Part of a series of my past interviews I'm reposting here as a way to archive them.--cgp
"It's much more about peers and finding people living life in a different way."
Artist-actress-filmmaker-writer Miranda July is so hyphenated she's hard to keep up with, and has had to rev herself up even further with the release of Me and You and Everyone We Know. Her debut as a feature director, the film is startling in its assuredness and acuity, and even more startling, won the Camera D'or at Cannes this year, as well as the Special Jury Prize at Sundance, where it also caught the eye of Roger Ebert. The critic called it "delicate, tender, poetic, and yet so daring in some of its scenes that you sit in uncertain suspense." As I wrote in my review after seeing it at the San Francisco International Film Festival, as good as the film looks, it's July's easy way with the actors, who range in age from senior citizen to 6 years old (the astonishing Brandon Ratcliffe), that is the real revelation here.
July's been making film for years, with her short film Getting Stronger Everyday a particular treat, while also wearing the hats of performance artist, writer, musician, collaborator, producer and visual artist. She was long a part of the art and music scene of the Pacific Northwest (although she grew up in the Bay Area and now lives in Los Angeles), but with Me and You and Everyone We Know slowly releasing nationwide (appropriately enough, in July), the hope here is that her multifarious work will find the wider audience it deserves.
She speaks endearingly with a lilt that modestly adds a question mark to the end of many of her sentences, giving off the impression of being reticent to speak too much when not performing or "on," which has the interesting effect of making the interviewer feel like the one doing the confessing. We spoke in San Francisco in May. For anything not covered in this interview, I highly recommend her insightful and amusing blog.
When you were at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival with other directors, when Me and You and Everyone We Know was selected, did you think, "Oh, yeah, I'm officially a director now" - or has it not quite hit you? People like John Sayleswere there...
And I'm easily - it doesn't take John Sayles to make me feel nervous and alienated. I mean, he's a nice guy but in a group situation it's often harder for me than one on one, or in front of an audience. I was in front of 1,600 people later that night and was somehow fine.
And you can be prominently on screen, on film, and feel fine?
Right, that's the same sort of performance kind of energy.
As a woman filmmaker do you feel it's still a challenge to break in, get films made, even in the indie world?
You know, it's funny, I did sense when I was pitching the movie and trying to come up with financing that there might have been a little bit of prejudice there. Although you can never really tell why people are passing when they're passing. Probably more likely they were passing because of its lack of stars - I didn't want to put stars in it. But once I was making the movie, it seemed completely normal - I was the director, of course, it's my world. But once I was done, and got to Sundance, and was one of two women out of sixteen movies in competition, I was kind of stunned. And then I looked around me, realized, wait a second, wow, this is just so insidious. And you look at all these different points and ask, "Does it happen here? These people don't seem sexist. Is it here?" It's really kind of everywhere, but in ways people don't like to talk about because they're all struggling to move up. So it definitely seems something's gotta change, but I don't know what or how...
It's weird, because on the surface you'd expect "indie film" to be more progressive on that issue.
Well, indie film is only "indie" until you're done making the movie, and then you're selling it and it's no longer indie film. And all the agents are the same agents, for everyone.
Who were some of your role models - for filmmaking or acting or art - when you were coming of age?
Growing up, my biggest influences probably were friends of mine. I had a best friend who went on to be in a band and we had a fanzine together. We became artists together. I never went to art school. I was just very good at having mentors - I didn't like the idea of authority. It was very much about me and my friends, and for a long time it was girls in bands, even though I was always doing my own movies and performing, that was kind of the world I was in. And then meeting other artists. Harrell Fletcher, who I collaborated with on Learning to Love You More, was a big influence. And different women filmmakers through Big Miss Movieola, the distribution network I started when I was younger. It's much more about peers and finding people who were living life in a different way, a way I could relate to.
You yourself have a blog now, and then in the film itself there's a hilarious running story around computers and instant messaging. I was wondering if you had a particular interest in the way technology affects society?
It's funny because I'm actually pretty non-technologically inclined, and in fact when I started the blog recently I asked my web designer, "What are all these ...'comments'? What are these people...?" And she said, "Uh, Miranda, that's what a blog is - people write back." "Oh!" I had no idea that was part of the deal. [laughs] So I hadn't actually read blogs. I'm just starting to realize what the form is, and that everyone talks about themselves, pretty much. It's hard to do that and already be a bit of a public figure. When does it become too much? I'm trying to figure out a way to do it.
