Spinning Platters Interview: Miranda July on “The Future”

by Jason LeRoy on August 17, 2011

Miranda July in THE FUTURE

Miranda July is an anomaly in the film industry. Perhaps this is because, although she has experienced success within it, she understands there is much more to the creative world outside of it. A multimedia artist in the truest sense of the term, July has been celebrated as much for her performance art as for her filmmaking. Her multimedia pieces have been shown and performed in galleries around the world. Her debut collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You (2007), won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. And her debut film, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), which July wrote and directed as well as starred in, won four prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, in addition to numerous critics awards and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance.

Now the Berkeley-raised July, 37, has returned with her second full-length feature film, The Future. An earnest and deeply sad meditation on fear, anxiety and regret, the film tells the story of a cohabiting couple, Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater), both in their mid-to-late thirties, both with matching curly black-mop haircuts. Sophie and Jason’s lives are turned around when they decide to adopt an abused cat named Paw-Paw. With one month to go before they pick her up, Sophie and Jason are thrown into an existential crisis: adopting a cat is a big commitment, and they’re already just a few years shy of 40. As Jason says, “In five years we’ll be in our forties, and after 40 is 50, and after that it’s just spare change.” Fearing that their lives are essentially over, they decide this month is their last chance to experience freedom before surrendering to the inevitable decline of their future.

The film has its fair share of July’s trademark quirkiness, which has made her quite a lightning rod among those who consider her too “precious” or “twee” (for a fuller exploration of this subject, check out the New York Times Magazine profile on July from a month ago). For instance, the film is narrated by Paw-Paw from inside her cage at the animal shelter; she is voiced by July, speaking in a strangled, Björk-ish voice that is at once flagrantly weird but also deeply affecting. It is far more powerful than it should be; July has the ability to disarm an audience braced for pretentiousness with her heartfelt, guileless sincerity. She recently sat down with Spinning Platters to discuss writing and directing a sex scene for herself to star in, her upcoming collaboration with McSweeney’s, and growing up in Berkeley.

How did this project start?

The very first kernel of it started when I was editing my first movie, which was a very dark time for me. I was going through a breakup, and here I was, editing a relatively light, funny movie. And I remember thinking, “Okay, the next one I really have to try and show this kind of feeling, this side of life, where things do not always magically work out.” That was the seed of it, and the first image was that “stopping time” image [there is a scene in the film where Jason stops time to halt a painful discussion]. At the time I thought I would be the one playing that part, but you follow these ideas through years and years; I got married [to Beginners director Mike Mills], and so many things happened since then. I no longer wanted to be [the person stopping time].

You’ve been on this press tour for a few months, and before that you were on the film festival circuit for a while. Is there anything about the film that still surprises you? New interpretations that cause you to see it differently?

It’s funny, I don’t really watch the movie. That’s the same as it was with the first movie. I just see the first couple premieres, and then it just becomes like an ex-boyfriend or something. It’s like, “I loved you but I need to move on.” [laughs] But I think in a weird way, as rough as it sometimes is to hear everyone’s opinions, there’s also something healing about the process. You get further and further away from the wounds, the battle wounds of having made it, where you’re like, “If we’d had more time for that scene,” or, “If I hadn’t hired this person this would have been easier.” And at Sundance, all of that was still very much on my mind. I was shaking with still wanting to edit it, even though I knew it was done. Just the distance from that, and then other people’s perspectives come in, which are pretty different for the most part. You just kinda let go. It seems impossible, but it becomes, like… a real movie at that point, which is what you wanted all along.

How difficult was getting this film done compared to your first film?

Well, on the one hand it was easier because, for example, everyone who was involved in financing the movie, which was a few European companies, they were all people who in one way or another we knew from the last movie. So, that helped. But with that said, it was in the middle of the recession, with a lot of companies just dropping movies left and right. Especially a movie like this, that seemed like, “Well, that’s probably not going to make any serious money.” So the budget, which I would have guessed would have been significantly more than the first one, wasn’t at all. It was just slightly bigger, and I actually had less days to shoot than with the first movie. I shot it in 21 days. And now that I’m “known,” I got busted by the unions and had to make everything more legit in a way that it wasn’t the first time. It was tough. It’s still a movie without big stars, so that puts it in a certain bracket.

The film addresses some of the complexities of female sexuality, particularly the eroticism and excitement of being watched.

It’s a complicated territory, we could probably spend many hours talking about that. I do think on the one hand, I was trying to get into the very passive-making part of being watched, of really wanting to live like a child and not have to try and not have the burden of inventing yourself. And then of course that’s going to play into the sex scene as well. For a moment I just let everything else go, and I thought, “This is pretty rare, actually. When has a woman written a sex scene that she’s in that she’s directing?” I was just like, “Well, this is a treat.” [laughs] I just tried to think of what I hadn’t seen, and what I might do. That’s an embarrassing thing to say, but it was like, what can I reveal here instead of just repeating even my own fantasies, some of which are from movies.

