Miranda July is one of those terribly aggravating people who is exquisitely talented in a variety of mediums but too awesome not to want to be best friends with, if that makes any sense. Her first film, 'Me and You and Everyone We Know,' won four awards at Cannes and the Special Jury Prize at Sundance in 2005. Since then, she's written an award-winning collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More Than You, created the online project "learningtoloveyoumore," a storytelling website that remains online as part of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and made an interactive sculpture garden for the 2009 Venice Biennale.
Her new movie 'The Future' began as a performance piece called Things We Don't Understand and Definitely Are Not Going to Talk About, where she'd pull members from the audience onstage to perform. The final result premiered at Sundance earlier this week and will also play at the Berlin Film Festival in February.
July also stars in 'The Future' as Sophie, a dance teacher in Los Angeles who lives with her boyfriend Jason (Hamish Linklater). When they find an injured cat, they dub him Paw Paw and take him to a shelter to be fixed up so they can adopt him. However, Paw Paw's presence looms large --- they have one month to figure out what the hell they want to do with their lives, because after that, they'll be tied down to an old, sickly cat that could live much longer than they'd originally anticipated. They quit their jobs, disconnect their Internet, and go about making a heartbreaking, glorious mess of it all, while Paw Paw waits patiently for them to come get him.
Cinematical met up with Miranda July at Sundance in an appropriately strange location, an indoor pool in an atrium filled with fake plants and surrounded by hotel rooms. As July wrote on her blog, "A man in his underwear banged on his hotel window while I was being interviewed outside. When I looked up he pressed his whole body against the glass." Welcome to Sundance.
Cinematical: At the very beginning of 'The Future,' Sophie and Jason disconnect from the Internet, which is sort of the opposite of 'Me and You and Everyone We Know,' where people use the Internet to connect to each other. Has your view of the Internet changed since then, or has its nature somehow evolved to where we are using it to be disconnected?
Miranda July: I think it's evolved in the sense that I didn't think about it that much in the first movie as far as it was impacting my life; it was almost like a device in that story, whereas five years later, which is such a short time for a technology to change how we're living each minute, it is now something I have to protect myself and certainly my creative life from. It is in a way more personal than the last movie, that aspect of it; although it's not as big a part of the movie, it is kind of like a catalyst for a crisis, which I think makes sense. If you're not filling in all the cracks with distraction, you end up in the middle of your problem more quickly.
I think it's really interesting to use Paw Paw as a narrative device because cats are so often thought of as tricksters, or, at best, unreliable narrators. He seems to know more about everything than the humans.
I wanted to be able to have these very unknowing people who could then transform but not get very far, you know? Not have all their problems solved but kind of both of them, in their way, wake up, but then in that world, there had to be someone more honest with themselves or more emotionally clear and speaking the truth, and it's hard to do that with a human. You quickly get into sentimentality that I think Paw Paw can shoulder, without shoulders. [laughs] Maybe in a way it's because of that, because you see so little [of Paw Paw] that you can fill out more and there's more space, in a way, to hold those bigger feelings.
I wasn't quite prepared for it to be so dark and the characters to be so flawed. At any point, were you concerned about some of the emotional risks, of losing your audience with some of the things that they did?
I'm not too worried about losing the audience that's watching the movie. I mean, that is a risk with any movie. But the risk of losing some of the 'Me and You' audience, of the first movie, that seems like not my problem. [laughs] My only job is to keep making things that are true to where I am right now, or even one step ahead of myself, ideally, like, sort of going into mystery. The definite way to fail would have been to actively try and keep that audience. I don't know what that movie would have been, but it wouldn't have been good.
As a performer, you do some incredibly brave, vulnerable scenes. Was there one in particular that you really had to psyche yourself up for?
That break-up scene, the scene where I tell [Jason], you know, that I'm wild... Since I'm the director, I don't ever go to my trailer, you know? And I hadn't ever been to the trailer once, I didn't even really get that I had one, but before that scene, I remember lying down, being like, I have to do the actor thing of taking a moment. I have to step off the set. And I just remember lying there, pretty much shaking. I don't know if I was doing like a Method thing to get into it, but I was relieved when that was over.
One particular thing that I really loved was Jason's set of signs and symbols and these mystical things. Do you have any of your own?
The basis for some of that was that there were a lot of weird synchronicities with Joe, you know, who you read is a real [person], playing himself, basically. For example, I'd already written the part of Paw Paw and named Paw Paw, and one day he's like, Joe's hearing me talk about Paw Paw and he says, "Is he named after the lake, Lake Paw Paw? Because that's where me and my wife met sixty-two years ago." And it just seemed like, given the sort of story that I'd already written where it's almost like he could be an older Jason and Paw Paw maybe being almost their unborn child, it was like, whoah. This is really getting very synchronous. And there were other things too. Also, just his phenomenal love of cats, which I tried to put in the movie. I mean, he has a burial ground for all the cats... [They're all buried] six feet deep so they'll never be disturbed. It's kind of uncanny. So in a way those things were trying to echo the actual creative process, which, of course, is me too; I'm prone to noticing those kinds of things and getting reassured by them.
I read that Joe passed after the filming.
Yeah, after I finished the movie -- I finished the movie, I flew home from Berlin the day before Thanksgiving, and he died on Thanksgiving.
If you had any advice for people like Sophie and Jason, or if you were ever in their position and wanted advice, what would you say or do?
When you don't know what to do, you don't have to do something. I feel like that's sort of Sophie's mistake, whereas Jason kind of doesn't know what to do at a certain point but keeps on going, doesn't make any radical moves at that point of unknowing. I think there is something about panic that can make you make a sudden left turn because the moment is so unbearable you feel like you have to act to get out of it. Sometimes it's okay not to act.