‘There’s something just so poignant of ‘life-y’ about that,’ July, on tour with ‘The Future’ (pictured) says of a correspondence she had with a prisoner while in high school.

Miranda July Throws Cautionary Tale to the Wind with ‘The Future’

Sean Uyehara August 8, 2011

Most people I know have an opinion about Miranda July. And, just about everyone I know who’s interacted with her has a story. She seems to be one of those people who brings out nervous behavior. If she wants, she can let you fall into yourself, trip over your words and step into a puddle of awkward. She’s canny and observant, and you can tell that she isn’t going to give you anything that she wants to keep back. Still, on this occasion, doing back-to-back interviews in support of her new film, The Future, which opens here this weekend, she was extremely generous, going out of her way to make my questions seem valid. As I asked around ideas, and wondered if any of it made sense, she listened and managed to bring things back to relevance.

She was in San Francisco last spring for San Francisco International Film Festival, and she had a pointed, public dialogue with State of Cinema speaker Christine Vachon. I unfortunately missed it, and when I spoke with her at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco, she strained to remember the exchange, which started to pull the conversation into that dark zone. I quickly glossed over it, and she proceeded to dazzle me with her acumen.

At the end of it, I would have to say, there’s no doubt in my mind that she would kick my ass in Scrabble.

SF360: You often describe The Future as a horror film. But, it doesn’t necessarily read as horrific only.

Miranda July: It’s really that—to me, it is like a horror film. I don’t think people will see it that way. It’s not a description of the whole movie, but the story line of the character that I play [Sophie]. For someone like me, who is constantly making things and is defined by my creativity, work and ability to make things, the idea of not being able to create, of becoming paralyzed, and instead of responding to that in the ways that I do (because that happens all the time), responding by fleeing my life, my soul and my love and to go and exist in a sphere where none of that is demanded of me, where I could be passive, that storyline is like a horror movie to me in that it’s enjoyable to watch. It’s more like a fear-fantasy. But, that’s only going to be true for people who can relate directly to that idea, and that’s only going to be true for a certain segment of the audience.

SF360: Still, a good deal of your work expresses that dual nature to darkness. It describes a darkness that is essentially attractive. It’s worrisome because the darkness can suck you in and maybe you want it to do that. Would you agree that that’s one of the primary occupations of your work overall—in film, writing and performance?

July: Definitely, and in life itself too.

I also think that in the film, unlike in a cautionary tale, the darkness isn’t actually truly bad. There’s a part of me that almost admires Sophie for going so far with her wrong turn. I don’t think you can mess up so badly that you don’t ultimately have to do what you were put here to do. So, this is just a particular very long, difficult path to—in this case—make the dance, which she does eventually do.

In my own life, my path has not been totally straight; I’ve made wrong turns. And I am interested in why we do that. It is lifelike. So that’s appealing to me.

SF360: You want people to embrace ‘the detour’ even if it’s not cosmically correct?

July: Yes, even if it feels profoundly wrong.

SF360: On the other hand, the character of Jason does things in the film that I suppose one could say are essentially good or uncorrupted, but the resulting path turns out to be equally dark. It’s not that his decision to listen to himself saves him.

July: Yes, that doesn’t protect you.

And, at some point he changes his path. He must stop time. He was going with the flow, and then he literally cannot let the next moment happen. That’s part of it. It’s easy to do until it’s not anymore. And, you still have to go on. For Jason, he can’t just let the world continue passively. No, you have to start it. You must engage with life and start it again.

SF360: I have a theory that Paw-Paw is Schrödinger’s cat.

July: No, not really. It might try to work that into the mix down at some point (laughs). It sounds OK, but no.

SF360: In the recent New York Times Magazine article about you, the author describes your work in terms of ‘surrealism.’ But, in most places I have seen you refer to unusual elements as ‘unreal.’ Do you think about your work in terms of the surreal—as coming from the unconscious—or is it a different kind of unreality that you are working with or portraying?

