Front Row Q&A: Miranda July
Prolific as ever, this polymath of the arts sits in on The Connecticut Forum panel "Creative Minds," at The Bushnell Nov. 18.
Look in the dictionary under “polymath“ and you’ll find a description of MIRANDA JULY, 37. She writes (award-winning short stories, books, film scripts, performance art pieces, even songs); she acts (in those films and performance pieces); she directs; she sings (on a handful of discs she made for indie labels K and Kill Rock Stars in the 1990s); and she creates interactive multimedia initiatives (for example, Learning to Love You More, a website she cofounded in 2002, which gave visitors “assignments“ to complete as part of an ongoing art project). For more info on The Connecticut Forums “Creative Minds" panel, call (860) 509-0909 or visit ctforum.org.
I noticed that one of the questions they posed on the website for this Connecticut Forum panel is, "Are we all innately creative?" What would you say to that?
Yeah! [laughs] I think people just are, it doesn't mean everyone has to be an artist or a writer. It's in all the little ways you do things. It doesn't even have to be about "self-expression"—it can be in where you choose to put the furniture in your house. It's not necessarily fostered in everyone, and not everyone is interested in it in themselves. But that doesn't mean that you're not . . . being creative is basically making decisions that don't really matter, you know what I mean? It doesn't matter if the chair goes here or goes there.
It sounds like what you're saying is that creativity is a luxury.
No, I'm not saying that at all. When I say "it doesn't really matter," I'm just saying that it's terribly subjective. It's not like the decision to buy gas because your car is running low. We all make these other kinds of decisions that are creative, but we're not artists. We don't always choose to foster our own creativity. I'm not equating creativity with "art."
Do you think there are cultural differences in the way we express our creativity?
Sure. Don't you think? There are certain things in every culture that are "expected," like it's "expected" children will draw. But you probably won't grow up to draw. Maybe there are some cultures where drawing and painting keeps being important throughout the life span.
Let me ask you about your latest film, The Future, which is coming out on DVD on Nov. 29. I understand it evolved out of a performance piece—how so? [Ed. note: The piece is titled "Things We Don't Understand and Are Definitely Not Going To Talk About."]
Uh-huh, that's right. I knew I wanted to make another movie, but I also knew I didn't want to head straight into writing a script. I always feel most free in performance. It's a little less conservative medium. I initially thought this might be a performance movie, something different than a normal theatrical release. But by the time I got done with the performance piece there was so much experimentation and audience participation in it, that in a way I was done with that structure. I'd worked through all those creative desires and really just wanted to make another movie. The basic ideas were the same but the results were so different, because performance takes place in a symbolic universe, and this movie is in the real world, like any movie.
What was the impetus to incorporate the ideas that inform the movie?
The first scene I had in mind was the scene where one character stops time—it's a really kind of sad, dark moment. When I was editing my first movie—which was relatively light and hopeful—I was going through a breakup, and I remember thinking, "Oh God, I really want to make something that captures this feeling. Although, things changed radically over the next few years and I got married. But I didn't lose interest in trying to figure out new ways to show sadder themes.
Why is there a talking cat in the film?
I wanted to have a character that was really honest and direct. It's not that realistic to me—sometimes you can do it with children, make them be sort of overly clear. Or sometimes directors might use a disabled black man, make them be the soul of a movie. But I didn't want to burden anyone with that role. For there to be a nut of a character, even if you only see her paws, you kinda create an emotional connection to the audience. Even though it's barely real.
What themes do you like to explore in your work?
I don't have planned themes in mind. That's the kind of thing that's easier to notice from the outside. For me, It's more a matter of heading into whatever I think is mysterious at the moment in my life. The same thing doesn't continue being mysterious, but then again, I tend to go about things in my own particular way. I do what I do, and each time I'm trying to point out the eternally brand-new.
Your first movie, Me and You and Everyone We Know, got a lot of recognition from the mainstream. Roger Ebert named it as one of the Top 10 movies of the past decade. Is that a mind-blower for you?
Yes, it's very surprising, for sure. But I'd been making things and putting them out there for 10 years before that movie, all in different media. You have this vision of this long road you hope you get to live in making your work. It's a happy surprise when one particular thing links up with the culture in a moment, for whatever reason. But it's sort of an accident. You don't plan for it, you just do your best each time, and hope to connect with a few more people than just your friends—a separate audience each time, maybe? Because there are different conversations each time.
One word I've always heard in relation to you is "polymath." You do work in all different media. Is there one form that's more satisfying or comfortable for you to work in than the others?
