Originally published on Film4 / Medium.
Writer/filmmaker/artist Miranda July discusses creativity, productivity and making her most weird and heartfelt film yet. By Nicole Davis.
It doesn’t surprise me that when I connect with Miranda July on Zoom, she’s jumping in her car en route to lift weights. The multi-hyphenate writer, filmmaker, artist and actress is impressively prolific, no doubt juggling several ideas at any one time. “You can ask me an easy question though”, she says, whilst reversing out her drive.
July’s third feature film Kajillionaire, is due to be released in the US on 25 September and in the UK on 9 October and marks almost two decades of work that has included a novel; an award-winning collection of short stories; directing two films that she also wrote and starred in; short stories that have appeared in The Paris Review, Harper’s and The New Yorker; several artworks including a website, an app, a sculpture garden and an interfaith charity shop (all of which is covered in this book), all whilst maintaining a voice as one of the most idiosyncratic and incisive creatives of her generation.
With her first two films Me and You and Everyone We Know — winner of the Cannes Film Festival Camera d’Or and a Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize — and The Future (both of which received backing from Film4) currently available on All4, I took the opportunity to ask about her ideas, her imagination and how the hell she does it all.
As someone that works across several mediums, do your ideas always come suited to one in particular? And if not, how do you figure out what it’s going to become?
I have a lot of different file folders on Evernote in my computer and I do work on a lot of projects at the same time, so I’ll have an idea and I’ll put it in the ‘art’ folder or the ‘performance’ folder and that’s how I’m able to keeping working in different mediums. It’s pretty rare that I just have some abstract idea that I don’t know what the medium is, because I think the mediums themselves are what inspire me.
In terms of screenwriting, can you talk me through your creative process? How do you know when you’re ready to start writing and what do your writing days look like?
Because of the overlapping project thing I’m usually working on something else on the front burner when I begin the movie ideas. So I’m just putting in little notes and I’m not thinking at all about writing. And then one day the front burner project is done and suddenly that pile of notes comes to the fore.
What I like to do — and I do this with fiction as well — I write whatever part I want first. I don’t necessarily start at the beginning. The hardest part is always just starting to write each day, so I try to coax myself by saying like, ‘what would delight you to write?’ and that way you can avoid the hard parts until they aren’t even that hard anymore. And so you create all these islands. And at a certain point you have enough islands that it’s not so scary to begin at the beginning and start making bridges between them.
If I can, I generally like to write first thing in the morning. I think the day generally decays and so I do a lot to protect my mornings.
Kajillionnaire is your third feature but the first one you haven’t also starred in, did that change your approach to writing and directing at all and if so how did that manifest?
It didn’t really change it in terms of writing because of course in my fiction, I’m never in it, it’s always characters, so I’m very used to not picturing myself. And then directing-wise it was, just, only great. I had a tiny fear, because as hard as it is to do both jobs, I also get energy from acting. And so I wondered if I would have days where I wished it was me in costume, but that thought is laughable to me now. Every day I thought ‘thank god it’s not me up there, I have more than enough on my plate making this movie exactly as I want it’. Also these actors are so dedicated in a way that you could never be if you were doing [it all]. They’ve devoted their life to this and that felt really sacred to me. I was pretty ecstatic actually.
You’ve cast four really eclectic but brilliant actors (Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins), how did they come to be in the movie?
If you’re lucky it becomes a mutual process. I had never met any of these people before and was really surprised that Evan had seen my movie (Me and You and Everyone We Know) when she was a teenager and had on some level been expecting this call. It’s not so much that that’s flattering — although of course it really is — but it also means we have a shared sensibility, like I don’t need to teach [Evan] that, she’s already taken that part in. I have to say, that’s kind of new for me, that takes having made a few movies, to have gotten that across as a voice. And then [Evan] and I worked together to figure that character out, physically and emotionally.
Did your filmmaking instincts and voice come fully-formed or is that something you almost had to teach yourself and hone over time?
I think I learned it initially through performance. I wanted to be a filmmaker, before anything, but I started writing plays because that is what was accessible to me and then pretty quickly I started performing all the parts in the plays and I think that’s where dialogue began. You know, if you’re going to play all the parts, you need to feel all the characters and I still do that when I’m writing. Even when we get to a location and are trying to figure out if we should shoot there, people step back and are quiet for a moment while I quickly act out — not in a performative way — the whole scene. It’s a way of me feeling out the movie.
