Miranda July is a fearless and fiercely original artist whose work is unique for its off-beat humor and unflinchingly honest observations about the human condition and our seeming insignificance in the cosmic universe. Her new film, The Future, a follow-up to the successful Me and You and Everyone We Know, is a whimsical examination of what happens to a thirty-something couple whose perspective on life changes dramatically when they decide to adopt a stray cat named Paw Paw and come face to face with the dread of impending responsibility and a looming loss of freedom.
We sat down with July in an exclusive interview to talk about her second movie which explores the neurotic inner world of romantic despair with an engaging combination of detached deadpan humor and absurdity. The multi-faceted artist told us where the idea for the film originated, what it was like directing herself the second time around, and how the creative process as a filmmaker compares to conceiving projects in other mediums. She also revealed why she decided to make Paw Paw the film’s narrator and catalyst for change and what her thoughts are on the internet and the impact of constant connectedness on human relationships and the creative process. Hit the jump to read the interview.
Miranda July: There are many geneses. I think when I was editing the first movie I was actually in a very dark place. It was the end of a relationship and I remember thinking right then that I really wanted to make a movie that encompassed those feelings that I was having then, because the first movie in a way was a more hopeful movie which was a total discord from how I was feeling as I finished it.
How do you avoid compromising your vision when you’re faced with the challenges of limited financing and a tight shooting schedule?
July: What helps a lot is that everyone really, really wants me to have my vision happen. In fact, the small amount of money that we do have, that’s the reason we got it. So, I have final cut. I have total creative control, and every single person working with me, their entire job is just to help me make my vision happen. It’s hard. It’s brutally hard for everyone because of how little money and time there is, but it’s the only goal, so it’s not like anyone is asking me to do something else. That wouldn’t be the case if it was a bigger budget.
How many days did you have to shoot and what was your budget?
July: 21 days. It was a little over a million.
How did directing yourself in this compare to the first time, and was there any scene that you found more challenging than all the rest?
July: I was more aware of what I was getting into than with the first movie and I rehearsed, which I didn’t do with the first movie. That helped it, not just the other actors, but just me having gone through everything, because other than that, I don’t really prepare. In a way, I don’t have to because it’s all coming from me anyway, so I don’t have to search for the why of anything. I think the scene where my character tells Jason — we called it the confession scene — and he stops time in the midst of my confession. I got very worked up about that in a way I don’t usually do or have time to do. I remember I didn’t go to my trailer. We had trailers. It’s just a union thing. But I hadn’t gone into it ever. I didn’t even know where it was. But right before that scene, I went and lay down in the trailer and probably just freaked myself out. I tried to remember if there was anything I knew about acting, which I couldn’t think of anything, and then I went and did it.
July: When I got there, before it even premiered, I did a gazillion interviews just purely about the anticipation that everyone had. It was verging on hype which is something you try to avoid and is not that comfortable, although I felt really grateful that people cared and were interested. And then, I was just so happy that after it played that the conversation had shifted, that I had changed what I got to talk about and that there was a new kind of engagement. The people who responded to the movie were a new kind of person and they were people I really wanted to talk to, and I felt like I had effectively made a space that didn’t exist before that I was happy to be in. And then, I was just really so relieved — you know, it’s never a unanimous response and that’s never my goal but — that for the most part people really felt like it was a step forward, because by the time you finally premiere it, it’s just hard to even see it as a real movie anymore. You’ve kind of destroyed it so many times just to make it.
July: I’m an artist and I have those insecurities and they don’t really go away just because I do more. I mean, I get it is a fiction, of course, the outside of my life as opposed to inside my head. It doesn’t look like my characters and I don’t get stuck the way she does, but it feels like that and I certainly have. What she does in the movie is like a fear fantasy that I might have that I would get so stuck that I would want to flee myself and flee my life. So yes, it seems very worthwhile to get into.
How would you describe The Future? Is it a relationship drama with a touch of sci-fi?
July: Sure, that’s as good as anything I’ve heard. It doesn’t work that well. The genres don’t. We had trouble with that when we had to tell festivals what it was. I just felt strongly that I didn’t want it to be slated as a comedy because it’s ultimately pretty sad, and that said, it’s not a heavy movie. There’s a lot of surprise in it and how I go about it, like you said, is almost science fictional.
July: I don’t think it’s pessimistic. I mean, there’s one part of the movie I can think of that’s a little doomful, but I don’t think the movie as a whole is. It’s sad, but I feel like it’s the kind of sad that has openness to it. It’s not like everything’s awful and a drag. I certainly don’t feel that everything’s awful. I’m a pretty optimistic person. That said, I take things pretty seriously. Everything always feels very high stakes to me and kind of dramatic so it’s easy in a movie like this that shows so much inner world, for it to reflect that.
What’s your view of the future and what do you look forward to?
July: I look forward to everything. I’ve created a life that’s full of exciting events. My job is to have new ideas and take risks every day so I’m always looking forward to the next thing being done or making the next thing that I haven’t yet gotten to. That’s sort of the constant in my life.
