Chasing Miranda July in ‘L.A. Tea Time’

Sophie Bédard Marcotte, the Quebecois filmmaker, has made both documentary and narrative films. But her interests lie more in blending the two. Her new film L.A. Tea Time, which had its Dutch premiere at IDFA 2019 (International Documentary Film Festival, Amsterdam), is a playful travelogue about the author’s own search for meaning. In it, the director and her cinematographer get in a car and go to Los Angeles in search of a meeting with her inspiration, artist and filmmaker Miranda July. L.A. Tea Time was an Official Selection at IDFA 2019, the Vancouver International Film Festival, and the New York Independent Film Festival.

FRONTRUNNER caught up with Marcotte at IDFA and spoke to her about the film, experimenting with form, and the state of the personal essay film in the digital age.

What inspired this project?

The film started a couple of years ago while I was editing my first film, a fiction. We edited the fiction film on and off over a year. Since it was my first movie, I had a really clear idea at the beginning, but I kind of got lost in the post production. I showed in-progress versions to people and I could feel that they wanted the film to be something else, and that’s not what I wanted to do. I was just kind of lost and didn’t know where I was going anymore. I tried to remember who were my models, or what filmmakers I really liked and how, you know, they were free. They were doing films that didn’t look like other films, and [they] were really unique. I was like, “Hmm, Miranda July is one of them.” It was just this spontaneous idea of trying to have tea with Miranda July. I don’t exactly remember why it was tea, but it made sense to me on a performance level. I remember very, very well. I wrote to my Director of Photography, who is a really good friend of mine. I was like, “Why don’t we try and meet Miranda July and have tea with her?” She was like, “Oh my God, yes.” It was just like that. Then obviously really quickly, the film became a bit more complicated and became a bit more about, you know, the way we pursue our personal goals in this world that seems to be collapsing.

Of course, I had this idea in a different time. Barack Obama was in power in the States and when we shot the film, there was that whole other discussion with Donald Trump being the President. It just became much more political – it’s not a political film, but I became really aware of making that film in a really politically complicated time. I wanted that to not be at the front of the film, but still being there, you know? That thread of, “Are we going to be okay? Is it the third World War yet? What’s going to happen?” And, “Why do we keep living our normal lives in these times?” That’s really weird to me. So, that’s how it started.

Film still
L.A. Tea Time (2019)
Dir. Sophie Bédard Marcotte
Photo credit: La Distributrice De Films/Maestro Films

You were a fiction filmmaker before?

I’m a fiction as well as a documentary filmmaker, and in my first fiction, there’s a bit of documentary in there. I’m the main character and the character films her life in Montréal. In terms of point of view, it asks the question of what’s true and what’s not. I’m interested in reality, as well. So, I made the first fiction and now I switched to what I call a documentary. Some people think it’s a fiction, but I’m okay with that. I mean, it doesn’t belong to me anymore. I made the film and now it exists. The ghost of Chantal Akerman, the Belgium filmmaker, is in the film, as well. That’s also part of the quest of finding what’s real and that kind of elusive quest.

How much of the film was improvised? How much of did you, in the process, find the story?

There’s definitely an improvised feel to the film, but it was actually pretty constructed. I was doing a residency in New York City before shooting the film. I was not writing dialogue, but I was constructing scenes that I had in mind, seeing where it could go and the narrative flow of the film. It’s definitely, at least maybe, somewhere between a traditional fiction and a traditional documentary. But I’m really happy that we’re showing it in documentary festivals because to me it’s reassuring, in a way. I thought I was making a documentary, and this proves that. I was just playing with reality and that’s what I really like. Making films is playing with the limits of reality and adding magical elements to banal life. That’s what interests me. So, that’s why there’s a ghost in the film and it’s still a documentary.

What did you discover in the editing process? Tell me about some of your collaborators.

