Miranda July on her experiences meeting strangers from the PennySaver and the relationship between her book It Chooses You and her film The Future.
Miranda July’s second book It Chooses You (McSweeney’s, 2011) is a series of interviews with twelve people she found through the PennySaver in Los Angeles. While having a rough time figuring out what to do with The Future—her second feature-length film—she flipped through the PennySaver, and as though there were gods speaking through pennies, she realized she ought to find out more about who all these people were and why they were selling their precious things, spread far and wide across the city. If there was a secret magical underworld of buyers and sellers, the PennySaver would be a portal to finding divine answers from strangers, most of who have so much to say.
Told in a series of interviews, alongside photographs by Brigitte Sire, It Chooses You is a fearless poetic document that uncomfortably examines the desire for human connection, failure, loss, loneliness, and despair, among other things. It’s also an open-ended, never-ending narrative on the hopeful premise that if you listen to the universe and follow your gut wholeheartedly, there’s nothing to lose. Miranda July is an interdisciplinary artist, filmmaker, writer, and performer currently living in Los Angeles. She is the author of No One Belongs Here More Than You (Scribner’s, 2007). Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) was her first feature-length film and The Future (2011) was her second feature-length film. This interview took place on Skype one Sunday evening in California.
Feliz Lucia Molina In the book, why do computers appear as motifs for almost every PennySaver stranger you interviewed?
Miranda July Even though I wasn’t initially focused on computers, the absence of them and of the kind of mentality that computers enable became palpable. I think I’m always interested in absences, especially in when they’re fleeting. Even in five years there’ll be way fewer people who won’t have computers—computerless people will die and computers will get cheaper. So that was interesting to me too, that it was a way to pinpoint an exact moment in time.
FLM Can you talk about this in contrast to reaching out to people through a PennySaver, which hardly anybody bothers to flip through even though they still arrive in the mail?
MJ From the start it’s a physical experience where your fingers get dirty, and the first thing you have to do is talk to a stranger—you call a number. For the place I was in, that was a great appeal—real contact even if nothing ever happened. I got to pick up the phone and talk to somebody. Which seemed like not a distraction, but like a profound idea.
FLM Like it was validating to hear this person behind an ad, behind a telephone.
MJ Yeah and it was just really easy. You go over to their house. And they expected a stranger to come, to look at the thing they were selling. So my presence wasn’t bizarre or invasive, although, of course, interviewing them was another thing. For most people I called, that was considered out of bounds, and for some it wasn’t.
FLM Did people who said yes to your asking to meet with them also want to connect or talk to somebody out of loneliness?
MJ In some cases that was really obvious because they were immediately doing more than what was called for. Joe (the old man who was selling the fronts of Christmas cards) was talking a mile a minute. So when I said, “Well how about I come over and interview you?” and he said, “Yeah, yeah, of course.” And other people, I think, were just sort of intrigued for reasons that were a little mysterious; I didn’t totally understand why I would be allowed to be in their home. So that was sort of part of my job—to kind of feel what it is they wanted from me.
FLM You said that it was sort of like taking on this role that was somewhere between a social worker and a therapist. I also think of it in terms of midwifery where you let the other push out whatever they need to by just being there and taking on a neutral position.
MJ I do see that—midwives—having recently had a baby. You end up sharing a lot of personal stuff with strangers when you have a baby. But I wasn’t inherently altruistic, and I wasn’t in a helping profession. I had to remember that I’m not necessarily making their lives better asking them these questions. I might be a nuisance—I’m not a therapist—and I might not be asking the right things. I’m totally driven by my own sense of story. In the book I talked about how I was fictionalizing people. I had a really hard time being in people’s presence when trying to create some sort of story about them.
FLM So you went from having trouble working on the script for The Future and tried to have some distance from that by interviewing and hanging out with people found through the PennySaver, and some of those interactions inspired scenes in The Future.
