• No products in the basket.
cart chevron-down close-disc



  • Films
  • Issue 38

For over 25 years, America's alternative sweetheart has operated according to a simple philosophy: To live with joy, pour life's darkness into your art. In Los Angeles, Miranda July talks to Robert Ito about pouring the fear, pleasure and unspoken weirdness of life into her genre-bending art.
Photography by Emman Montalvan. Styling by Rebecca Ramsey.

Is there anything Miranda July can’t do? That’s not something one asks somebody without sounding like a total suck-up, so I put the question to July in  a roundabout sort of way, like so: Is there anything you tried to do, but couldn’t, or did very poorly? July considers, and allows that there was that one time in her 20s when she was going to make a trilogy of short films, but didn’t. The name of the trilogy was Modern Water, and who knows what might have been?  “I remember realizing that you can have these huge ideas and get really excited, and then absolutely fail to follow through,” she says. “I remember thinking: Never do that again.”

One gets the sense that she hasn’t. Over the course of her three-decades-and-change artistic career, July has written books (No One Belongs Here More Than You, an award-winning collection of short stories; The First Bad Man), created multimedia theater pieces (Love Diamond; The Swan Tool), and directed films (2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, which won the Caméra d’Or prize at Cannes; and 2020’s Kajillionaire, for which the big ticket release was postponed because of COVID precautions). She has designed shoes and opened an interfaith thrift shop, fronted indie bands and co-created a short-lived zine. At 16, she penned a play about a correspondence she had struck up with a prisoner serving a life sentence for murder; a quarter century later, she debuted an art piece based on the life of an Uber driver from West Africa whom she met while on her way to interview the pop singer Rihanna. Her works have featured sent emails, romance paperbacks and large fiberglass pieces one could stick head, arms and legs into. “Sometimes I think that, because I work in so many mediums, people aren’t sure if I’m really a writer, or if I’m really a filmmaker,” she says. “People really like things that are clear, and that are one thing.”

July is talking about some of her past projects at Dust Studios LA, a nondescript photo studio sandwiched between an auto insurance agency and a Sit ’n Sleep mattress store. She’s here for a photo shoot, so moments before, she had been sporting a Kelly green plaid jacket, purple bikini top, black bikini bottoms and heels; now, she’s in a dark blue yukata-style robe dotted with tiny white flowers. Her lips are a bright red. One thing July has learned since her earliest days as an artist slash writer slash other assorted vocations, she says, is “the role of pleasure. Not that I wasn’t having a good time, but I didn’t prioritize it, and I wasn’t raised to value it. I distinctly remember being sad, and my dad saying to me, ‘but isn’t sadness interesting?’ And I agree. Sadness is interesting. So is joy. So are all the feelings.”

There has never been a better time to catch up on all things Miranda July. In April 2020, Prestel published July’s self-titled monograph, which features samplings of the artist’s work and life (notebook entries, zine pages, film stills) alongside commentary from several of her colleagues and pals, from Rick Moody and Carrie Brownstein to Lena Dunham and Spike Jonze. Me and You and Everyone We Know, which launched July’s feature filmmaking career and cemented her status as an indie film darling, was given the Criterion Collection treatment that same month. 

Set Design by Gabriela Cobar.
Hair by Dennis Gots.
Makeup by Natasha Severino.
Nails by Naoko Saita.

When we speak in late summer, Kajillionaire, her third feature, is due to open in theaters in September, although Covid may delay its release. In the film, Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger play small-time grifters and cheats living in Los Angeles (their marks include an old, dying man and a small post office) who have indoctrinated their daughter, played by Evan Rachel Wood, into the family business, seemingly from birth. The parents, such as they are, seem irredeemable to me, but July, the mother of an eight-year-old child herself, is more forgiving. What mom is perfect, after all? “I can see how you might have had a weird period of time in your life where things weren’t really clicking for you, or you were going through something,” she says. “And that might just happen to be your kid’s whole childhood. It would seem sort of unfair to have yourself characterized by that, by just that one weird thing you were going through.”

July should be in a whirl of publicity for all three of these projects, but like much of Los Angeles, where she lives, and the rest of the world, she is currently sheltering in place, her life upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. July and her husband, the indie film director Mike Mills, are sharing parenting duties while schools and camps in town are closed, which means her work days have effectively been cut in half. “I remember days when I could get off course and have a little emotional meltdown and still have time to correct for it,” she says. “That’s the difference now. You either have your emotional breakdown, or you write. You’re not going to do both.”

Even so, she has still found time to work on another novel, and to embark on new projects through Instagram, including the first installment of Jopie—a movie performed by her followers and their families in response to her directions. She’s also toiling away on projects that she can’t talk about just now, and educating herself about the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent (and not-so-recent) incidents of police violence, and urging her 280,000-plus followers on Twitter and Instagram to do the same. “Like many people, I’m trying to use this moment to make change where  I can,” July says. “This is a huge moment for civil rights. I don’t want to have just been someone who clocked in and did the same thing through the revolution, you know? I’d rather be thrown about and have everything upended, even if that means some days are totally uncomfortable, and I’ve lost my bearings.”