They're all satisfying in different ways. I do feel that writing is at the basis of so much that I do, that it's hard not to think that that's where the real work happens. That said, it's also a trap I try to get out of. Because I think a lot of elegant, moving things don't involve words.
But there's something special to me about writing, which may also have to do with the fact that I grew up in a house of bibliophiles. My parents ran a publishing company, which deeply entrenched me in, "That's the thing to do." They didn't encourage me specifically, but they're the kind of people who always think what you're thinking about is interesting. They were interested in hearing you talk about your thoughts. That's the real basis of my making things. Though I went through a lot of years when it seemed I was just avoiding getting a real job.
A lot of your work is very interactive; it seems you're striving to reach some sort of community "out there."
That's true of some things, obviously more than others; I mean, a short story is just a short story. But from the beginning, I felt that at least some of the work should be of service somehow. Art didn't always have to be the story that you made up, it could also be a well-crafted invitation to other people. And I had people around me who thought that way, like Harold Fletcher, who I did the Learning to Love You More website with—that was very much his style. My projects for girls and women would have been different if I had followed my parents' publishing model; Harold's view was that you could do it in a more abstract form. So that was something I learned from him. You don't have to be publishing other people's works, you could be the basis for them creating work.
You have a book coming out on Nov. 15, called It Chooses You. What is that all about?
It Chooses You was a project I started doing when I was writing the script for The Future, and I was kind of procrastinating. I was just sick of it, and kind of stuck. So I'd obsessively review the PennySaver classifieds that come with the junk mail, and I would call the people who were selling things, and ask if I could come meet and interview them. I think this had to do with just really feeling isolated in a way that may be specific to Los Angeles, which is a big city but not like New York, where you come into contact with a lot of different kinds of people just by walking.
I also was curious about people who don't have computers these days, because they'd be using Craigslist if they did. So the book is interviews and photos featuring these 13 people who are selling things, and is also about my creative process in trying to write this script. I began to see the PennySaver project as some sort of weird vision quest that would eventually—if I did it for long enough—somehow provide me with answers to my script, even though it was totally unrelated. And in a really surprising way, it did. I ended up meeting this old man who I wrote into the movie and he plays himself [Joe Putterlik]. He was selling Christmas cards. In the movie, he sells a hair dryer.
Jumping off from your reference to people who don't have computers, what is your take on the Internet? Most writers seem to have mixed feelings about it.
In terms of trying to get writing done, it's not helpful. I definitely use Mac Freedom. But I'm doing projects that don't have massive marketing budgets and making movies that don't have billboards. So the grassroots aspects of the Internet are very in line with the ways I was trying to share information and create projects before. So it's kind of a mixed bag. I do think it's important to not just accept it like it's air. And I think it's worth wrestling with its role in your life, what you want that to be.
Now that you've released The Future, will you continue to perform Things We Don't Understand as a live piece? Or will you move onto something else?
I'm planning a new performance piece to follow up "Things . . ." We put a little bit of it on The Future DVD. I'm working on a novel right now—that's my focus—though it's too early to talk about it.
I also wanted to ask about your exhibit, "11 Heavy Things," which has been on view in New York and Los Angeles recently.
It consists of stone pedestals, different big heavy objects that invite people to pose with them. And as people do when they pose with things, they take photos of each other, which they end up sharing online. That was kind of the intention: That on one hand the objects would be the art, but on the other, the photos would be the finished work.
Before we're done, I wanted to mention that you've crossed paths with a number of artists who are from—or trained—in Connecticut: You know Rick Moody, who is a Connecticut novelist. You've worked with filmmaker Miguel Arteta, who trained in the film program at Wesleyan University. And Jon Brion, who scored The Future, is a native of New Haven.
Those are all pretty major figures in my life. Jon is sort of the ultimate when it comes to the creative process; I wish he were going to be on this Connecticut Forum panel to discuss his relationship to improvisation. I've worked with him on my performance shows, too. Watching him work, it's amazing how it inspires me in all different media. Watching him do his weekly show at Largo in L.A. makes me want to write. That reminds me of what I'm trying to do, which is to ultimately be unafraid enough to be free.
Rick is just a good friend; he was helpful just in that I met this formidable writer at a time I was beginning to write my own short stories. He gave me a really big thumbs up, and that meant the world to me.
You're married to another filmmaker, Mike Mills. Does that enhance your creative process in any way?
I live in a kind of creative hothouse; one of us is always making something. I guess I like that. I don't have to make a special space to be my creative self in; that's just our home. In some of my past relationships, I had to protect the idea of myself as an artist.Front Row Q&A: Miranda July