“It’s always varying degrees of terror”: Miranda July on an unflinchingly honest career
As her newest work, Services, lays bare her chance connection with a stranger over the phone, we speak to the artist, writer and director about intimacy, serendipity and dance scenes.
When Miranda July is interviewing someone, she is never not offended when it ends, she tells me. Having interviewed Rihanna in the past, I can see why that would be true; it means something more than journalistic prowess in Miranda’s case. In whatever mediums her work emerges in – the artist is known for a multi-disciplinary output spanning apps and charity shop artworks – there is a detectable urge to probe deeper, until she’s submerged under the surface layers of an interaction. In the process, she unearths exchanges that are often gentle, painful and awkward… but always honest.
While it’s hard to surmise two decades of creative and cultural output, Miranda’s career has brought us feature films like Kajillionaire, Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, the New York Times best-selling novel The First Bad Man, and diverse participatory artworks. It’s a body of work that imparts unforgettable fictional moments to a viewer, like an office space-cum-apartment oozing with pink soapy sludge or a woman dancing in the dark, enveloped in a canary yellow T-shirt. Recurring themes in her work reflect that of an artist invested in humanity at its strangest and most instinctual; violence, desire, loneliness, motherhood, connection. Miranda’s latest work Services, a sculptural book published by Mack, is laced with the same powerful stuff. Born from the pandemic, it documents her chance meeting with a cold-caller, Richie Jay Benedicto, and the artistic collaboration that transpired over the following months.
As I speak to Miranda, I am, as she is with each of her interviewees, absorbed. Not only by what she says, but how it’s said. She is open and speaks unguardedly, something which feels like a rare treat. In our conversation, Miranda divulges on the story behind her latest work, while unpacking her thoughts on vulnerability, physicality and the creative process.
“I don’t think I’m all that skilled [as an interviewer], I think my thing is less skill and more just willingness to be a fool.”Miranda July
It’s Nice That: I’d like to start off by saying preparing for this interview was unique, if not somewhat intimidating, because I knew I’d be interviewing someone who is a master of conducting interviews. A lot of your art is focused around interviews and you always manage to foster a sense of vulnerability between you and your subject. Why are vulnerable conversations so important to your work and how do you manage to tease out that openness with the person you’re speaking to?
Miranda July: It’s not just important in my work. In my life, if there’s not a fairly high mutual risk level then, it’s not that I get bored, but I sort of feel somewhat useless; I almost don’t know what to do with myself. Whereas if both people are sort of stepping over an invisible line of what was expected of the interaction, then I feel like I’m so present that I’m always startled when it ends – and all these interactions do end or else we wouldn’t be here. It’s always an indication to me of how completely consumed I was by them and our shared moment by the fact that I’m never not offended when it ends. If it’s me [that ends it], then I just want to die on my own knife. And if it’s them, I’m mad at them even if it’s been eight hours. I don’t think I’m all that skilled [as an interviewer], I think my thing is less skill and more just willingness to be a fool.
“It’s still true that, for me, the ideas don’t come best when they’re forced, but I still sit there. It’s almost like a devotional process.”Miranda July
INT: I’d like to go all the way back and talk about Me and You and Everyone We Know, which was your debut feature in terms of directing, writing and acting in a lead role. How did you come to write that film? What was the process like moving from performance into creating it?
MJ: Well, it wasn’t as out of nowhere, as it seems. I always wanted to be a director. Up until that first movie, I called my performances ‘live movies’. I was trying to do movies without any of the infrastructure or equipment one might need – I didn’t have any of that stuff. But I was also making short movies that were getting longer and, after the last one I made – Nest of Tens – I was like: ‘Well, that was half an hour, so if I just did two more chunks like that it would be a feature’. It seemed within grasp, and I just began writing the script.
I feel like every filmmaker has their area that they’re most comfortable in, and writing is like my ballast. It’s very within everyone’s grasp financially, no matter where you’re at in life. That script really carried me through the process because people responded to it. It wouldn’t have worked to just go to people and say I want to make a movie. I had me and my script.
“As I age – not that I really believe this – it’s like I’m ageing out of the time when people most want to look at a woman’s body.”Miranda July
INT: You touched upon it briefly there, the way you move and work with a lot of different mediums at once. Does the idea for the medium you want to work in next come first or does it take shape around the project? What possibilities does writing offer in comparison to film?
MJ: These days, it’s often a reaction to the one that I’m in. And now I’ve been doing this long enough, I can kind of see [it coming]. Every time I’m writing a book, I always think performance seems like the greatest. Honestly, it’s probably for the dumb reason that I’m just really lonely and, when making a movie, you’re not actually there with the audience; I just want to be like a body among other bodies.
Right now, I’m finishing a novel and, for the last year of this novel, I’ve started to put notes into a folder for performance. Sometimes I also get up and just do stuff, and that’s always a nice thing because, once a project is done, for me, it can be a real crisis between projects. I’ve even done a project about that kind of crisis. But I do like to overlap. Filmmaking and writing are also very intimate and creative, but the thing about art – whether it’s performance or an app or a sculpture – is that I’ve done it differently to other artists. I don’t have my gallery. So it has an ability to fit into odd spaces in my life and be a little more built on the relationships that happen in the moment. I really love the immediacy of that. Obviously, a performance works a little differently, but they each have their weight – they’re completely different, not just in currency, but energy.
