The Future is Miranda July’s follow up to her 2005 Palme D’Or winner, Me and You and Everyone We Know, the Cannes jury awarding the movie a special prize for ‘original vision.’ That vision is further explored in The Future. The movie premiered at Sundance, was nominated for the Jury Prize in Berlin and selected for Official Competition at the Sydney Film Festival where July talked about life, death and her creative process to audiences at Sydney’s Apple store and in an exclusive interview with Christine Westwood.
Written and directed by July, The Future centres on the relationship crisis of a mid thirties LA couple, Sophie (July) and her partner Jason (Hamish Linklater). It is their commitment to adopt a stray cat and the 30 day wait before they bring the cat home that precipitates them into an early mid-life crisis. The emotional drama turns from laugh out loud comic to pathos to downright sad as we identify with the characters’ struggles and are invited to examine deeper issues of alienation and mortality.
‘I’ve been gearing up to do something incredible – for the last 15 years,’ says Sophie wistfully.
‘We’ll be 40 in five years,’ adds Jason. ‘So you may as well be fifty – the rest is just loose change.’
‘I wanted to explore the idea of a couple that had been together for a while,’ July explains. ‘Then Sophie tries to leave. Me and my partner have been together for four years and we’re talking about getting married and it brings up all those fears and questions about life becoming finite, that you’ll grow old together, so it starts to feel like by committing to marriage you’re committing to die or something. At the same time, it’s hard to think I might not be someone who can commit; that would be a sad thing to discover.’
‘The idea for The Future developed because after Me and You [and Everyone We Know] I didn’t want to make another movie right away, I felt self conscious and I wanted to get back to doing performance. That space is freer for me. I was interested in audience participation so I’d cast a new couple from the audience each time, and a single guy (the triangle that forms the plot structure of the film). At that stage I wasn’t very concerned with narrative. I did five performances; it was hair-raising to do and then I suddenly wanted the control that comes with making a movie.’
In the film, July’s original and crafted voice walks close to the line of self indulgence at times but never quite goes over it. Meanwhile, the pathos is deeply touching, exploring the absurdity of humans trying to escape their own lives. The film explores human angst with more depth but perhaps less finely than in Me and You. The structure unravels with the slowed down pace about two thirds of the way through, especially in the scenes carried by Jason alone, though it picks up again at the (surprising) conclusion. July herself engages in all her scenes whatever the pace.
The original performance piece also featured a shirt and a cat, both of which turn up in the movie. The shirt, or ‘Shirtie’, is Sophie’s old t-shirt that follows her when she runs away to have the affair.
‘It comes from an old ‘Nightie’ that I’ve kept for years,’ says July. ‘It’s a kind of security blanket. It represents those parts of yourself you maybe want to leave behind but you can’t because they’re who you are. Sophie is a paralysed character and she runs away rather than breaks out of that paralysis. Sophie’s choice to run away and have an affair is about that fantasy that you could fuck up so badly that you wouldn’t have to do the thing you’re supposed to do. It was important to me to act out that fear, to get so stuck that you make such a bad decision, how maybe someone would rescue you and take you out of your life and you won’t have to live your life after all.’
It’s not giving too much away to say that The Future spirals into sadness, bordering on tragedy, at the end.
‘I hope it’s the kind of sadness where you feel opened up,’ says July. ‘Sadness has a lot of colours in it, probably more than happiness, so I hope people go back into their lives with a kind of useful sadness. I did think, why this theme for the movie? It’s such a loser thing, but then I thought maybe it would be worth looking at that fear – it’s a daily villain.’
July is a fan of coincidences, saying they are ‘comforting, it’s like they’re letting you know you’re on the right track,’ a notion that is behind her light hearted use of divination on the film’s website.
‘Before I started this project I had a tarot reading. She told me I was about to embark on a huge project and that it would be nearly impossible but I had to get through it because there was something important that people needed to see. She was right about the nearly impossible part so I’m hoping the other part was right also.’
