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Second Life

by
in Filmmaking
on Mar 22, 2011

Miranda July likes long titles. Her first film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, was prefaced by a short film called Are You The Favorite Person of Anyone?, in which a man on the street begged that question of various passersby. Other works include the video Getting Stronger Every Day, the book No One Belongs Here More Than You, and the performance How I Learned to Draw. Her website, which you enter by inputting “the password” that July suggests you arrive at by staring into a candle for a few minutes, is announced with a banner that reads, “You Obviously Know What I’m Talking About.” (There are dozens of other seminal works by July with shorter titles, but speaking of them would disrupt my thesis.) In 2006, following the hit release of her first film, July mounted a performance at New York’s The Kitchen called Things We Don’t Understand and Definitely Are Not Going To Talk About. And then that lengthily titled work turned into her new feature, The Future.

The feeling you get from Miranda July is this: I am being included. I am being shared with. I am being invited into a circle where this woman will spill her secrets and, further, will encourage me to share my own.

So much of July’s work is about inciting the audience to participate in the same secretsharing and confession-whispering and artmaking that she seems to be doing. Learning to Love You More, her 2002 Web series, is a website catalogue of video responses to various artistic and physical challenges devised by July and Harrell Fletcher. These include “#68: Feel the News,” and “#59: Interview someone that has experienced war.” Joanie 4 Jackie is an ongoing video chain letter by and for women, wherein a compendium tape of all of the videos to date is sent back to you upon receipt of your submission.

The Future (which opens in late July through Roadside Attractions) concerns a heroine (July) who, along with her boyfriend Jason (Hamish Linklater), comes face to face with getting older when they try to adopt an injured cat. She’s a dancer who actually works as a kids’ dance teacher; he’s a writer (or something) who is actually doing tech support by phone. Jason lays it out: “Thirtyfive is only five years from 40 and 40 is the new 50 and anything after that is just loose change.” “Loose change?” Sophie asks. “Yeah,” he says. “Not enough to get you anything you want.”

The couple resolves to reshape their future by fulfilling their creative destinies. They turn off the Internet, he starts selling trees and she starts making dances. They each fail, immediately, and the private shame of that failure starts to pull them apart. Eventually she cheats with a very square older guy, Marshall. This experiment in Stepford Wife-dom puts July’s character into a walking daze, willfully betraying herself as the detritus of her old life starts to crawl back in through the cracks of Marshall’s walls in the form of her old T-shirt. Meanwhile, Jason is suspended in time, talking to the moon. And the cat they never adopted is narrating the story. If this sounds too cute to be believed, believe it — as with all of July’s work, the absolute sincerity with which her ideas are put forth makes you want to do an interpretive T-shirt dance of your very own.

I know it took you a few years to get this project off the ground. I’m sure that was frustrating, but was there anything good about it? Looking back, I realize we were talking to people about financing at a time when, in retrospect, I was years from actually being done [with the project] creatively. You feel all plucky and ready to go but truth be told, even if it had been easier for me to get the money, it would have taken me some [additional] time to get to the end of the script. It would have been quicker if the recession hadn’t happened, but it’s also possible that unnecessary amounts of money would have been spent. The recession made everybody be like, “OK, we are dedicated to this, but…”

The movie evolved out of a performance. Can you talk about that process? I knew it would end up in the movie. Granted, I thought it was going to be a much weirder performance movie, like… well, I don’t quite know what example I can give. Not Rocky Horror Picture Show, not Swimming to Cambodia, but some sort of performance movie… Because of that, I was always thinking, oh, we need to document this really well, the whole “making of,” which is pretty interesting because it didn’t end up being a performance movie. I think at some point I’ll just release the performance [footage] as sort of a “making-of.”

What were some elements of the performance that carried over? There’s a part where all the men in the audience speak to all the women in the audience by reading lines off the screen in unison. It worked really well; somehow the audience would learn how to do that in a way that was really satisfying. In the movie script that became “All the Men in the World” and “All The Women in The World” [speak to each other]. There was no participatory aspect, but it was still the idea of those conversations of men and women. I don’t know if I literally thought, there’s no way we can afford that amount of people, but I do remember turning to [producer Gina Kwon] once and saying, “It occurs to me that these are all speaking roles.” Like, these aren’t extras. Even if we skimp on it, they all cost money. The idea found its way out of the script shortly thereafter. I remember saying, “Can they all just mouth the lines, and I can do the voices later?” It actually got that far; I was like, “Eureka, I solved it!”

Movies have so many rules that govern their production. Do you find performance, or even writing books, more liberating? [Performance] is nice. There’s no point where I’m going to get stopped, where I’m going to have to wait around for permission from some random person. Also, books and movies exist in a really critical world. They can take a real beating as far as press and stuff. In performance, or at least the way I do it, it feels sort of unique. At this point I think I head toward that medium because I’m less likely to get critical feedback and reviews. I don’t even know if that’s true [about performance] or if it’s because I’m so inconsistent that no one’s really following the work. When I think, “Why do I still want to do that?” it’s partly because I love to do it and partly because it helps everything else [for me to have done] something that is that free.

