Design Matters From the Archive: Miranda July

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Writer, director and actress Miranda July discusses the surreality of releasing a surreal movie in an even more surreal time—and the eternal magic of kissing, cakes and clothes.

Transcript

Debbie Millman:

It hardly matters what medium she’s working in. It could be film, it could be fiction, it could be digital media or performance art. Whatever it is, you always know it’s work by Miranda July. Her singular combination of strangeness, humor, awkwardness, curiosity, great feeling and beauty come shining through in everything she touches. Her latest projects are the movie Kajillionaire and a monograph of her life’s work thus far. She joins me today from her home in Los Angeles to talk about both her life and her career. Miranda July, welcome to Design Matters.

Miranda July:

Hello.

Debbie Millman:

Miranda, the first thing I want to ask you about is your interest in the I Ching. I understand you’ve been using the same I Ching since you were a teenager, and have said that, “You can fool yourself, but not the I Ching.” Has it helped you navigate your life?

Miranda July:

Well, I don’t want to overstate it. Yes, I’ve had the same one that my friend Jonah Peretti, in high school, gave me. Trivia fact, he went on to start Buzzfeed.

Debbie Millman:

Oh, wow.

Miranda July:

So, I guess the I Ching helped him and The Huffington Post. I usually only use it in times of great duress, which those times are semi-regular, so that would cut across my whole life. But yeah, it’s not like a daily ritual unless I’m really suffering. And then, the thing you want to do really badly that’s self-destructive, it generally advises against that and towards a patience that can be really, really hard if you’re the only one holding the torch for it. I look for multiple sources to remind me that sometimes you just need to wait it out, wait out that time. This is good advice for someone who tends to jump. That’s my default, is action. So that’s a mixed thing. Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

You were born in Vermont as Miranda Grossinger, but were raised in Berkeley, CA, where your parents ran a New Age independent publishing house, and they worked on two very loud IBM Selectric typewriters. You and your brother helped out a lot with the business. What kinds of things did you assist with as you were growing up?

Miranda July:

I remember sorting mailings according to ZIP Code. I remember the book rate stamp was pretty exciting to me. And then also just packing books, learning how to pack books. Really super-practical stuff. I think by the time I had any skills, actual skills that I might have learned, I was no longer willing to work for North Atlantic Books. Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. I read that you lost interest in school around the fifth grade. How come?

Miranda July:

Fifth grade. Well, that sounds young. Now that I have a child, I’m like, “Uh-oh, that’s too soon.” Honestly, I think I was a little older when it hit me, like, “Oh, I thought I was going to be good at this, but I’m not. And I think I’d best put all my energy into something that I am good at.” And I started writing and directing plays outside of school, very pointedly not wanting to bother putting energy into things that would only amount to being a student production, wanting them to be real things in the world. And I don’t know if it was just the heartbreaking sexism that makes a teenage girl suddenly feel like she can’t be smart enough in a particular way. I had the personality where that forced me to reinvent myself in a really proactive way, so it wasn’t a great loss, but I do remember a sad moment of realization.

Debbie Millman:

You’ve talked about how loneliness is a very old, dear friend of yours. When did the sense of being lonely begin?

Miranda July:

Oh. Yeah. I don’t think there was a beginning. I think that was always there.

Debbie Millman:

Born that way?

Miranda July:

I don’t know. Who can speculate about whether it’s your soul or whether it’s all the circumstances? But I do remember from such a young age always being in conversation with either … this doesn’t meet my standards now, but I considered it a guardian angel, was how I … my angel, having these very reassuring conversations where she would just let me know I was OK. And then later, literally making cassette tapes where I would do one half of the conversation and then fill in the blanks so I could have a conversation with myself. Not that I was so alone—I had an older brother who I’m close to and always had really dear girlfriends, but as I now have my own family and many friends, I can always re-find it and it’s so much a part of me. It’s not something I’m trying to solve.

Debbie Millman:

Do you still have those tapes? I know you have quite an archive of your work.

