Miranda July faces "The Future"

The much-loved (and hated) filmmaker/actress/artist talks about her buzzy, tragicomic film -- and its talking cat

Published July 27, 2011 12:30AM (EDT)

Miranda July in "The Future"
Miranda July in "The Future"

When I began working on this article about the artist, writer, filmmaker and actress Miranda July, I had a back-and-forth via email with several co-workers about whether or not she made our teeth hurt. It seems to be a universal problem, and by "universal" I mean that it preoccupies a very small number of people in the so-called creative classes. A lengthy profile of July by Katrina Onstad that ran as a recent cover story in the New York Times Magazine, while full of useful information and interesting anecdotes, was primarily structured as a defense against unsourced or anonymous charges that July is a twee and precious female Ur-hipster.

Let's put the whole thing more simply: You're willing to take a movie seriously that has a talking cat in it or you're not. And if you are, I have no hesitation in proclaiming "The Future," July's alternately hilarious and shocking second feature, as the best talking-cat movie in cinema history. July has been making videos and art projects, and writing short fiction, since the late '90s, but came to the notice of a much wider world with her striking debut film, "Me and You and Everyone We Know," an ensemble comedy that won the Caméra d'Or (for best first film) at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. That movie's success propelled her to far more fame than she expected, inspiring an adulatory fan base and an inexplicably large legion of Internet haters (motivated, as far as I can tell, by old-fashioned jealousy).

As a famous philosopher once observed, there's a thin line between love and hate, and the strong emotions July provokes testify, I believe, to the purity and fearlessness of her work. "Me and You and Everyone We Know" stood out first and foremost as a fresh, original and entirely unjaded movie, absolutely not the work of some indie stylist enmeshed in film-school games of homage and influence. "The Future," which tells the story of a not-so-young couple's cautious approach to adulthood, by way of a prospective cat adoption, is even more its own thing. Much of the film is narrated by Paw-Paw (voiced by July), a philosophical shelter animal who faces euthanasia if Jason (Hamish Linklater) and Sophie (July) cannot manage their neuroses competently enough to show up for him in a month's time.

July's character, Sophie, is an almost physically painful parade of female anxieties, like a 21st-century Los Angeles answer to Cathy, the notorious comic-strip character. She wants to use the pre-Paw-Paw month to launch a YouTube art project, in which she'll perform 30 online dance pieces in 30 days, but as far as we can tell never does any of them. She loses her job teaching dance to young children, and imagines herself into the future as a spinsterish receptionist. Jason, a perfectly nice but rather passive fellow, can't even feel Sophie slipping away until she has already embarked on a thoroughly misguided affair with Marshall (David Warshofsky), a 50ish single dad.

July's ability to combine magical elements and a storybook sense of fancy, with frank sexuality, occasional moments of slapstick and a near-tragic sensibility doesn't feel like anybody or anything else. In his efforts to redeem their relationship, Jason discovers that he has the ability to suspend time and converse with the moon, which is voiced by an elderly non-actor named Joe Putterlik. July met Putterlik when she answered a classified ad, and he also appears in "The Future" as himself, selling Jason a second-hand hair dryer and reading the pornographic, holiday-themed poetry he has written for his wife over 60-odd years of marriage. And then there's Paw-Paw, often presented as an obviously fake set of fur paws (presumably with July's hands inside them), who yearns desperately to come home with Jason and Sophie but may have to face the fact that they're not grown up enough yet -- at 35 or so -- to face that much responsibility.

I met July over coffee in the backyard of a Greenwich Village apartment building. Even facing the heat of her namesake month -- her birth name, by the way, is Miranda Grossinger -- she was wearing a Diane Keaton-like outfit of white shirt, dark pants and wide necktie. The Chaplin-esque, androgynous charm and distinctive, girlish California cadence that so enraptures some and so enrages others was in full effect. We discussed the irrelevant fact that we grew up in the same place some years apart (that would be Berkeley, Calif.), and I eventually got up the courage to ask her about the strange similarities between "The Future" and "Beginners," the recent film by Mike Mills, the director and designer who is also July's husband. How many movies have you seen in which talking animals complain about the approaching darkness? As far as I know, these are the only two.

