In person, filmmaker/writer/actress/performance artist Miranda July comes across very much like one of her own characters: studied and thoughtful, and given to moments of creative spark that can sometimes leave you in their wake. Her new film, The Future, is actually very much set in the present, though with a magical and slightly surreal twists. It stars July herself as one half of a long-term couple along with Hamish Linklater, who plan on adopting a cat in the near future and want to live their lives to the fullest before the oncoming responsibility of pet ownership completely weighs them down. Here, she tells us about the process of writing the screenplay, writing about difficult women, and the trick of pitching a talking cat to studio execs.
So, to take it from a writing perspective. I would say, certainly, this screenplay takes a lot of risks.
Right, right. I mean, it’s more like I’m just always trying to make it good, you know? And then, if I think it’s good, then I’m kind of ready to go to bat for it and I have to pitch the movie before I sell it. The whole thing is there’s so much vetting that you start to realize that your idea of “good” may not be unanimous, you know? You’ll find your supporters, and know that there’ll be more. But, yeah, then you realize, that like most things I’ve done, some people are gonna hate this. It’s like the exact opposite of what they’re wanting, you know I’m only uncomfortable with that when it’s something that I think I didn’t really do well. There’s criticism and then I’m, like, ugh, they think that because that’s not really how it is, but I didn’t execute that as well as I might’ve, so I understand if they have some room there. You know, that’s what I can abuse myself with. But, it’s limited, I don’t feel that way about everything.
I can only imagine how difficult it must have been to pitch this idea to studios and tell them about the talking cat.
You know I’m somewhat protected by my own enthusiasm for it. I often didn’t lead with the cat. It was sort of like “Well, you’re gonna love this…first of all, there’s a talking cat!” You know? [Laughs] I’d only realized in these interviews, really, when I started doing press or getting reviews and stuff…that, yeah, even in reviews that were positive, they’d kind of be like “Okay, this is gonna sound bad…” and I was sort of like “Oh!...Okay…”
It's difficult to get this across in a short review. If you start talking about the cat, or the animated shirt crawling down the street, readers are probably going to get the wrong impression.
It was really hard to get across. I guess. Sometimes I think of this moment after the first movie. At Sundance, you know it had gone well, and we were having this sort of celebratory dinner and a woman walked by from a kind of big company that had passed on the movie, and she had just seen it and she stopped and she said, “Well, of course I’m kicking myself, but, you know, the script was so execution-dependent!” And I was kind of like, well, that's another way of saying you didn’t think I could do it [laughs]. But it is, that is the challenge of these scripts. I mean, if I had to go through it all over again, if I had written the same script again, they knew I could do that one but it wasn’t the same, there were all these new things that people were dubious about.
Since you are one of the few writers I can name, other than maybe John Sayles, who both writes fiction and makes films, I have to ask you about the different forms. How do you ultimately decide what idea is best translated into what form?
Sometimes if I’m writing out the short stories, every idea I have is like “maybe this could be a story."
So you don't specifically start with one kind of concept or another?
Well, no. I was also writing the script for the movie, but you’re looking for a story idea or a movie idea, so, to some degree, that happens. That said, this movie started out as a performance and I kind of articulated a whole lot of ideas through the performance, which I transformed and kept evolving it into a movie. I have an idea now that I keep going back and forth on, if it’s fiction, or if it’s a movie. Part of it, I’m a little torn because there’s not a part for me in it [laughs].
So, sometimes, you might start out with a thing going a certain way and then change your mind and decide it should be something else?
Yeah, and it’s funny. Sometimes there’s the illusion that a movie is gonna be easier.You know what I mean? Obviously, that’s not true. But, you’re sort of thinking, “I don’t have to describe that, I can just do it. I can just show it!”
But then you have to figure out how to get cameras, crews, lighting, craft services, unions…
Money…yeah. And then as far as process, it’s, I mean, it's mostly just sitting there and doing it. Although I have to say, I’m the kind of writer who can be sort of dedicated. I put in the hours. But ultimately it’s like this thing that’s getting figured out inside of me. And, at certain points, just when I think I’m, like, the biggest failure, BOOM, it sort of comes out. It’s not quicker than anyone else, you know, because I spent so long not doing it. You know? But it does not change that much, after that.
