When filmmaker-actor-writer Miranda July was approached about narrating the documentary Fire of Love, she didn’t see herself as an obvious choice.
“I was like, I don’t know,” she recalls, “I’m not like a narrator per se.”
Then there was the subject matter of the film – which has gone on to earn an Oscar nomination – the story of French couple Katia and Maurice Krafft, who gave their lives to the study of volcanology.
“What do I know about volcanoes? Nothing,” July tells Deadline. But then the film took hold of her. “I watched this sort of early version, I guess an early cut. And I was so shocked that at the end I was really emotional, as if volcanoes were my thing. And I realized, oh, it’s just this devotion that I relate to. That just kind of punched me in the chest or something.”
What ultimately convinced July to say yes to narrating was a conversation with director Sara Dosa.
“I met Sara over Zoom, and I was like, oh, a lot of that devotion and sort of daring and passion is them, is the Kraffts, but a lot of it is this woman director who is just so emotionally present and there, in a way that I completely related to… We both realized that we process everything through our work.”
July makes for an atypical documentary narrator – the antithesis of the “voice of God” authoritative style so common in nonfiction films of an earlier era. Instead, she offers a gentler, contemplative and probing way, her voice somehow suffused with the foreboding that Maurice and Katia will not survive this fascination with volcanoes, that their passionate endeavor will lead to their demise, as indeed it did in 1991.
Unbeknownst to July, Dosa and her fellow writers had created a whole back story for their narrator, imagining her as a librarian who had come across a fragmented archive of doomed scientist-lovers. But they didn’t tell July that when it came time to record the narration.
“That’s one of those director tricks. I do that too. You come, you put all this stuff in your head, you don’t share it,” July muses. “But it makes you very confident in what you’re asking for… It wasn’t just that Sara knew what she wanted, but the whole team did. They would quickly discuss something that I wouldn’t hear. And then in the booth I would get like the simplest note.”
July has narrated audio versions of her own work – a novel and short stories. In the case of Fire of Love, of course, it was material written by someone else – Dosa, producer Shane Boris and editors Erin Casper and Jocelyn Chaput, the credited screenwriters.
“Other than knowing the movie and the story and the footage, I like to be prepared. And then I realized the thing I have to do really is just let myself be in [Sara’s] hands because she knows this footage and she knows it so much more than me and has a vision,” July says. “Just like my actors [in my films], I’m not going to be able to 100 percent see it, but that doesn’t matter. I just have to completely trust. I was surprised to see, oh, there’s just as much directing with this as I do. And she was good… I loved that. I loved being on the other side of it.”
It wasn’t a one-and-done thing either.
“We did it, we recorded it, and then she brought me back and I was kind of like, what more am I gonna do?” she remembers. “And then Sara showed me a little piece of footage with my voice on it, a little part she was especially happy with. And it was quite emotional — I remembered doing it and feeling very in the story — and she’s like, ‘I want the whole thing to be like that, so we’re gonna re-record a bunch of pieces.’ I didn’t care that that was more work… It feels so good to be in someone’s hands like that. This is a real choice, to have it be that vulnerable. Narrators aren’t usually vulnerable like that.”
July, whose writing and directing credits include Kajillionaire and Me and You and Everyone We Know, likens the experience of recording in an audio booth to a kind of space voyage.
“I kept thinking of the Bowie song ‘Major Tom.’ You’re in the tin can. You kind of feel like you’re an astronaut or something, talking back to Earth. It’s almost like you’re inside a brain or something. I have the footage on the monitor and there’s beeps that kind of help you line it up.”
Even with that, the voiceover process involved more than July had anticipated.
“I went in being like, ‘Well, I’ll just kind of throw it down and they can line it up [in edit],’ but there’s enough of it that you want to make sure it’s going to work in the moment, like ADR,” she says. “You realize like, oh, save all of us time and trouble and just get in the flow, really hear the flow of the movie and the cuts and the pacing. And, so, it becomes almost sort of musical. If you can just let go intellectually and sort of flow with it, like a beat, like a rhythm, it goes much better.”
The National Geographic film has compiled an enormous number of honors in addition to the Oscar nomination, including awards at Sundance, the Seattle International Film Festival, Nyon Visions du Réel in Switzerland, DocsBarcelona, and late last month the Directors Guild Award for Sara Dosa’s work.
July expresses special admiration for the sound design of the film, which had to be constructed from scratch because the footage of volcanoes shot by the Kraffts did not have any sound on it.
“I’m a total sound nerd,” she says. “It’s my favorite part of my movies, all the Foley, all that stuff. So, I’m kind of blown away on just like a sheer technical level… That was something that really overwhelmed me, how insane it was to create all that powerful sound.”
She thinks the film has resonated so widely with audiences in part because it’s a story of a couple who “died doing the thing they loved… I think it had something to do with humans’ relationship to just living and mortality and love. I was like, okay, that’s how something goes from being obscure [like volcanology] to where we are right now… when it’s so deep, the core themes.”