Miranda July’s latest, fittingly, is hard to describe. Even for someone who has now seen it twice, its story is about so many things: it’s about family, con artists, parenting, and capitalism at the center of it, given that the family is parasitic with money, either taking advantage of people or taking from them. It’s also about the emotional journey of a woman named Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), who starts to understand her the unorthodox ways of her parents when an outsider (Gina Rodriguez) is brought into the con. And it’s also about the daily bubbles that threaten to flood the family’s makeshift home inside an office building. I wrote from the film’s premiere at Sundance that the movie speaks its own language, and it wasn’t till the second viewing that I realized that was such a beautiful thing about it.
The film comes in a year in which July’s overall career has been celebrated. This past April, her 2005 directorial debut “Me and You and Everyone We Know” was indoctrinated into the Criterion Collection; in the same month, Prestel released an extensive book documenting all of July’s art pieces across different mediums. Even during quarantine, July was busy collaborating with her Instagram followers to make the short film project “Jopie.”
RogerEbert.com spoke to July about her life of creativity, the outsiders in the film, what she’d tell her 2005 self, and more.
I wanted to ask you questions in general about creativity. I’ve always wondered, are you ever afraid of not having ideas?
Yeah, totally. That is the big fear [laughs]. I sort of coax myself down from that tree with various techniques that I’ve honed over the years because it’s just the most paralyzing thought, right? But yeah, that continues to be a large part of the work. Just sort of, often sitting with not knowing what comes next.
Can you share any techniques that help you break out of that fear?
I just have to say the really dumb, obvious thing, which is that the internet doesn’t help. The hardest part is often just beginning, and the whole goal of the internet is to just keep you in it. I do put my phone in a timed lock box, you can find those online, they’re really handy. And then I use Freedom for Mac, on the computer itself. And then I always sort of try to be gentle with myself. I’m a real taskmaster, so I have to be conscious of that. And if I am having trouble, I’ll be sort of like, “What would be pleasurable? Do you want to take a walk? Do you want to walk to get something nice to put in your mouth?” To actually be kind. Because the truth is that no one is going to have a good idea with a gun to their head, and we do that to ourselves again and again, and it’s ridiculous.
Me and my husband actually say this phrase that we learned in a child birth class, which was “soften into the contraction,” what you were supposed to do. I didn’t end up having like a normal birth anyway, so we never got to apply that phrase in the moment, but we apply it to our work all the time.
It’s funny that you say you can’t be creative with a gun to your head—how do you keep that freeness on set? How do you not have the proverbial gun to your head?
It’s not so much at that point, it’s just self-consciousness. I’ve got it down to an art if I’m totally alone, but how to maintain that … I think this may be the first movie where I was aware enough to realize that that was what I needed. I remember every single person I hired to work on the movie like crew-wise, my litmus was, Can I be relaxed enough to have a feeling around them? Because most people, you don’t have new thoughts around them. Somehow it’s dangerous, you stay on your paved road.
I remember this moment on set, on “Kajillionaire,” where I must have been spacing out or had something on my mind, and I heard someone started to come up to me, and then someone on the crew said, “If you don’t know not to talk to Miranda when she’s in her zone, then you haven’t been paying attention.” [laughs] Like someone scolded someone out. I remember thinking, Oh, I think I’ve made it. This is it. This is the thing that you work for, to have your space protected by other people.
When you’re working with so many people in the creative process, does the sense of when’s a good take change? Or is it back to the idea of a gut instinct?
I’m not that creative, I just kind do the days in the way that the unions kind of demand them to, and I go along with that. But yeah, it’s a gut thing. I would say that I really trust in myself, and without being bonkers about the number of takes because it’s hard to shake your conscientiousness about money when you’re coming from an indie world. That said, I just don’t stop until I’ve got it. I always know when I’m sitting in the editing room that it’s there, I just don’t know what take it is, but I know that I wouldn’t have stopped until I had it. It’s like an insurance policy on the movie.
That’s got to be comforting. Did the movie change much in the editing room?