MJ Right, ultimately you are just one person even if you try to keep things separate. (laughter) I remember thinking, Oh god, this is so much more interesting than the fiction I’m creating, which is often a feeling you have while writing. It’s like you’re jealous of real life; it’s so good. I resisted that for awhile, but as I got deeper into making the movie and trying to get money, it started to seem like a nicely punk thing to attempt to cast someone who not only wasn’t an actor but was outside of modern society. And in a way, things were going badly enough financing-wise that, why not?
FLM Yeah, what’ve you got to lose?
MJ I didn’t have anything to lose, and I also thought it would be a good litmus test that will alienate all the right financiers who would probably back out anyways.
FLM It seems like Joe was one of the favorite persons you found in the PennySaver and that it was a sweet chance/fate encounter with him and his wife, Carolyn.
MJ It was definitely like that if you believe in fate and magic. It had this uncanny resonance and to this day, it’s not over. I could write a whole other book about stuff that has happened since. That said, I think once I’d made the movie with Joe in it and it was about to premiere at Sundance, I had a real nostalgic feeling about all the other characters and all the parts of life that you never get into your finished product. I thought that in this one case, there actually is a story there. It’s not just a list of things that got cut. It’s a messy thing to have a movie and a book and how are they related, but I was just kind of into that.
FLM Maybe fusing The Future and It Chooses You seemed messy initially, but it doesn’t come off that way. It’s smooth and crystal-clear in their distinctions and togetherness.
MJ Okay, well that’s nice to hear. I can see from the outside. While I was writing it I kept thinking, Oh god, it kind of hurts to keep referring to yourself so much and to say “I” and really mean you, not a fictional you. But I love it when artists show their process.
FLM Did it seem risky or comforting to include so much of Joe in the movie?
MJ That part with Joe is partly why I felt confident. I made a lot of shorts with non-actors and people I’d met on the street. I was and still am trying to figure out how to feel free in this medium once there actually is money involved. It’s so great to have an audience, but it doesn’t quite work for me—the regular film system—and so having Joe was the part I felt most good at, the part where most of the crew was like, “What are we doing?” and were just utterly confused by the whole thing. I was suddenly more in my sphere. I knew I would have to do a lot of weird stuff to make this work, not knowing what I was going to do next, and that it’s not really about directing. I’m not good at all this stuff you’re supposed to be good at. Working with real actors really sends me into a spin. I think that was one of my favorite days, and we painstakingly recorded that part of the moon, which was call and response.
FLM In The Future most of that part with Joe was improvised. For instance, that moment when he had a hard time saying a line, but finally he said it in his own way, which came out better.
MJ It was a big happy accident. The line was, “You’re in the beginning right now,” and he kept inserting the word “middle.” I think he was just really logical, and I told him that their relationship was four years in, and he didn’t think of it as the beginning, so he would say, "You’re in the middle of the beginning right now.” And then I was like, Oh wait, the middle of the beginning. A beginning has a beginning, a middle, and end. And for a movie about time and the middle of the beginning of this couple’s life and the end of this cat’s life, it all just helped me really understand what the movie was about; the framework.
FLM Are you superstitious? It seems like serious star and planet forecasting happened in It Chooses You.
MJ I was trying to illustrate that with the title. There’s a way of listening differently. And when you’re in that creative process, it’s the things that are odd that you pay attention to even if it might seem like a mistake. There’s something very efficient about this—when you’re trying to create something out of nothing, it actually becomes more laborious if you’re not open in this way because you need to listen to all the parts of your consciousness, not just the part that it thinks it knows. It’s not that I think there’re magical external forces, it’s that I’m trying to trust what all parts of me are interested in, not just my eyeballs. And I had woven that way of living a little into Jason’s character and made my character (Sophie) be what happens when you’re caught in fear.
FLM I like to think of It Chooses You as a “Penny Saver vision quest,” but had you gone on similar quests for an “enlightening creative process?”
MJ I probably played it up in It Chooses You a little bit. Lots of times I’d done things where I’d purposely gone into nothing. All the time I’ll be stuck on writing, and I’ll go outside with a pen and paper in my back pocket but be careful about not thinking about what I’m working on and just walk.
FLM So any moment could be a vision quest depending if you flip the switch.