I’ve been working with my editor on all my films. His name is Joël Morin-ben Abdallah, and we’re so used to working together that I talked to him about the idea way before shooting the film. He was involved and I feel like we learn together, through all our films. He was on board really, really early. I think it helped me [in] structuring the film and thinking about the edits even while I was writing it. ‘Cause I knew we didn’t have much time to shoot the film, for budget reasons. We could not be on the road for very long. I had to go on the road with a really clear structure in mind. I like to edit for a long time, take breaks and come back to the material. We edited on and off for about 10 months, which is a lot. But to me, it wasn’t even enough. I would have taken another year, but sometimes you have to give up on the film and decide that it’s finished. In terms of other collaborators, for my last film and for this film, I worked with the same Director of Photography – a precious collaborator. Isabelle Stachtchenko is actually part of the film. Convincing her of that was a bit difficult ’cause she’s a real introvert, but I think it ends up working well, because I respected her introvert nature. We, you can feel her presence and hear her talk sometimes, but she’s like a subtle presence.

LA Tea Time trailer from La Distributrice de Films on Vimeo.

Without giving it away, do you get to Miranda July? What is the relationship with Miranda?

I don’t want to give too much away from the film, so it’s kind of difficult to talk about that. But you know, there’s a whole parallel in the film that was decided really early on when we didn’t even know if we would meet her or not. The Wizard of Oz [was] a kind of elusive quest of trying to find the Wizard; he probably has all the answers to your issues. In the end, the Wizard is something different than you expected. So, that was always part of the film. To me, that parallel worked, no matter if we met her or not because I knew that even if we met her, she would probably not change my whole life. But then again, I don’t want to give too much away for people who haven’t seen the film.

There’s this concept of idol worship. I’m interested in what way Miranda July is an idol that exists, what she represents for you.

I talk about that precisely in the film when I try to address her through a video recording. It’s something really naive, maybe, but I feel like her work is really personal and unique. She doesn’t seem to sell out in any way, and she’s still successful. So, to me that’s a goal, for sure. But then again, I could have chosen many people. I have many people who I admire. The fact that she was based in Hollywood, in Los Angeles, means something. It might not be [at] the center of the quest, but it’s definitely present in my mind the fact that I’m a Quebecois person, a French Canadian, and we’re such a tiny minority in North America. We have our own culture, but we seem to consider the US culture as the best. Maybe not the best, but the strongest, for sure. To get to compare myself with US artists – that’s part of the whole quest.

Film still
L.A. Tea Time (2019)
Dir. Sophie Bédard Marcotte
Photo credit: La Distributrice De Films/Maestro Films

This film fits in with a tradition of personal essay films, or personal essay documentaries. What’s interesting about a personal essay film that makes it so powerful today?

I’m also interested in people who include themselves in their work that aren’t necessarily our age, like Chantal Akerman and Sophie Calle. Also Chris Marker, the famous French director. They might not be part of what we call the essay culture, I don’t know. To me, the fact that it went through time and that we still talk about them today, it means that we see other things in their work that are not just themselves. But I would not want to become a personality. I don’t think I could have my own YouTube channel, it would be so much pressure. Whereas becoming my own character in my film, it’s something totally different because there’s something so constructed. Even though there’s that improvised feeling in the film, there was so much reflection behind every single scene that it becomes the whole construction.

I don’t know how I feel about personal essay culture. It’s funny because I have a friend, she’s a philosophy teacher. She saw my first film and was like, “Oh, you should read Montaigne,” and I didn’t know his work, or anything. But, he was one of the first to write about himself. There were all those wars in France, and he was just excluded from the world. He talks so much about a new way of approaching philosophy. I know I talk about myself, but it’s new and it’s so…I don’t know what I want to say with this. It’s just so interesting to me that he was so self-conscious about writing about himself, where now it’s so much, that’s what we do.

Maybe it’s liberating, I would imagine.

Exactly. There’s definitely a lot of freedom in using yourself in your films. There are way less limits to what you can do and reshoot, and you decide how you treat yourself, as well. I’ve had issues with documentary characters that changed their minds. If it happens to you, then I guess you stop making the film and you’re okay with that. But yeah, it’s just a lot of freedom as well. I love working that way and finding a way that including yourself in the film can become universal.

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