The Future is one of the buzziest films at the festival – and one of Vulture’s favorites – and yet for a long time, Miranda July didn’t want to make it. Hesitant to follow up her acclaimed 2005 debut Me and You and Everyone We Know, July instead worked on an audience-interactive performance piece about a young couple whose lives are changed in unexpectedly major ways by their decision to adopt a stray cat. Soon enough, she found she had assembled the raw materials for making The Future, which stars July as Sophie (and, in a voice-over role, the stray cat who narrates the film), Hamish Linklater as her boyfriend Jason, and David Warshofsky as Marshall, the suburban dad Sophie has an affair with during a moment of self-lacerating artistic doubt. July talked to Vulture about the unusual way the film came together, how she feels about her characters being deemed “hipsters,” and how she needed to make The Future to avoid a breakdown of her own.
When you began this as a performance piece, it was called “Things We Don’t Understand and Are Definitely Not Going to Talk About.” It seems like a fitting undercurrent for the movie — there are some big issues that Sophie and Jason have, but they take great pains to not address them.
Yeah, but that title’s too long, right? [Laughs.] It was almost like doing the essence of a movie first, which was good for focusing on things and making you never forget what that essence is.
My friends Graham and Rudy took part in it when you workshopped it in L.A. They said you plucked them out of the audience and made them do things like kiss onstage for an interminable amount of time.
Right. They were actually part of a practice performance, because there was no way to practice it without an audience, since it was audience-interactive. I would ask a real couple from the audience to play the couple in the movie, and I would play both people in the couple at different points. I utilized the things that they would already know how to do as a couple, like kiss, and then they were very subtly, secretly directed by offstage directors. By the time I finished it and did it in New York, it was almost too good, and no one believed that they weren’t audience plants.
Did you know when you were beginning that project that a movie would come from it?
No, I didn’t, although pretty quickly, I did have ideas that maybe there would be a way it could be a weird, audience-interactive movie. It took a while for me to let go of that idea and realize that it actually might be more amazing if it was a regular movie that still had all of these elements.
What were you hoping to discover through those performance pieces?
I think I wanted to be freer than I felt right after my first movie came out. Everyone is asking me, “Did you feel pressure?” and I did, and I felt like it was my job to be smart enough to find a way around that, you know? That performance was pretty wild because I had to cast two audience members in it, so it was very out of my control in certain ways. It did the job of allowing me to find my way into a story without any preconceptions of what a second movie should be, so by the time I realized I was writing it as a screenplay, I was already kind of in the door. I didn’t have to second-guess myself.
What was daunting about following up your last movie? You said after your screening that it made you not want to make a second one, and that you doubted all your casting choices. Was it hard to live up to the acclaim it got, like Roger Ebert calling it the fifth best film of the decade?
I mean, sure, some of that stuff — I’m human — but I think in some ways, it was more of an insidious creative thing. Being self-conscious doesn’t help you at all when you’re alone and trying to create something new. It does nothing. Being self-conscious and being seen helps you out in a lot of other ways — like, I’m confident enough to do this interview, much more so than with my first movie — but it’s only a handicap on the creative side. Eventually, I began to realize that everyone I admire, all the artists and filmmakers, have all done multiple things in their careers and have figured this out. This is not a unique plight to me. If you have a long career, this is what you do, you get over it.
You call The Future your version of a horror movie because the character you play loses all the things that are important to her, has an affair, and essentially abandons her identity. Still, was it rebellious or even cathartic to get to embody that onscreen?
I think, yeah. I don’t mean specifically in terms of having an affair, but with [the character having] a breakdown, I think I did the movie so I wouldn’t have one. Crisis was definitely in the air, and I felt that I could go that way, but being the sort of diligent, artist-y person I am, I sucked it all into my work.
What was motivating that crisis? The prospect of making a second movie?
I’m just a crisis-y kind of person. [Laughs.] You don’t know me at all, but yeah. I think that ultimately, it was going from 30 to your mid-thirties, going from basically almost thinking of yourself as a child to facing mortality in the ways you do when you finally realize that all this is finite. That’s heavy stuff, and I was trying to figure out ways to do it with another person, with my now-husband [director Mike Mills].
Your characters have been described as hipsters. What do you think of that term?
Yeah. I mean, it would be a losing battle to be, like, “What?” It was actually useful for this movie because it made Sophie and Jason different from Marshall, who lives in the suburbs, and I wanted to use that, I wanted to make sure that their apartment and clothes meant that they were in that world. I’m kind of kicking myself that I did that again — there’s something that seems sort of immature about it — but you always do exactly the thing you say you’re not going to do. You always go straight towards it somehow.
From the two movies you’ve made, it seems like you have a conflicted relationship with technology and the Internet, and yet you’re on Twitter.
Well, I only just joined Twitter, and my tweets are few and far between. I started it for the movie, I thought, Good Lord, if I’m going to have to do all the blogging and stuff that independent movies sort of require, if there’s a new thing that’s quicker and more effective, I want to use that. As it turned out, I didn’t actually enjoy doing the tweets. I started out with great ambitions and talked the big talk, but now, like, a normal director probably would have tweeted once at the festival. Maybe something about the premiere, or a picture? And I haven’t. It hadn’t even occurred to me until now! [Laughs.] I’m doing what I can, but that’s my relationship to the whole thing: slightly half-assed.
Would you act in someone else’s movie? I know you had a small role in Jesus’ Son, but have you been approached since?
People did approach me after the last movie, which was really nice — people that I admired, and I thought I wanted to do it, but then when it came down to the commitment of acting versus my own work … I mean, I know that is your own work if you’re an actor, but I couldn’t quite do it. I would always think, I may be shooting by then, but I wasn’t, of course. There were a few things, yeah, and other great people played those parts and did much better than I would have, but it is a goal to do that at least once before I direct my next movie, because I feel like I’d learn so much that I’d be a better director and be a better actor in my own movie. I’ve never been directed — well, Jesus’ Son, but that was a small role and the director was a friend.
In both movies, you fill the supporting roles with these very natural people who don’t even feel like actors. I get the impression from that and your project “Ode to an Extra” that you’re not interested in working with well-known people, that you’re interested in the people who don’t normally appear front and center in a film.
I do really love that. It’s one of the fun things when I’m directing, when I can go, “Oh, I get to pick the extras! I’m really the director!” You don’t really audition them in the same way, you get these pages of headshots and you circle your top choices. I’m always saying, “These people are too pretty, get me some different people.” In fact, there’s a few extras that I didn’t get to cast — the second A.D. did — and she did a good job, but I was like, “Ahhh, I’ll never do that again, because they seem slightly like they’re in a different movie to me.” And then there’s that scene where time is frozen and Jason walks around a woman who’s frozen, and I’m like, “Yes!” To me, that’s the greatest performance in the whole thing. You can only see her back, but I’m like, “She’s doing that so well! Does anyone realize how well she’s holding that pose?”