LET'S GET A FEW THINGS out of the way: Yes, a cat narrates Miranda July's new movie. Yes, the moon comes to life, and a hipster couple feels sad, and a T-shirt becomes a prop in a forlorn interpretive dance. But to reduce July's work to a contextless catalog of its most ridiculous elements is to do the endlessly inventive filmmaker a disservice.
The Future is about a frustrated dancer who leaves her boyfriend for a middle-aged suburban divorcé. And while certain aspects can be off-putting, it's undeniably a careful, uncompromising film: Underneath the metaphors, July is really talking about aging, artistic expression, and just what it takes to make a relationship last.
July and I sat down for a conversation about The Future several months ago. She laughed frequently and had very good posture.
MERCURY: Much of your performance art is interactive. What's it like working in a medium that lacks that element?
MIRANDA JULY: I remember consciously thinking with the first movie [Me and You and Everyone We Know] that it needed to feel as interactive and demanding of presence or activity as a performance would for an audience—which, of course, it can't. So now I think everything that supports the movie has to have a sort of transparency, rather than seeming like some magic trick. Do you want the feeling at the end of the movie to be that you come crashing back to your own life after having believed in this fantasy, or do you come into your own life feeling sort of activated, or maybe even sad in a way that opens you up?
The movie functions in a lot of ways I'm not sure I understand. You use a lot of metaphor and symbolism—is communicating in these nontraditional ways another way of achieving that same end?
It's funny—I think of this movie as so much more traditional in a lot of ways than the last one. It's about a couple, it has an arc, it's sort of like an epic, it feels somewhat conventional. But I guess some of those emotions would be really easy to feel like, "Oh, I know what that is, that feeling when you've forsaken your true self," because you saw that in another movie—so if I do it in a new way, maybe that feeling of having forsaken yourself is shown by something else, by this T-shirt crawling after you, your security blanket. Then instead of reminding you of another movie, it will remind you of the actual feeling you've had, just by virtue of being surprising.
Is there a "right way" to understand the movie's symbolism?
I certainly don't make it being like, "Who knows what this means?" I know very specifically. [But] I've shown it to a lot of different people and I've been really surprised to see people really responding to it, and then they open their mouth and the thing they're saying they connected to was something I never even thought of, but that doesn't seem wrong.
I had something of that reaction, reading other reviews—a lot of reviewers have described the main couple as childlike, which I didn't see.
[Laughs] No. Of course we're not gonna see that. I kind of feel like, for a certain kind of person, childlike is a nice way to put it. I've had people be like, "Is she... retarded?" And I'm like, "Okay, well you just dissed my whole life." But that's okay too, because I think you have to be true to your language and your era, and that's part of my job. I think that's a little bit of an age thing, usually. And of course the second you do any little thing [on film], even if it's something you did in your own life, it just seems way more extreme, and way more stupid or messed up. That stuff is so dangerous.
What do you mean, "that stuff"?
Especially an interaction between a couple. I mean, god, there are so many things that me and my husband do where, because we're both filmmakers, we're like, "Wow, they have no idea. They think we're cute now." But it's not just one layer—we're also coping with other feelings that way, with pain that way. We know the complexities, and then you take it out of the context of your life and suddenly it's just a joke.
Your character in the movie doesn't really go off the rails until she tries to make a YouTube series where she does 30 dances in 30 days, and her inability to do that is what pushes her over the edge into cheating on her partner. Why YouTube?
I have to make a character that can have a lot of the feelings I have, but it can't be me, because my life is totally weird in a way that's not ultimately that interesting. So I took a lot of stuff from friends of mine, and in particular one best friend who was a dance major in college, and is this super creative, intense person who also has a lot of trouble literally getting up off the couch. And I relate so much to that feeling, in ways that she never believes me that I could.
Yeah, it is hard to believe. You get a lot done.
You're just gonna have to believe me. And something like the YouTube thing, we often talk about stuff she could do, she could do almost anything and it would be pretty amazing, but the actual doing of it... and it's especially awkward now that everyone younger than us seems to have no problem making 10 videos a day and putting them up. So we're slightly past the point where that just seems like the easiest thing in the world. And yet there are still all the same things about wanting to be looked at—and when I say "looked at," I mean both have an audience and have a man, basically, or some sort of father figure-esque type person look at you, those get really kind of blurred together. So rather than be tricky about it or metaphorical [about] the way I think I am in other parts of the movie, I thought, "Well, I'm just gonna be as literal and clunky here as I can be." She has that painful thing of a job that's kind of connected to the thing she wants to do but humiliatingly isn't it, at all, and she's now at an age where she realizes she just didn't automatically become that thing that she thought she'd be in college, which, I look around me and I see that happening all over the place. And I have my version of it.
