Director Justin O’Neal Miller Speaks on the Film ‘Peggy,” America’s Birthday Culture, and Astrology

ATM: Today, for America, the standard for the birthday culture has gotten very commercialized. In the sense that it is not about the kids, but it is about the competition between the parents. The kids are young. They are not going to remember. Whilst looking at Biology, a child’s brain only remembers five and up. This is when their working memory is still developing. So, anyone that asks if someone remembers anything before this age just shows they don’t know biology effectively or know how the human brain works. This just when it starts. So, imagine if they grow older. It is a competition about how can throw the best party. Then it becomes a financial aspect. “If you cannot throw the best party, then you have no money.” It has turned into this best capitalist element between people.

J: Someone referred to it as an arms race. I thought this was a good parallel. Now it is a measure of how much you love your child. It is a reflection on your community on how much you love your child. They probably did not care about this stuff. They do not care about an adult getting together having beers. This is not what birthdays have become. It is something about our culture’s obsession with birthdays. It is something we celebrate and in our family. It seems like an excuse for people to hang out. This is fine, but there is a focus on it within our culture. As you said, it is a capitalist underbelly to this where anywhere will become a commodity if it can. Everything from Eastern, Christmas, Halloween, and to the Fourth of July. It is anything to try selling a product for. We are buying this product wholesale right now.

ATM: So, what if we did not go by birthdays? When first coming into this world, you are marked by your birthday. From then on you are celebrated on that day. Then you are given a name. But what if you did not go by them? As the birth date was the last thing we cared about and did not exist, we went by something else to distinguish us apart of like our birthstone.

J: It is funny you say this. I am working on a television show that takes place in a lot of cemeteries. We are going to our fourth cemeteries on this series. A lot of the old gravestones do not have birth states. Not a lot of people knew their birth dates. It is mentioned how old they were. It only had the date of their death. It was not long enough when people were not thinking of the importance of knowing. I am not sure they bothered to write down the date. You have an interesting thought experiment. Like what would we try to celebrate?

It would be fewer calendar dates and event-based. When a person turns 12 or 13 in every culture there is a community-based parent to child promotion. This is where a person transfers from being a child to an adult. This seems this is not there anymore. Now, we just have these cynical things where we just cramp together. This is a super interesting thought experiment. Like would it be based on some milestone life experience. It is hard for me to think about this.

ATM: You cannot because it is so embedded in our culture. Even people who are Jewish or in Spanish cultures celebrate birthday differently. Jewish individuals have the Bat mitzvah and the Bar mitzvah. In the Spanish culture, you have the Quinceanera and The Quince Años. All of these events are done in the most modest way. We should move to a standard like this in an Americanized way. People would save money. Their way is not obsessed. People even say, “Because my birthday is on a Friday then the whole weekend is my birthday.” No, your birthday is one week. You parent did not birth you into this world for one week. Then you have people who just take the whole month as their birthday or two weeks.

J: My wife and I have a running joke. “Why would you say this in the month of my birthday?” Then if we want to get crazy it is about the year of my birthday. It is an excuse to get with people. It is like a culture where we have now. You are looking for these forced excuses. It is like a community-based survival mentality. It does not get us together as it used too. We are looking for these holidays and birthdays to hang out.  

ATM: What did you do for your birthday or Christmas this year?

J: It was chilled. My birthday is very lowkey. It is on January 2nd. It was after the New Year so no one was looking for anything to do. I get to fly under the radar. It is nice if people want to get together. We tend to get things together for our kids. They just want to do things with their friends. We are guilty of having a very big birthday with neighborhood friends and aunts and uncles. It was basically getting together, drinking beer and grilling some hamburgers. This is the height of what you are talking about. They are not about to remember this. You?

ATM: They are going to look and say, “is this seriously how you thought to celebrate my first year in this world.” My very first. Also, when you are the type of person that does not want to indulge in the culture or be modest about your birthday, you are sad. It is a contradiction. Because if you decide not to celebrate when you get criticized. Also, if you decide to celebrate it, then you still criticized. You still get backlash.