INT: In your follow-up film to Me and You and Everyone We Know, The Future, which is about a couple who decide to adopt a stray cat, there is a scene which has always really stayed with me, when your character Sophie dances in a T-shirt. It’s a wonderful example of what we’ve been discussing, how you blend disciplines but particularly how you use physicality and dance, something that features again in Kajillionaire and Madeline’s Madeline. Why do you use physicality in your films and what possibilities do dance scenes offer you?
MJ: Yeah, it’s funny. That’s kind of crept up on me. It’s so odd how, even though it’s happening in public and through these movies, as you mentioned, it’s still an unconscious process. I’m stunned to see myself dancing in a movie years ago, but I think that was the most unconscious dance. Also, as I age – not that I really believe this – it’s like I’m ageing out of the time when people most want to look at a woman’s body. I was a stripper and worked in peep shows, so it’s not like I didn’t participate in that buying and selling of women’s bodies thing. But I couldn’t really dwell very deeply in that space, because it’s almost like it was occupied by someone else or other people; it’s like a crowded space. Now I find myself more alone in it, and it’s almost like anything I do in this 48-year-old body is kind of new because we stop looking at those bodies at a certain point. That’s kind of intriguing; it kind of feels wide open.
“I wanted to impress this random person. I don’t think that’s normal for me.”Miranda July
INT: You have a new book coming out this month, Services, which is based on a phone call you received by chance and the continuing conversations you had with the caller over the next six months. Can you walk us through the amazing premise that sparked the work and how it all came together?
MJ: So this call that I got, it’s very important when I got it: it was 13 March 2020. That’s not just the start of the pandemic, it was the exact day in my world that it began. In fact, it’s when I, and a lot of people I knew, got messages from the school saying we’re shutting down indefinitely which, if you’re a parent, you can no longer pretend that this doesn’t affect you. Your whole life just got shot to hell basically. I got a phone call, and I think in that dumb way where you think everything’s related, I just answered it as if it was gonna be God explaining why this was happening. It wasn’t – or you know, maybe it was.
It was a telephone solicitor, but instead of doing the normal thing – I’m not a saint, I just hang up frankly on solicitors or just usually don’t answer – I answered every one of this person’s questions. I was clearly on some list for like self-published authors, which I’m not. But I was kind of funny about it. This person would say: ‘Would you like more readers?’ and I’d say: ‘Well, my books are like New York Times bestsellers but sure who wouldn’t?’. I wasn’t a dick, but it was like I wanted to impress this random person. I don’t think that’s normal for me.
“Not everyone has that, to be beheld in someone else’s eyes. It’s a disorienting feeling.”Miranda July
When they finally said it doesn’t seem like you need our services, I said: ‘Can I ask you some questions?’ and they laughed and then I said: ‘Where are you?’ and they were in the Philippines. I asked, ‘What’s your name?’ and I couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman, and she said: ‘I’m a trans woman’. I have a trans child and there was, I think, a moment of further intimacy just in realising that. I just said DM me if you’re on Instagram, and we exchanged messages. I asked if she wanted to collaborate; I proposed that I give her assignments and that she fulfil them, and that we have an ongoing conversation about our lives.
Then it was just this surreal thing where, no matter what assignment I sent her way, she came back with something so raw and interesting and often quite laboriously done. I remember asking her to act out a dream in a photograph, and she was dead in the image. She had foaming at the mouth that happens, I guess, when you die, and she had done that with shampoo. The rigour of that really impressed me – and it’s a beautiful, upsetting image too. Then I began intervening with the images and adding things – always things from her – I would find on her Facebook. To me, they seemed like they were little clues about her, like her interest in dominance and submission. In the end, I gave her – almost like a gift, although quite nerve-wracking for me – all the images back with what I had done to them. That was sort of the moment of truth: did this work as a collaboration? Does she like this? I think for both of us it shifted then, becoming something quite emotionally deep. We continued and can continue to this day collaborating like that.
INT: In many ways Services carries a part of you in the work: the other side of the conversation – which is true maybe for all of your projects. How do you make sure you’re presenting an honest part of yourself in your work? Do you still feel nervous revealing truths about yourself?
MJ: I mean it’s always varying degrees of terror. I guess otherwise, why do it? It’s like the feeling of breaking new ground – and it’s exciting too. You’re risking, but you’re doing it with grand hopes. I’ve had the opportunity to see myself presented by other people, whether acting or even just in something like this you know. Not everyone has that, to be beheld in someone else’s eyes. It’s a disorienting feeling. It’s never going to be totally accurate, but it can feel really wonderful and sort of weightless for a moment like you don’t have to hold the weight of your own body. But yeah, still vulnerable. So nervous, so nervous all the time.
INT: Something which I think a lot of people would be very interested in is your process for coming up with ideas. What does that look like for you?
MJ: Most of the time, I’m just sitting in this studio where I’ve sat for the last 17 years, basically just working. It’s still true that, for me, the ideas don’t come best when they’re forced, but I still sit there. It’s almost like a devotional process, because you really can’t schedule surprises that are just going to come upon you. Like a random phone call, you couldn’t build a career out of that – I mean, I do.
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating in Film from The University of Bristol, she worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, INDIE magazine and design studio Evermade.