Debuting in the Berlin, Sundance and SXSW film festivals earlier this year, The Future is just that, with a US release date of July followed by a UK opening in November. But, says Kimberly Gadette, at least we get to talk to the filmmaker right here and now, in the present.
Not that Roger Ebert is king of all critical cinematic thought, but it's impressive to note that he listed July's first film, 2005's Me and You and Everyone We Know, as one of the Best Films of the Decade.
As a follow-up to her critically-acclaimed, multiple award-winning first effort (garnering several Cannes Film Festival awards as well as Sundance's Special Jury Prize) director/writer/actress Miranda July delivers a second, purely original story about thirty-year-olds trying to figure out their hearts and their hearts' desires ... all served up with a hefty side of surrealism. Such as the fact that the male lead Jason (Hamish Linklater) ultimately succeeds in stopping time. And has a conversation or two with the Moon. Did I mention the talking cat?
July's career itself verges on the surreal, the filmmaker as comfortable on a movie set as creating performance art, fiction (she won the 2007 Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award with her collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You), video and sculpture (her various pieces have been exhibited in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, two Whitney Biennials and Union Square). We may have had to wait six years between films, but given The Future's early positive reaction, the wait looks to be worth it.
As one of the more hip, eccentric lodgings in Portland, Oregon, the Ace Hotel was a perfect setting for hosting a sit-down between our own Kimberly Gadette and the filmmaker. Dressed in decidedly mismatched clothes (beige crepe blouse accentuated by a man's short black necktie, gray jacket, magenta stockings, black skirt and ballerina slippers), July comes across as unique a figure in real life as she is onscreen. While she appears polite and somewhat shy, taking her time before forming her answers, her clear, intelligent eyes seem to be taking in the whole, looking as if another portion of her brain is racing ahead ... perhaps cooking up a brand new project in between the sentences.
IMO: Are you concerned that your films appeal more to women than men, and that you might be losing the male audience?
MJ: That doesn't really worry me. If it's true, it doesn't really seem like a problem. There's so few movies made by women, about women, that are really hard to get made, to get financed ... it just seems like there's quite an audience out there. That said, there's a lot of interesting guys out there who do like these films.
IMO: The media continues to celebrate the perfect woman who has it all, juggling the many elements of her life extraordinarily well. As directly opposed to your character of Sophie, who ends up emotionally paralyzed by her one big creative idea. You seem like more of the skilled juggler: creating films, short stories, videos, performance art, etc. Did you ever have this kind of life paralysis yourself?
MJ: I face it every day ... paralysis mixed with procrastination and distraction. But if I didn't have this job, I wouldn't have to sit down and come up with a new idea. It seems like it's a fear more than a reality but it doesn't mean that it's not still very alive.
IMO: The film's thirtysomethings address a funny yet disturbing concern about their needing to meet their goals by the age of 50. Otherwise, per male lead Jason (Hamish Linklater), "It's just small change, less than a dollar. Not enough to get anything you want." Is this the voice of the characters, or do you share this belief?
MJ: No, it's the characters! I was always horrified when we got to that line. Especially since there's many people in my life who are my heroes, who are much older than me. But the movie isn't about that, it's about fear.
IMO: I saw Paw Paw as an immediate way into our hearts, even though we suspect there's much more at work. You said about the cat, "He was the only way I could describe the bittersweet vertigo of true love." Could you expand on that?
MJ: Sometimes I would write the concept as a cat, and sometimes I would write it as the part of myself that always longs for some perfect connection, such as with my parents, you know? Even though that will never happen. And I'll still want it even after they're long gone. It's a desire to wait forever rather than give up ...
IMO: In reading an assortment of reviews (I didn't cheat, I'd already written mine post- Sundance!), what intrigued me was that no two critics saw the same thing. It seems your films are like cinematic Rorschachs, leading us to our own interpretations. Does that please you?
MJ: I think I must like it because sometimes along the way I can see the path towards uniting everyone in the film and making them happy ... and I don't take it. (laughs) I feel very insistent that there's one true way to make the movie, and it's my job to find it and that's what matters. And then once that part's done, then the interpretation can be different for everyone.
IMO: You play with a highly unique concept of a fluid protagonist. First, it's Sophie's story ... yet as the film progresses, it seems that the driving force belongs to Jason, who ends up anchoring the film. We don't see that very often.
MJ: It happened when I was editing the first film [Me and You and Everyone We Know]. I went through an abrupt breakup, and I remember trying to figure out how to get my feelings across. And I think in some ways I switched myself over to Jason at that point. Everything that my character Sophie does I've personally never done – but I have been Jason. It was probably unconscious, but that must be why.
IMO: A recent New York Times article called Quality Time, Redefined by Alex Williams examines the advantages of the family spending time together, sort of ... the bodies all cohabit the same room, but the minds are immersed in individual electronic media. You illustrate this beautifully in the opening scene: Sophie and Jason are lying on the same couch, but both are zeroed in to their separate computers. Especially since you address the evils of the internet by having the couple unplug themselves in the hopes of finding themselves and each other, do you think there's a happy medium, just the right amount of "wire" while still staying present in the world?
MJ: It's really confusing, and you don't want to spend time thinking about this ... it seems like a nerdy thing to wonder about. But on the other hand, a whole life could go by without ever becoming conscious about this.
IMO: People walking down the street with their handheld gizmos ... do they/we look around? Do we even see the street? And yet we're reliant on this e-communication.
