All the quirks
She’s everything that’s wonderful and woeful about the indie movie scene. It depends on your point of view. TARA BRADYmeets the phenomenon that is Miranda July
FOR FANS, Miranda July represents the ne plus ultra of Nouveau Whimsy, that eccentric borough of the independent movie world occasioned by hipper than thou filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola and Alexander Payne. For detractors, too, July represents the ne plus ultra of Nouveau Whimsy. For these folks she’s the irksome side of quirky, a possible Mumblecore suspect and everything that’s wrong with the preening self-absorbed indie schmindie scene.
“Yeah,” laughs July. “That whole self-involved, narcissistic thing.” It’s early evening when we catch up but it has already been a long day for the director of You and Me and Everyone We Know. Her second feature, The Future, has just premiered in London to both rapturous and hideous notices. Her jetlagged California drawl – a lullaby track at the best of times – is even sleepier than the unassuming murmur we’ve come to know from her screen appearances.
We’re not surprised to find her exhausted. Of all the recent visitors to the BFI London Film Festival perhaps only George Clooney commanded as much press attention as July. In the increasingly homogenised world of indie cinema, July is still curious and Marmite enough to warrant space in news sections. She has no idea how she became such an event. “At the beginning there were just fans of the first movie,” she says. “Those people didn’t know anything about me. They knew the poop jokes. I think I worked pretty hard to continue all the things that I do. And at this point it’s kind of satisfying because I feel that people have followed me along this twisty path.”
July’s twisty path now offers a complete multimedia package. The actor, performance artist, musician, filmmaker and founder of online arts community Learning to Love You More has, to date, created and curated such oddities as Joanie4Jackiefilms, a unique distribution network for women’s short features using video cassette and chain letter. She’s directed promos for Sleater-Kinney and Blonde Redhead. Her fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, McSweeneysand Paris Review. Her debut feature was a Sundance sensation and international success for which she won the Caméra d’Or prize at Cannes 2005 and a slew of other awards. “It felt like a little bit of a misnomer that I was this new voice of film or something,” says July. “I’ve always felt more like an artist. I didn’t know anything about film really. When I was doing interviews for You and Me and Everyone We KnowI basically had to make things up when I was asked about influences and references. It’s so embarrassing to admit that.”
She’s equally modest about the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award she won in 2007. “A lot of the people who read the books often say that they don’t usually read. That’s got to be good for a writer right?” Her fans are devout, vocal and sometimes famous. An artist’s artist, celebrity chums and Miranda acolytes Joanna Newsom, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Jarvis Cocker, Cat Power, Cindy Sherman and Dave Eggers provided the questions when her interactive garden exhibit at the Venice Biennale featured in Interviewmagazine last year.
The Future, her sophomore feature, arrives after a six-year movie-making hiatus – and with a good deal of expectation. An experimental tale of two thirtysomethings (July and Hamish Linklater) who decide to live freely in the month before their adopted cat Paw Paw is released from the animal shelter, the film expands into a temporally distressed science fiction. July’s extended mediation on oddball alternative realities and mortality is unified by Paw Paw’s narration. The screenwriter, director and star moonlights as the voice of the feline storyteller, a device that has won favour with critics Roger Ebert and AO Scott.
She’d like to be a cat person, she sighs, except her husband, the Beginnersdirector Mike Mills, “came with a dog”.
“To be honest I started writing that monologue before I knew it was a cat. It was sort of an exercise I was doing for myself. I was kind of sick of the self-involved human characters in the script. And one particular day I just started writing in a really direct, honest, almost demented voice. I was wondering who is this? But that same day I saw a strange cat get hit by a car. So I buried it and the voice became that cat. It’s not demented if it’s a cat, right? Only if it’s a human.” The casting of octogenarian Joe Putterlik as a Craigslist patron and a kind of Native American moon god – you have to be there – was a fluke.
“Joe’s not an actor,” explains July. “I met him the same way Hamish meets him in the movie which is through the classifieds. I was taking a break from the script at the time doing a totally unrelated project interviewing people who were selling things through the classifieds. I met all these different people and one of them was this 82-year-old man. There was no part for him but he reminded me so much of the world I was making that I needed to write him in. So that’s his house you see in the movie. Those are his clothes. Those are his dirty limericks.” There is, she insists, a method to her madness. “He’s the perspective that was missing from the film before. Here’s someone who’s actually close to death. It’s not a 35-year-old’s sense of being close to death.”
July phobics may decry her unfettered stream of consciousness but nobody, it seems, is prepared to run down July’s interiority and indulgence quite like July herself.
“I live so much in my own head. There’s some part of me that hungers for an experience of life that I can’t see, for an alternative to my own narcissism. I’m often coming up with reasons to engage with strangers just to get at that.”
Doubters may puzzle over the July phenomenon but in person there’s something touchingly authentic about her. Born in Vermont to Goddard College professors Lindy Hough and Richard Grossinger, the young Miranda Grossinger was quickly relocated to Berkeley, California where the family founded the Mind Body Spirit publishing house, North Atlantic Books.
“They were writers but more than anything they were struggling business people albeit ones who were dedicated to publishing scarily countercultural books. They hate the label New Age but I was around a lot of fringey topics. Or they were back then. Now you can buy all those books at any wholefoods store.” A proto-Riot Grrl and avowed feminist, July’s BF through school and earliest collaborator was Le Tigre’s Johanna Fateman. Miranda’s stage name July was adopted from Snarla, a girlzine they created during their teens.
“I was writing plays and putting them on as a kid. I have a book I wrote when I was 7. It’s scarily similar to my work now. That little lost child kind of thing.”
Success has been an unexpected bonus for July: “In a way the very assumption that people would want to watch you is embarrassing but I’ve always had this impulse to put myself in my own work. So I expected that creating an audience for that would always be part of the deal. But now they come anyway.”
The Futureopens at the IFI, Dublin today and is screening as part of the Corona Cork Film Festival