Miranda July:

Yeah. There’s one I remember looking for. I was desperate to find it, and I knew I had saved it all these years. The only reason was because it was really incriminating and it had a lot of conversation about sex on it with another girl. And we were only in first grade, and I remember thinking that’s too young and this can never get in the wrong hands. And that’s the only reason I still have it, is because I could never dispose of it, I could never be careless with it, I always had to know where that was.

Debbie Millman:

It’s interesting because you’ve stated that you’ve always been interested in sex, even as a kid. And there’s a theme running through a lot of your work about childhood sexuality, whether it is the 7-year-old boy in your first full-length feature film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, or the two 11-year-old girls and the relationship that they have in “Something That Needs Nothing,” a story from your first book, No One Belongs Here More Than You. Where does this fascination come from?

Miranda July:

Yeah. I don’t know what’s normal. I think it’s tied to the loneliness, from what I can tell. If we’re wanting love or if we have a lot of longing, that can become sexualized really early and forever, and that sort of longing feels sexual. And for a kid, I’ve always liked things that were not allowed. So that was clearly not allowed and yet kids knew stuff and … my friend had an older sister, so she kind of knew everything, although on this tape it’s really obvious that there are some big holes in our basic understanding. But the main word we use a lot is screwing, which is a funny word for a 6-year-old girl: a lot of talk about screwing.

Debbie Millman:

Where do you think you would have heard that word?

Miranda July:

Only from her older sibling.

Debbie Millman:

OK.

Miranda July:

But I think we didn’t know of any other words. So, that was the one we used. Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

When you were 16, you co-created a magazine called Snarla, about two friends named Ida and July. And you did this with Johanna Feynman, who characterized it in your monograph “in large part by a petty criminality or manic disregard costumed as punk feminist praxis.” And so I’m wondering if you would agree with that, especially at the time you were making it. Did you have this sense of being this post-feminist moment?

Miranda July:

Yeah. Well, we know we were post-feminist, but we definitely had this very entitled sense of reclamation. I say entitled because in what way were we suffering so badly that we needed to steal so much from Kinko’s, but we did to make all those copies. I discovered that their passport photos were taken with the same film that fit into the sixties Polaroid Land Camera, and they stored that film just right in the cabinets that had the paper cutter on them and all the supplies. If you opened them, there was paper and there were also dozens of boxes of this really expensive film. So—

Debbie Millman:

So you stole the film.

Miranda July:

I stole from Kinko’s. There’s no way I could have bought that film, but we were figuring out how to be writers and we did both become writers and that was the start, and we were mostly writing about each other, honestly. We had a really big friendship, in which we were figuring out what we thought politically, and in terms of art, and our sexuality, and our feminist politics, and music, and … so there was a lot of ground we were covering.

Debbie Millman:

Johanna came up with the name July, and you legally changed it in your early 20s. And you said it was through your friendship with Johanna that you really became an artist. Was that because of the way that you were making art, or talking about art, or was she challenging you in some way to think differently?

Miranda July:

I think of it this way. We met in basketball camp. We both still had long hair and we were like, “Maybe …” I think she actually was good at basketball. She was good at a lot of things, but I don’t know why I was joining. It was like a summer JV basketball camp, and we literally went to one day of it, met there, discovered we lived a couple of blocks away from each other, and just didn’t go back. And we, within months, had both cut off all our hair. Oh, no. She went for a Debbie Harry. She’s like, “I’m just going to fuck my hair up.” And I remember thinking, Well, I really cut all my hair off. I was like, “Yours still looks really pretty.”

Miranda July:

But we both just became increasingly punker, and our relationship to school did really change, and our voice as young women became the primary thing, and she actually left. She was so smart that she graduated a year early all of a sudden and went to Reed, which was the only reason I started visiting Portland.

Debbie Millman:

Well you went to the University of Santa Cruz, but dropped out in your second year before moving to Portland. At that point you said you approached the world with a thief’s mindset. In what way?