J: This is right and true. There is no trade-off. There are worse things than trying to throw an over the top birthday party. It seems to be an emotional and financial string. It is underpinned in something where it is unhealthy even if it is in a denying way. This is a big aspect of what Peggy is shining light on it. Some many people have come up saying they have been to these kinds of parties. “I know a Peggy, or I used to be a Peggy.” It has been fun to see how identifiable it is. I have done a lot of short films and you never know how it is going to collect. This one seems to be very universal. It is great to see that it is landing.

ATM: We could also go by our birthstones. Or the people who were born in a month would celebrate their birthday. Like all July birthdays would celebrate their birthdays despite the date. All January people would celebrate theirs and so on.

J: It is funny and interesting you say this because I just started working with someone who is into astrology.

ATM: And zodiac signs.

J: Yes. It is interesting because she is so dialed into this stuff. She like, “Yep, that is so what a Capricorn does.” I think I am a Capricorn. I didn’t even know. Do you follow this?

ATM: No. Some of it is weirdly true though.

J: Me either. There is probably a lot to this stuff with being born on a certain month and landing on a certain part of the year. Also, the birth order with kids. It is a luxury to be in a place where we can try to celebrate a person once a year. Until very recently in human history, it was very rare. You would have benchmark years. You would have Bar mitzvah. We are going very deep on the birthday train.

ATM: A lot of people might base birthdays on other’s personalities. Some might use astrology to base who a person is and what they might like for their birthday.

J: Right. She would be like that is like a Capricorn. There is something to all of this. Some internal truth to all of it. It is an interesting thing trying to figure out what makes a person up and what makes their difference. This is an interesting field of information.

ATM: It is opinionated. The birth date is celebrated more than the actual event. Meaning January 2 would be more recognized than the person. Not all the times, but this has become likely.

J: Also, people are genuinely trying to connect and figure the way they can hang out. In some ways, it is a celebration of this person. Peggy tried to show there is this whole system of networking that adults are looking for friends. This is also a part of it. There is the mom the van thinking about why she was even invited. I have taken my kids to birthdays and they do not even know the person, but I am friends with the parents.

ATM: Birthdays have turned into a social networking place. Like an in-person Facebook.

J: Yes. This was a deliberate correlation. We realized our ability in pre-production with it dealing with social media. It then intersected into reality. Kids birthdays have been a strong part of our culture for a long time. It has changed a little. In this age, it is social media. A lot of it is the Pinterest hunt and the arms race. Parents follow this to keep on step ahead and one-upping the fellow parents. They trying to prove they love their kids. Social media has put a specific slant.

ATM: It used to be a situation where you dropped your kid off at the party and you went and came back to collect them when the party finished. Nowadays the parents are staying and engaging in beverages while their kids are playing. So, it has become the kids are invited and the parents are the plus one.

J: Totally. The cake scene did not even have any kids in it. She tries to cut it and the kid runs off. The kids do not even like the ingredients. The parents cannot escape. There is some irony in it.

AM: Also, some of the adults are vicariously reliving their birthdays during this age. They are reliving themselves through the kids.

J: Yes. There is a component to this with people. There is a weird Peter Pan with our culture. People in a different way have a hard time growing up. This is an aspect of it. People being nostalgic of it. They are missing parts of their children and the energy they had in providing for children.  

ATM: The parents could have not received anything for their birthday as a child. On the other hand, the one-upping can get seen as the parents finally giving themselves the birthday they always wanted. This is how it probably turns into a competition. It could be psychologically, emotionally, and subconsciously something else, but to people looking in it is a competition. Sometimes parents buy too much for their child. The child will grow out of it soon.

J: This is very deep. This has been a pleasure to go down this rabbit hole. This is one of the things I try to do when writing. I try not to come into the writing and storytelling with an answer or sermon. I like to ask myself some questions and explore ideas. It is fun trying to dive into birthday parties, the motivations behind them, and how they changed. It has been a very fun interview.

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