Besides not acting in it, is there anything you feel differentiates Kajillionaire from your previous two films?
After Me and You and Everyone We Know where was this feeling like I could, like I had the opportunity to make a much bigger movie if I had wanted to. Especially if it was going to be a sort of comedy. And instead I chose to make something pretty heartbreaking like The Future, and it addresses death and other difficult things, although I would argue it still has a lightness to it. But I think because of the kind of movie it was, it was pretty brutal to make to be honest, brutal enough that when I envisioned my third movie I just thought if it could be bigger, that had a practical appeal to it. With that came the actors, who would be familiar faces, which is new for me. So I wrote a story that, from the get go, would be a bit larger in scale. There’s an airplane flight, for example. Two, actually.
With something relatively off-kilter like Kajillionaire, I feel like the world is a blend of the surreal and the hyperreal, how are you getting your actors into the frame of mind and this world that you’ve invented. Because it seems to me it could be quite straightforward to imagination that yourself, but I guess what I’m asking is how do you get actors and even your creative team on the film to imagine along with you?
It’s been different each time. On [Kajillionaire], I used something I called a ‘tone video’. It’s just like a five minute video with images, still photography from the internet or my own work, lots of music and then me talking over it essentially saying what the tone is and almost trying to create a five minute experience on what it’s trying to be.
This was a dream movie in terms of getting financing. I had imagined I would need that to get financing, but for the first time the money just came, so it wasn’t a tool for that but I ended up showing it to every single creative head and Evan saw it. I think it was useful. I definitely always know what past work to show and have tons of visual references and then I just dig in. I’ll stay up all night with a costume designer looking at photographs and going through clothes, that stuff is just so enjoyable to me.
And then a lot of it is just picking the right people, who can know when it’s not quite there and keep going. And then there’s this perfect moment where we look at each other with lit up eyes when a little detail [is right].
What did it mean to you when Me and You and Everyone We Know was honoured with a Criterion Collection edition?
That was so wonderful. I remember when they reached out, which was so long after that movie came out. You kind of dream — not in a very real way — of being included and then more than a decade goes by and you’re like ‘I guess that’s not happening.’ So the fact that I got this email, I was like ‘really?’ but also ‘what took so long?’ I guess there were some issues getting the rights and they had to wait it out, I think I even said, ‘maybe you could’ve told me, that would’ve been so nice to look forward to.’
I don’t look at my past work at all really, so it was also an intense experience to go back into my archive and dig things up for them. It was my first movie, I had a bold naiveté but not a lot of confidence based on experience, so to be able to go back and look at it, I could perhaps take it more seriously and in a new way, instead of being embarrassed at all the things I didn’t know.
And is that the reason you don’t go look at your past work? Fear of embarrassment?
It’s not the fear of being embarrassed, it’s kind of like looking back at an ex or an old relationship. It’s just a lot to bring up and it seems better to focus on the present and who you’re with now. It seems healthy to me.
You’re friends with lots of fellow creatives like Greta Gerwig, Lena Dunham, Josephine Decker and Sheila Heti, what does having that community of women also in the creative space, grappling with putting work out into the world, mean to you?
My partner and my child are my home, but I would say those women are like my creative home base. For all of us, it’s a really solitary process. It’s something you do within yourself and so you have to be quite close to be able to share it without it feeling like a disaster. So to have built that up over time where we ask about each other’s work and our process and emotionally how we’re fairing, it really feeds me. It’s not like you’re a genius in some vacuum that’s sealed off, we really need each other. That’s always been true for me and I learn from them. We learn from each other by example.
In a New York Times review of your novel the First Bad Man Lauren Groff writes “like many of us, July seems to have unbridled daydreams. Unlike most of us, she has wicked follow-through.” I’m wondering if productivity is something you have to work at and if so, how have you cultivated that sense of follow-through on your ideas?
I’m terribly ashamed if I don’t follow-through. There’s some sort of contract I feel like I have, with I guess just myself, but it somehow seems larger than that.
Sometimes it’s going to feel really meaningful and ecstatic but most of the time it’s a real one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, fairly gruelling process. And that’s ok. How it feels is not the same as what it is. That discomfort is not necessarily bad or wrong, navigating that discomfort — not that you should be torturing yourself — but it’s interesting and it makes you strong. And then you get better at it. Speaking of which, I have to go and lift weights now.