MJ I have a six-month-old baby, and I think, God when was the last time? Even if you have no time and are under the gun, you still have to figure out how to be free. The little way I’ll do it is I’ll have a book and write for a while, randomly read a couple pages, and space out. Just like taking a walk and then I come back.
FLM In It Chooses You, The Future, and also You and Me and Everyone You Know the recurring issues are alienation, failure, desire, human connection, despair, and other things I’m missing, but what’ve you found or discovered from the PennySaver that has in some way transformed or helped any of these issues?
MJ Huh, um.
FLM Maybe that’s too vague or huge of a question, sorry. (laughter)
MJ That’s huge. I don’t think consciously about those issues, although, I agree those are all pertinent to my work. When making something, you’re on this smaller emotional level. This isn’t what you’re asking at all, but it really encouraged me in terms of a way to work and a way to live, and now I’m writing a novel and I’m not focused on movies. But [I knew] the experience of the PennySaver (more than the experience of shooting) was going to direct the next thing and was going to influence it. And that’s the interesting thing about the process itself; the odd thing that you don’t fully get in your work points to the next thing.
FLM There’re lots of questions I have about everyone in It Chooses You, but there’s this one moment with Beverly who spent all morning making a gross fruit salad, which seemed like an omen, and you felt that you had to leave but didn’t want to throw away the salad.
MJ Yeah, it’s like you can’t make yourself out to be this perfectly good person—
FLM Or some kind of saint accepting everything that comes your way like a gross fruit salad.
MJ I felt bad about that and the truth is, part of why I do stuff like this is I have some intimacy issues. I have trouble being around people who are in my life so it’s really uncomfortable being with strangers. So I forced myself to be in these scenarios where I have to cope with that and think about it and look at myself. I couldn’t be any better, but I could at least observe everything I was doing and write it down, and it didn’t feel good. It felt like there could’ve been a much happier outcome there. But I think I would do that again, throw out the fruit salad. I probably have done some version of that since then.
FLM What about Pam who harbored all these fantasies of cruises and travel through photo albums that belonged to an affluent dead white couple? And similarly with Raymond and Domingo, who have powerful relationships to images for different reasons. What did you feel about being in their physical/mental/emotional spaces concerning these fantasies and desires?
MJ They’re different people so I felt all different ways. To generalize, that’s my favorite thing: people’s inner worlds and fantasies. I relate immensely to that. The whole book is close to some version of that. So I totally get how powerful a collage or someone else’s photo albums could be without it being freaky or hoardery. I think what would make it more familiar to everyone is if they were just focused on celebrities on the Internet because it’s really the same thing being a disabled Latino man and having pictures of white women and babies on the wall—the family he’ll never have. There’re a lot of white women and babies on the Internet, and I don’t think the audience is all just white women. Of course the PennySaver sellers were taking time with non-digital objects; saving things that took up space.
FLM Do you want to talk a little bit about Domingo?
MJ Well I saw the collage and his envelopes before I met him and I was like, Is this person creepy? But he was very straightforward, clear, and honest about why he had them—he said “I’ll never have a family or a job” or any of these things that we’re all sort of taught that equals being an adult: a family, job. He lives with his older sister. So I didn’t have to secretly think that. And he even said that [the envelopes and collages] are not dirty and that he knew there’d be a question about it, and I even believed that. He was just so detailed about everything and also had a certain amount of counselling. He’s aware that it’s serving a little bit of a therapeutic end and that it could be seen as crazy, but it’s not. From there you can make whatever extrapolations, but what’s important is what he’s saying: I’ll never have these things, but I put them on my wall because it helps me when I have the fantasies about having these things. It helps me focus. And I can completely imagine how that would be true.
FLM The PennySaver vision quest seems like a series [of] warm spots all over LA. There’s this unspoken weird empathy for anyone and anything you met, but maybe I’m wrong.
MJ Well I have a big crying soft heart. I have to keep that from taking over the whole thing. I could have added, “and then I cried.” But if someone isn’t moving you with their plight sometimes I think it’s because you didn’t really listen or you weren’t really there. I was really trying to be there even when I felt uncomfortable, and I was always moved. Even the one time when I was vaguely aware that I might be in danger and that I should be a little more cautious, I was also totally cracking it wide open and just thought I was in this man’s heart.