You worked with your producer Gina Kwon on your first film too. What’s that relationship like? You know, you don’t have to have someone in that role, right? She’s not the person putting up the money, and she’s not an agent. A producing partner is not something you have to have, but it’s like a husband. In fact, to spare our marriages we often call each other instead of calling our husbands. There’s so much processing to do through the whole thing — for all the money you don’t get, through all the people who you’re trying to figure out if you can trust as you bring them into the world you’re making. We kind of started out together, so we’re not really that much more experienced than each other. We both have things we’ve learned along the way. [Our relationship] is a real comfort in a not very comfortable world.

Can you talk about the process of directing yourself, how you’ve honed that and figured out how to do it over all these projects? I think that actually comes out of performance. I didn’t think of it as acting, but I was doing that. [My performances] were very scripted; they had characters and I was always playing more than one character. I never had a director or anyone giving me feedback. I never questioned that with a lot of rehearsing I’d be able to figure out the best way to do it. [Part of that] is really feeling the audience, [being aware of] when it feels like it’s connecting. It’s the thing I know best, and it makes the whole filmmaking thing feel like mine. If I start comparing myself to filmmakers I know, most of whom are guys and many of whom I don’t relate to that much, I think to myself, “You’re coming at [film] from this angle, and it’s just a continuation of what you’ve always done and that’s always been its own thing.” I can get very loose about it in my head. Like, “Sure, we’re calling it a movie, that’s how we have to sell it… but who’s to say it’s really a movie?” I think that [approach] helps me to keep it wide-open feeling.

Do you feel another performance brewing? I remember the idea very clearly of wanting to directly engage with the audience members and utilize the present moment in a way that you can’t do with a movie. I’m suddenly having all those same ideas again and I’m like, waaait a second… I did all of these [things before] and that led me to [The Future].

Did you ever think about directing for hire? I know Mike Mills, your husband, does commercials. Have you done any? I haven’t. I always say I’m going to, but if anything arises like that I’m like, “What? Impossible!” I actually have some regrets that I hadn’t done something like that in between the two movies because I’m sure I would have learned a ton. I probably would sooner act in someone else’s movie as far as just staying in touch with what it’s like to be on a set. I feel like I could learn a lot that way. It would be very useful in terms of not having to do everything.

I think some people do it because they want to keep exercising their director’s muscle. That’s definitely true of Mike. I watch him and I’m like, “Oh, wow, he’s actually learning stuff . He’s using that new camera and…” Blowing up cars… Yeah. It’s just I always feel so under the gun with all these other mediums. It’s a totally self-created gun, for the most part. But it’s… [Right now] I’m feeling like if I don’t write fiction again soon I’m not a writer.

Being married to another filmmaker, how do you share all the stress involved? It’s funny, everything’s very sort of high stakes around here. Very exciting. But we’ve kind of been through it before because we met at Sundance when both our movies were in competition and we kind of jumped right into [the relationship].

Oh wow, how romantic… It was. It was also brutal enough that I think we were really careful this time to not share every little thing. We stopped reading each other’s scripts pretty early on. Pretty much all of my friends had seen Mike’s movie before I had. I would be like, “I’m about to lock picture, so I’m not watching any other movies.”

I think that’s the way to do it. Yeah, because at the same time while we’re not necessarily sharing all that, we’re still crying to each other and helping in this way that no one else can do. Like, “Am I breathing weird? Does this breath sound weird to you?” Th at place you go to when you’re shooting.

Did you ever struggle with calling yourself an artist during that period before you were recognized? No. [pause] No. I mean I started doing that so early, when it seemed preposterous that it could be true or viable. I think my parents are still recuperating from the battles of high school when I was like, “I know what I’m doing. Therefore I shouldn’t have to do all these normal things that other people do.” I think for them it was kind of scary, as if I wasn’t going to figure out how to take care of myself. I think it seemed like I was very alone in the world. But now I can say, “Oh, I’m selfgenerating.” Now it’s a positive.

To me, so much of your work, or at least how I relate to it, is about the discipline of self-imposed processes and the struggle of idea generation. I relate to it in terms of being hard on myself. [laughs] …that doesn’t make the movie sound very appealing to your readers…

“Go see her uplifting movie about self-flagellation…” No, but the movie is about doing what it takes to call yourself the thing that you are, isn’t it? Yeah, there is a lot of that, in this one especially. It’s so easy to think like, “Well I started this and I have to finish it.” But that can’t be what’s driving you. I do have to go back to the well a lot and think, “Okay, there’s no point in doing this If it isn’t connected to the absolute depths of what I’m concerned with.”

