Q&A: 'The Future' star/writer/director Miranda July's ideas are at least as valuable as yours

RedEye movie critic

Writer-director Miranda July’s “The Future” is this year’s second movie to vocalize the thoughts of a pet (a cat named Paw Paw voiced by July). The first: a dog with audible opinions in “Beginners,” written and directed by July’s husband, Mike Mills.
“We chose each other to spend the rest of our lives with, so we have a lot of shared sensibility,” says July with a laugh, noting that “The Future” began as a performance piece, not a movie. “These are our first movies we’ve made in each other’s shared life, so it’s fitting to me … Mike’s always talking for the dog anyway, so that comes right out of his life.”
The recently utilized communicative-pet concept might be the least daring thing in the film, another fearless exploration of human connection that fully delivers on July’s feature debut, 2005’s fascinating “Me and You and Everyone We Know.”
In “The Future,” opening Aug. 5, Sophie (July) and her boyfriend Jason (Hamish Linklater) quit their jobs and try to find more rewarding things to do with their time, since they determine the impending adoption of a cat and taking care of it will take up all their time. The movie takes a brilliant look at people who suddenly feel that life is short and aren’t sure what to do what with that knowledge.
From L.A., the Berkeley-raised July, 37, talked about her story-filled life, her distinctive (or is it?) perspective, and people who either don’t get it or hate her--or both.
You’ve had a lot of very interesting things happen to you (read the New York Times’ feature for evidence). Does it seem that your life has had a disproportionate number of exceptional details in it, or does it seem normal to you and any different would be strange?
I do sometimes especially look at my past, like … my 20s or my teens and 20s and I think, “Now, was I kind of knowing that I was going to be a writer in all this?” So [questioning if I was] purposely choosing to put myself in all these situations that were such good stories.
For example?
[Laughs.] Not all of them do I want to reveal because then it’ll take away some of the fictions I’ve created. But like at the time it seemed like working for Pop-A-Lock, the car door unlocking company, was the only job that made sense to me. [Laughs.] And it seemed really like, “I don’t know what else I could possibly do.” I don’t remember feeling like it was a good story. In fact, I was kind of embarrassed, but now it just seems like something made up, and I have to be like, “Wow, right, that really happened.” And it was actually pretty awful, that job.
But it sounds so great.
[Laughs.] Yeah, not one I would recommend, although I did get some pretty good skills out of it.
You say you write from the unconscious. What do you mean by that?
Probably everyone does. I should never say it like it’s unique. That’s just how you write. But I guess maybe I follow ideas without needing to know how they relate to the story or why. I follow them and kinda nurture them for a long time, just having faith that they must belong in this world. And sometimes they don’t. I tend to think that they’re coming up for a reason, and that’s trusting the unconscious.
How often do you look at the page and almost not remember writing what’s on there--or feel surprised by what came out of you?
I don’t so much have that, but when it comes time to do interviews and people start asking, “Where did this idea come from?” That can be kind of hard ‘cause I don’t always have an answer. [Laughs.] I’m like, “God, I wish I knew. I need to go to therapy so that I can understand.” That’s not always the case, but a lot of them, they’re a little bit untraceable for that reason.
Your work has such a unique perspective. When was the first time you felt that you saw things a different way?
I’m not trying to be difficult here [laughs], but I don’t ever think of that thought. In fact I always feel like when I have an idea that is exciting it’s usually exciting because I feel like other people must think this too, you know? And often it’s accompanied or followed by the thought, “Oh, wow, does everyone know this?” I think I put a line in the movie, like the sense that I’ve tapped into that something everyone knows. Whether or not everyone is conscious of it or talks about it. So it never feels unique to me, although in the end I get that it needs to be [laughs], to be surprising. But that’s never the exciting thing about it is its uniqueness. It’s the trueness is what it’s important to me.
So if something occurs to you then it must occur to others?
Yeah, if it has a resonance. Or I’m often looking for ways to describe or represent feelings that I know other people must have too, but maybe there hasn’t been the perfect way to show it. Mike sometimes calls me “The Descriptinator.” [Laughs.] My love of describing things or trying to find the perfect metaphor for it occupies a lot of my energy.
Will you star in your own action film, “The Descriptinator”?
[Laughs.] Yeah. It’s going to be a very slow and boring action movie.
What do you say if someone comes up to you and calls your films weird? Or says they don’t get it?
That’s the risk that I take by trying to describe things in a way that … seems accurate to me feels very necessary and accurate, but I’ve lived in the world long enough to know that most people don’t necessarily have a space or even a need for that type of accuracy. [Laughs.] It just seems inaccurate or unnecessary. So that adds a lot of drama to my life, that there isn’t necessarily that much space for what I’m doing, or it’s a contested space or dismissed. If it was all really easy then you’d kind of be like, “Wow, I must be following in footsteps that have already happened ‘cause this is just so convenient for everyone.”
Then what do you say to people if they give you that quizzical response?
Here and there there’ll be an interview, sometimes even with someone who I can tell is a real fan and just desperately wants me to explain it to them, so I don’t feel unsympathetic but I also sometimes think about things I’ve seen that maybe I didn’t really get into until later or that album or song that didn’t click, didn’t make sense. Art is such a weird emotional thing; you can’t expect this sort of 1-to-1, people-getting-it thing. I’m just trying to have a light touch there and not assume that this person’s a moron or my enemy, just kind of step back a little.
If someone called you pretentious, would you take that as a compliment or an insult?
Well, that is an insult I think. [Laughs.] I’m sure you can think, “Well, I like a lot of pretentious stuff …” or “Probably I like a lot of the things this person doesn’t like, so maybe this is a compliment,” but I think it’s usually said in a not nice way. [Laughs.] I’m like anyone else. I don’t want to be that … that hurts my feelings.
I bring it up because something written about you recently noted that Brian Eno said it was a compliment.
Right, someone sent that to me, I just read that and I obviously forgot it before your question, but that’s a nice one. That can kind of galvanize me for the next months. And I love Brian Eno.
Why do you think your work evokes such divisive reactions? There being an “I Hate Miranda July” blog, for example.
Well, I’d like to point out that there’s many more fan sites than there are hate sites. [Laughs.] But I guess just to have any hate sites at all maybe that’s … I don’t really know whether that’s even real or unique to me. Maybe I’m a little bit in denial or just don’t want to think about it. But it just seems like I’m really just trying to make things as good as I can. I just want everything to be good in my opinion and I don’t know why, I have no idea why, I guess it’s the same reason why people don’t like art in general. Sometimes I think in a way if I was more mainstream I wouldn’t be getting that reaction. There’s something like I seem to be asking for it or something. I’m just doing what I do.
There definitely aren’t many “I Hate Tom Hanks” sites.
Right. I guess so much of the culture just seems like hard to point a finger at, or it’s nobody’s fault, it’s so institutionally created. Whereas it seems very clear, like, “Oh, this one person thinks that her ideas are good, and so she’s doing them!” And that just seems like, “[Bleep] her! Why does she think she’s so special?” And it’s just like, “You think you are.” [Laughs.] I think it’s actually pretty important to think that your own ideas are valuable. Historically it’s actually pretty unusual for a woman to think that to such a degree that she actually gets support for it. So I don’t know. Luckily it has zero effect on my life if I don’t think about it.
Part of “The Future” is about people putting off what they’d rather be doing. How much of a procrastinator are you, what can people do to slow down life to get things done?
I feel like I’m a huge procrastinator. In fact, usually everything I’m doing art-wise is just to avoid doing something else. That’s like the secret to my career. [Laughs.] ‘Cause it all feels like procrastination. Like this movie, I was just procrastinating on the novel. But it sometimes helps to think of yourself like a robot and just make an action list. Like a to-do list, but I think of it as a robot action list and really get very detailed with it. Like (speaking in a robot voice) “Unpack suitcase. Put suitcase away. Take shower.” Just really no detail is too small because the robot just needs commands. [Laughs.]

