miranda july on being a female producer in hollywood
Miranda July met now-acclaimed indie filmmaker Amber Sealey at UC Santa Cruz, when they were both punky teens in an all-female theater troupe. "She was the first person I ever knew who talked about doing sexual role playing with her boyfriend. We were like 19!" says July over the phone from her home in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. "Looking back, we were both such wild cards that we almost couldn't really be that close. We were a little dangerous to each other." "But I knew, even back then, that she was a genius," says Amber of Miranda.
Brought closer by their evolving careers in film, July and Sealey have taken it in turns to help each other out on projects over the years, as directors, consultants, and occasional shoulders to cry on. For Amber's latest movie, No Light and No Land Anywhere — her third addition to what she calls the "true, true indie film world" — she asked Miranda to moonlight as her executive producer. The role involved, among many things, getting the word out about an Indiegogo campaign to finance the movie's post-production. Funding a film can be hard at any level, says July, but especially "if you're basically not going to hide that you're a woman." And No Light and No Land Anywhere is emphatically both by women and about a woman: Lexie, a Londoner (played by British stage actress Gemma Brockis) struggling to assemble the fragments of her life, and connect with her deceased father, from the isolation of a Los Angeles motel room. The movie premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival this weekend and is a brilliant, beautiful testament to the power of two wild card women in Hollywood.
Amber and Miranda spoke to i-D about No Light, their mutual fandom, and taking on the film industry's gender problem one phone call at a time.
Miranda, as a director, but also just as a human, what inspires you about the way Amber works?
As a person, she's very unafraid. She's the kind of person who would sit down at a party of people she doesn't know and right away everyone would be talking about something really personal or bodily! And probably all of the men would move away from the conversation! She also has a lot of experience being directed. Whereas I always directed myself. She knows the exact way that actors are hungry and she can push that.
You mentioned in a recent interview that precisely 87% of the cast and crew for this movie are female. Were you involved with the hiring?
I was on the road for my book tour, but Amber and I had lots of discussions. Sometimes she was really torn because — and we're all faced with this — often a woman is not the most experienced person you can hire because no one's hiring her. It's this Catch-22. But you take a risk, people need to take risks.
Are more people taking risks in 2016? How else can Hollywood correct the imbalance?
It's about realizing that the most familiar person is not your only option, that you can talk to other directors and say, "Hey, is there a good woman editor?" Hollywood is a community. All we do when we're hiring is make phone calls. So in some ways, it could be a very easy community to change. Once someone cool has hired someone everyone else wants to.
I think one of the great things about the consciousness being raised overall — about the cat being out of the bag about Hollywood hiring practices — is that now when you're crewing up, you can actually raise the issue and even if people don't care at all, they have to stop and say, "Ok, let's think about how to make this more equitable." When I made my last movie, I would have been more nervous about what that meant for the process. I would have been seen as being outrageously feminist, in a way that is no longer radical. Now, it's also simply that you don't want your movie to be an abomination!
People are so fearful. I'm much more fearful as a filmmaker than in any of the other mediums I work in. The stakes are so high, you feel like you could make a mistake and you could lose this very rare opportunity that you had. So looking around and seeing other people take what seem to be risks and realizing that it's not risky, that it's important, that will actually give you power.
Now that you've added producer to your list of many jobs, what other roles or projects do you want to try?
I really don't need more! Right now, I'm surprised by how much art stuff I'm doing. After I finished my book, I jumped for that. I've been working on things that aren't books or movies for a long time, but now there's more rigor to it — these are projects I'm having to spend seven hours a day on. That's a nice break from writing my new script, which is kind of my baby.
Why should everyone see Amber's film?
I hope people discover her whole body of work. She's now made three features, I've only made two. She's the real deal! And her first movie is completely outrageous. As wild as anything I've ever seen on screen. I think people will love to see the kind of maturity of this movie — the nuance of that woman. I think that happened because she was so inspired by her friend Gemma [Brockis]. In my fantasy of how the world works, people would jump on this actress. Just secretly, I'm also campaigning for her. So to have a little Amber Sealey film festival would be a smart thing to do!
What exactly was Miranda's role in making No Light and No Land Anywhere?
She's not the kind of person who puts her name on something and then doesn't care what happens to it. She's helped me every step of the way. She's given notes, she's been supportive. For the opening of the LA Film Festival, I borrowed a dress from her! And I've helped her out, too. We complement each other. I really admire her artistic sensibilities; she's so one of a kind.
Were you being more openly conscious about hiring women for this film?
Yes, I was. All the statistics that have come out about the industry, about women directors, have been appalling. Whichever way you slice it, the number is always somewhere between two and four percent. That's crazy to me. I work in the true, true indie film world, and I always thought that I didn't have the power to change anything. Then I had this awakening where I was like, "Oh, actually, I do have some power in my small film world. I have so many friends and connections. Maybe the only set designer I know is a man, but maybe he can recommend some women." It took me coming into my own power. It's like voting. We can all say, "My vote doesn't really matter." But I'm a big believer in, "It does." We all have to do our part. Then it will actually enact change.
You wrote this script with Gemma in mind. She also lost her father at a young age — how much of her experience did you draw on?
Gemma and I have been friends for about 20 years. Over tea or glasses of wine, we had so many conversations about what her life would have been like had her father been around. The other piece of it is when I moved from London to LA, Gemma would visit and do these crazy things. At the time, I lived in Echo Park, and one day she said, "I'm going to walk to the beach." I was like, "What? No one does that!" Just the concept that she could walk anywhere…! But she did it! In the film, I wanted to capture both those things: my friend coming to this really different city and doing what I perceived to be these crazy things, and then also this loss of the father.
Miranda says the movie contains one of the best sex scenes in history. How was it to direct those scenes, especially since Gemma is your friend?
I think being physical, being sexual, is a huge part of being human. It would be hard to tell the story of Lexie without also telling the story about her sexual, physical side — that's important to where she's at. She's leaving a marriage. She's feeling very lost. And I think sometimes when we're feeling lost, sex is a way to find our footing and reach out to people.
In terms of shooting, I think it's important to give actors a lot of trust, and empower them. If you empower them to make choices with their own physical bodies, they will amaze you so much more than if you'd demanded they do something very specific. I work very hard on set to make everyone feel comfortable and empowered.
Now that the film has premiered, is there one piece of feedback you're really hoping to hear?
I really like it when people say that they can relate to that sense of feeling lost or wanting something from a parent that you don't get. To some degree, we all experience that with our parents. We all have stuff we think we should have gotten from them — making peace with that is part of growing up. I hope people connect to that.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Ian Tilghman