Miranda July’s second feature film, The Future, began life as a series of stage performances called Things We Don’t Understand And Are Definitely Not Going To Talk About, in which members of the audience were drafted to play the major roles. But there’s nothing stagey or amateurish about the film, a controlled, visually striking project starring July and Hamish Linklater as Sophie and Jason, a laid-back, artsy California couple who suffer through a relationship crisis—including an affair Sophie jumps into with a suburban dad named Marshall—when they panic over the impending responsibility of owning a cat. (The cat narrates her own sections in voiceover.) Funny, poetic, and involving, The Future delivers on the promise July showed in her debut feature, Me And You And Everyone We Know. July recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the movie, the way she consciously tried to avoid a sophomore slump, and the accusations that her films and characters are too precious.
The A.V. Club: When you were workshopping The Future onstage, with audience participation, how much were you improvising each night?
Miranda July: Well, having the audience involved would imply a certain looseness, but in fact, it’s the opposite. They were sort of plugged into very careful holes that allowed them to be there and to come through, but they didn’t improvise in it, they were told exactly what to do. They were put into costume, and things like that. There were video pieces, and music… nothing you could really improvise around. It was a lot like a movie.
Anyway, that was just the starting point. A lot of the seeds of the story were in the live performances. And the whole time I was making it, I was thinking that it would become a movie, but I didn’t know how formal the movie would be. By the time I was done with the performances, I was really ready for it to be a full narrative, like any other movie. Nothing experimental about it, per se.
AVC: Did the performances change at all? Did you add and remove elements from night to night?
MJ: Only as a work in progress. I performed it a bunch of times before it was done, but once it was done, I did it a bunch of times at The Kitchen in New York, and it was always exactly the same.
AVC: Was it like The Future onstage, or did it require a lot of adjusting to turn it into a film?
MJ: There are connections for sure, but it’s totally different. The movie’s in the real world. It took me two years to write the script. I pretty much started from scratch, while knowing that if I wanted to, I could use these elements I already had. They were like filled-in free spaces on a bingo card or something. But I still needed everything else. It’s a different process, but a great way in. I never had to sit down and think, “Okay, now I’m writing my second screenplay.”
AVC: Would that have been difficult, saying, “Okay, blank page, blank slate, second film, here we go”?
MJ: Yeah, I think that’s partly why I did it the way I did. And I finished my book of short stories, too. Those two things came after the first movie very consciously. There’s always the sense that you should strike while the iron’s hot and while there are all these opportunities, but that’s not the way I get ideas. It has to be more organic, building up through living and through experiencing things. I think in some ways, the performance gave me structure and lots of time to do that, to formalize that process in building up material for the movie.
AVC: Your character in The Future, Sophie, experiences a sort of creative paralysis when she sets out to perform a series of dances and post them to YouTube. Does that come from personal experience, the anxiety about creating something and putting it out there for people to see and comment on?
MJ: Oh, sure. It’s weird, though, because I sometimes come to ideas backward. I knew this woman would flee her life, but I didn’t want it to be from something really dramatic. I wanted it to be something that seems like she should be able to get out of so easily. It’s a self-paralysis. She’s put herself in a corner. To me, that seems like something we all go through, but we usually find a way out of it. So this movie is: “Well, what if you don’t? What if you make it worse and worse and worse?” My daily job is to find a way out of that place, again and again and again. That’s the artist’s job, really: continually setting yourself free, and giving yourself new options and new ways of thinking about things. The Future to me is like a fear fantasy. What if I took all of that out of myself and was stuck with the paralysis? And also, Sophie has this desire to be watched, which is the most unhelpful propeller behind making art. I mean, I have that desire too, and it’s probably the thing that most stands in my way.
Then there’s all these other reasons [for paralysis], which I put in Jason: the interest in the world, the openness and curiosity. That can become just as meaningless, if you don’t have the meaning in you. That’s where the magic of it comes in. It’s what you’re carrying inside of you that you haven’t discovered yet that allows you to find it in the world. And you can find it in almost anything, as long as you already have that direction inside of you. I wanted it to be purposefully arbitrary, because that was the real story. That was how I found the old man in the movie, Joe. I was interviewing people who were selling things through the Penny Saver, on an open-ended vision quest, like, “Maybe this will lead to something.” Then I met Joe. Those cards in the movie are his real cards, that he made for his wife. That was all very documentary. He’s a non-actor, playing himself in his own house, and kind of recreating the scene where we first met.
AVC: How did Hamish Linklater get cast as Jason?
MJ: He auditioned.
AVC: Given that you have a similar look, I didn’t know whether you went looking for him, or it was kismet.
MJ: He was the top recommendation from my casting director, so I brought him in. It’s funny, he didn’t look as much like me at the time. He had much longer hair in back. When I cast him, I wasn’t even thinking about that. But it just seemed good that we looked like we belonged together. This is a visual medium, and it seemed handy to use that to make the other guy, Marshall, seem completely wrong for me. I was always very clear about “Well, whoever plays the part of Jason can’t be too macho.” That simple visual equation had to work, always.