In contrast to Sophie and Jason, who don’t tell the truth, July has created the character of Paw Paw the stray cat who speaks to the audience in July’s own mechanically altered voice. While the couple feel that their lives and freedom are running out, Paw Paw now has something to look forward to; he wishes he could live in this state of anticipation forever.
‘I wanted to have a character that was very honest and knew what he felt and just say it and could carry a lot of emotion, be the soul of the movie,’ July explains.
It’s this mix of sharp observation, self examination and wry humour that characterises July’s work, whether she is creating an interactive sculpture garden for the Venice Biennale (Eleven Heavy Things, 2009), a book of short stories (No one Belongs Here More Than You, 2007) or the plethora of videos, performances and web based projects that she continues to produce.
July’s parents were writers and publishers, though July herself dropped out of her sophomore year to create performance art. In 1996 she undertook a project called Joanie4Jackie which invited women to send in their short films that she compiled into video cassettes as a kind of a chain letter.
‘That was my film school,’ says July. ‘I thought if all of these other women can do it then so can I.’
That notion led to Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), July’s first time and big break feature on unruly desires that lead to unexpected romantic connections. July could have capitalised on the hit by stepping off to Hollywood but characteristically she chose a more lateral approach.
‘After Me and You I was asked if I’d like to do something bigger and better but it was clear to me I had to finish the book of short stories I’d been working on,’ says July. ‘The movie helped me get a literary agent and a publisher; it gave me more room to do all the things I want to. It’s harder to get financing working this way but I the question I ask is ‘what’s going to make my life more interesting and the kind of life I want to live?”
Perhaps it’s July’s instincts as a performance artist that explains her natural connection with an audience, like the crowd of 20 to 30-somethings that packed the Apple store in Sydney last weekend. Add to that her creative outreach through the internet, up to and including videos, a blog and a website for her current film in which you can request an oracle reading my July herself, and you have an outreach that creates a groundswell of fans that become intrigued and involved with all her projects.
‘I was always really interested in how do you create your own audience,’ says July. ‘I never believed that someone would discover me or that people would actually be interested.’
When asked how she manages to record and work across such a prolific range of ideas and media, July talks about her constant habit of keeping a written journal.
‘I started when I was seven and I’ve kept them all. I make notes about which medium an idea will end up as, F for film, N for novel, P for performance, and if I’m not sure, its I for idea. Joan Didion always said, ‘you have to write it down’. So if I get an idea when I’m in bed half asleep, I have to get up, and I think ‘fucking Joan Didion,’ but I do it, I write it down.’
‘I remember I was about 10 and thinking quite clearly that I could easily just let it all go by and never do anything with it and how easy that would be in a way, that I could avoid doing what it was I was supposed to do. So I made a choice.’
In spite of her extraordinary creative openness, July is aware of her shortcomings.
‘I think when people come to work with me they expect magical exploration and whimsical but I’m actually pretty controlling. For example I’ve been acting all the parts of The Future for years so it’s not like there’s a whole lot of ways I need to see it done by other actors!’
‘And I’m not all that great at incorporating place into movies. I’m so uninterested in place really. I like the details and the people. The Future takes place indoors and inside people. It’s like that when I’m travelling, people always want to tell you should go see this or that but I hate all that, I like being able to respond and meet people and discover details for myself so I slip away to get some time when I can.’
‘The hotel room thing can be weird when you’re jet lagged and in your strange head space. I’ve been making a film in my hotel room here in Sydney in the Hilton, putting it up on the web. The feeling of community is appealing to me. There are 50000 hits, but it’s almost deadly for my creativity, it’s a distraction, I mean could I check my email any more often? It’s that desire for a little hit of ‘someone thought about me.’ I have an active struggle with that, you know, I could never bother to do anything again, just wait for the responses all the time. It’s a fight to keep your creative space and emptiness. Art comes from those moments where you don’t know what to do with yourself next.’