It’s been a while since Miranda July‘s acclaimed feature debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know. That film had more than a few moments of sweetness and, for the most part, was quite hopeful. Her return, on the other hand, isn’t half as cheery. Why’s that? As July says, it stems from a tough experience during the editing of her first film, which kicked off our whole conversation about her process and whether she finds catharsis through filmmaking.
Before speaking with July, I had just viewed The Hollywood Reporter directors roundtable. They’re usually exciting hour long conversations — and it helps when you have directors like Steve McQueen, Bennet Miller, Alexander Payne, Jason Reitman, Mike Mills, and Michel Hazanavicius all in a room together — but one awkward and head-scratching moment arose: When the moderator asked, “Why are there no women here?” As most pointed out, there were women filmmakers who could’ve been invited: Kelly Reichardt, Lynne Ramsay, Dee Rees, and, of course, Miranda July.
This topic is only a small focus my conversation with July, but for a woman director to hear a moderator ask that question, as if no woman director was worth inviting this year ’cause their movies didn’t hit big, must’ve been hard to hear. For July, who describes the process of looking through those Hollywood Reporter photos honestly, it didn’t sound like a pleasant experience.
Here’s what writer-director Miranda July had to say about about her creative process, when an idea becomes dead skin, and the time that made her forget she was a filmmaker:
It’s been a few years since Me and You and Everyone We Know. At what point did The Future begin to evolve?
Well, I think I had the first inkling for it when I was editing Me and You and Everyone We Know. It was a dark time. I was going through a breakup, and there I was editing a fairly hopeful comedy. I remember thinking, “Ok, the next movie is going to be a lot sadder and darker, and I’m going to find a way to do that that’s like my style.” I didn’t want to make a movie right away. So, after doing a book of short stories, I started making a performance, and the movie evolved out of that performance. It was a very organic process. The performance, essentially, was about the same thing, but done in a totally different way, and it’s probably the reason why this is a little less literal in some places. I had the freedom in that performance, and I kept as much as I could have in the movie.
You mentioned this coming from a dark place. Does exploring those type of feelings on film make for some type of catharsis?
It’s funny, it’s never cathartic in the sense of satisfying or overcoming it. It’s more like: you get so sick of it, then you get over that feeling by, “Oh my God, this is such old news now!” [Laughs] You kind of ruin the topic, and possibly forever. You know, in that sense, it’s kind of a catharsis. Yes, at one time, it held you.
I’d imagine revisiting those type of feelings on film wouldn’t be a pleasant experience, either.
Right, yeah. Hopefully you move on. What the original seed was — I also got married, fell in love, and all these amazing things happened over the course of making the movie. In little ways, those things are in the movie, for me. I’m never autobiographical in my work, but it is personal. I always try to come up with fiction that’s really going to get across what I’m feeling, and the truth really does.
So, after getting married and falling in love, are you going to make a big studio romantic comedy?
[Laughs] You know, it’s possible.
[Laughs] Does your work usually stem from what you’re feeling at the time of conceptualizing it and creating it?
You know, it’s many, many moments over days and years, so you can’t pinpoint it like that. Also, it’s not just what I’m feeling, it’s what my friends are feeling, what books I read, and things I witness in the world. It’s not my diary.
When you’re drawing off of something you’ve seen or felt, does that make the writing process simpler, with having something genuine to go off of?
Well, I’ve never written a scene in a movie that happened in real life, that would be hard for me. That’s not where I excel. Some people are really good at that, with transferring their life into a movie in really interesting ways, and my husband did that in his movie [Beginners]. For me, I need the fiction. I’m less agile when I stick to reality.
I actually talked to Mike Mills at SXSW, and I found it interesting how he said he used to suffer from extreme shyness, and his characters seem to be like that — shy, but use art or some form to express themselves, like he does with his movies.
Yeah, yeah. I don’t know, maybe you know him better than me! [Laughs] Obviously we both love to make art. I think there’s an idea of catharsis that’s pretty allusive, to most artists. The whole process is a little bit torturous. The idea of having all of these epiphanies and setting yourself free is probably romantic.
Has one of your films or a piece of your art ever had a personal affect on you, though? Maybe in a way you didn’t even expect or seek out.
It’s not to say there’s not great joy. For me, it’s not as literal. Like, it’s not: I have a problem, and I’m exploring it and trying to resolve it. It’s less A to B than that; it’s more like, making things makes life more bearable and interesting, and the way that it does that are in ways I don’t really understand. That’s what’s powerful about it.
Where does that great joy come from, just the process of creating?
