Miranda July is a unique talent with many strings to her bow; she’s a performance artist, musician, novelist, screenwriter, director, actor, and, as I discovered when I sat down with her at the Sydney Film Festival, a generally charming human being. Her latest movie – The Future – is a romantic drama about crumbling couple Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater), told from the perspective of their soon-to-be-adopted cat Paw Paw (also July). The picture has already screened to much acclaim at the Sydney Film Festival, the Melbourne International Arts Festival, and the Perth International Arts Festival, ahead of its DVD release this week. In this chat, we discussed the inspiration for the project, her internet obsessions, alienating ‘the right people’, the royal wedding, and her five favourite movies (a question she first responds to by exclaiming ‘Oh s***’)!
SM: I understand, starting out, you used to do your performances before punk rock shows. Maybe it’s me, and maybe my knowledge of what a live punk rock show isn’t accurate, but that seems kind of incongruous with your work. Can you tell me about doing that?
MJ: It’s more that when I first started out – I was like 16 – I wrote a play, and the only place that I could come up with to put it on was an all ages punk club. I wasn’t even, at that time, very punk, you know? The whole thing was very daunting to me. But that’s the real value of all-ages spaces – they let me do it, because it was all run by kids anyways. Then I did sort of get into the music, and did a number of other plays there, and started performing pretty scripted things. I was always a little out of step with the music in a way, but I think at the same time it made me more interested in music and was performing with music from really early on.
SM: Nice one. Well, like you said, you wrote a play, you were interested in music. When you get a spark of inspiration for a project, does the form come with it, or is that something you come to later?
MJ: Usually the form does come with it; like I’ll have an idea, and I’ll always write it down, with ‘P’ in the corner for ‘Performance’ or ‘N’ for ‘Novel’ or ‘M’ for ‘Movie’. Then I can go back and it’s like a filing system. Although I will say with this new movie The Future, it started out as a performance and then evolved into a movie, so I don’t always know, and I sometimes have to follow an idea through different mediums.
SM: Can you tell me a bit about the first germ of an idea for The Future?
MJ: It actually came when I was editing my first movie – Me and You and Everyone We Know – not so much an idea, as the feeling of a breakup. I went through an abrupt breakup and the movie I was editing was pretty hopeful and kind of light and I remember thinking, ‘I want to make a movie that has this feeling in it. If I could figure this out, it’d be so satisfying; showing this darkness, and almost kind of violence.’ So that scene of the character who sees he’s about to be broken up with, and stops time in that moment, that was a really early scene that was also in the performance. But in the movie you really get to do it! You get to stop time. You don’t just get to describe it.
SM: It’s been about six years since Me and You and Everyone We Know. Was there a lot of pressure to immediately follow it up with another movie, because you had so much attention coming off the back of that?
MJ: I guess there was, but I was so determined to do the things that I’d always done. I wanted to finish this book of short stories that I had been working on, so I did that, and I promoted that. I also began doing more art-world stuff; I made a sculpture garden for the Venice Biennale. In a way, I sort of can’t believe that I’ve made another movie so soon (laughs). Like, it seems really soon to me. That’s probably indicative of my weird way of working. I’m just always rotating through these mediums.
SM: If it works, that’s something to keep going with. Can you tell me a bit about the writing process of the screenplay? Are you someone that can sit down for eight hours and knock something out, or do you like working on a few other projects at the same time?
MJ: I’m pretty much just working on the screenplay when I’m working on it. It’s a tough thing. I do the discipline; I sit down, I turn off the internet. But I only get so far with that. There’s a lot of things I can work out through trying to write, and there’s a lot of things that have to happen through living. For example, the old man in the movie – there’s an 82-year-old man who one character meets through the classifieds, and I did meet that very old man through the classifieds – and he’s playing himself in the movie.
SM: Were you also buying a hairdryer for $3?
MJ: No, but I bought a hairdryer from someone else! So, I used that detail. I think often I’ll get stuck, so in a way I have to let go of the idea of making something, and sort of give up and live a little bit, and then I’ll find myself organically back in the story through real life.
SM: You said you turned off the internet, which I think is very impressive and very admirable. Your character in the film is trying this ’30 Day, 30 Dance’ project for YouTube. Do you like the way the internet has democratised the way people can release their art, or is just adding to the noise?
MJ: Well, it’s both, right? I’ve always liked the idea of everyone being able to make their own audience and not be dependent on other people ‘discovering’ them, or something. As far as creativity – as far as feeling absolutely alone and being able to generate something out of ‘nothingness’ – that’s not easier now that there’s the internet. But I think you have to be a lot more conscious of deciding to do that, and deciding not to, essentially, watch TV all day long.
