Miranda July on the past and the future

Miranda July on the past and the future
A riot grrrl with a message for the world — Miranda July leaves pieces of herself everywhere she goes. Through films, books, online projects and one-woman live shows, she’s found a way to quell the urge to reach out and connect. Her new film, The Future, seems propelled by that same need.

When I pull my car up to her office on a quiet block in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, Miranda July is standing on her porch wrapping up a phone call. The sun is shining, birds are chirping. She smiles, she waves and time slows. It’s hard to resist the notion that I’m suddenly in a scene from one of her films – all that’s missing is the haunting, quirky musical score.

We sit down in the small house she’s converted into an office, the walls adorned with photographs and artwork. Wearing a mismatched ensemble of cobalt leggings, black miniskirt, red and white floral top and a heavy knit cardigan, July perches at the end of the sofa, feet tucked underneath her.

It’s been six years now since July showed up at the Sundance Film Festival with Me and You and Everyone We Know. The oddball ensemble film – best remembered by some for a scene where an adorable seven-year-old proposes passing poop back and forth forever, butt-to-butt, with a stranger in a chat room – raked in numerous awards on the festival circuit, including a Caméra d’Or for Best Feature at Cannes.

Her follow-up wasn’t a film, but a collection of short stories called No One Belongs Here More Than You, which won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story award and was published in twenty countries.

The Future, her richly inventive and devastating new film, centres on a couple who, realising their lives will be forever altered by their decision to adopt an injured cat, decide to quit their day jobs andcarpe diem for their final month of youth and independence. On paper, the premise could easily elicit eye-rolls – but thanks to her deft writing and interweaving of elements from her performance art, July makes it work brilliantly.

I first met July back in 2005 when she was in the midst of post-production on Me and You. I happened to be working as an assistant to the movie’s music composer, Mike Andrews, and he and July had just become romantically involved. We talk a bit about that period and I reveal that at that time, I found her a little shy and elusive, but that today (and in other recent press I’ve watched and read) she seems confident, warm and generous.

“I’m really gratified to hear that,” she says. “I kept thinking during making this movie, ‘Oh no, I’ve lost it – I was really confident back then!’” she laughs. “It’s one of the many tricks you play on yourself. I often put myself in a fairly desperate feeling situation just to propel boldness.”

This notion of desperation as personal provocateur is a theme that weaves itself into much of July’s work, and is, as I discover, deeply rooted in her personal history.

The Past

When she was five, Miranda July (known by her real last name of Grossinger back then) relocated with her family to Berkeley, CA, from Vermont. She remembers little about Vermont, but this new world in Berkeley, she quickly realised, was not quite normal.

“When you grow up in Berkeley, you have a lot of thoughts about what the rest of the world will be like,” she says about the famously left-leaning, activist-centric Northern California city. (In The Future July’s character subtly demonstrates this difference by straightening her hair when she relocates to the suburbs: “You can’t even be as weird as having curly hair there,” she notes.) “And you live in one of the weird places, and the people seem weird. There’s a lot of invention about what a normal place might be like.” Coincidentally – or not – her husband, graphic designer, filmmaker and music video director Mike Mills, also grew up in Berkeley.

There’s a strange cadence to July’s voice that makes many of her sentences sound like questions, and her eyes are always intensely fixed on me as we talk. Basically, she’s pretty much exactly like she is in her films.

As a young girl, July was already planting the seeds of her later work. Using her dad’s tape deck, she would record one half of a conversation and leave gaps in the recording for responses. Then she’d play the tape back and answer her own questions. “It just seemed so magical that you could record yourself and play it back and… there you were!” she says.

She spent her high school years doing performance art pieces at legendary Berkeley punk rock club Gilman Street (where Green Day got their start) and then dropped out of college after a year and moved to Portland.

Though they generally supported her artistic endeavors, it wasn’t exactly what her parents – hard working, Ivy League-educated writers – had intended for her. “I seemed pretty delinquent to them, you know. Or just scary,” she laughs. “Luckily it all worked out or I would still be having difficult phone calls with them.”

In Portland, she became a “real sincere thief” – stealing food, mostly, or just whatever else she needed to get by in order to make the leap from working to becoming a full-time artist. “I was talking to Carrie Brownstein [of the band Sleater-Kinney, and the current TV show Portlandia] and I was comforted because I think of her as classy in a certain way, and we were comparing scams we all used to do and I was like, ‘I’m so glad you used to do that too,’ and she said, ‘Oh, that was just normal at that time.’”

“I don’t think we were all just fucked in the head. I just think that at that time in Portland, in that sort of riot grrrl-esque era, it was somehow a political or righteous thing to do, but then getting hooked on that [became] a way of living. I stopped cold turkey when I started going out with [K Records founder] Calvin Johnson. He’s the most upstanding citizen. He’s like the mayor of Olympia.”

