If you’ve come across any of Miranda July’s works over the last 12 years you’ll know exactly what Byrne means by this. She is the founder of a feminist film archive Joan4jackie, the author of 2 incredible books, No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007) and The First Bad Man (2015), as well as two iconic arthouse films, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and The Future (2011), the former being the one that put her on the map.
Throughout her career, she has never been one to shy away from making you feel uncomfortable. In fact, she thrives on it. Her inimitable, often hilarious, sardonic voice is sorely needed at a time like this. If you’ve ever had a repressed feeling or idea, she wants to turn it into a film or a book. It’s part of her fuel for art.
Over the summer Miranda July brought her “odd original voice” to London to set up a monumental experiment in togetherness in the shape of a pseudo art project – an interfaith thrift store. Perhaps a way of dealing with the polarising conscience of her own country right now, America, which she refuses to speak about. Her art is a way of reflecting the invisible glue that binds us all. She’s the voice in your head that we all need right now.
Miranda July at her interfaith charity store at Selfridges in London
I heard an interview you did years ago where you talked about the anxiety of growing older. Are you more comfortable with ageing now?
I guess you could ask anyone that question; we’re all affected by it. There are many things about getting older that are getting better and easier. For instance, your relationships tend to deepen, and you tend to handle conflicts better. The main experience of ageing is positive for me. The whole fabric of your life is about ageing as well, every part of you is ageing not just your face, not a lot of people realise that.
"I think if you are going to engage with people of faith, one way to do it is with practical stuff. Such as hangers and stock, money and the till and pricing."
You’re one of the very few female directors out there that can explore their bizarre idiosyncrasies or the horrors of the world. That context is often owned by men or at least the details. Does that resonate with you?
Sure, yes. I mean, I think again and again I feel like I’m seeking out uncomfortable situations just because that’s what’s interesting. So it’s not a smaller ‘quirky’ aspect of my existence but a pretty substantial commitment.
The word quirky is something you have an aversion to. Some people in the past have used that to describe your work. But how do you approach a subject in a book or a film? Do you take a long time to research a topic, or do you have a methodology?
I generally think so much of the work is unconscious. That doesn’t mean it does not work, but it means if I know that my next project is going to be a movie but don’t know what about I have to hang out and not know for a while, and that’s not a research project. It’s a lot of anxiety that an idea will never come and an openness to the mystery. Part of that also has to be about making false starts. But you don’t know they are false starts at the beginning.
You don’t know if something is exciting or that it will hold water enough to become a project to commit to, but you have to be willing to go forward anyway in a way that is research. Almost every project has what I call a project before it that I thought was it and had the traces of the idea, but then once I’ve done that work, the kind of false start work, then the plan usually comes in a flash, and that is a good feeling. It’s like a movie playing that is being dictated to me, and I often have a period of time where I’m taking notes day after day and ideas are coming pretty quickly. This is a book or a movie. Even the ArtAngel project had that too.
I’m reminded of this quote by David Bowie, which said, “If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area.” Would you ever do something uncomfortable like hosting the Grammys or run for office to see what it feels like?
Right, I mean as you were quoting Bowie, I was thinking, “Right!” But then I thought there are so many projects or things that I say no to that are uncomfortable, and they are those kinds of things. And additionally, it’s not my work, it’s their path.
That said, I sometimes try to do things that are the opposite of me because I think I can get so protective of my past. It ends up becoming a mix of being driven by ideas from the inside and by opening myself up to invitations from the outside.
Miranda July with her husband, director Mike Mills (20th Century Women, Thumbsucker, Beginners)
Do you have an example of something where you felt uncomfortable that you said no to?
Acting in movies. I generally say no to a lot of acting roles, and I recently said yes to one and felt so uncomfortable a week before that I tried to quit. But I know I made the right choice. I didn’t say yes to it for light-hearted reasons; it’s a interesting person and director. It was Josephine Decker’s new movie, I don’t know if you know her work, but most people who ask me to be in a film are more mainstream than me, and for them, I am going to be the weird person in the film.
What she was asking me to do was to play a mum, albeit a certain kind of crazy person. It was a incredible experience considering it wasn’t my project, but for me, it was an excellent example of going into fear. I did it partly because I’m getting ready to make a movie and wanted to watch the process from the inside. But that is a rare case of saying yes to people and being part of someone else’s vision, and so often I have shied away from that. Maybe I am trying to be more actively open.
You have a unique voice. I re-read this interesting interview you did with Rihanna, and I think the best part was where you befriended the taxi driver that took you to her house. You have this way of including everybody in your story, not just the lead protagonists. Everyone makes the story.
I still know Oumarou Idrissa, he lived in my office for seven months, we’re doing a project together. I’ve had probably the best time I’ve ever had at a fundraiser he threw to raise money for shoes for the incredibly poor village he is from in Niger. My interactions with people off the beaten path for me are sincere; I’m happiest in their environment. I don’t talk to everyone; I avoid most people. And so if I feel a connection, whether it’s a fleeting thing or just asking to video them in the charity shop, it feels good. But those things do sometimes evolve into more significant projects where you put your energy, and they grow.