I’m also the person who can barely be there maybe because I get so emotionally overwhelmed. I try to represent more than either one of those poles; that this is all I care about in the world and it’s also sort of excruciating. Part of me actually just wants to tune out and be online because it’s hard for me to handle—it’s just too much.
FLM Are there others in the PennySaver whom you decided not to include in the book?
MJ There were two more people. But the problem was that it didn’t come across as interesting in words—in the actual text of the interview. There was an Iranian woman selling a birdcage for way too much money. She barely said anything. She really wanted us to be there and wanted us to ask questions, but she managed to not answer. It was utterly confusing. We were riveted and were like, What is her secret? But we never learned anything and it was hard to put that in a book.
FLM So she just sat there and didn’t say anything the whole time?
MJ She would say “Let’s come back to that” and “Let me think about that” to almost every single question, and when she did answer it would be a sentence and then she’d get up and do something and come back. She wasn’t crazy. And with the other guy—this is going to sound so amazing—he was a boxer, a middle-aged white guy who boxed at this all-black boxing club and the pictures are of me and him in the ring together, but again, the interview itself was pretty boring. There was nothing really of note. The whole scenario was fascinating, but you get into editing and it becomes clear that by taking these two away the other ones become better. There were also a whole bunch of fascinating people who said no but only after multiple phone calls. People wanted it both ways—someone to talk to but didn’t want me to come over, so I spent a lot of time on that but didn’t record those calls.
FLM Did the people you interview see the book?
MJ The only person I wanted to show was Joe, and he passed away. I’m in contact with his daughter, sister, and grandson—I’m sort of deep into the Putterlik family at this point, although they are all estranged from each other. The book and the movie have been important for these relatives who didn’t get to say goodbye to him or never really knew him.
FLM Does it involve the current novel you’re working on?
MJ No, that’s something else. There’s nothing in the works on the Putterliks—it’s just, when will this end? It never stops—the story. I keep it all documented because who knows, but I’m not thinking about it that way.
I’ll tell you one thing though because this just happened, and it’s so odd. A guy emailed saying, “I deal in old photographs. I bought a few photographs at the flea market this weekend and it had an address, and it led me to the name of the owner of the house, which is Joe Putterlik—
FLM Oh wow, whoa—
MJ —and it led me to you.” Which is also how his grandson found out that his grandfather had died, but that’s a whole other story.
FLM Wait, why did that guy want to tell you?
MJ Right, he had these photographs. They were 12 photographs, but he said that he pulled these out of albums. There were 30 albums for sale at the flea market from the Putterlik family, and he said, “If you want I can try and go after them. I’ll know where they’ll probably be next weekend.” The guy was nice. He wasn’t trying to get money. He was just really interested. I couldn’t say no and I was like, “Yeah okay, go after them, and I’ll buy them.” So he got them and for a while I had these 30 photo albums. It was from when they were kids, all in black and white through all the eras up to the present day. I got to see their kids grow up and get married. I really learned more about the family by looking at those than I ever expected to know. They both (Joe and Carolyn Putterlik) had died at this point. The son had the albums in a storage locker and then he also died, in a car crash. So that storage locker went up for auction and someone bought the contents and was selling them.
Anyways, just last week I mailed all 30 photo albums to Tennessee to his daughter. So it was a really happy thing. It was just really meaningful for her. For me there was a sort of voyeuristic kitschy element to the albums but of course for her, this is all that’s left of her family—her brother and parents had died in one year. So it was great that these were miraculously salvaged through the Internet. The Internet is useful.
FLM Has weird cosmic connection with a stranger ever happened before while working on something?
MJ Yeah, that’s another story. It kind of started when I was in high school. I don’t know why, but I’ve been doing it for a long time.
Feliz Lucia Molina is the author of Undercastle forthcoming from Magic Helicopter Press (2013). She currently lives in southern California.