Visionary storyteller Miranda July is perhaps the worst-kept secret in American filmmaking. Though Cannes laureled her elegantly emotive feature Me and You and Everyone We Know with the auspicious Camera d’Or for first-time directors—and three other prizes as well—she had long ago established multiple clusters of micro-stardom due to an impressive concatenation of highly lauded creative endeavors: multimedia theatrical productions, a series of small-label performance albums, evocative avant-garde movies, radio works on NPR, Web projects, short stories, an alternative videotape distribution system for women, and a role in Alison Maclean’s Jesus’ Son. A luminary of the experimental-cinema circuit, young feminist idol, and participant in two Whitney Biennials, July is a tireless emerging artist who keeps finding bigger horizons.
Her trajectory from punk clubs and cinematheques to scripting, directing, and starring in a delicately complex romantic comedy might seem stretchy for another artist, but not so for July; her earlier works use innovative formal means to explore the contours of human relationships. In her short Haysha Royko (2003), July places morphing blobs of color over seemingly documentary video images of two adults and a child waiting at an airport, as if the shifting shapes map out a secret play of psychic auras. In Getting Stronger Every Day (2002), tales of alien abduction mingle with a boy’s memories of abuse, and a young girl fits her soft toy into another floating color-form; the shapes match like a moment of love or realization and precipitate a deeply affecting synthesized crescendo. For Me and You, the experimental visual techniques are gone, but the web of feelings they represent melts invisibly back into the script and performances.
“I’ve never had an artist character in my work,” she says. “It’s always been a more consciously clichéd girl-next-door type.” Nevertheless, July cast herself in Me and You as an aspiring artist who seeks the love of a shoe clerk and a chance to exhibit her work at a local museum, both pursuits fraught with awkward interactions. “It really was kind of embarrassing territory for me. It was like, this makes me feel like cringing, everything I’m writing. She’s almost like a cartoon version of me at a younger age. Because even in my early twenties, I was touring and doing pretty complicated things that you get the sense she couldn’t pull off quite at that point in her life. But certainly I tried to get that feeling of being alone in a room and making a world in there and having your daily feelings and experiences go right into what you’re making.”
July developed Me and You at the Sundance Directors Lab, a process she approached with a modicum of trepidation. “I think I had a little bit of a chip on my shoulder just because I’m self-taught, and I’ve never had any feedback on my work before it was done, and afterwards what’s the point. Conversely, I had never had help. I had never experienced the joy of someone else having a different perspective that really helps you. The whole process was of me learning, oh, I can do my work in the world, with people. That I’m not as fragile as I thought I was.”
Now based in Los Angeles and deep in the process of promoting her film, July has a new perspective on the avant-underground art scene that incubated her career. “I look at it as so much more right-on than I ever knew,” she says. “I don’t know how I knew to go about things in that way. It’s my saving grace, at this point. I think it’s what made me able to make the movie I wanted to make. All those years of making things in my own way.” Of Hollywood, she’s learned, “there’s nothing inherently great except the amount of money. Not in the same way where the actual systems are inspiring. It actually makes you want to make stuff, if you see a venue, and there’s kids running it.” In the industry, “it’s like you’re making your stuff to spite the system that’s here.”
Another difference is the level of sexism. “It’s so insidious that you can’t even point a finger,” says July. “It’s like this silent ill that you think isn’t affecting you, but then you realize, oh wait—I’m dealing with this every day. Everyone who deals with me is not used to me being a woman. Because of the way the system’s set up, and maybe because it’s built around men, it’s really hard to have relationships or do anything that isn’t ego driven. If you want to do anything really differently, you have to change the whole system. I think there’s a lot of different ways that it could look.”