MJ: All I've come up with right now is that it's worthwhile to become more aware of it. It doesn't really work for me to make myself feel horrible about it. But to just become aware of it like other things you do with your body: what you eat, for example, whatever else you choose to do.
IMO: Sort of like self-policed personal hygiene of the mind?
MJ: Yes ...
IMO: When Sophie visits her new beau [David Warshofsky] in the San Fernando Valley, she's dressed in 1950s type outfits. Did you choose to do this to indicate a regression from her vibrant, artistic self to a simplified Donna Reed, down to the hair, the walk, as she enters the conventional boxy Valley?
MJ: My thought was that Sophie thinks of herself as being too weird for him. So she dresses in what she considers her "most normal" clothes. Like me: when I felt I was at something where I needed to fit in, I'd blow dry my hair a little straighter. We all have certain things we do that we think makes us fit in more. That was Sophie's version which, ultimately, is pretty weird ... it doesn't work, and instead, it turns into its own little act.
IMO: By the way, I see that the film's location on IMDB states Los Angeles and Santa Clarita. Was Santa Clarita chosen to stand for a more provincial version of the San Fernando Valley?
MJ: No, IMDB has that wrong. We shot in the Valley. In Tarzana.
IMO: Wow. IMDB also reports in its Miranda July trivia section that you changed your last name to July because that's the month you're most productive. True?
MJ: Totally not true. It also says the budget for this movie was $8 million – but it was $1 million. Really frustrating!
IMO: So where does the last name of July come from?
MJ: July was given to me by my best friend in high school, who wrote these stories about two girls named Ida and July – and July was based on me. When I started writing plays, I took that on as my name.
IMO: While we're on the subject of young girls, I note that children figure fairly prominently in the first two movies. Is there a particular element that you're after by incorporating kids into your stories?
MJ: I like kids, I think they're interesting. The first film was a lot more deliberate; I wanted unusual combinations of relationships as far as age goes. In The Future there's fewer kids, but it was important to have a real little girl in the movie – and for Sophie to realize that she's not the child. At a certain point, there really is someone who needs to be watched, and it's not her.
IMO: So the little girl is a device that's used to mature Sophie?
MJ: Yes, to wake her up.
IMO: And the scene when the little girl was stuck in a pit in her backyard ... do you mind giving us your thoughts on what you meant by that?
MJ: I have to say... sometimes you write things down on paper and then when you actually see them, they're way more intense than you think they're going to be. I remember when we were shooting that, I thought "Oh no ... this is going to look much more terrifying than I wanted!" I wanted her to have some ritual (I had them when I was young), so that she gets saved or transformed. Sort of like she was creating her own little "Outward Bound."
IMO: I understand that the film got a last-minute berth at Sundance. Why the last-minute decision and how did that hit you? Did you think something like, "Gee, how great to be included but what am I, chopped liver?"
MJ: What happened was the movie got into the Berlin Film Festival because it was a German/US co-production, and that inclusion was very important to the German producers. The thing is, once you're premiering in Berlin, they don't want you to premiere at Sundance. I had to beg, saying "I'm an American filmmaker, I need to have a US premiere because I need to sell the movie." The heads of the festival agreed to let me show at Sundance, but part of the deal was that they couldn't announce it until after Berlin announced first. Actually, Sundance had previously seen the movie and really liked it.
IMO: Your films' awards and raves seem to lead right into this quote of yours about acquiring a certain rank of celebrity: "I think this is what fame seems to promise – you will be entirely lit up by other people’s gazes, and you won’t have to face the difficult task of igniting yourself ever again." I'm only half kidding when I ask, are you "lit up" yet? And if so, what's the down, or darker, side?
MJ: (Laughs) No. The concept is that that's not really true ... you always have to face the blank computer screen, the feeling of breaking through the wall. The upside, probably the best part, is the reassurance that you get to keep doing your job. Creatively, though, it not only doesn't fix it – like that prior quote – but it makes it much harder. The second movie feels like, "My God, you have to do the magic trick again, and now they're really looking carefully." You have to work hard to get all these critical voices out of your head.
IMO: Quoting you again, "The essential task is the same in all the mediums – to remember you are free ..." How free can you actually be considering you've got the producers, the studios, the audience, the box office ...
MJ: You know, I've been pretty lucky with these two movies. Lucky – and I've done them for so little money. That's been part of the deal, to make the films for as small a budget as humanly possible. You'd notice because if I had to do them a different way, there'd be big stars in them.
IMO: Low budget or not, are you pleased with how this career of yours is going?
MJ: Um ... yeah! Yeah. You always think if something goes well, you'll just be ... (she struggles for the words)
IMO: Queen of all?
MJ: Yes! But of course, I'm totally focused on the next thing that I'm worried I won't be able to do.
IMO: What's in the works?
MJ: I want to write another book, a novel this time. Of course, that seems totally daunting, but you get pretty addicted to worrying about things. It's like, "I don't need to worry about this quite so much anymore, so I'll just shift over to worrying about the next thing."
IMO: Which reminds me of a William Safire quote about deadlines being "like standing under a windmill. No sooner did you feel relief that you had ducked a blade than you looked up and saw a new one coming down."
MJ: You always forget that. You think, "Once I'm done with this, I'm just going to go lie on the beach." (Laughs) What beach?
[This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length]