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The Future Director Miranda July

Known as a West coast performance and video artist in the decade before her 2005 award-winning debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Miranda July seems to jump effortlessly from one medium to another. Her collection of short stories — No One Belongs Here More Than You — won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2007, and more recently she designed an interactive sculpture garden that was on view in the 2009 Venice Biennale before moving to Union Square this past summer.

At this point, there are very few career moves for Miranda July that would be surprising. Her second feature has been eagerly anticipated, and now — six years after her first feature — she returns with The Future, which will go to the Berlin Film Festival after its Sundance premiere.

The Future has its roots in a performance called Things We Don’t Understand and Definitely Are Not Going to Talk About that July developed in several cities in 2006 and 2007. The film has surreal, theatrical elements that will be familiar to long-time observers of July’s work. The moon is a character, as is a talking cat. Time stops. Fantasies are realized.

While these elements might sound a bit twee, July is clear: The Future is a horror film. Like all of Miranda July’s work — which is suffused with a wide-eyed hopefulness and obsessed with the possibility of connection in a disconnected, digital age — The Future feels alive, and it never ceases to surprise.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about the way The Future evolved from the live performance, Things We Don’t Understand and Definitely Are Not Going to Talk About? How one grew into the other?

July: By the time I did it in New York, it had all these key elements — what ended up being the surreal parts of the movie, they were all in the performance. ‘Course they weren’t as weird back then, because performance is inherently a stranger, freer medium. Which I think is partly what was so good about starting it that way. I knew I wanted to make another movie, but my path into it couldn’t just be me sitting down and saying: “Okay, I’m writing my second movie.” I think on some level I didn’t even want to know I was doing it. I wanted the most liberated, unrelated-to-the-industry or market way into it. As soon as I finished the performance and could really call it done, I was ready to start making a movie — and really had no interest in touring the performance, which is what one would do.

Filmmaker: Do you always know when you’re done with a performance that you’ve really explored it as much as you can? And does gaining success allow you to trust your intuition more — or does it make you question it?

July: Success doesn’t really make you more confident as far as pure creativity goes. I think maybe it helps as far as managing in the world — like confidence in a meeting, but that’s so different from internal, personal freedom. The main thing for me is that I’m doing what I’ve always done. I’m working, and I think that’s the most important thing, regardless of success — as far as learning, figuring out how to do it. I’m not really doing anything different than if things hadn’t gone well. I mean, I worked just as hard on my work for ten years before Me and You and Everyone We Know came out. On some level, it doesn’t change anything.

Filmmaker: I was reading your director’s statement, where you mentioned that as a child you had a folder labeled “Ways to Go Back in Time/Enter Other Worlds” — and it remained empty. Do you remember what age you were?

July: I was sort of hoping nobody would ask that, because it’s not as young as it should be. I think I might’ve been 12 or 13.

Filmmaker: As you got older — into your 20’s – and were exploring, did you try to find other ways to “Enter Other Worlds,” be that through paths like psychedelic drugs, or past-life regression, or Transcendental Meditation, or…? Or was that idea of “other worlds” something that was just part of your childhood?

July: I definitely haven’t given up trying to figure out how to do that. But I was too much of a safety-oriented person to go too far with drugs, so that wasn’t really an option. I think because my parents were fairly deep into “New Age” things, that seemed like not my world. So I think art has been it — and I invested a lot of actual belief in the idea of, well, not necessarily transformation, but that you really could do something. I think there’s a small part of me that still thinks that a movie or a book, with the right, exact combination of words, you could get somewhere else — and not in a poetic sense. And that’s just my private thing — I don’t bring it up when I’m pitching movies (laughs).

Filmmaker: Do you think there’s a genuine, personal value in creating work that affects other people? Is it something that nourishes you as much as you would have anticipated when you were younger?

July: It’s funny — it’s  not like what I would’ve hoped for when I was in my 20s. In the last five years or so, it’s kind of hit me that that: “You’re never gonna get there” — the “there” that you thought would be rewarding or bring you peace. That’s always only going to be only a, well, itchy feeling. You’re only ever gonna want to get there and you’re never going to get there. So that said, it kind of changes the priorities. I used to have a sort of striving because I thought there was a reward on the other end — not financial, certainly, but something about being…seen. And now it’s back to the folder. Back to the unspeakable processes that happen when you make something — and in the moment, in the connection between people. But that’s a hard thing to get at. You can’t really get it by, say, reading about yourself in a magazine. It’s pretty elusive.

Filmmaker: In having surreal characters in The Future, like the moon, or a cat, bumping up against a story about technology and human intimacy — is that a desire to depict characters who aren’t as controlled by ego and and self-awareness? In as much as a cat lives by animal instinct, intuition — it  doesn’t care what people say on the Internet.

