Newsmaker: Miranda July

Newsmaker: Miranda July

As a fiction writer, performance artist, filmmaker, and occasional creator of public sculpture installations, Miranda July has always taken risks. Her latest film, "The Future," in theaters July 29, was a critical favorite at Sundance this year. It was born as a performance piece that she staged at the Kitchen, among other venues, in 2007. The cinematic translation involves a couple in their mid 30s, Sophie and Jason, whose relationship is on the rocks and their plans to adopt an injured cat, Paw Paw. Did we mention that Paw Paw talks, in July’s altered voice? Or that the moon talks as well, imparting relationship advice? Or that there’s a jarringly comic sex scene that wouldn’t be out of place in 2002’s "Secretary"? July spoke with Modern Painters senior editor Scott Indrisek about T-shirt dances, dashed dreams, and the expense of that Gregory Crewdson look.

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This idea of wildness that comes up in the film — would you say it’s a negative or a positive characteristic?

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I came to believe that wild was the same for Sophie as it was for the cat. Paw Paw says something like "At night I know I am alone and always will be," and it’s that kind of place that I think Sophie is in when she has the affair. You don’t cheat on your soul mate if you don’t on some level believe that you’re always going to be alone — that you’re already wild in that sense, in this lonely sense, not in a "Girls Gone Wild" sense. You have to domesticate yourself enough to believe not only in marriage but also in the idea that you could be loved, that you’re not so inhuman, so beyond the pale of what someone could want to commit to.

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Sophie’s relationship with Jason seems to be sexless in a way, almost a sibling relationship.

I did think of them as siblings and somewhat unconsciously cast someone who looks a little like me to play Jason; I cut his hair like mine. In a couple you become defined by each other, the way siblings do. And that’s not sexy, you know? I think it is, but I didn’t use to. I’m writing two characters that are sides of myself. It’s a little harder to have wild passion between two sides of yourself.

The first sex scene — when Sophie cheats on Jason with Marshall — comes out of nowhere.

She’s just trying to flee herself. Part of escaping her soul is having sex with some guy in the suburbs, the person who would least call on her to be herself. He’s not going to notice if she’s missing her soul. And so it’s important to "mate" with him because she’s creating this version of herself that doesn’t have to be her. Which I can relate to. I think that is a lot of the appeal of sex with strangers, or near strangers: the sense that you’re escaping yourself and the self that everyone, including you, see you as. Sophie has failed herself artistically, which to someone like me is just the worst possible crisis.

Were you reflecting on the idea that adulthood is being nudged later and later, that if members of the previous generation had until 25 before they had to figure things out, now it’s 35 or 40?

When I was writing the film, I was realizing, "Oh, this is it. I’m not going to do every single thing in the world or have sex with everyone or have a million different careers, just this one." Also I was watching my friends, who had assumed they would become artists and were waitresses or whatever in the meantime, realize: "Oh, I’m not an artist, and it’s time to have a kid." People are suddenly breaking up with people they’ve been with forever. I feel like a fair amount of career change and some real crises are happening around me. That may just be my circle of melodramatic women who I hang out with.

How did you get into the head of someone for whom the biggest project is an Internet dance series that her friends don’t want to see? Is it hard imagining yourself as having the same ambitions as you do now without any of the success?

It’s frighteningly easy. It’s almost harder to believe in my life as it really is. On some level it feels as if I’m just making a YouTube dance each time. A certain peace comes with realizing, "I get to do this, I’m being allowed to do this, for my life." But beyond that, I don’t think any amount of therapy is ever going to allow me to sit back and chill about it. I love doing this, but it always feels like incredibly high stakes, as if I’m starting from scratch each time.

In the film Sophie does a dance while wearing a giant T-shirt that covers her body.

I knew that in the end dance was going to be important to Sophie. I did that T-shirt dance one day. I videotaped the first time I did it because I can’t see it. That’s always the issue with practicing: I’m in the T-shirt, and I’m blind. It felt like something that was wordlessly true to me. That dance is the most intimate thing Sophie could be doing, and yet it’s totally inexplicable. I wanted it to be very important that this person had gotten to that place, like it was a great achievement — not necessarily like a virtuosic dance but just a very essential dance. One hopes that she’s not thinking, "Oh, this will be good for YouTube." She’s just finally dancing.

Do you look at the Internet as this great time suck, this black hole, or is it something that can lead to interactions with strangers, like the Learning to Love You More project you run?

I use the Internet intensely. I didn’t foresee that my whole little life was going to revolve around this object, this computer. That’s worth exploring to me, not simply being critical of it. If you’re going to have a movie about people my age in L.A., they’re going to have to be online a lot of the time or it’s not realistic. But for anything to happen, they have to stop being online. All of those little moments throughout the day when you’re like "What am I doing? Who am I?" I just check my e-mail, or I go online. That sort of mini-lost feeling isn’t new, but I’m curious what happens when you don’t really have to see it through, ever. There is always a distraction.

As in your previous film, both children and senior citizens are integral here — especially Joe, an old man whom Jason befriends.

I don’t consciously think, "Oh, gotta get the old person in there." I’d taken a break from writing and started interviewing people selling things through the PennySaver classifieds. That was a whole separate project, unrelated to the movie. Who are those people who are going to go to the trouble to sell something for $10? It was just a desire to interact with strangers and get out of my world. Joe, the old man, was one of the people selling things. I put him in the movie. It was quite intense, because he was at the very end of his life and he knew it, and the movie already had a lot to do with time and mortality. That whole part is sort of documentary.

Were you recording the interviews with the PennySaver sellers?

I interviewed them, and I went with a photographer. It was an invented job, in a way: "Wouldn’t it be fun if I had a job that took me out of the house where I could meet people as opposed to just sitting here in front of my computer thinking about myself?" I love that moment when you realize there is no law that says I can’t just call these people. In fact, there is their phone number! I know I’m supposed to just ask them about what they’re selling, but maybe I can interview them about their whole life. I’m turning that project into a book.

While watching "The Future," I imagined the same action happening in a short story: a talking cat, for instance. What’s the biggest obstacle in trying to translate those things into film?

I wouldn’t get that weird with a short story, because it’s sort of no fair. You can just make anything up in a short story, whereas with a movie it’s really happening. Those people are real people, you’re using the whole actual real world and streets and cars. It’s a great chance to show feelings in a nonliteral way, because you’ve got this wonderful backdrop of reality: the real sunlight, the real darkness. Film, even independent film, is such a square kind of medium that it’s asking to be messed with.

There’s a long section where Jason, having stopped time, is walking toward the beach in L.A. at night. I kept thinking of Gregory Crewdson in terms of how the city appeared. Was there any particular look you were aiming for?

It would be lovely if I had Gregory Crewdson’s crew. And I did have some things in mind originally that were more along those lines, that beautiful light at night. But that’s very expensive, as it turns out. So mostly we picked a street and had to go into stores and ask them, "Will you leave your light on tonight?" And we got people to stand very, very still.

What is in the future?

I’m going to try and write a novel. It seems like one of the last normal expected things that I haven’t had the competence to try. But who knows, maybe I don’t! And I guess it’s that fear that makes me do it.

"Newsmaker: Miranda July" originally appeared in the Summer 2011 issue of Modern Painters. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Modern Painters' Summer 2011 Table of Contents.