July: I think I really used the performance in that medium for all its most liberating qualities, and I do feel very free because it’s not a conservative form. Filmmaking really is because it’s so commercial and you’re always kind of pushing against that. So it seemed best to start out in this other territory. I always knew it would become a movie, although I thought the movie itself would be more experimental and maybe somehow audience interactive. I don’t know how. I think ultimately I just became re-excited about the power of a narrative movie. I had kind of worked through and already gotten so much from the risks I felt free to take in the performance.
Paw Paw holds onto the hope that eventually she’ll go home, while Jason and Sophie aren’t sure where they’re going. What led you to use Paw Paw as a narrative device and the catalyst for getting the main characters to reexamine their lives?
July: With these kind of necessarily self-involved human characters, it was important to me to have some other world, some other reality, [that] as the audience, you get to experience in tandem with Sophie and Jason, and have it be an animal, not just a talking animal, but one that you only ever see the paws of for the most part. To me, that allowed me to be very emotional and honest in a way that would be harder with a human character. It would be overly sentimental or something. Paw Paw, to me, was the moral soul of the movie and informs everything while never actually sharing a world really with the main characters.
Jason and Sophie set out to transform their lives but don’t seem to get very far. Can you talk about how you used time as a protagonist in this story to make them more aware of their own mortality and that life is finite?
July: I know they don’t get very far in terms of changing, but I do feel like if by the end of the movie they’re in the present moment, sort of like it or not, the future is they’re just kind of there with each other. And that, I feel, is a real achievement. They both, especially Sophie but Jason also, find the present kind of excruciating. Time became a protagonist as it became a protagonist in my own life as I was writing the movie. I was in my early 30s to begin with and then I was still making it. I was in my mid-thirties and all my friends were having kids, and there’s no woman of that age, no matter how artistic or independent you are, where that doesn’t’ become a question. And, I didn’t want it to be a really obvious, overarching question but it seemed like, for a movie about time, that it had to be in there – the kind of biological, very female sense of time. But also, there’s time as it exists for the cat that is waiting and time for a man who is really old enough to be at the end of his life. I tried to look at it not only from the point of view of a 35 year old.
July: I think I put all the qualities that I’m most uncomfortable with in myself into Sophie, and there was something very satisfying about that. It was embarrassing but it was also satisfying to not hide them or pretend that they didn’t exist, like the tendency towards paralysis and the desire to be watched. And then, it was very fun to put all my saving graces, all the sort of solutions to those problems, into Jason who’s very curious about the world and open to fate and coincidence, and in some sense more creative, although he’s not making anything. And so, they become these fictions because once those qualities are separated from each other they take on a new personality. I mean, a woman who doesn’t have any of those saving graces gets herself into so much trouble and it was fascinating to enact all that trouble.
Jason and Sophie each have their own unique approach to the creative process. Jason wants to be guided by fate while Sophie is more goal-oriented. How would you describe your creative approach and to what extent did it inspire your characters?
July: I’m like both, like I said, but I mean on a good day I’m like Jason, and as such, some of that verges on autobiographical in the sense that I met Joe, the old man, in the same way that Jason meets Joe which is through the PennySaver classifieds which, like him, was something I was doing. I was calling people and interviewing people who were selling things through the PennySaver in an open ended sense, not knowing what the result would be, and then I met Joe and asked him to be in the movie. And so, it seemed important to put that process in the movie and let that be a little bit transparent without disturbing the fiction of it.
Loneliness is another recurring theme in this film. All the characters seem lonely and Paw Paw comments on being loneliest at night. Do you think loneliness is simply part of the human condition regardless of our relationships with one another?
July: Yes, sure. I still have a tremendous not so much loneliness but times when I can feel more alone than makes sense given my situation. I’m married and I’m actually rarely alone. But I don’t think it’s only a bad thing. It’s very human and it drives so much of what we do. I think what gets dangerous is when you try and erase it every second of the day. I mean, there’s some degree to which it’s real. Each person’s own relationship to that is like it’s their birthright. It’s part of what you get to have. So, being interested in it, I think, is important, and to erase all of that by always being connected or always being watched is – well it can’t happen but you could spend your whole life trying.
At first, Jason and Sophie are constantly connected to the internet and Sophie attempts to create a YouTube dance. How do you feel the internet and the various social media platforms have altered the way we relate to one another? Also, as an artist who likes to interact with her audience, have you found it to be useful?
July: Yes, there’s no getting around that it’s, especially as a grassroots tool, a way to connect with people without some institution between you. The websites themselves I guess are institutions, but since I’ve always been interested in the audience and creating the audience as part of the work and inviting them in, I really enjoy that part of the internet. That said, as far as having new ideas and being creative, I feel like you really need to allow empty space to exist without distraction to have new ideas. The internet is only unhelpful for that so it’s a very mixed thing. I’m constantly wrestling with that.
What do you have coming up next?
July: I have a book coming out in the Fall that I just finished called “It Chooses You.” The basis of it is the interviews with the 13 people I met through the classifieds, the PennySaver, including Joe, the old man. There are photographs and it’s also really just about my life during that time. It’s a non-fiction book. And then, I’m working on a novel.
What’s your novel about?
July: It’s too early to talk about it.
The Future is now playing in limited release.