As well as moving into a house “full of punky girls”, she also joined a band – another perennially hip thing to do in Portland. Just after she booked their first tour, her girlfriend (in the band) dumped her for her best friend (also in the band). She decided it was time for revenge. “I was like, ‘Guess what? I’m coming too! I booked this tour, but I’m not in The Need anymore. I’m Miranda July and every city you’re in, I’m going to be there too. We won’t look at each other but I’ll be damned if I’m going to give up this slot that I booked.’ So I had to call each place and tell them there’s been a change and there’s now two acts.”
It was the first time she used the name ‘Miranda July’.

“I think for a number of years I was still running on that energy that I had to prove myself,” she says. “It wasn’t until long afterwards that I realised, I guess I’m doing my work for other reasons now because I couldn’t possibly still be doing that!”

The Future

Years later, the traumatic conclusion of another relationship provided the inspiration for her new film, The Future. “I was really blindsided, I didn’t see it coming,” she says of the breakup, which happened while she was editing Me and You. “It felt very violent to me. […] Here I was editing this very hopeful candy-coloured movie but I was feeling all these unbearable qualities of getting through time. Those [feelings] were the seeds of [The Future].”

She began by working on a live performance piece, which she staged in New York at The Kitchen and in a few other cities. Like the spoken-word acts that came before it – many of which saw members of the audience adopting lead roles – it offered her an outlet to produce something slightly more “under the radar”. She adds: “I needed to be free, and not worry about making something people like. I realise now that I’m in one of those times again, where you don’t know what you’re going to make so you’re just listening for what resonates.” It was this organic process that ultimately helped her develop the film’s most striking set-pieces: a talking cat named Paw Paw, a shirt that crawls, and a boyfriend that stops time with his hands and talks to the moon (which responds, naturally).

One of the film’s most striking themes is artistic paralysis and how our creative work defines us. It’s also about how we set impossible goals for ourselves – boxes to tick as prescribed by society. “The elaborate plan that you’ve made for yourself and the standards you’ve set,” is how July puts it. Shortly after realising that her freedom will soon come to an end once she and her boyfriend adopt the cat (a metaphor for having a child, perhaps), July’s character, Sophie, sets a goal to produce “thirty dances in thirty days” and post videos of them on YouTube. She immediately fails on day one.

“That’s very ‘me’ to have a very complicated setup of what I have to achieve, and then no one cares if I do it or not,” explains July. “She’s the essence of a thing that I feel. […] Like, what if I couldn’t find a way to get un-paralysed, what would I do then? What if instead of doing something expansive and hopeful, what if I did something really self-destructive?”

Towards the end of the film, when her character’s security blanket (a large yellow shirt) hunts her down after she abandons her life and escapes to the suburbs, she gets inside the shirt and finally completes the dance. When her new partner Marshall (played by the rather creepy-looking David Warshofsky) catches her at her most vulnerable – as herself – the distance between the two of them is striking.

July’s characters yearn for connection. In Me and You and Everyone We Know, we witness several odd pairings trying to communicate: teenage girls indulge an older guy’s paedophiliac fantasies; a young boy flirts online with a lonely museum director. Even her internet art projects like Learning to Love You More ­– a website that gives its visitors artistic assignments like ‘Make an encouraging banner,’ ‘Perform the phone call someone else wished they could have,’ or ‘Feel the news’ ­– are about July connecting with strangers in a meaningful way.

“The important thing about those projects is that I shouldn’t be at the centre of them,” she says of her online work. “It’s creating a place for other people that can really be about them. […] I wish you could come out of the movie theatre after seeing my movie and feel like it was about you, or you are now thinking of yourself in a new way. But because that’s just very ephemeral and hit or miss, and there are many other joys with fiction that have nothing to do with that too, I think there’s something really satisfying about actually [creating something] where I get to see the person. They have a name! And there they are! And look, they’re doing it! They’re connected to me but only through this little thing.”

Another project she was working on before production began on The Future involved July interviewing strangers who had placed ads in the PennySaver, a classifieds newspaper. That project turned out to have a strong, unintended impact on the film. While conducting her interviews, she saw a classified ad from a man named Joe selling ­– bizarrely enough ­– the fronts of Christmas cards, and couldn’t resist.

“I met this old man and there were so many weird resonances with him and with the movie, some of them quite literal,” she explains. “Like, him and his wife met at Lake Paw Paw sixty-two years ago, and I have this cat named Paw Paw already in the movie ­– and I had basically written all of it when I met him. He made these cards for his wife that were really dirty in a way that made me kind of question time, and relationships over time. I mean these cards were full of dripping twats, you know, and he’s eighty-two, and he’s really about to die. He makes nine of them a year for her! I can show them to you!”