Miranda July:

Well, I think somehow the scrappy DIY attitude that frankly my whole family had—you run your own business in the house, everything is recycled—any way that you could not spend money on something had to be good. And so I actually felt guilty if I bought things, and I felt like I had done something morally right if I stole them. I know it seems like how could … and then I’m sure there was some sort of undertow … who does that if they don’t on some level, not so much want to get caught, but really enjoy a dare. I did have this from a really young age, this “I’ll do anything on a dare.” And it was a continuation of that, the high of it. And also I wasn’t alone. Literally everyone I knew at that time had a bag that was particularly good for shoplifting, because it had structure to it.

Debbie Millman:

Maybe you were stealing because you felt like you didn’t have enough.

Miranda July:

Yeah. I was hungry on a lot of different levels. Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. I read that you were fired from your waitressing job for embezzling, but you’ve said that you actually weren’t doing that. You were fired from Goodwill for shoplifting—

Miranda July:

Which I do.

Debbie Millman:

Caught shoplifting Neosporin at a drug store. I remember shoplifting as a kid, too, but mostly it was because I was jealous that people had things that I didn’t, and I wanted them really badly.

Miranda July:

Right. I’ve come back to this in my work. There’s a way in which that all ties in with the longing, right? And especially if you’re longing on some sort of deeper soul level, it can really feel material.

Debbie Millman:

After you arrived in Portland, you started a video chain later for female filmmakers to share their work. Initially you called this The Big Moviola, but after a cease and desist letter from Moviola Digital, you changed the name to Joanie 4 Jackie. And you’ve stated that you approached the project as if it were a job, though your actual jobs at the time were waitressing, cashiering, stripping, locksmithing and taste-making for Coca-Cola. So, you actually named a Coca-Cola beverage, I believe. Was it Coca-Cola 2? Is that right?

Miranda July:

It was Coke 2. Yeah. The most brilliant name anyone’s ever come up with. Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

What was stripping like for you?

Miranda July:

It wasn’t a wild idea in the culture that I was living in the midst of. So, in a practical sense, I remember my girlfriend and I broke up and she moved out, and so we were short one third of our rent, and me and my friend who were left got to the end of the month and we’re like, “What are we going to do?” And she said, “Well, one of us could strip, and it can’t be me because I wear glasses.” And so I went down and did it. Went down to Mary’s spot in Portland. In a most practical sense, I was like, “Oh, I can do less work for more money and have more time to make my movies and performances and do Joanie 4 Jackie”—all those things were taking a lot of time, and if I could make a bunch of money and go on tour, that was huge for me.

Miranda July:

And also it came out of a general interest in strangers and intimacy between strangers and also in the dare thing: You’re not supposed to do that. That’s the main thing you’re not supposed to do as a young woman, is take off your clothes in front of strange men. So, to cross over that threshold was a little like having a superpower, like “Oh, this is no big deal at all. Not only can I survive this, but I can twist this to my own means,” is how it felt. So, I didn’t have to feel fragile in a way that I think I had felt growing up, and that was a lot of what I think I was doing at that time, was testing out, am I perhaps stronger than I was led to believe, coming out of my family? And ultimately I’d be like, Oh, I’m strong enough. Not just to do this, but to stand on stage doing my work in front of a thousand people. This bravery can be put to better use.

Debbie Millman:

Miranda, there’s a lot of physicality in a lot of your movies—body physicality—and I get the sense that you’re very comfortable in your own skin. You seem to use your body with a great deal of ease. Am I right about that?

Miranda July:

Yeah. It’s something I don’t think about a lot, but I guess that’s turning out … that’s true. Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

It’s something that I’ve tried to figure out in watching a lot of your work, how you can get so comfortable with your own skin in your own body. You seem to have almost a lack of self-consciousness of it at all. And is that something that you’ve always had?

Miranda July:

Yeah. I think it a little bit has to do with performing. It’s like going through the atmosphere to the moon or something—a whole lot of stuff just burns off from the sheer intensity of that process. And some of the things that are burned away are a layer of self-consciousness that … since there’s nothing I wouldn’t do if I had a reason on stage. I feel so free there. I don’t understand the taboos that have to do with the body. You have this one thing, this is it, really, this very finite, physical being. And so to be particularly hung up with it, or hide it, or not make use of all the ways it can be, just seems heartbreaking to me. So, sometimes I think just in daily life, I’ll move in a strange way or take off my clothes or something just to have made use of it in that day.