July: You know, I’m probably a little less fanciful or whimsical than people might think I am. Those things come into the story — like the moon or the cat taking — in what seem to me to be sturdy, almost scientific ways. It’s not like a stared at the moon and wondered, “What if it talked?” It’s more like I’m in there, trying to write a story, and I’ve got a character who’s alone in time, which has stopped, and that’s going to be pretty…boring — even though I like the idea. And it’s going to be three in the morning, and it’s dark, and how’re we going to light it? I guess there’s the moon…and then you kind of go from there.

Filmmaker: Do you think of your talking cat as being part of a, well, sort of subcategory in storytelling of talking cats? Along with The Master and Margarita, as well as that Murakami book from several years ago, or does that not even enter your mind while you’re writing?

July: Um…do they have talking cats?

Filmmaker: They do.

July: Well, I came across a George Saunders story, Fox 8, after I’d written the cat part, and I thought: “It has to be just like this! This is great, and I know George, and he’ll let me steal this voice!” But…ultimately, it didn’t really happen or make sense.

Filmmaker: Have you tried to take a break from the Internet like your characters in The Future? Were you successful?

July: In a small way, I have to do it almost every day to write. I pull the cord, so there’s no Internet, and I lock my iPhone in the glove compartment of my car. That just makes it harder, but at least it’s enough to make me stop trying. The feeling I always have, oddly, the second the Internet is gone, is not that I’m less distracted — it’s that I can’t be seen now. That I have privacy. As if somehow it goes in reverse, and the Internet is seeing you, which I guess in some sense it is. But that finally I’m all alone — and they can’t see me. Which is a good feeling… for about two minutes.

Filmmaker: Would you view your relationship to the Internet as an addiction?

July: Yeah, I’d say it’s an addiction, for sure. Maybe I’m comforting myself in saying this, but most people I know have it. Although some less than others. I can tell my husband is less addicted than me. Just in my room, as I walk around, I notice that I constantly glance at my in-box from afar because I’ll be able to see if there’s the blue dot from an unread e-mail. I just need to know it’s there.

Filmmaker: When you were younger — say, when you made that folder for entering other worlds — do you think you would’ve romanticized being in a long-term, committed relationship?

July: It’s funny — about the same time when I made that folder, around 13, I started being involved with guys. And that’s what I thought romance was: if you found “the one,” you two would figure out how to go into another world together. And I remember specifically lying with a guy, talking late into the night, where it’s so late and you’ve talked so long that you’re just hallucinating, and I said something like: “Don’t you feel like words are holding us back, and if we could find a way to communicate without words, we could get into some other world?” And I really, honest to god, didn’t mean kissing, that was the furthest thing from my mind. I was picturing some kind of ESP, or astral projection — that’s what I meant by “no words.” Of course that’s the moment he jumped on top of me. And I was like: “Oh, right. I can see how I got myself into this.”

Filmmaker: Can you talk about the fantasy from the film of having a simple life in the suburbs where someone takes care of you?

July: I think a lot of women — especially a lot women who take on a lot, and are in positions of power — have a fantasy of, well, not just being taken care of in the healthy, equal partners sense, but really being taken care of. So you’re totally passive. Which of course I would never let happen, because that to me implies a total loss of my soul. So in The Future, the only way I can get there is by having already so given up on myself that it seems like a viable option, like I have nothing left to lose. This, by the way, is my interpretation. At this point, I have no idea how other people will respond. I’m sure it will mean all sorts of things to different people.

Filmmker: Can you talk about The Future as being a sort of horror story, and what your definition of “horror” is?

July: A horror story to me is an emotional horror story. It has to do with things you’ve tried to forget about rising up, as they tend to do. I think the deeper you bury something or the more you try to push it away, the more horrifying it is when it comes back. There was some of that in the movie. That’s been interesting to me for a long time, actually. I did a live performance — before Me and You and Everyone We Know — that was about a woman who buries herself in her back yard and then goes on and keeps living, but she can’t forget about the thing in the yard. And it becomes monstrous. She becomes monstrous in her own absence. Just to say, it’s always been interesting to me.

Filmmaker: What was the experience like of shooting a feature in Los Angeles with a crew that was largely German? Do you think it affected the film?

July: I had to hire a certain percentage of German crew because of our financing, and initially it seemed like an intense hassle because of visas and putting everyone up. The end creative result, though, was that it was a really good thing. I don’t know how it affected it other than they were really good people, and really good at their jobs. This sounds kind of like an ethnic generalization, but our sound guy…was kind of amazing. And I’m not sure we would’ve found a sound guy that good for our budget level. But I think it was also attractive to the Germans to do an American movie. So I think it worked out for the best. We just ended up getting really interesting people.

Filmmaker: I think Hamish Linklater is such a great actor, and I was really excited to see he’d be acting opposite you in The Future. Sort of absurd question, but: his hair resembles yours quite a bit. Random, happy accident, or…?

July: It is. I certainly wasn’t casting the hair. In the moment, when I was casting, I wasn’t thinking about that at all. In fact, his hair was a little different then. I think, though, that ultimately I did decide to cut it in a way to make it look more like mine. I guess it was just a happy accident.

The Future opens in theaters July 29.

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