So, those moments of actual inspiration must be pretty gratifying.
Yeah, in the moment you think “God, I’m so great at this!" but then there’s most of your life not doing that.
Is it the same for a screenplay?
Yeah, screenplays are kind of their own thing because so much of it is creative and trying to find solutions, you know? You’re like, okay, this scene needs to go here where we learn this, but in trying to do that thing, you end up creating a whole, kind of more interesting part of the movie, which was just like a cover-up for the thing you were trying to do. You know what I mean?
Can we go back to the cat for a minute? Very often, when you see a movie, any movie that has any animal in it, it’s kind of like the proverbial gun on the mantle, as in if you’ve got a gun there, you’ve better use it. Generally speaking, if there’s ever an animal in a movie, you simply know it’s going to die before the credits roll.
Right, yeah. Well, it was funny. I shot the movie, edited it for a while, and then shot the cat knowing I could tailor it a little bit to what I needed. I had a lot of trying slightly different things, you know? I would ask about the cat and people would be like "it’s fine," you know, and then I’d tinker with it more, being like “God, if this doesn’t start working, then it’s just gonna have to go," you know? And then there was suddenly this screening where everyone was really upset and I was just ecstatic.
Did that cat voice come to you very easily? Or did you have to try a bunch of different ones?
Well, I didn’t at all think I would play that part. I had a list of actors who were going to go out, too but I did have this temp track of me doing it. And when I started bringing actors in to read, I realized I was really addicted to my own thing that I listened to like 10,000 times as we were editing. And I just kind of got myself into a corner where, I decided to do it. So, it wasn’t a kind of tinkering. I did this really low, husky thing. And then it’s pitched up. And then, just to make it different from my voice… …I mean, I’m not a cat, an animal voice person, so I don’t have huge range [laughs]…
So if there’s ever a call for another animal voice…
It’s gonna sound just like that, probably. I mean, don’t tell Pixar that as I would love to make some money right now. [Laughs]
Is it fair to say the film’s ending is inconclusive?
I mean, to me, it’s purposely inconclusive but I think they stay together. They try at least, you know? I think that’s just the frame of mind I’m in. I got married when I made this movie and sometimes there’s part of the relationship where it almost doesn’t last, and then you begin in earnest. And so maybe that’s what’s happening here. We already know everything and in a way it’s much like this present moment now. And the exact weight of it, you know? And that in and of itself, let's just say that we all know what that means, that the characters are in the moment, that they’re not somewhere else.
Jason's motives seem pretty clear, but Sophie takes a very peculiar turn, one that's a lot less easy to understand, maybe. At least for the men in the audience, squirming in their seats.
In some ways, there are some women out there who all know exactly what that is, and they will not be scratching their heads, they’ll feel x-rayed. And I got that. I would often say there’s a certain kind of woman, probably right around my age, who’s going to be, like “Whoa, I can’t believe I’m seeing this on the screen." And it’s sort of satisfying to me to be making a movie for that woman. That said, I knew there would be [laughs] all these other people watching it too. I mean for someone like me who’s so self-identified, like, if I’m not creative every second, then who am I? And most people are engaging with me through that or I think they are, anyway. The idea of fleeing all that, putting myself in some situation where none of that matters, including all my expectations for myself, is sort of both a fear -- like a horror movie, what could be worse? -- and also sort of a fantasy. Especially -- and this also sounds awful too -- if I was watched all the time such that I didn’t really have to be myself, didn’t have to do anything as beyond passiveness, just like a baby kind thing where you just exist. That idea of also fleeing your life, the self-inflicted pain of fleeing your love and everything you care about. Could you do that? I don’t think you can. What would happen is you would sort of haunt yourself, come crawling after yourself and that would be horrible, but if I’m going to be afraid of that my whole life, maybe I should play it out, like, what’s the worst case scenario? I mean, it’s a bunch of things, all of them very personal and pretty interior. I mean, this is not the life I’m living: I’m pretty stable, married, so maybe because I do this instead, you know?