Debbie Millman:

Do you ever feel self-conscious?

Miranda July:

I do. I know exactly that feeling, but I think I enjoy the feeling of remembering that doesn’t matter, that it’s like a feeling like a little shame, and then the joy that comes from blowing past it. It’s not like it’s not there, it is, but it’s exquisite to realize it has so much less power than it thinks it has.

Debbie Millman:

So you just push through the discomfort.

Miranda July:

Yeah. And then it’s like, “Oh, there’s a whole vast world here waiting on the other side. The water’s fine here.”

Debbie Millman:

In your story “Something That Needs Nothing,” there’s a lot of heartbreak in that story for a lot of reasons. But at the end of the story, I kind of got the sense that you were comfortable in the heartbreak that that was like you were comfortable feeling all the feelings that had to do with heartbreak. And I was wondering, because of that, you’ve said that that story was one of the two more autobiographical things that you’ve written, that that was something that was true of yourself as well, that you didn’t shy away from heartbreak or resist heartbreak in any way.

Miranda July:

Well, the romance that I was writing about there was truly devastating. But yesterday, I was with a friend, and I’d been kind of high. She knew I’d been sort of high for various reasons, including my movie just came out and I was sort of in an unusual space the last couple of weeks, but I was feeling sad yesterday, and I was feeling sad about feeling sad, about coming back to this kind of sadness.

Miranda July:

And I said to her, “Well, the thing about the high is it’s only itself, but the sadness leads to everywhere else. It’s the road through my work, usually, to a million new thoughts and ideas and projects and feelings.” So, as much as I loved feeling just kind of happy for a little while, it doesn’t lead anywhere new. It just is itself, which is sort of the great thing about joy. It is itself, and the moment. You’re kind of suspended.

Debbie Millman:

Let’s talk about your latest film, Kajillionaire. I can’t imagine that it’s not devastating for it to have been released during this really crazy, surreal time.

Miranda July:

Yeah. I mean, there was a point in the year where I kind of couldn’t even really talk about it when people would bring it up. As we all did, we understood that our particular disappointment was echoed in the disappointment of every person we knew. But my particular one was like, “I was really excited to go back to Cannes.” This was my year of travel, for a person who mostly is at home writing, and to just have to move on and … the biggest thing was to not have the movie come out in theaters.

Miranda July:

I mean, I always remind myself, the thing you fear is not exactly what will end up happening. It hasn’t been, and I guess the thing I couldn’t have guessed was that the most important thing is that the movie connects with people, and who’s to say whether being in the midst of a pandemic helps or hurts that as long as they can watch it? Which, actually they can. I began to actually think maybe … I mean, not like I’m a prophet at all. I don’t mean that, but maybe weirdly I made this for us now. I am just kind of a believer in understanding reality as it plays out, rather than thinking some other thing was supposed to happen.

Miranda July:

Like, “No, this is what was supposed to happen because this is what happened.” And yeah, so many things that I thought were very personal to me, that inborn loneliness, kind of that level of anxiety, that in the movie is tied to the big one, the idea of surviving or not surviving this natural disaster, and just a million other little things that as people started to watch it, I was like, “Oh, I think they’re taking it more the way I meant it than they were in my brief …” It played at Sundance and it went very well, but this is different. The movie is less weird in a way because the world got weirder.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. Miranda, I’ve been a fan of your work since your early days before your first film, when you were doing performance art. I’d heard about you and I’ve been following you, and I’ve seen all your movies, read your book of short stories, your novel. I do think that this is your best work. I think Kajillionaire is absolutely brilliant. I think it’s really hard to watch at times. And I think it is sort of weirdly prophetic, the scene where Old Dolio is about to get a massage and then can’t be touched, can’t allow herself to be touched, was just one of the most powerful moments in cinema that I could remember in the last couple of years. It took my breath away.