What did you think you would be that you're not?
My version of it is the mortality portion of it. Being faced with like, "Oh, it's not just a fad that everyone is focused on having kids. It's this age." For a while I thought it was this cliché, and then it was like, "Oh wait, I have to make a decision about that too, one way or another." I'm 37, and I was making this movie for the past few years. I didn't start out thinking about [getting pregnant], but as it took longer to make, I was like... there's no timeline on how long an independent movie takes to get made. A few years longer and I have to decide, okay, this movie or....
This movie or have a baby?
I make it kind of black and white in the movie, because the movie is just fear—my character is all my worst fears, and she's making all her decisions from that point of view. And I know, just by looking around me at all the amazing things women with kids are doing, that it's just harder. It's harder but there's an upside to it. But I've had moments where I'm like, "Well, my life is gonna end on this date, and what do I wanna do before then?" What would that be like, if you were only thinking from that point of view? Not that it's explicit in the movie in quite that way.
I'm 28 and I'm used to seeing movies about people in their 20s worrying about marriage and babies. It was very comforting to finally see a movie about people in their 30s going through this stuff—like I've got 10 more years before I really have to fret about it.
[Laughs] Yeah, I see those movies with people in their 20s, and I'm like, "What are you guys doing? You shouldn't be thinking about this now! You should be doing something else."
I didn't understand the character of Jason [played by Hamish Linklater] as well as I understood yours. What was the impetus for his character?
I think I put my saving grace into him, which is curiosity. It's like he's actually the artist, and going about things the way you would if you really were gonna make something successfully, only I didn't really want to have the art part of it. And in some ways I think that's irrelevant. I also do that just in life, just walking down the street and trying to be really, really alert and notice everything, and usually something interesting happens, or I see something that is so outside of myself that it changes my perspective on everything. And if you're going to have a character like that, you have to really live it, you can't build a plot for them in the same way.
Can you elaborate on that?
I wanted him to be like that, but it felt very untrue to be like, "And he's alert, and then he comes upon this magical thing," you know? Because it's like, "Well, I just made that up, and that's not really how things work." So I just hung out with the idea that he was like that for an unbearably long time, kind of waiting for something to happen, and then, as I think the only way anything ever happens is by truly giving up, I gave up and decided to take a break from the script and I began interviewing people selling things through the Penny Saver.
For a different project?
Not even a project, really. It was the heart of the recession, I knew I wasn't gonna get financed right then, I was struggling with that one part of the script, Jason's part, and I was like, let's just see who I'm not meeting in L.A. Who doesn't have computers, basically, because if you're using the print edition of the Penny Saver then you probably aren't using Craiglist. And so I met and interviewed and photographed all these people I never would have met, all totally interesting, and one of them was that old man, Joe [Putterlick, a character in the movie that Jason meets, who also voices the moon]. And here I was trying to write about mortality, and I met this person who was so energetic, writing these pornographic cards for his wife—
Those were real?
Yeah, he wrote those. And [he wasn't] at all living the life that I thought was about to end. I had already told myself I was gonna be 82 like, next year, and here was someone who really transformed my perspective on time. And so I was like, "Oh, this is what Jason does." And so he plays himself and he's also playing the moon. I felt right about that. I'm actually making a little book about all the interviews, and more about [Putterlick, who died after shooting]. And we all knew at the time, he knew, and would say, that this was like the very end for him.
One of the more disturbing aspects of the movie is how after your character leaves Jason, she finds this normal guy and just plugs herself into this housewife role—what is it about that that's appealing?
Well, isn't the fantasy of every woman who takes on a lot to get to be so passive? But you have to construct a situation in which you wouldn't feel guilty about it, so it could never really happen. But it would have to be with someone who, at the very least, did not expect or care or need you to be creative, or anything of the things you know yourself as. So that's what he was. If he could just, like she says, watch her all the time, she wouldn't have to try. I'm sure there's all kinds of psychology there, but in the simplest sense, that's the fantasy and that would be the only thing you could do if you had failed yourself, if you were really stuck creatively, because this is a horror movie I was playing out, in my mind. For me, for what I do for a living, the real villain is like, "What if I get stuck and I just can't think of the next great idea?" And I'm thinking, "Well, if you're going to worry about that for your whole life, which it appears that I am, let's play that out." Okay, so you get stuck and you decide to like, break up with yourself, essentially. Then what are your options? Then what do you do? You can't really keep being with your soulmate, because that would never work—you would have to leave, you would have to go somewhere where nothing was expected [of you]. And then that wouldn't work. You would still ultimately have to make the thing. Like I always want to fuck up bad enough that I don't have to do anything—I mean, I don't really want to, but that's the fantasy. If I really blow it, everything will be annihilated and I won't have to do my book report. But you still do.