Yeah, I think there’s nothing better than having a new idea. It may not always stick, but it’s a little like falling in love [Laughs]. In the moment it feels like you’re the first person to walk on the moon. Those moments are so outnumbered by the grit of it [Laughs], so you always try to downplay them.
When an idea doesn’t work, do you just look at it like a failed relationship?
[Laughs] No, there’s just so many kind of… it’s like dead skin falling off.
Say when an idea isn’t working, do you try to fix it or do you move on to do the next idea?
Well, you don’t know, so you keep trying for a long time. Often something else comes unexpectedly, which either solves it or makes it clear it doesn’t need to be there, and that happens all the way through. There’s scenes you edit, tinker with, get them just right, and then, at the last minute, you realize you don’t need it and cut the whole scene [Laughs].
[Laughs] Does that ever happen on set, where you love something you wrote, but doesn’t work when trying to capture it?
Not on the set. A lot of things often seem like they don’t work on set, but you just push through. Sometimes things that felt bad in the moment come together. Likewise for things that feel great, where you think, “Oh my God, what a great scene!” When you get to the editing room, you then think, “What a bunch of bozos.” [Laughs]
[Laughs] How about the opposite case, when you find something great in the editing room you didn’t even think about?
Oh yeah, that happens. Also, that happens for things you just missed. Like, you’re there, but just don’t see them on the set, which is one of the great things about actors. You’re often invested in what you’re trying to get out of actors, you often overlook some of the great things they’re doing and find them later in the editing room. You just think, “Oh, thank God he found that while I was trying to find that other thing.”
A lot of filmmakers say editing is their favorite part of the process, is that true for you?
Yeah, I do like it more than shooting, which may just be because, at this point, my shoots are so short. They’re, frankly, kind of brutal [Laughs]. With editing, it’s a cheaper process, you can linger on something, and be loving with the material, to get it really right. With shooting, I often think, “Ah, if only I had 30 days instead of 21.”
I know some directors who find that challenge artistically helpful, where they have to be more creative. Do you get any enjoyment on that level?
No, because what ends up happening is, we’re totally glued to the script. There’s no time for improvising, because we gotta get this or that down. You think, “Sure, if we get this, we can try something new I’m thinking of in the moment.” You really end up just fulfilling the blue print, you know? You’re building the house you exactly wrote. It’s a great skill to have, and it makes you very precise. I love to improvise and get happy accidents, and all of the things that come with that. So, you know, I end up feeling more cheated than anything else [Laughs]. What you’re saying might be true if we were talking about a 60 day shoot, but I’m just talking about a week long [Laughs].
[Laughs] What are the non-brutal moments on set?
It’s really nice when I actually get to act. I like to direct, but on this movie, I’m in a ton of it. I’ll end up being so focused on directing and what the other person’s doing, that I’ll end up going through a ton of scenes I’m in thinking, “I don’t even remember what I just did,” and then we just have to move on. Also, I enjoy the times where I feel free and not just like a director, when I feel inside of a character’s pocket. For a director, that’s pretty great to have.
I have to wrap, but before I do, I want to ask about something from The Hollywood Reporter’s director roundtable. Have you seen it?
No, but Mike told me about it and I read a little bit of it.
There was a moment where the moderator asked, “Why aren’t there any woman directors here?” and I felt it was kind of dismissive, since there were plenty that could’ve been invited. If you don’t mind me asking, are you treated differently as a director who’s a woman and what does a comment like that say to you?
When I read that, it’s not like there were no movies made by women, but a lot of those films — mine or Kelly Reichardt’s – are smaller and, for the most part, they’re weirder movies for smaller audiences. The dismissive part seemed to be where he said, “Well, real movies.” Well, he didn’t say “real” movies, but something odd like, “movies people have seen.”
And that seemed like such an odd defense, since Jason Reitman and Steve McQueen’s films hadn’t even come out yet.
Yeah, that’s true. Also, it’s pretty hard to compact. It’s like, “Well, why aren’t we getting financing?” Or, in this case, “Why aren’t we choosing to make movies that would demand larger budgets?” We’re coming from — I don’t know. Yeah, that was a horrible moment. The reasons why there aren’t any [there] are pretty complex. Being inside of it, it’s not like I’m experiencing sexism everyday. And yet, it’s pretty heartbreaking [Laughs]. I mean, I flipped through those pictures of all those men and thought, “Why do I feel like I’m looking at politicians?” It felt so distanced from me, it was hard to even remember I’m a filmmaker too. I mean, I’m just as real as those guys. Yeah, it’s disturbing.
The Future is currently available on DVD.