What her husband talks about with the dog: “They’ll be having whole elaborate conversations in the other room. Sometimes in English, sometimes pure sounds. And then he’ll explain to me later what they were talking about. [Laughs.] He likes to tell the dog her origin story a lot, which is nice. I think kids like to hear that and probably dogs do too. How we found her at the pet store and she was so little, she was on a shelf.”

To what degree she considers her movies performance pieces: “Well, none. I don’t feel that they are at all. As far as filmmakers go my path has been pretty normal; like most directors I made many short movies before I made a feature, and they’re films. And then I also do performance and those are so different and they’re live and it’s a totally different medium and the craft is totally different. There are certainly similarities, but I would never consider a movie a performance.”
On coming up with a significant part of the idea for “Me and You and Everyone We Know” on a Chicago “L” train: “I think I was talking to some colleges and then I was taking the train to meet a friend, then I just had the idea of all the major stories and that they were going to interconnect. That’s the joy of public transportation.”

On what’s next: “If I don’t write a novel now then I kind of let go of the whole writing career, which is really interesting to me and I’m just starting out in it. So I really want to do that, I feel like that’s a great challenge to try and write a novel.”
On the similarity between freezing time in “The Future” and Zack Morris doing it on “Saved by the Bell”: “I never watched that show. This has come up a couple times before and I don’t know about it. I’m sure I’ll see it and I’ll be horrified.”

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