Miranda July:

Thank you.

Debbie Millman:

It is really a tour de force. Congratulations. It’s a beautiful, beautiful movie. What’s interesting is you’ve said this about the characters, which is fair, but I think there’s even more to it. You say there’s a nasty, villainous, slightly evil righteousness to this particular family.

Miranda July:

To those parents. Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

To those parents. Yes, to the parents, because they are. I mean, and you kind of are hoping … I mean, at least I was hoping, they have to redeem themselves. They have to end up being good, maybe for my own selfish needs—but they’re not. And how hard was it to write such evil characters?

Miranda July:

I mean, I guess what I was most interested in was their logic. To themselves, they’re right. It’s their daughter who’s strayed and needs to be brought back into the fold. It was so important to me that as this daughter character gets free … for the first time, we suddenly see her without the parents in Melanie’s apartment, that all she wants to do is go home. She’s super antsy. She wants to go back. And I really relate to that.

Miranda July:

It’s so satisfying in movies when people just get free and they go to New York, but I’ve never been able to do that that cleanly. It’s always two steps forward, one step back, and that’s the ache of life to me.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah.

Miranda July:

Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

The movie is about a family of small-time con artists, a mom played by Debra Winger, incredibly … just a brilliant casting. A dad played by Richard Jenkins, and their 27-year-old daughter who heists their way through life. Evan Rachel Wood plays Old Dolio. You’ve described Kajillionaire as deeply personal, but not autobiographical. Given how much research I did in your past about feeling nervous, about bringing clothes into the house when they were new, when you were little, and the various shoplifting escapades, I was wondering if it was influenced a bit by your sense of what people feel they’re entitled to or not.

Miranda July:

Yeah. I think I’ve always been aware of that, that being an outsider didn’t necessarily make you radical, that that could have its own rigidity to it, and being conventional didn’t mean that you weren’t avant-garde in terms of this emotional space you were creating. That’s something I think I came out of my family, like desperate to prove, and that is partly the privilege of growing up in Berkeley and the heart of outsiderness.

Miranda July:

And yet, not feeling free exactly. Yeah, I mean, I think for me, the trick always is to find the story, the fiction that can hold all of these feelings, and it has to be a fiction because I have to be somewhat unaware of the story I’m telling. And in that way it can come from the depths, so it’s free, it’s not self-conscious. It can be smarter than me in a way, because I can only intellectually go so far, and we’ve already established I’m not even that confident about that side of things, but there is this other kind of agility, this sort of fluidity. And if I can be caught up in the joy of that, even when it’s heartbreaking … that’s why there’s humor in these things is because I’m having a pretty good time making it. It just so happens to be devastating. I got to the end of writing that first draft and really was kind of like, “Oh no, how did I end up here?” Of all places, this is … I never would have willingly gone into this heartbreak between parents and children. Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

There was a moment in the movie where it feels … and it’s probably about 15 minutes, maybe not even, maybe 10 minutes before it ends, where everything makes sense. Every single decision that you made as the writer and director makes sense at that moment. Was that an arduous process?

Miranda July:

It was a lot … I mean, there’s a lot of craft in there, that’s where all the rewrites, and then continuing into the editing process, realizing, “Oh, I got this far with the script, but I can refine this and make it even sort of tighter.” Alongside this process with the unconscious is this person figuring out how to write and how to tell a story. I’m alternating between fiction and movies to do that, so I’m using a lot of muscles that got strong in writing The First Bad Man.

Miranda July:

I think I was sort of warm and ready for this. I mean, I really love that in other things. There’s a nerdy side of me that just loves where there’s the moment where suddenly you look back and it all makes sense, but in a different way. I remember thinking, This is a little dicey. It’s one thing to do this with a book, because you can always keep changing it until it works. But with a movie, the more you can move those pieces around, the more free you are to do that, the more if it doesn’t work, you can still fix it. But I knew that wasn’t going to be the case with this movie because past a certain point, as you said, it all has to work.

