Miranda July on The Future

Features, FILM, Film Festivals, Interviews
The conspicuously talented writer, performance artist, and filmmaker behind Me and You and Everyone We Know discusses her long-awaited new film.

Miranda July’s debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, was a sleeper hit in 2005, winning awards and plaudits at Cannes and Sundance. Surprisingly, it has taken six years for her next film to come out. In The Future, July plays Sophie, one half of a couple whose relationship disintegrates from within a story framed by, and narrated by, a cat (also voiced by July). The film’s long gestation, however, wasn’t due to writer’s block: during the period between projects, the ultra-prolific July published short stories (for various magazines and journals, collected as No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories), created a performance piece (which ultimately became The Future), and started work on a novel.

July says her inspiration for film came via the success that late-eighties indie cinema enjoyed. “When I was in high school, independent film in the modern sense was just starting: She’s Gotta Have It and Sex, Lies and Videotape. I was like a million other kids reading articles about how you only needed a credit card to make a movie. That, along with Jane Campion’s short films, which I also saw at that time, were the key things that made me think I could do this.”

Despite her other artistic endeavours, film was always the central focus. “Because I’ve wanted to do it for so long, it’s almost like I came upon all of these other things while I was seeking out film. I began performing initially because it’s the closest thing, and yet it was something that a teenager could do, someone without equipment. And then performance became so interesting in its own right. It taught me so much about writing. In writing so much for short films and performances, I discovered fiction. It’s all been very organic and not very thought-out.”

In a roundabout way, the acclaim Me and You and Everyone We Know received (including the Caméra d’Or—best first feature award at Cannes) didn’t necessarily come as a surprise. “I had that wonderful naivety that you can only have once,” she recalls. “I was really happy about it, but I was oddly bold and confident. I was like, ‘of course everyone will love my movie. It’s a great movie.’ I had never got a review before, much less a bad review. So I didn’t even know how to be afraid of that stuff. Of course, that movie got bad reviews too, and now I’ve learned.

She does suggest, though, that the success added pressure on a follow-up. “There was a bit of pressure, ‘what’s the second movie going to be?’ I didn’t want to sit down and approach it that way. I made this performance, which had this talking cat and the idea of stopping time. A lot of the key elements were in there, but also a lot of things that wouldn’t have translated into a movie. By the time I debuted the performance in New York, I was ready [to make it].” She adds that there would have been more pressure “if I was only wanting to be a filmmaker. But by that point, I was so serious about the other things I was doing, that my first thought when I realised the first movie was working out was ‘maybe I can get my book of short stories published.’ And sort of parlay this into that, which is probably not what you’re supposed to do.”

“It’s hard to explain how they had so many things in common and yet were so different,” she says of the film’s relationship to the performance piece it evolved from. “It’s almost like an acid trip, something versus real life. It’s a lot less literal, the performance.” The film had little improvisation. (It was a 21-day shoot, which July felt didn’t lend itself to experimentation.) “The one exception is the old man in the movie, who Jason meets through the classified, I met through the classifieds. He’s not an actor, and he’s playing himself. The cards he makes in the movie are his own dirty cards. I did let him improvise on a theme. For example there’s one scene in which he sells a hairdryer. That’s just him and he’s wonderful.”

July acts in the film, and didn’t find it difficult delineating between the key roles of actor and director. “It’s so natural these two things being intertwined, from the performances I did, where I was directing myself and also playing all of the other characters in the film. The new thing is hiring other people to play their parts. And that’s a great joy. Of course, they’re much better at playing men than me, and children, and old people.”

By playing herself, in addition to writing and directing, July has opened up the film to an autobiographical reading. “It’s so funny the way we’re fooled by people casting actors to play themselves,” she says. “It does sort of give this distance to the director and they’re let off the hook—this very beautiful, charismatic person is playing me. I don’t get that protection. It is no truer than for any other director. Of course, I’m drawing from myself and what I feel, that is the job as an artist. And no, nothing is literally true in the movie.”

July also finds herself portraying the least sympathetic side in the relationship. “I did feel a little bit like throwing myself to the lions. These are all the sides of myself that I most fear. I somehow put all of my saving graces into Hamish’s [Linklater] character, Jason. On the other hand, there’s also something quite satisfying about acting out your fear fantasies.”

The film’s narration, spoken by a cat named Paw Paw, was an approach July used “because there’s something inherently not real, it permits more feeling and prevents a maudlin quality.” She also liked the upfront honesty of Paw Paw. “I wanted some massive break from the world of Sophie and Jason. I love having characters who don’t do the right thing and don’t know what they’re doing, even if the audience knows. I also wanted a character that was honest and straightforward and totally clear—it’s hard to write a human that way if it’s going to be a good movie. I think the cat was a way to have all of these emotions in the movie and not have to write them into the dialogue of the characters.”

July had originally intended for a professional actor to do the voiceover, and tested professional animal voice artists and children. “It never occurred to me that I would play that voice, because I’m so keenly aware that this is a movie and I can only play one part. [But] I thought, ‘fuck this I can’t, I know it too well, I’ve done it too many times myself, I just need to figure out how to do it.’ I performed it with this low, really gravelly voice, and then we altered it and made it higher from there, and affected it a little bit.”

Whimsy aside, The Future’s melancholy tone has taken some audiences by surprise. “It was always written to be a sad film,” July comments. “There’s a fair amount of humour, especially in the first half of the film. That was maybe my biggest goal, to allow myself to move into this darker territory. Once you’ve made a movie with so much ‘tink’ in it, for lack of a better word—that and getting a little bit older—it’s hard not to want to say ‘I can make people laugh, but in laughing, is there somewhere we can go from there.’”

The Future is a persuasive relationship film, with July and Linklater’s chemistry as a couple convincing from the very beginning. But it’s also a tale of isolation and selfishness; a dark variation on modern romance. It’s an engaging watch, and July’s keen eye for comedy and narrative contrivances (that somehow seem to work) ensure that despite its sadness, The Future doesn’t end up feeling depressing.

The Future screens in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch (TBC), and Dunedin (TBC) at the New Zealand International Film Festival 2011. For dates, programme details, and screenings in all other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.