The Relentlessness of Miranda July
Whether through her Sundance darling Kajillionaire, or her self-titled scrapbook-slash-oral history out next month, the creative polymath is attempting to unlock life’s big questions.
In case you aren’t totally familiar with her work, here are some things that the filmmaker, artist, and writer Miranda July has done, in no particular order: She’s directed three feature films, two of which she starred in and one that was narrated by a cat; designed an app that allowed digital messages to be delivered via human beings; built a sculpture garden at the Venice Biennale; curated a thrift shop inside Selfridges in London; written a novel and 19 short stories; and created an entire art project around the life of a Nigerian Uber driver she met on the way to interviewing Rihanna for T Magazine.
These projects and many others are detailed in her book Miranda July (out April 14), a retrospective of her work from age 18 to the present day. “I saw it as some kind of rite of passage,” July says at a restaurant near her home in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood. “You turn 45, and you reflect on your entire adult life, and then you’re allowed to go forward.”
July was raised in Berkeley, Calif., by parents who ran an independent publishing house from the kitchen table. At 19, she dropped out of college to follow a girl named Radio to the DIY punk scene in Portland, Ore., where she played in bands, published zines, and financed her early art by working in peep shows. No matter the medium, July’s “thing” has always been to challenge our perception of reality, bending it to reveal all the nuances and peculiarities of being alive.
Lately, she’s taken this practice to Instagram, posting mini-movies, such as the one with the actress Margaret Qualley, in which they are former lovers trying to stay away from each other. During a FaceTime call, Qualley shows July her foot, wounded by a dropped laptop. “I want to kiss that,” July says. “Put that away. Put your sock on!” At some point, Jaden Smith gets involved, suggesting a ritual featuring a ring of pennies that the two can perform to rid them of the heartache.
Is any of it real? July is not sure she wants to say. She met Qualley at a dinner during which the actress was telling July and Taylor Swift about her recent breakup with Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson — which might or might not have inspired the mood of the piece. “The reason I hesitate to say more is that there was something really real about it all,” she says. “Margaret and I were starting a relationship, and now we’re pretty close. Something actually happened.”
July has always explored technology and connectivity, but with the Qualley series she’s managed to circumvent the obvious pitfalls of social media. “Wherein what I was getting was real emotional content and relationships, it wasn’t just that dopamine hit thing,” she says. “On the one hand I’m like, ‘Ugh, Instagram, stop it,’ and I’m deleting the app, like, several times a day,” she says. “But I’m also like, ‘There’s something happening here,’ especially when I’m doing it with another person.”
In the press, July and her work are often discounted as quirky or whimsical. “I think maybe because there’s humor, or because I like clothes or whatever, there’s a lightness that doesn’t…” She doesn’t finish the thought, but I will: do it justice. July’s performances feel so improvised that it’s easy to miss the rigor behind them. For instance, Smith had to memorize four pages of dialogue for the Qualley piece. In July’s new book, a sort of scrapbook–meets–oral history narrated by her many friends and collaborators — including Carrie Brownstein, David Byrne, and Spike Jonze — so many people described her as “relentless” that the word had to be swapped out. “I’ve come to realize I have one register, and it’s, like, full-on,” she says. “Whatever I’m focusing on — and it can be something stupid, like finding the right tights — I’m going to do that thing as if my heart was going to shatter if I don’t do it.”
There is such an intensity about July that it is hard to imagine her doing normal-people things like buying milk or doing school pickups. And yet July, who has an 8-year-old child with her husband, director Mike Mills, tells me her life involves making a school lunch every morning. “At first it felt a bit like a role,” she says of motherhood. “Like, ‘I’m not sure how much longer I can keep this up! When can I go home?’ But, like, this is the home. You are literally making the home.”
Later this year Focus Features will release July’s new film, Kajillionaire, which screened at Sundance to rave reviews. Following a family of small-time grifters played by Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger, and Richard Jenkins, it is July’s best yet. It’s strange and beautiful and not just about petty scams but also about the great big one between parents and children. The film was produced by Annapurna Pictures and Brad Pitt’s Plan B, indie heavyweights that provided July with more support than she’d had on previous films. When July needed more time to finish the music, producer Dede Gardner almost reprimanded her for apologizing. “She said, ‘You know, you don’t get a gold star for finishing on time,’” recalls July.
Despite all her successes, July recently told a friend that she still hasn’t “done anything really great, ever.” I wonder what she feels she hasn’t accomplished. “I can’t quite ever get at what life is to my satisfaction,” July admits. “I’ve tried pointing to the side of it, tried improvising, tried mixing genres, and I still can’t get across just what it feels like to be here.” Lately she’s started to realize that maybe she won’t be able to satisfy her existential questions solely through her various projects — a big admission for a multidisciplinary workaholic. “I know,” she says, smiling. “I could see myself calling you later like, ‘Strike that from the record!’”
Photography: Olivia Malone. Styling: Rebecca Ramsey. Hair: Nikki Providence for Forward Artists. Makeup: Natasha Severino for Forward Artists. Manicure: Stephanie Stone for Forward Artists. Production: Kelsey Stevens Productions. Location: The Hoxton, Downtown L.A.
For more stories like this, pick up the April issue of InStyle available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download March 20.