AVC: Early reviews of The Future have been mostly positive, but some people have had problems with the two lead characters, calling them excessively twee. And yet the movie itself seems to recognize this, and to cast a critical eye toward Sophie and Jason. Was that your intention?
MJ: That whole conversation is definitely something I did not have in my head when I was making it. The word “twee” would never enter my mind in a million years. That said, I’ve really felt like the story only works if these characters’ worlds completely revolve around themselves. For example, the cat. I’ve always fought to keep that cat in there because it just seemed to me like we needed a break from Sophie and Jason, and needed someone who was completely honest and direct and reliable, in a way. I always, in pretty much everything I’ve done, want the characters to be problematic, not totally knowing or articulating their feelings every second. My character, the whole time, I felt, was so embarrassed. For me, it was like “This is all the parts of myself and my friends I’m the most uncomfortable with.”
But it would’ve been more repulsive if I was like, “Okay, I’m going to have her work in a prison, because that will make her gritty and likeable.” That’s playing it safe, to make everyone likeable and a good person, you know? I think it’s more interesting if you go all the way with the world you have, and really look at it, and push it to an even more extreme extreme. So I guess that’s my answer. But then I don’t have the same relationship to those characters that a critic would, because I wrote them, and they come from things that matter to me. And I am never working from some sort of critical, sarcastic place like that. I am very sincere. Some people are always kidding, so when you’re not, it’s going to seem annoying to them.
AVC: But doesn’t a part of you recognize that the moment you put a talking cat onscreen, you’ve lost some people?
MJ: Well, yeah. I think there’s some idea that because it’s a movie, you’re supposed to try and get every single person into the theater and please them. I’m trying to make something that seems true to me. I don’t tally the world, asking, “Would this annoy you? Would this annoy you?” That’s so far removed from where I’m at when I’m in the trenches struggling with how to express things that I don’t fully understand myself.
AVC: Both your feature films have a stronger component of sexuality than the average indie film. Do you consciously attempt to explore that, or did it emerge from the natural process of developing the characters?
MJ: Well, I can guarantee you nothing I do is a conscious attempt to inject something in. If you read my short stories, there’s a lot of sex in those in all different ways. To me, it’s a really good, useful thing to get to have in a story. And in a movie, it’s amazing, because you actually get to show things. There’s actually another sex scene that we shot that I cut out, between Sophie and Jason. But the sex scene with Marshall, I remember someone read a draft of the script—actually an ex-boyfriend—and he said, “You know, this is a pretty rare thing, a woman writing a sex scene in a movie that she’s going to direct, and she’s going to be in the sex scene. I don’t know how many times that’s ever happened. And I know you, and I know that you can go a little further.” And I realized that I was pulling my punches. As bold as I can be in fiction and stuff, there was something a little unnerving to me that it was me. I was making it a little on the soft side. So I took that challenge and tried to figure out something that felt very personal and more like me, but that I hadn’t seen before. And that’s the part where I’m waiting by the chair.
AVC: Another striking sequence in The Future involves the little girl who digs a hole in her yard and wants to sleep in it, which Sophie allows to happen, but watches with a certain amount of, “Are you sure this is something you really want to do?” It’s a nice encapsulation of the movie, as the girl comes to realize that sleeping in a hole may not be as wonderful as she’d hoped.
MJ: That image of burying yourself in the backyard… many years ago, I did a performance that had that same story in it, although to be honest, I didn’t remember that when I wrote this initially. And then it was, “Oh my God, there it is again, the person who buries himself.” I don’t completely know why that haunts me. But for the sake of this movie, once it was in there, I realized what was most important to me so far as this story was that Sophie realized there was this real little girl who needed to be watched, and that it wasn’t her.
AVC: You’ve repeatedly mentioned this idea of being watched, and you said earlier that it’s not always a good impulse for an artist. Given that, have ever you considered making a feature film in which you don’t star?
MJ: I made some shorts that I’m not in. It’s not that different, in a way. There are parts of the movies that I’m not in, too. And I’ve had script ideas where I write it all out before I realize, “Oh, there’s not actually a character my age in this. I would not be able to be in this.” I think because I write so many short stories, it’s not that hard to come up with characters that are not me. But my way into making movies—into making things is general—has been through performing. My very first short film, I played a child and her own mother. So in some ways, to me, my great achievement so far is just that I’ve gotten all these other people to play the other parts. [Laughs.] That’s what makes it a real movie. Right this second, I’m just enjoying that, but also feeling very comfortable because I’m still in it, and that’s so familiar to me.
AVC: Could you see yourself directing something that someone else wrote, or is filmmaking too much an extension of your other art?
MJ: I can’t imagine being invested in someone else’s script. Thus far, everything I’ve made has come out of my really feeling it, out of the fire of my life. Especially making a movie: It’s so hard. It’s the hardest of all the things I do. To do someone else’s script? I don’t think I’d have a reason.