Once you start having to compromise, you have to have already identified the thing that you can never cut. Like the subplot with [the older lover] Marshall. Even when I was most down on the whole thing I remember thinking, I still can’t believe that I’m getting to put all this weird stuff in a movie. It seemed really dangerous and like, hard to articulate… I was sort of impressed at each point that I made it that far with such a theme.

I love that part of the movie. It spoke to me as a high-functioning woman, this idea of getting to shut your brain off and being taken care of by a man forever. I think that can be refracted in a bunch of diff erent ways, over the years… Early on, there were times when I saw that in the promise of fame, kind of, that you could be taken care of just by being looked at enough. The very, very small scale of [fame] I went through after the first movie, which is not how most people would think of fame, but for someone like me it was, was both soul-sucking and also felt like, “I could just get by on this kind of love.” And of course I’m smart, so I knew that was a dangerous thought, but some days I looked at it like that.

Someone I know who is famous said the strangest part is that people get nervous around you for no reason. They convince themselves that the interaction isn’t going well, even though you are the one who’s being truly boring. [laughs] Well it’s funny, because I relate so much to being on the other side of that so [when it happens to you] you know exactly what’s going on. “I know you’re trying to choose the five words that are going let me know that we’re connected.” I do that myself every day! This is one of the few scenarios where I have to pretend that I have no idea what the other person is doing.

One thing I try, because I recognize how weird it must be, is to tell a famous person, “Oh you met my cousin once at a party,” or, “We met once six years ago for five minutes.” In normal circumstances I would never know where you went to summer camp! Right. But knowing all of this, I still do it myself. I completely blew it with Jane Campion about a year ago. I walked away thinking, “What were those words coming out of my mouth?” I kept repeating the name [of my film, Me and You And Everyone We Know] just in case it would somehow jog her memory. And it’s kind of a long title, so that was really awkward, and she was visibly trying to get away.

All this makes me wonder, and perhaps this is just a general is-it-autobiography question, but why make a movie about characters who are less successful than you are? Who know themselves less? One answer is that I relate so much to them on an emotional level that it’s a fiction I can totally get behind. It’s also what I see all around me. If anything I wish I had gone further away from me. I’m kicking myself because I can’t believe I did this again. The parts of the movie I’m most comfortable with are when my character stops being a hipster [and moves to the suburbs], and then I’m like, “Ah, I can exhale.” As God as my witness, I won’t do it a third time.

It’s tricky, though, because you have to get specific about class, neighborhood, style. I’m curious if you remember making those decisions in terms of class, like what the apartment looks like, what neighborhood it’s in, how much money they make. Some people I know think about these issues totally from character biography. “This is where they grew up, this is what they do for a living,” and then there’s a more instinctual approach, like, “I see their house being white and concrete but not too fancy, and I don’t really want to be dragged into the muck of addressing precisely where the money comes from.” There were a few things that were sort of vibrant to me that did put [those ideas] in a specific place. Probably the biggest one is [the T-shirt dance]. That wouldn’t have worked if she weren’t this weirdo who would do a T-shirt dance and if Marshall wasn’t square enough for that to look kind of grotesque to him. That was one of the oldest, earliest things in the movie, so I think I ended up building around it. But then suddenly you think, if she’s that person then she also has to live in this apartment and have this boyfriend for this all to make sense. You just hope it’s worth it for [what it causes].

At the end of the day I think you need to say, “If this is going to be as effective as possible, it has to be unabashed and specific.” You can’t worry about that stuff because if you try to cover it up, then you’re being even more pretentious and cringe-y. Like, “Oh, she lives in Silverlake and is trying to be an artist, but she also works in a prison. And her best friend is black.” I was just thinking about my short stories — the very last one I wrote was about these two girls, and it was the most autobiographical. They were young lesbians and I remember thinking, “Wow it’s taken all this learning to really write something that is just so true, you know?” So transparently [about] my youth. I usually think like, “Well, if it’s good enough, if I try hard enough, then it will be relevant and will matter to enough people.” But that doesn’t happen automatically, because I’m not automatically interesting. But that’s the challenge, to do that work.

HOW THEY DID IT

PRODUCTION FORMAT HD.

CAMERA RED One Mysterium X.

EDITING SYSTEM Avid | Media Composer Nitris DX (v 4.0 and 5.0). Also used the RED Rocket card and Avid AMA to facilitate files transcoding.

COLOR CORRECTION Digital Vision Nucoda Filmmaster to debayer, conform, online and color correct. Film recording on Arri Laser 2K onto Fuji Intermediate Estarbased. First print on Kodak Vision 283.

GO BACK & WATCH

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND Michel Gondry’s 2004 surreal comedy based on Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant script uses cinema to illustrate the various trajectories that any life might take.

THE YEAR OF THE DOG Mike White’s offbeat 2007 comedy narrates the plight of Peggy (Molly Shannon) whose life—and love life—seem dictated by her dog, even after he dies.

HARRY AND TONTO Paul Mazursky’s quirky comedy follows the 70-year-old Harry (Art Carney) and his cat Tonto as they travel across America.

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