There were quite a few things in "The Future" that really messed me up emotionally. But let's start with something that isn't in the movie. Joe Putterlik, whom you met through the classifieds and is such a great supporting character, died just as you finished it.

Right, I know. That was pretty intense for me too. It kind of kept going on, honestly. I had become close to him and his wife, and then it was just his wife, who kind of came out of the shadows at that point. The woman who he had made all these cards for. I kind of didn't know what to expect from her. How do you say, well, I've read about your "dripping twat"? It's not usually how you approach a woman in her 80s. There was a whole second chapter and then she died.

And oddly, because of how their family is, I ended up with all their most precious things: all those cards, all their pictures, the couple from their wedding cake 62 years ago. I won't go into how that happened, but it was basically me saving those things so they wouldn't get thrown out. When you start out by answering a classified ad, which is how I met him, you don't expect to end up as the keeper of this person's legacy.

Well, there's an element of chance in your work, of following connections just to see where they will lead you, that I think is really invigorating.

It's almost like, if you go against -- we're supposed to stay in our worlds, knowing our people, and if you go against that, the universe has to reshuffle you in a big way. It's never minor. This movie worked that way explicitly. I came into it through a performance piece. I think in the back of my mind I knew I was gonna make a second movie, and I thought -- it was like where you purposefully put yourself far away from where you want to get to, knowing that will be the better route.

Right. Didn't you meet Joe because you were doing a whole piece that was about meeting people through the Penny Saver classifieds?

Yeah, totally. The whole point of that was to take a break from my little world. Like, these characters have to be very self-involved and insular, just for this story to work. Working on these characters [in "The Future"] for a long time, I was like, yeah, I will do this version of L.A., but for me personally I need to expand the horizon and get out of my house. And, like, I'm never autobiographical, but everything that happens to me that matters finds its way in.

Well, I've said this already about your work, but one of the things I like about it is that you're not this film-school, cinephile kind of person, where you watch the movie and you're like, "Hmm, yeah, 'Hannah and Her Sisters' meets 'The Magnificent Seven' meets Cassavetes," or whatever. You're not coming out of this frame of reference that's just movies, movies, movies all the time.

Yeah, and for me with this movie, or anything else I've made, I can feel good about it when I've been true to the process the whole way through. I've stuck to some live element in me even when it went off course. I've let it be messy and imperfect and known it would be all along. It makes it feel good for the whole life, you know? I can't always say, "Oh, this is going to be the best career move! Everyone's going to love me more!" [Laughter.] But it feels good as a way to live. Artists that seem to be living a good life, where it's really woven in, have always been my heroes. If you can find a way to do that, it seems so worthwhile.

Your character in "The Future" is definitely, uh, challenging. I wonder if you thought of Sophie as an act of sympathetic magic, somebody who admits all the most toxic decisions a woman your age could make, instead of the ones you actually have made in real life.

Yeah, I think very much so. And she's really embarrassing in that sense. Every day I'd be like, "Ugh, I can't believe I have to do this, it just seems like the worst idea!" And at the same time, it seemed like, well, if these are going to be the fears and fantasies and anxieties that I seem to have relentlessly, that I won't be able to make something, that I'll forsake my soul or my love or myself, maybe it's worthwhile to look into that, even as unappealing or mundane as that might be. I mean, I've had better story ideas. [Laughter.] That part specifically, my character, was the thing that in the dark hours of shooting -- where you're like, why would anyone put themselves through this? -- I would hold onto that and say, well, I haven't seen that before. Even if it's just for a few other women my age, if no one gets it but some people like me, that's something. That was the clearest thing to me emotionally.

Another moment that kills me is when you look at yourself in the mirror and say, "I wish I could just be one notch prettier." Which is, I think, a completely universal feeling, and one that's embarrassing for all sorts of reasons.

There are some very transparent parts in the film, and that's just me. The feeling of having to make your case with each person. And, yeah, this sense that there's a level for some people where it's just unanimously agreed upon: this person is pretty!

OK. But don't you think even those people probably ...

Yeah, there have been women who come up to me after a screening to say: "That line!" And I'm just looking at them: Really? If you need to be one notch prettier then I need to be nine notches prettier! [Laughter.]