SM: Saying that, are there any YouTube videos or websites that you’re obsessed with?
MJ: Sure. What do I look at? I have a friend who has a good website called Unchanging Window, that’s just the things she comes across, but she’s way more of a cinephile than me, so I’m always reading about new movies and new music.
SM: The Future is narrated by the cat Paw Paw. Was that in the original draft, to have the story told from Paw Paw’s perspective?
MJ: Yeah. Paw Paw just tells his own story, and I thought it was important to have a break from these two characters that was significant; that wasn’t just another human. That was on another totally emotional honesty scale. And that was there from the start. It took me a while; it was always evolving, but Paw Paw was in the performance version of the movie as well.
SM: I find the way you combine those fantastical elements – like freezing time and Paw Paw narrating the film – the way you combine that with the everyday romantic drama very powerful. Are you ever concerned you might alienate either audience by being too fantastical, or veering too far into…?
MJ: Normalcy? When we would be pitching the movie, trying to get money, I saw Paw Paw as the huge selling point. ‘And there’s a talking cat! Like, what’s not to love? And a shirt that moves by itself! Haven’t you been waiting to finance that movie?!’ So, no, would be the answer to that question (laughs). It sort of helped me; I think my work generally alienates all the right people; all the people who should not be in my life anyway, and are only going to slow me down. It kind of attracts the very best, for me, supporters. So, ultimately, the people who wanted to make the movie were the right people. It’s useful in that way. Although, sure, along the way it can feel like you’re pretty far out on a limb.
SM: The official Future website has a – what’s the best way to describe it? – a future predictor.
MJ: A wheel.
SM: Right, a wheel, that you pose with a dilemma, and it gives you advice and predicts your future. I tried it, and it worked wonders.
MJ: Oh good!
SM: Do you use tarot cards, or have you ever had your fortune told?
MJ: Right, I don’t know how to do any of that. I don’t really even understand astrology. But I’m a huge sucker for anything … it’s just self interest, right? (Laughs) I could find a scrap of paper on the ground and be like, ‘This is it. This is gonna be the answer!’ And sometimes it is. I don’t rule out anything, so it’s right up my alley. It’s the kind of thing I would enjoy. I don’t know if they’re all coming true … but some of them are.
SM: A 50% success rate is all you need to get by. Are there any artists at the moment that are inspiring to you, or of interest to you, in any of the mediums you work in?
MJ: Let’s see. There’s an artist named Marie Lund, who people can look up. She’s a visual artist, whose work I really like a lot. What else? Music…I’m just listening to what everyone else is listening to. Like the new Kanye West album, which isn’t even new anymore.
SM: It’s great though.
MJ: It is! It really is. Yeah… I’m so bad at this kind of thing, I always blank out.
SM: That’s ok! I like to end by asking for your five favourite films.
MJ: Oh, s***.
SM: I know, I know, everyone reacts the same way. It can be of all time, OR, it could be five recent movies you loved.
MJ: Right, the five movies I watched on the 14 hour flight over? (Laughs) That would be horrifying.
SM: Everyone knows the movies you watch on a plane are rated on a higher scale as well.
MJ: Oh my God; luckily I don’t have to tell you what I chose. Let’s see, there’s a great movie that’s an old movie from the 40s called Random Harvest. No one’s heard of it apparently…
SM: But you’re recommending it?
MJ: I really love it. It has something in common with Somewhere in Time, which is a movie from the 80s that’s kind of cheesy, but also sincerely sort of great and also about time travel. Oasis is a Korean movie; more recent, like, maybe five years ago, that also has a surreal element that I love. That’s three… Beginners, my husband’s [Mike Mills] movie that just come out in the US, and …
SM: It’s the closing night film of the Sydney Film Festival.
MJ: It is!
SM: I believe so.
MJ: Oh really. OK. (Laughs) Then, lastly … good Lord … The Short Films of Jane Campion.
SM: Excellent choice. She’s also here for the festival.
MJ: She terrifies me, so I’ll be avoiding her. But I admire her.
SM: Can you tell me what you’re working on next?
MJ: I just finished up a book – it’s a non-fiction book, very personal – called It Chooses You. It sort of connects to the movie in the end. And now I’m going to work on a novel.
SM: Before you go, I have to ask, you wrote a short story called Majesty, about a woman who’s obsessed with Prince William. Of course, Prince William got married recently. Would you ever do a sequel with that character?
MJ: (Laughs) Wow, I’m sure I have it in me actually, because it’s a deep well that comes from. Not obsession with Prince William, but it’s easy to think about that. But no.
The Future arrives on DVD in Australia on February 17, 2012. Check out our review here.