Well, no matter how hard you try there’s always something you get wrong that you couldn’t have foreseen. This one was mostly the same [as the script], but I misunderstood how happy we would feel when Gina entered the movie, and in a way how the movie really begins there. I’d say that it was longer, there wasn’t a ton of crucial stuff before she enters so I was able to cut it, but right away I was like, "Ok." I remember texting her something to that effect. She should know this, because it’s undeniable.
Does that mean there’s more scenes with just the Dyne family?
There were, yeah. They’re along the same lines, just more scams [laughs]. I think I also just really enjoyed writing those, you know? So, I didn’t kill quite enough darlings, but not too much. The thing about this movie is that the last half of it is like dominos, each thing builds to the next to land on the cash register number at the end. And so I knew that at a certain point it had to work completely, or it wasn’t going to work at all. Luckily, it was the beginning that I was wrong about. The first assembly was like, "Oh, good lord. We don’t need to see a documentary about them."
In your book Miranda July you talk about how this was an "unconsciously written" story. But I’m wondering when you do projects like this that revolve around money, are you thinking about capitalism explicitly?
Well, I think I grew up in Berkeley, and among a lot of self-righteous outsiders, and became kind of a punk. From there, it kind of was in this fairly renegade, punk world for a lot of my twenties. So the critique is in my bones, you know? It’s personal history, I don’t want to use that, I don’t want to be autobiographical. But it’s not hard to imagine kind of how that worldview can become quite rigid. Yes, I have big problems with capitalism as well, but I think even an outsider critiquing status does not protect you from creating your own rigid structure that kills joy.
Do you think about all of this in terms of your own work? You made this movie about people scrounging to make money. I wonder if that comes from your experience of being an artist in America.
I don’t really align myself with the family. I think they seem to be renegades and outsiders, and Gina’s character seems to be conventional and consumerist, but I think she’s ultimately the more radical character. So, not that I’m interested in conceptions of what makes something valuable in this movie, but I think I’m trying to mess with the ideas of "What is radical?" And money to me is always a good … a very familiar colloquial holder of feelings, like shame, and anxiety, aspiration. Every family loads up money with all this stuff, and they do it in this particular and extreme way. But I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have weird issues around money from their family, you know?
You made the "Jopie" project on Instagram during quarantine, using a ton of coordinated video submissions from your followers. Do you see Instagram becoming an even more prominent part of narrative storytelling?
I think we have all these tools, we can do anything we want now. We have very good cameras on our phones, we have means of distribution. I almost think we haven’t known what to do with these riches, and now we’re just beginning. I remember thinking in January, saying to someone, “No one is using Instagram Live.” Those live videos are actually pretty weird, and they have lots of potential. And then suddenly, that was like a major artistic medium of the moment. And I guess I always hope that this filmmaking medium that started out so completely out of reach ... like the least successful medium you could ever dream up ... that it’s going to be radically changed by all the people who are now able to tell different kinds of stories. And that eventually we’ll look back on the beginnings of the medium as just the early history of it, and that it started out as this kind of very narrow elite tool, and became something like the written word.
It reminds me of your Joanie 4 Jackie film-sharing collaborative.
Yeah. Now you can just do it!
I was looking at Roger’s words about “Me and You and Everyone We Know” from when he saw it at Sundance. He said it had one of the most perfect sequences he'd ever seen.
That meant the world to me, right? That was so surreal. He stayed on the movie, he invited it to his festival. I have one of those Golden Thumbs. It was just larger than life to me.
What do you think you would tell 2005 Miranda about that experience or making that movie?
I mean I guess ... it’s sort of sad, but you believe when you’re in that position, where it’s your first movie breaking out like that, you don’t believe that it’s real at the level that you’ve seen it happen to other people. I remember people saying, “How does it feel?” and I would say, not out of modesty but really believing this, I would say, “Well, you know. It’s a big deal. But it’s not like, ‘real.’ It’s not like an overnight success.” But looking back it’s like, “No, that’s exactly what it was like. You just couldn’t see it. But the whole rest of your life would be informed by that, in terms of a career.” Maybe it’s better that she didn’t know. It’s already a lot to process.