Also, this thing about putting yourself in the movie and you're directing it and it's to some degree about being looked at or watched -- at a certain point I wanted to speak to that in a not-fussy way. It's not that I'm so confident about how I look. This is done with massive amounts of doubt, and it's very uncomfortable. But you keep making the case for yourself.

So many works of art are eager to please, or rather calculated to please, and you don't seem overly concerned about that. I don't imagine you can think about this when you're working, or that you should, but you seem very willing to take the chance that you'll alienate some people, or turn them off.

For me, when I look at all the things I made before my first movie, which most people haven't seen but for me are real, and I think about the long road ahead, I know for sure that there's no point in trying to make my whole experience of my career be like that last movie. I don't need that. You know what you need to get by as an artist, and the place you need to be in. There are people who need to be locked in with the culture as a whole or something, and that's a skill. I mean, I wanted the movie to be really good. I'm not shooting myself in the foot. But I wanted to make sure I blocked out expectations and voices and went back to the process. I had so many moments of doubt, and that was the thing I held onto, that you can't go too far wrong if it feels real. And of course you hope that if you do do that, it will resonate for other people too.

I don't quite know how you pulled this off, but Marshall, the character that David Warshofsky plays, is quite unusual. He's simultaneously almost repulsive and somewhat sympathetic. He didn't ask for this crazy girl to come into his life and screw everything up, after all, and then he has the misfortune to fall in love with her, apparently. How did you approach him?

It was really that he just needed to seem so wrong. Where you're like, "Oh no! No! Really?" Like, being me in the world of course I encounter people all the time who don't get my thing, who don't care at all how creative I am in this moment or what I'm wearing or anything. Sometimes to be totally divested of all that -- I mean, this is true for anyone -- of all your identity that you worked so hard to build up, is both horrifying and liberating. The last thing I wanted was for him to just seem creepy or flat. In fact, in the auditions I had to be there, which was kind of exhausting. Working with a whole bunch of men that age, so at the end of the day I smelled like 10 different kinds of sweat! There were a lot of guys who seemed right, but I kept saying, like, I actually want there to be some kind of attraction. Which is sort of an awkward thing to test for, especially in that role. I thought that David was really winning in that way, and the rest would come easily. I remember just seeing his picture and watching his online reel, and he's only played these, like, pimps and abusive guys. I kept showing it to Mike [Mills] and going, "Isn't this guy perfect? Look at his skin." And he'd be like, "Wow. You are so weird, honey."

OK, the cat. We have to talk about the cat. First of all, how did you do the high-tech cat-paw effect?

Right. I'm not saying that. Once I started to get those questions I was like, "It's not obvious?" So I'm just so thrilled, and I'm sticking with that.

For me, the cat is like a central metaphor that describes the whole movie. Like, I have to go tell all my friends now, "I saw this terrific movie. It's narrated by a cat. You're gonna love it." And they're gonna be, "You're kidding, right?"

I mean, I gotta admit that some of it is just like, I'm so -- I never thought of the cat as a negative. I'd lead with the cat in pitch meetings! I'd be like, "If I only have two minutes, you're gonna love this!" [Laughter.] It seemed like that was my money in the bank.

And did a lot of people buy that?

Oh, no one really did. I was just so sure that it was the soul of the movie, that he was really important. I was pleased that it was so heavy, so openly almost spiritual and emotional, and yet that there was a built-in humor and lightness. It's a talking cat, and it isn't even real. Not that there are real talking cats.

Right. But it isn't one of those Disney movies with talking animals.

No, it's not. So that had a sort of elegance to it, to me. That said, it didn't work for a very long time. I was rewriting all the things the cat says until the very end, because I could. And I would ask, after screenings, "So what did you think of the cat?" And people would be like, "Ehh. Liked it. It was OK." I would tinker away, and you're like, "God, is this how anything good is ever made? Just by changing a line here or there?" And then there was one screening where I didn't have to ask. Everyone was like, "The cat!" They were just, like, really upset and I was thrilled. You all care! Somewhere along the way you got invested!

Without giving too much away, let's say that there's a death in the movie, and you follow that character into the afterlife, or the non-afterlife, or whatever it is. That's also a pretty unconventional choice.

You don't know where to come in on death sometimes, but I was like, why not try to imagine, OK, now you're dead, now what? It's not very long, but I tried to shoot for the stars as far as trying to guess. It had to feel true, even though no one would ever know if I had gotten it wrong.