Miranda July:

I remember watching the rough cut, which is always agonizing for a director, and it’s just the movie put together, all in a row, according to the script. I watched it, I felt like jumping out a window, and put my head down and I really felt bad. I was like, “I don’t want to be crying when I lift my head up because that’s so hard for the editor, and this is my first day with this new editor.” And finally I realized I’m going to have my head down forever. I just need to … and I sat up and I, “still …” She could see I was crushed. There’s so much work ahead of us. And I was like, “But I think the ending works.” It was like I knew that that was kind of the main thing. Anything else we could repair. Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah. It’s an exquisite ending. You’ve written, directed and starred in all your movies, but you didn’t have an acting role in Kajillionaire. You said that the fact that there was no role for you in this movie was a relief, but there’s also a part of me that thought, given how youthful you look, you could have played Old Dolio. What made you decide to deliberately keep yourself out of the movie?

Miranda July:

Well, I mean, for one thing, yeah … that’s a very nice compliment. I don’t think I could have done that, but in thinking that I had no part, I got really excited right away about all the female roles I was about to cast, and a female lead. I’ve never had that to offer, and I had already in my mind that this next third movie, whatever it was going to be, was going to be bigger, and so it kind of fit with that.

Miranda July:

I was like, “Oh, for it to be bigger, I’m OK with this movie to have familiar faces.” I think that’s interesting. And now I have something to offer a familiar face. I have a great role. That was just only exciting to me. Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

In the movie, one of my favorite lines is, “Most happiness comes from dumb things.” And I’m wondering if you agree and, if so, what dumb things bring you happiness?

Miranda July:

It’s funny. Clothes. There’s no point in clothes for me other than pleasure. It’s just the thing I do every day. Clearly. I mean, being in quarantine makes that even more clear. Why do I keep putting on these outfits? It’s just joy. It just makes me happy. And kissing is kind of a dumb thing that makes me happy. I only like to cook sweet things. I’m not much of a cook at all, except for cakes and cookies and things like that.

Debbie Millman:

More of a pastry chef than a cook. More of a baker than a cook.

Miranda July:

Yeah, yeah, which is not like super useful as a parent except for joy, and for this … I think it’s not a well-rounded thing I’m providing. Yeah. That’s about it. Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

Yeah?

Miranda July:

Just those three things.

Debbie Millman:

Those are wonderful things.

Miranda July:

Kissing, cakes and clothes. Yeah.

Debbie Millman:

Miranda, my last question for you is about a quote from the artist Starlee Kine that closes your monograph. She states that you recently told her that you don’t feel like you’ve done anything really great ever. And Starlee goes on to state that you didn’t mean this in a self-deprecating way, rather it was like a bar that you have inside you that lets you know, that you have to keep pushing towards something you don’t feel you’ve yet reached. My question is this: Do you think you’ll ever get there? And if so, do you think you’ll be able to recognize that you’ve arrived?

Miranda July:

Oh, probably not. I mean, yeah. It’s funny. I said it to her more just speaking, trying to describe the agitation, the unrest that I live in, that it’s not like I’m walking around in this deeply satisfied state. I’m really proud of Kajillionaire, except for all the parts that I think I could’ve done better. And there’s always those parts to everything.

Miranda July:

I think that unrest is just … it’s not solvable. It’s not supposed to be solved. It’s like what you get if you’re an artist. In a way, it’s a gift. It is its own reward, sort of, but it means that you can’t be seeking peace, it’s not like the ultimate … you can’t have that be the thing that you’re trying to get to because it really … yeah. I mean, it feels pretty clear that that’s not going to happen, but there are some really, really great fleeting moments.

Debbie Millman:

And those are so wonderful to have witnessed. Miranda July, thank you so much for sharing your original and beautiful voice, and thank you for joining me today on Design Matters.

Miranda July:

Thank you so much.

Debbie Millman:

Miranda July’s latest movie is Kajillionaire, and it is remarkable. And you can see a monograph of her work as well, it has just been published by Presto. You can see a comprehensive overview of her work on her website at MirandaJuly.com. This is the 16th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.