Did somebody ask or suggest that you do a blog?
Well, blogs have become kind of an indie film marketing thing. And it makes sense to me. I like it, as it's been my only creative outlet on this tour. Although, of course, any time I'm not actually alone in a hotel room I find it hard to keep it up.
So you do read those comments people leave for you?
I do, I read them all! But I was wondering, should I be writing back to them? I feel like if I start writing back to them, I could open a can of worms, as I can't write everyone. Maybe I'll just say that, that I do at least read them all. There! That takes care of it.
[ed. note: One of the young cast members posts to her blog, too.]
So I take it you hadn't actually used instant messaging (IM) yourself, then? It seemed fairly accurate in the film.
No. I don't even have it on my computer. In the film, [the IM design] was pretty simple looking, compared to how kids these days would have a funny character as their symbol and it would look more sophisticated. People pointed that out to me but as long as it works for the movie, I don't care because it wasn't that easy. We had to use Linux so it wouldn't be a copyright issue, which kind of limited how stylish it could be.
Did you use internet chat yourself to research?
You'd think I would, wouldn't you? [laughs] But I'm horrible at research. I just write it and hope that it has some relevance to reality.
Did the young actors in the cast, the kids, give you feedback on that subject - "This isn't what you do!"
No, they didn't say anything. Robby's [Brandon Ratcliff] too young to be doing it in reality. I don't think they're supercomputer kids. Miles [Thompson], who plays the older brother, is a total musical genius and really sort of earthy.
Miles Thompson and Brandon Ratcliffe
I read that you said you'd originally pictured Robby's character a little older.
Yeah, we pictured and were hoping for a little nine-year-old who could play a seven-year-old, and then this five-year-old walks in! But he was so much smarter than any of the nine-year-olds and so much better that it just didn't really matter. We found all the kids through a casting agent, who sifted through everyone. For the character of Peter, we'd about given up. We'd looked through all the mixed-race teenage boys and didn't find anyone. Then we got a tape of Miles, he lived in New York and we brought him out.
Was it a challenge to work with child actors? Or a different challenge than with adults?
Easier in some ways, because when it works, it really works. There's nothing false about it. And when it doesn't work, it's really obvious. With a six year old, if he's just bored, he'll literally be doing this [pantomimes slumping, bored, across the table]. And you'll say, "Just sit up, come on, one more take." There's no subtlety, he's not just becoming distracted, he's totally doing something else. But overall, he was amazingly focused. And I could tell him, "Now press your lips together and wrinkle your eyebrows," and how that would look on his face would be so profound. Both his energy and the way his face is.
Were any of the girl characters - or I guess the boy characters, too - based at least in part on your own youth?
All of them in some way were. Or, like, Miles, the older brother is based a little more on my older brother than on me. But the teenage girls, certainly there's elements of my own teenagehood. Not literally, specifically... [laughs] And my brother says he saw a little of me in Robbie, the little boy, too.
And the girl who was obsessed with the toy dowry?
Sylvie, yeah, she was totally based on me, on my old-fashioned-ness. I was living in a kind of "Little House on the Prairie" as a kid, or strived for a 1950s reality in the kind of books I was reading. Like this series of books called "Betsy-Tacy and Tibb" [by Maude Hart Lovelace] that I think my mom read to me. [laughs] There's one called "Betsy Goes Over the Big Hill" - you could follow them from when they were little girls to when they started dating. Only girls would know those books! No research required there - they're just in my consciousness.
Carlie Westerman as "Sylvie"
Children are obviously at the center of this film, and you've said that the genesis for the idea came from the way you longed for the future as a child. What sort of future did you long for and how do you maintain that sense of magic now that you and me (and everyone we know), are all jaded adults?
I actually feel close to the same way as I did as a kid. And in a way that's what guides me, that's what allows me to just decide that things could be fun, that not everything has to be a drag. Or to make things up, or make things that are boring into a game. That's kind of a saving grace, because I'm also completely anxious and compulsive and a workaholic [laughs] so luckily there's that other side.
You also wear a lot of hats - artist, performer, filmmaker, writer - so there'd have to be some sense of play to be like that...
Right. And yet, to want to be a director you also have to be pretty controlling in a way.