How is the experience of directing yourself?

I really wanted, with both movies actually, to have someone there – I’m still looking for this person who would be willing to sit on the set, not really to be a director, but… The big problem with these short shoots is there’s not enough time to look back at every take. So when I get to editing, I literally come across scenes where I’m like, “Oh, I haven’t seen this,” which is kinda weird for a director. Like, I was in it, I didn’t watch the playback… So there’s kind of a driving-blind feeling to it sometimes, which is not comfortable. It causes all kinds of peripheral anxiety, which is not really needed for the story that I’m trying to work through.

Have you considered directing a movie that you’re not in?

Yeah. I made one short film that I wasn’t in. It’s easier for sure, and it’s not wildly different. I’m sure at some point I’ll do it again.

Jon Brion composed such a lovely score for this film. What was your collaboration like? What kind of role did you want the music to play in the storytelling?

He was a lucky thing that came out of the first movie. He saw it and asked to meet me and said, “I wanna do your next one.” And I was like, “Great! I have to write it!” And we… God, it’s hard to know how to quickly describe. Picture two creative insane people working only nights – he only works at night – so, like, 8 at night to 5 in the morning for three weeks solid, and you get that score. I came with certain sounds, some of it from Brian Eno stuff, just different songs. He was very much about testing sounds on me and seeing if I’d respond, and if I did we would go and work with that. I’m not a musician, so it’s always like creating a language together.

As an independent filmmaker who lives in LA, do you get much feedback or response from the industry about your work?

It’s not as separate as it probably seems. Fox Searchlight was not involved in this movie in any way, but I know all those guys, and they actually came to every single screenplay reading and cut of the movie. Everyone wants to make a good movie, and there’s cool people all across the board, so you just kinda find each other. I’ve even given [script] notes on movies – you’d be surprised! I gave notes on a movie about cars. Not Cars the Pixar movie, but a movie about a car. [laughs] If I ever make a studio movie you can ask me this again, and I might be like, “Oh my God, I had no idea!” But from where I am now, I myself am very surprised about how it’s not like I thought it would be before I got there. It’s just people, ultimately. And a lot of them are just trying to make money to send their kids to expensive schools, you know? [laughs]

I know you had a brief role in Jesus’ Son. Are you still open to acting in other people’s films?

I’m open to it, though I’m not ambitious in that area. And I am so ambitious in all these other ones, so inevitably I’ll be asked to do things, and feel very flattered and intrigued, but when it comes down to really committing time-wise, I realize I’m not a real actor where you would kinda do anything. I’m like, “Well…what are the dates?” [laughs] You gotta have more than that. I’m curious to do it, though, because I think I would learn so much, especially from a director I admired. So it’s kinda on my fantasy to-do list, at least once more.

What impact do you think winning the Camera d’Or [at Cannes for Me and You and Everyone We Know] had on your career?

Well, it’s worth noting that this movie was all European-financed, it had no American money in it at all. So that’s probably a little bit related to that. The [first] movie did really well in a lot of countries in Europe, where there is this tradition of the auteur that doesn’t exist here and isn’t being celebrated at the moment. So it has had an impact on my career for sure, in a very practical way.

What’s next for you?

I finished a book that just went to the printer, to be published by McSweeney’s. It’s called It Chooses You, and it’s nonfiction, my own writing, as well as the interviews I did with people selling things through the Pennysaver classifieds, which is how I met the old man in the movie, the same way Jason does. Which was a whole unrelated project. The fact that I ended up casting Joe Putterlik in the movie… It sort of tells that story, but also a lot of other stories, with photographs. And then I’m working on a novel that will be many, many years away, I’m sure. [laughs]

How do you think growing up in Berkeley influenced you as an artist?

Berkeley kids are unique. Whenever I meet other Berkeley kids, it’s like… we grew up without really any sense of a norm. Like, the norm for me was being surrounded by people who were very passionate, sometimes even fanatical about what they loved or a cause, and a lot of people creating their own jobs and their own ways of living. Not that everything was radical all the time. I went to College Preparatory School, a pretty conservative prep school. But I think I’m a total product of that, more than my parents even [anticipated]. I mean, they didn’t grow up in Berkeley, so I think they were a little surprised when I dropped out of college and was like, “Oh, I know what I want to do and I don’t have to be hired by anyone else.” Although as a kid I may have wished that things were more normal. I think I wanted to live, like, in the suburbs or something. [laughs] Looking back, I’m like, “Oh, thank God!” Berkeley was a really wonderful place to grow up.

The Future opens in San Francisco on Friday.

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