that’s what that scene’s about!
That also has some resonance with Nest of Tens, with that whole looking-at-the-ceiling thing.
I know, god, those are those things where way late into–-probably when we’re actually shooting—I was like, “Wait a second. I’ve done this whole ceiling thing before.” It feels really dumb like, “Oh my God, I’m just building the same sand castle again and again.”
It’s an interesting theme, and it’s not like you worked it all out in that one short.
Yeah, I guess it’s such a simple way to find a magical open space that’s right here with us all the time: the ceiling.
So this movie is much less explicitly experimental than some of your previous stuff.
Was there a stage when you were thinking about playing more than one character or putting in some free-floating blobs? There are a lot of free-floating blobs in your other films.
Actually, yeah, in the first draft of the script there are these pink shapes, and they stayed in for a really long time, in fact, all the way through the Sundance lab, people were telling me, “Don’t lose the pink shapes—those are great!” And I eventually was like, I don’t know, if I can possibly not have the pink shapes, if I can somehow get this across without them, I would really love to. I mean, I feel like my work that isn’t narrative—like this performance I’m working on right now... My stuff that could be more abstract is getting more and more abstract and less and less narrative, and then the stuff than can be narrative—I’m interested to see how much can you get these kind of unspeakable realms into really daily stuff.
There are still pink dots, right?
That’s true. True, I know, those are totally the stress-control thing. But they’re real, you can buy those.
Yes, you can. I was talking to somebody about your gallery show in Seattle, at Tom Landowski—did you use those stickers then?
Yes, yes, I’m sure you’re like the only person who’s made that connection. Yeah, in fact I thought for a while that her art might have more to do with those dot pictures or something, and in fact, when I was working with Chuy Chavez [the director of photography] before we started shooting, I showed him a lot of those pictures and I was like, “The movie needs to be kind of like this, although the dot parts need to be kind of just implied.” You know, inherent, less explicit. Yeah, so there’s something about those dot pictures that in my mind was like reference material for the movie. But yeah, and the dots were even going to be orange, but then she had that pink wall and the pink shoes, so pink is clearly her color.
[Miranda July’s doorbell rings.]
Do you need to get that?
[She opens the door to a mysterious caller.]
Oh, when I was at the Roger Ebert festival, there were all these, like, free books that I was given, but Roger Ebert’s books were like telephone books, they’re like The Best Movies of the Last Ten Years, and I tried to be very polite and not bring them with me, because I was on tour. And I was like, “Could you please send them to me? I really want them.” And—here they are! But maybe my Golden Thumb is in here, as well, I got this Golden Thumb Trophy, right?
[Laughs.] You’re getting Roger Ebert’s appendage in the mail?
[Laughs.] Yeah, it would be really funny if it was in here.
Creepy Male Voice: Excuse me. Excuse me, we’re out of time.
Are we out of time?
CMV: We are out of time. [Chuckles.] I’m sorry.