If you were to look up the dictionary definition of a multi-hyphenate, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Miranda July listed there, although there are actually too many titles to dash together. Film director, screenwriter, actor, singer, author and artist, July has made her cross-disciplinary career by being unconstrained by categorization.
This ability to transcend the shackles of the norm is equally apparent in her work. July’s latest movie, Kajillionaire, which she wrote and directed, is an intriguing portrayal of an eccentric, dysfunctional family of scam artists who invite a stranger to join them in a major heist. Part comedy, part satire, part heart-wrenching craving for human connection, it stars Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger, Gina Rodriguez and Mark Ivanir. Though it’s been a few years in the making, the movie’s themes of loneliness and intimacy take on new resonance in light of this year’s events, as does the idea of surviving the ‘big one’ (an earthquake, in this case, rather than a pandemic).
“Initially, I was disappointed, like we all were,” July says of the movie’s original release being disrupted by the global health emergency. “More recently, though, as I talk to people who have watched it for the first time in quarantine, I’ve been surprised at the uncanny resonances with the current moment that people seem to be feeling. I guess I’ve come to believe that this was the time I made this movie for.”
The film depicts a generational divide between the parents, stuck in their scamming ways, and their mid-twenties child, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), who becomes desperate for something different. “You’ve got the parents kind of self-righteously defending their way of doing things, even when it’s insane,” explains July. “There’s this feeling that you could die trying to convince them to change, but actually, all you can do is build a new thing and start over.”
This is another reason that July believes the film correlates with the social and cultural reckonings that 2020 has seen. “This year, I think I’ve watched and participated in that sense of ‘we can’t try to convince, we can only build anew’. A feeling of transformation. There’s a moment when Old Dolio comes out of a gas station bathroom and the world is anew. There have been moments when I feel things are very woken up this year and not comfortable and not easy. I think that’s what you hope for – that the things you go through will transform you and your understanding of the world.”
July has found that creating work to be released immediately – via social media or written articles, for instance – has been a welcome instant connection with an audience, rather than the usual wait to put her endeavors out into the world. It’s been easier, she says, to write for the present reader, rather than “writing for a future that I don’t understand. I don’t understand if my future readers are still in a pandemic or if they’ve come through it or what.”
As someone who explores human connection so intimately in her work, how has July – who has spent lockdown at home in Los Angeles with her husband and eight-year-old child – coped with the enforced distance from friends, family and collaborators?
“On day one, when I was making our childcare schedule and I was like, How are we going to function?, I thought as long as I can see my friend Isobel once a week, six feet apart, I’ll be OK soul-wise. And as long as I can write,” she says. “You kind of get down to the basics – no parties, no Cannes Film Festival – and on a day-to-day level, I don’t need a lot, but I need some connection to get by.”
While being a parent has made the stark difference in daily life this year more apparent (“my child basically hasn’t played with another child in six months,” she says), it certainly helps her ability to relax and enjoy creativity out of a work context while discovering art in unexpected places. “The other day, my child was showing me a thing they thought they’d invented, which was making a sculpture out of toilet paper and water and letting it dry in the sun,” she laughs. “At first, I was such a mom and I was like, ‘We’re wasting toilet paper – this is just a mess.’ The next thing I know, I’m so focused on it and I’m fully down the rabbit hole… I’m like, ‘It’s an art form, it’s so accessible!’”
Earlier this year, July released a mid-career retrospective monograph, providing an intimate, behind-the-scenes insight into her works, with interviews and narration from friends and collaborators (including Lena Dunham, David Byrne and Carrie Brownstein), as well as the artist herself. I wonder why now, at a time when her career is in such full swing, felt like the right moment for it?
“In the simplest sense, I’m 45, so if you’re going to be hopeful, that seems like maybe a halfway point and a good time to reckon with what I’d done and how I’ve gotten here,” July considers. Working across a variety of mediums also means that “no one institution or world is going to claim me”, so it was up to her to decide to curate a career retrospective in this form.
“It was totally uncomfortable for me; I’m not the kind of person who looks back, I don’t watch my movies again, I don’t read my books, much less pour through all my archives,” she shares. “I really forced myself. You know that feeling when you’re clearing out a closet and you really get lost in time, and it takes forever, and it’s this emotional thing? I did this for the better part of a year. I had to almost pretend that it was about another artist; it’s just too much about oneself otherwise.”
Since the early days of her career, July has found herself fortified by connection and collaboration with fellow creative women. One of the first things she did, back in the 1990s, was set up Joanie 4 Jackie, a network for young women filmmakers that’s now archived online. “Just to know that each other existed was a form of support,” she recalls. “I had not yet made a movie; I didn’t have the means or the confidence… And [through that network] I came to think of myself as a filmmaker in a really solid way, more so than I think in any film school or internship I could have paid for. Especially as a woman, because I wasn’t a minority in the way that I would have been in those more institutional contexts.”
In such an expansive and multi-hyphenated career, where does July imagine her career trajectory going next? “I’m always feeling there’s so much I want to do that I don’t have time for,” she reflects. “At one time, I would have said I want to write a novel; now I want to write another novel. At some point you realize that just getting to keep on doing this at this level for your whole life would be pretty amazing and, in a way, a lot to expect, given the way the world changes and how you change.”
“That maybe doesn’t sound very ambitious,” July pauses, “but it took a lot of ambition to get here.”
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