Yeah, although his hair, and facial hair, are almost exactly the same because we had to keep that the same for Deadwood! I was kind of bummed about that but that was part of the deal, because he was shooting Deadwood right after. But anyway, he was supposed to come in early on, but something happened and we saw him only after I'd already seen so many other people. But the second I saw him, we were done. I knew he was perfect. And he really loved the role and the script. In fact, he was so faithful to the script that when I'd try to change things while we were shooting, he'd be really skeptical of me. I was like, "But John, I'm the person who wrote the script that you loved! I'm that same person, I could have good ideas now, too." But he remained skeptical.
He was great to also act with. It felt right for me on some level, I believed him in a way that helped me be my character. He was both charming and a little bit frightening to me, a little scary.
A good example of that is the scene where he's in the car with you and his reaction is rejecting you instead of being interested - the way he played that was both disturbing and empathetic.
And you also got the great veteran actress Ellen Geer to play a small but pivotal role.
It's funny because that character's name had always been "Ellen." And I'd always had the idea that whoever played that role would be an actual veteran star - I pictured someone like that swim star from the 50s, Esther Williams. I pursued her and actually talked to her son. I had an idea of someone who you would know had really lived an amazing life. I pictured all of that person's real paraphernalia around them. You don't see that much of it in the movie, but of course Ellen Geer has lived an amazing life and history. So it's funny that when she walked in, I cast her not even knowing that, and had sort of given up on that idea. And then we go to her house to get her photographs and there's just this wealth of amazing things there.
So were the photos in the film that were really important to her character really hers?
Unfortunately we couldn't really play that up more, but you have no sense, or at least I didn't, when shooting of how clear things have to be for them to really play on the screen, to be seen clearly. So you didn't see the detail of all the playbills behind her and that sort of thing.
I connected with him through [Chuck and Buck director] Miguel Arteta, who was an advisor of mine at the [Sundance] Lab and who really recommended him. He was totally great, completely a partner. I could not have done it without him. He took such care with the HD, first of all. He made that look incredible, which is something I would not have had a first idea how to do. And then he emphasized to me that whatever the camera was doing was secondary to what needed to happen with the actors. Which was something a DP with a first time feature director could totally take advantage of, but he was so quick, he was like lightning. He was always waiting for everyone else. So I couldn't have had a better DP for my first experience.
How much of Me and You did you two map out, compose, visually beforehand?
We definitely came up with a palate for all the spaces and characters and stuck to that. And then I promptly forgot about it. Until we got into color correction and then I'd think, "Ooooh, yeah. That's why all those rooms are greenish brown and these are blue," because luckily you're not thinking about that once you've established the look with the production designer. I had too much else to think of.
So was there any storyboarding?
We only storyboarded the "blowjob" scene and the "goldfish" scene, because those were hard in different ways. But other than that we really didn't want a shot list. Sometimes we were forced into it, by everyone else wanting to know what the hell the plan was for the day. And Chuy was like, "You want a shot list?" and then would scrawl out the most rudimentary thing, and everyone would seize upon it and Xerox it.
That goldfish scene you mentioned was pretty surprisingly suspenseful. Was that based on a moment you'd seen in real life?
No, that scene was really more about the conversation between myself and Michael, the older guy. But then when I was writing the script, I'd just written what he sees out the window, including someone walking by with a goldfish. And then later, I thought, "Goldfish? That's so corny. Why would someone walk by with a goldfish? That's like a Disney movie." So I went to take it out but instead made it huge - I couldn't stop making it bigger, more and more part of the movie until it was suddenly so weird that I could no longer take it out. It was like an action sequence!
And you shot Me and You in LA proper?
Yeah, in PT Anderson country, the San Fernando Valley. Which of course is so meaningful for him, but I'd just moved there so I had no idea where I was. [laughs]
What are you doing next? Another feature or...?
I do have another feature that I'm in the early stages of thinking about, but before that really gets underway I want to finish a book of short stories and a performance that I've been working on, and a CD... So I'm going to try to quickly do all that.
Oh, is that all?
[laughs] Yeah, I know, I don't quite know what I'm thinking. But I didn't really plan on this whole promotion thing - I'd basically forgotten about it. But what's the rush, really? I've got, hopefully, my life ahead of me. There's a lot of pressure to make a second movie as quickly as possible, but I figure it'll come.
So you're writing a draft of a script?
Yeah, except I haven't had a second to work on it, so at this point the blog is my only creative life right now. I don't want to talk about specifics yet, because it's so new. But I wrote a grant for it last fall, so I already had to try to sell it. Then I got the grant - so, oddly enough, I'm living off a movie I haven't made yet, instead of this one!