When Me and You and Everyone We Know opened in 2005, July went from Miranda July, relatively private citizen, to Miranda July, a person people felt comfortable accosting. The film, which stars July as an amateur video artist and sometime “Eldercab” driver who falls in love with a shoe salesman (John Hawkes), had an outsized impact on its critics, who praised its “sharp writing” (The Washinton Post) and “wide-eyed, quizzical approach to the world” (The New York Times). Fans tattooed the film’s strangest and most enduring image—an emoticon, ))<>((,  meant to symbolize two people pooping into each other’s butt holes, “back and forth, forever”—on their wrists and feet. July met Mills at a party at Sundance, where the film had its triumphant world premiere. “All of that began probably the same day I met him, so I could never get across to him that literally last week my life wasn’t like this,” she says. “He would never know me that way. And I was like, ‘This isn’t the real me! This isn’t how my life has been.’”

“Sadness is interesting. So is joy. So are all the feelings.”

When I ask July what it was like to go back and revisit the film that marked such a dividing line in her life, she admits she never has. “I don’t really go back and watch the movies again, ever, after they premiere,” she says, laughing. “I think for this [the Criterion release], I looked at some pieces on YouTube, maybe?” In retrospect, she says, “I guess I’m kind of amazed now that I got away with it.” 

Among the things she got away with: scenes in which a six-year-old boy engages in online sex talk with a middle-aged woman, and others in which a pair of teenage girls carry on a sexually tinged flirtation with their adult neighbor.  “Occasionally I’ll see someone accusing me of pedophilia or something, and I’ll be like, ‘Right, right,’” she says. “Because if you’re only hearing about the idea of children and sexuality next to each other in terms of like, something has gone terribly wrong, then of course you would become uncomfortable, and some people were. But the other thing is, I was so young. I had been a child longer than I had been an adult. I was really writing about what I knew best at that point: being a girl, being a little kid. I knew about my own character’s job, but the other jobs were more like loose sketches of what I thought adults might do.”

For years after the film’s release, thanks at least in part to the power of the character she played in it, July became indelibly linked in the minds of fans with the film’s Christine: talented and creative, loopy and unmoored, emotionally fragile. Twee. That happens less now. “I guess it’s sort of a good thing, or I can feel like I’ve done my job well, because it used to be that people would come up to me and ask, ‘Can I give you a hug?’” she says. “I guess there was something about that character that made them feel like doing that, which is so not me. I mean, anyone who knows me is like, Nope! She definitely doesn’t want to give you a hug.”

Desire for hugs or no, much of July’s work involves the search for human connection—how much we need it and how little we ever get of it—so the confusion is perhaps understandable. It’s something that infuses much of the work on display within her chronological monograph. July compares looking through the notes and journal entries and assorted artifacts of projects past to cleaning out a closet, although not in the sort of joy-sparking way that someone like professional tidier Marie Kondo might recommend. The task, she says, was excruciating. “I think it’s part of my process to not be self-conscious, not think about how I’ve made things, or what the journey has been. I think probably for a lot of artists or writers, you’d sort of do anything not to have to needle yourself in that way.”

July’s eyes are closed. She’s in front of the photographer, all in red now, doing cool things with her hands. Prince is playing (“1999”), then Dua Lipa (“Don’t Start Now”). During breaks, she comes out to the monitor to take a peek and see how things are coming along. She’s been on both sides of the camera often enough that one gets the sense she could do any number of jobs on this particular set, if called to. 

But she has learned to let others take their turns and have their say. Indeed, early on in planning the new monograph, the idea was for July to write about herself, seeing as how she has been a writer for years and knows the projects in the book better than anyone. In the end, however, she decided to let others do most of the talking; each project covered in the monograph is accompanied by the recollections of friends and collaborators. The stories they tell about July are compelling. Like that time she got caught stealing Neosporin from a grocery store and was so scared she peed on the floor (as told by Lindsay Beamish, now an assistant professor in performing arts at Emerson College), or the accounts of what she did to get by as a young artist in Portland. “There were some more revealing things that I kind of gulped and was like, Well, maybe it’s okay if the world knows that,” she says. 

In the meantime, July is excited for people to see Kajillionaire, which she insists is not about her own parents, although she sees the similarities: how every family thinks their way of doing things is the right and only way, and general anxieties about money growing up. “I wrote a whole draft of that movie before it ever occurred to me that it had any relationship to me or my family,” she says. She also concedes that some of the film’s themes about parents and parenting come from her own fears about being a mom, and possibly messing that up herself. In many ways, she says, her films are practice runs, albeit often extreme ones, for everyday life. 

“That’s partly what art is for sometimes,” she says. “People are still mad at me for the cat dying at the end of my movie.” The film she’s referring to is The Future, a 2011 feature in which July plays Paw Paw, an injured, talking cat, sort of, as well as the 30-something woman who hopes to adopt him. In the end, Paw Paw dies, but July just told you that herself. “And I always think, Yeah, that was horrible, but my child is still alive, you know?” she says. “I think I’m the kind of person who’d rather fully embody the darkness in my art so I don’t do it in my life.”

“Part of my process is to not be self-conscious, not think about how I’ve made things.”

“Part of my process is to not be self-conscious, not think about how I’ve made things.”


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Thirty-Eight

Buy Now

Kinfolk.com uses cookies to personalize and deliver appropriate content, analyze website traffic and display advertising. Visit our cookie policy to learn more. By clicking "Accept" you agree to our terms and may continue to use Kinfolk.com.