And July ended up including Joe, and his cards, and his house in the movie. “And then he died – as he knew he would,” she says. “We were really pushing it the whole time, almost uncomfortably so. I mean, it’s exhausting making a movie. I feel like I’m about to die ­– but he really did. There was a point where he had two weeks to live and I was like, ‘That’s it, he cant be in the movie it’s just totally irresponsible,’ and so while shooting I was trying to recast him ­– which was impossible because it was based on him ­– but in the end we just did it. Him and his involvement in the movie had a big impact. All the themes about mortality and time were really different after he became a part of it.”

After both Joe and his wife died, Miranda found herself at the couple’s house gathering their mementos. “It gets really weird. I won’t go into it all, but it went from cold-calling this guy’s ad in the PennySaver to that,” she says, pointing to bride and groom figurines encased in a glass jar sitting on her desk. “That’s from the top of their wedding cake.” She pauses and shakes her head in disbelief as if to say, I know, right?!. “One of their daughters called me and said, ‘We took what we wanted but the rest is being thrown out today.’ I was in the middle of a photo shoot and I was like, ‘Gotta go!’ I rushed over to their house and I swear to god, everything was exactly as it was,” she says, seemingly still in awe. “It was all about to be dumpstered and I couldn’t get a house, a lifetime’s worth of stuff, but I went and grabbed everything I thought was amazing or knew was special to them.”

A non-fiction book about the PennySaver project will be released concurrently with the DVD of The Future, partly, it seems, as a kind of tribute to Joe – and perhaps every stranger that’s become intertwined in her work – and partly as an ode to the timelessness of print. “I remember saying to Joe’s wife, ‘We’ll see you at the premiere’,” she says in a sing-song voice, noting the irony. “I don’t know what I was thinking – I should’ve just brought her a DVD… but in another way I was like, ‘Is this going to kill her? Seeing her husband in a movie?’ You know? I knew he hadn’t seen a movie since 1969 so she probably hadn’t either. That’s why I had to do the book.”

This constant need to “do” something – whether it be a book, art show, performance piece or film – is no doubt at the root of July’s prolific output. And yet, despite a long list of projects that resonate, she describes how she lost faith in her abilities during the making of this film. “Not so much the writing, but myself as a director I really doubted,” she says. “I was going to the dark place that my character does and I would have moments where I would be on set about to act and I’d think, ‘Can I just slip out the back door and just keep walking? And maybe just start a new life somewhere?’ and then I’d think, ‘Wait, that’s exactly what I’m doing in this scene!’”

As a point of illustration, July recalls being sent an article a few years ago about the police finding actress Margot Kidder (Lois Lane in the original Superman) dishevelled and paranoid and living in the bushes in a Los Angeles suburb. “There was a quote from her that said, ‘I left the credit cards and the kids and I just left. I was in a very dark place.’ I don’t think I’d heard that phrase ever before,” she says, with a haunted tone. “If you’re hearing it for the first time it seemed… she was talking about something almost mystical, you know? I wanted to tell that story. That resonates with me.”

Audience reaction to both Me and You and The Future has come as something of a surprise to July. “There was something very infectious about the first movie. It was so much broader than I intended or anticipated,” she says. “It’s a joy when that happens, but that’s not my MO for the rest of my life, to maintain conversations with people that don’t even necessarily like anything I’m interested in. It almost feels like an accident. I mean, I just had a cute kid in the movie, but now these people who would actually hate me if they really knew me. Not hate, but… it’s comedy. People just like to laugh at poop jokes! Nothing against them, but I don’t feel like I have to keep them lured in for the rest of my life, you know?”

There’s an awkward pause, as if maybe she’s said the wrong thing. It’s a strange contradiction after all – the artist in constant search for connection with strangers suddenly finds that the audience may be laughing for the wrong reasons.

With nary a single poop joke in The Future, July was unsure what the response to the film would be when it screened at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. “It’s not a comedy,” she notes. “So, at the time I turned to my husband and I was like, ‘That went terribly.’ And then I went and did my Q and A with 1,200 people fully believing, ‘Oh well, there goes the last five years of my life, but maybe I’ll win them back with this Q and A,’” she laughs.

“Then afterwards,” she continues, “there was a little party and a couple of different women – not women I knew well – but women my age or a little older came up to me and were really intense with me, really intense, like, I see you and I see that you see us.” At this point, July’s enormous blue eyes well up, as if she is reliving the power of that moment. “I remember thinking after those two women had come up to me, ‘It was a success. In my darkest hours that’s all I want. I just want to communicate this feeling and just have it be like something’s acknowledged.”

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