I mean, interestingly, you think including Oumarou might seem so off the beaten path to everyone else, but to me what is so left field was interviewing Rihanna. Trying to sort of find a comfort zone, a lens or perspective that maybe wasn’t my own but that could help me in, and Oumarou did that.
Do you ever Google yourself?
Is it an anxious experience?
No, I’m pretty thick-skinned, and I’m usually trying to see something. Like for example, with the recent charity store I did over summer, I was trying to see what was said about it at the time.
So let’s talk about the interfaith charity store you did in London this summer. It came at a time when there is a lot of polarity and misunderstanding in the world. But I know that wasn’t the objective of the store, right?
Well, I guess art that has an objective is usually pretty bad, or it is trying to teach something, not that it can’t explain something. On the other hand, my favourite art does show me something; it’s just not so obvious. I’m living in this moment too and for some reason, for the first time in my life, I wanted to do something that had to do with religion. Since I’m not religious, and more dismissive of every religion, I felt a pull from that. There was a kind of liberal provincialism from me, especially if you’re going to write off most people in the world, that is provincial, it’s not like I want to to be converted. It’s just the way religion comes up, in America it’s like the Christian right or extreme depictions of Muslims. It’s all based on very extreme reactions.
So I was like well, what if I jump into this as a dummy. Can you do that? Just stay open and make your way through these discussions and make mistakes.
How is that working out?
It is good. You’re talking about massive groups of people who are different from each other. The starting point was the store and then a store within a store.
Your parents, in contrast, did have a publishing company dealing with wellness and spiritual titles at one point. What was that like? Did that affect you in any way?
I mean, that was more of an emphasis on psychic stuff and a version of Buddhism. I’ve meditated, and I’ve gone on retreats, but I’m not in any way a Buddhist, in fact at this point, everyone meditates.
Miranda July shopping in her interfaith thrift store, 2017.
That feels very L.A. to me?
It is just with the Headspace app, it’s about maximising potential in the workplace. It becomes rebranded consciously and separately from religious practice.
My parents had an uneasy relationship with their Christian and Jewish upbringings, and at most, it was a half-hearted incomplete passing on of traditions. There was an internal rejection of those religions. The truth is it’s not like I want to sit down and talk about religion, but I think if you are going to engage with people of faith, one way to do it is with practical stuff. Such as with hangers and stock, the money, the till and pricing, the best approach is just by working together.
What was a recent uncomfortable moment you experienced?
In the store, I was trying to document people as much as possible, and that is already dicey territory.
What do you mean by ‘document’?
With my phone. I was trying to make all these video documents of all the people shopping. Sometimes I’ll start videoing someone to catch them unaware, and then I’ll ask them for permission. Then if they don’t want to give me permission, I’ll show them that I have deleted the video. Most of the time they are ok with it.
"It's so crazy that I can't even do my work."
Miranda July on the health of America
It’s similar to a documentary challenge to show people being themselves. One issue that I was blind to at first but I became more aware of was that a lot of shoppers I encountered were from the Middle East. Many of them are being their Western selves here and back home, they would be completely covered up, and there would be no document of their alter life on social media that could jeopardise their safety.
So that was a sensitivity I didn’t have at the start, and now that’s the first thing on my mind, I’m aware of it. What we’re talking about has nothing to do with liking the picture I’ve taken. I encountered a bunch of young Middle Eastern girls, and they asked me to delete their images and video, and I was like, “Oh, no problem, I will delete it.” And then I got schooled by a group of like 14-year-old girls saying, “No I need to go into your phone and delete it from that file”, and not angrily just showing me how to do it. Because I didn’t even know you could do that. People were lovely and way more willing to help. People usually think getting into that scenario is way more combative or scary than you think. Actually, you can be far apart and gain an understanding quickly and feel ok.
Feel free to say pass on of this, but what is going in America? It’s insane.
I mean it’s crazy, but I mean I’d like to pass. It’s so crazy that I can’t even do my work.
I loved your husband’s latest work, 20th Century Women. What did you think of it?
I loved it too. I thought it was great.
I’m only asking because it feels like a film you could have made.
I can see that, but also not at all. When I watch it, I delight in all the things that I never thought to do, but then I have a moment where I’m like, “What no, don’t do that!” Our dialogue is different. When he asks for it, I’m like continually trying to have people say less or know less, but it goes both ways. When I look at his work, I am most blown away by how great he is at directing and his actors, which is a thing that is more uncomfortable for me.
Do you both have creative wars? I can’t imagine you do?
We don’t share that much; I didn’t watch this movie until it was about done, he didn’t read my book until it was a galley edition. Every day we comfort each other and talk through things such as work and life, but it’s more about emotional support or practical advice. As far as the nuts and bolts of it, I think we both realise some people can help us with that. It’s just about respect for each other’s processes and time. It’s distracting to have someone’s project in your life. In some relationships, there is always the person that plays a more supportive role but neither of us is that person and we both see each other as the star.