July: I think that I am just trying to be very accurate. When I am writing a short story I am always looking for that perfect metaphor. That thing that really feels like the feeling. That process isn’t so different in writing than it is in film. When Jason stops time, it’s not that different except that in film it’s not ‘like’ he stopped time. You can just show it. It’s hard to know what to call these things. They need a name, but surrealism, well surrealism and magical realism, both have histories and certain people that are attached to them and that’s not where I am coming from. I’d hate to put myself in this box—it’s usually other people who do this to me—but, when people reference Charlie Kaufman’s movies, for instance, maybe people call them surreal or magical realist. But, I think his work is also trying to get at a specific feeling in the service of a story. It’s not all that interested in how weird it can get.

SF360: One of the particularly remarkable aspects of your work is in the tendency to focus on specific details of intensely disparate elements and the construction of a kind of matrix where those elements are held in suspension. In The Future for instance, there’s the cat, the shirt, the moon, the penny saver guy, the tree service, backyard burial—all of these things that are not obviously related initially. Likewise, the characters seem quite individuated, almost isolated, and yet they relate to each other across a divide. Is that a way that you see the world, in general?

July: I suppose that’s always been one of my favorite ideas. In that New York Times article you mentioned, I talk about a correspondence I had with a man in prison, and then I wrote a play based on that correspondence. And, just the fact that a 38-year old man who I never actually met, who I became very close to, and was so different from me, a 16-year Berkeley prep school kid—that we both existed in the world and there was no obvious connection but what we made, and that it was a very awkward connection, it wasn’t always functional… If I look through almost everything I have ever made, that’s always been appealing to me. There’s something just so poignant or ‘life-y’ about that. Or it somehow gets at something important that we have here.

SF360: The web-based project that you made with Harrell Fletcher and is on display at SFMOMA currently, ‘Learning to Love You More’ also operates under a similar guise. You ask participants who engage with the piece to look at specific elements from their own lives, like take a flash photo of the underneath of their bed or to lay out and describe an outfit that is important to the participant. But within those specifics there’s a kind of universality that emerges.

July: All those activities on the website are things that I would do or Harrell would do on our own. But one of the problems of being an artist is that you start spiraling around yourself. Your whole job is just to have ideas and think they are interesting. Here, you have the idea, but then you get to be interested in not what you would do, but what everyone else would do. So, my only job was to have the idea. And, most of them I haven’t done. In some cases, you get to see hundreds of examples of them played out. And suddenly the whole thing of being unique because of having a unique idea is obliterated, and authorship just goes away. And, there’s something that for me gets past one of the stickier parts of being an artist, while it somehow still manages to be ‘my work’ in an odd way. That’s one aspect to it, and there also is this element of universality. But, I’m always looking for the detail, so I tend to not be as attracted to ‘Oh look, everyone’s doing this.’ I am usually looking for ‘the One.’

SF360: Is it comforting that within something that’s so broadly encompassing that everyone has this sort of difference?

July: Yeah. And, that we have that in common too. That’s somehow comforting.

SF360: Something that I have noticed when presenting films by a female director is that audiences, in my experience at least, are much more apt to assume that the film is autobiographical, semi-autobiographical or at least an expression of an essential self than if the film had been directed by a man. Would you say that’s a fair thing to say in general—that audiences feel that they know you because of your films?

July: Well, yes. And, try being in your films, too. (Laughs.) No one even pauses for a second when they assume it’s you.

I understand that. I think about it when I watch films. And, even with a male director, with someone like Woody Allen, it’s hard not to believe that that’s him. But, he usually says it’s not.

This perhaps seems obvious, but I say, and people who know me realize [it, too], that the character up there is not me. But the whole movie and all the characters together is so me. When Me and You and Everyone We Know was made, no one knew who I was, so people assumed I must be that character, Christine, and she’s so sweet and everything. But, my friends know that I am equally the pervert guy who is putting the signs in the windows. And, there was just no way to prove that to the world.

(And, how else do you make a world unless these things in it are in you?)

Still, I don’t struggle to get into character. I am familiar with the people I play. But, in the case of The Future, I pretty much put only things into Sophie that I am uncomfortable with or ashamed of even. So, thank God that’s not me.