No, I guess we wouldn't. For some reason there have been a whole bunch of movies lately dealing with death and the hypothetical possibilities of what lies beyond, and while I guess we've always been interested in that subject, it strikes me that there's something going on.

Maybe it's because we're surrounded by things that can't die, by digital stuff -- it's something that we have that's so us.

That's a cool idea. If I were really a geek, which of course I'm not, I would tell you that there's this long-running quasi-religious element within the fantasy tradition about that. Like in Tolkien, the Elves, who are immortal, are jealous of humans, who have this mysterious passage that's not available to them.

Right, right. Maybe the Internet is jealous of us now.

Well, both of your movies explore Internet communication, both for the possibilities it creates and, you might say, the obstacles it puts in our way. Do you have a personally fraught relationship with technology?

Only in the way that most writers or artists do: Oh great, this thing was invented that, like, really amps up the main thing I shouldn't be doing, which is being distracted and not following long thoughts through the unknown. Part of me can't believe that happened. I'm old enough to remember writing things where I didn't have the impulse to stop again and again. I'll unplug and hide the phone and all that, but it's easy to just give in. I'm totally willing to plug it back in and wait for it to start up again! I'm not a Luddite or anything. I'm just sort of wrestling with it, and maybe a little confounded that I have to wrestle with it.

It's a useful amplification of the brain, a great thing to use in a movie that everyone can relate to even if they don't meditate or whatever. We can all understand that if you unplug from the Internet, you might have a sort of crisis feeling. That it calls up an emptiness you might sort of want to avoid.

For a certain generation of viewers older than you, you may introduce this dangerous concept of watching videos of girls dancing on YouTube.

[Laughter.] Which is really funny. When you make a movie, sometimes the ideas in the movie seem not real, and you forget that they are. I wanted to post something on my blog about girls dancing on YouTube, so I wanted to find a few good ones. I then spent the next four hours -- wow, this really is real! It's hard to stop watching, because in a way they're so unsatisfying. There's some kind of inherent yearning that's not being fulfilled.

I don't want to be a Luddite either, but I sometimes worry that the Internet has produced this odd kind of cultural sameness or uniformity. It's like, there's no distinction between what's real and what's fake and what's a parody. Everything is always on the same level.

If you're 20, you don't even know about that distinction. It's just some weird hangup of ours.

Nothing can be ironic or sarcastic or a parody anymore ...

Because everything is.

We need to wrap up, but I have to ask about the odd points of similarity between "The Future" and "Beginners," your husband's movie. I like them both very much, and I would say they're quite different in some ways, but there are some unquestionable areas of consonance: Love stories about couples who break up and maybe get back together, talking animals, a wistful, moody combination of comedy and tragedy.

I don't know if he does, but I don't have a great answer for that. I mean, you share a life, and we were really drawn to each other through our work, too. Which has been great. There's a lot besides the work, but you kind of want to believe in the person you're going to live with, and I do. When we've talked about it we're always building a case for how different they are. For the talking animals, I'll say, "Before I met you I had this cat in this performance. It's always been a symbol of something for me!" And he'll be like, "But I'm the animal person."

To me, it's sort of sweet. I imagine looking back on it and being like, we had just met and we were just figuring it out. And the movie kind of echoes that.

One big difference I see is that the couple in "Beginners" is really tied to the past. They both have these important relationships with their families, and specifically with their fathers. Your characters aren't like that at all. They remind me of what somebody once said about Hemingway's characters, that they don't seem to have parents.

That's a big difference I see in our work in general. He's willing to have people talk about that stuff, and I don't want my characters to be that knowing. I think it's my job to show that stuff without anybody having to say anything or know anything. Some of that is an aesthetic thing, and it's also a slight unrealness. I'm not totally committed to gritty reality. That said, I often thought of Paw-Paw as me, and these two people, these two fuck-ups, as my parents. I mean, I love my parents! But I had that -- waiting for them to come, and being willing to wait forever even though you knew that it wasn't going to happen. And also, at the same time, feeling real love for all the mistakes they made.

"The Future" opens July 29 in New York and Aug. 5 in Los Angeles, with wider national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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