The first time I came across Miranda July, it was like I had been singed by a fireball. The year was 1996, and the budding 22-year-old artist who would go on to write, direct and star in two critically acclaimed feature films was still deeply entrenched in the punk rock underground. Onstage, July emitted a raw, bizarre, brave and otherworldly presence; her multimedia, one-woman show for a small Saturday audience at the Portland Girl Convention was marked by altered voice monologues, a barrage of psychosocial visuals and subterranean subtexts of sexualized power struggles.
Today, sitting in an immaculate suite in San Francisco's Four Seasons Hotel, Miranda July smiles when I bring up that long-ago performance. "It's funny because I just watched a performance from a similar time. I showed a clip of something I did the other night, and I was like, whoah, I was kind of tough, you know?" she says, taking a sip of chamomile tea. "And I still am, but I'm also so interested in the craft of it at this point."
In town to promote her second feature film, The Future, July is wearing a pink button-down shirt and a baggy brown sweater—the look of a small-town librarian. She's just flown in from Los Angeles, where she lives with filmmaker husband Mike Mills. Married since 2009, July is open about the fears that arose upon saying "I do" and how they influenced the themes in The Future.
"Maybe it was part of getting married and committing to someone until the end of this life, you know, it made me think about the end more," she admits.
The Future tells the story of Sophie and Jason, a thirty-something couple living in Los Angeles. Sophie works as a children's dance instructor. Jason does at-home phone-tech support. They decide to adopt a cat, Paw Paw, a bandaged creature that has been injured in a car accident. (The cat, somewhat infamously, narrates the movie.)
The impending adoption, a month away, forces the couple to assess their personal freedom, and the two realize that they've pushed aside their best-laid plans in favor of the molasses of a long-term relationship. In response, they quit their jobs, cancel the internet, and set out to spend the last 30 days of freedom figuring out what they really want to do with their lives.
Sophie decides she wants to achieve YouTube stardom by making a video of herself dancing; Jason just wants to be guided by fate, mistakes and coincidences. But instead of exploding into art, Sophie becomes frozen and stagnant with fear, leading to a fateful phone call that ultimately and dramatically derails her plans.
"That idea of a woman fleeing her life, her soul and her creativity—and in a way, the appeal of that too—that's so dark to me," July says. "That story I've had in my head for years. I remember thinking about it in the Portland days, but it was overly ambitious for where I was at, but I pictured this woman getting in a car . . ."
When I ask whether this was a movie that she needed to be in her 30s to make—when fleeing from one's own life might have more repercussions than during the untethered 20s—July nods.
"Yeah, you need something to fuck up," she says. "I got married during the time since I made the last movie, and suddenly, I mean, I have such an investment in freedom, and there's reconciling. Like, does that really matter? You know, freedom for freedom's sake?"
Measured and mindful in person, July's creative output since those early performances has been substantial and wide-ranging. Now 37, she's written, directed and starred in 2005's Me and You and Everyone We Know, a winner at the Sundance and the Cannes film festivals. Her fiction, collected in the 2007 book No One Belongs Here More Than You, has appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review; July says that working on the stories gave her "a certain rigor that I didn't have before the first movie."
July is also an accomplished visual artist, and recently set up an interactive sculpture garden at Los Angeles's Pacific Design Center. Originally designed for the 2009 Venice Biennale, the exhibit includes tall, flat slabs scrawled with statements like "What I look like when I'm lying" and "This is not the first hole my finger has been in, nor will it be the last" next to holes through which people can stick their heads and fingers.
But with success comes pressure, admits July. "How much can I go into something that I don't really know what it is, you know?" she says, her eyes a vivid blue underneath distinctive dark-brown, bowl-cut ringlets. "That feels very dangerous now that there's all this attention. Whereas back then, I was kind of like, 'Who cares if it's bad?' It was like, we're punks, I mean, bad is good. Whereas now, in a way, that feels riskier. What is bad or good or annoying, pushing past that is more challenging."
One way that July pushes past that fear is a rigorous work ethic. After being rejected from the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2001 for a nascent Me and You and Everyone We Know script, she revised relentlessly, applying to the lab again in 2002 only to be rejected, and again in 2003, when she was finally accepted. "Miranda is a fierce artist," Sundance Screenwriters Lab director Michelle Satter told Filmmaker magazine in 2005. "Her work ethic is like no one I've ever seen."
It shows. "I feel like I'm so identified with my creativity, which is my own doing," July says. "I just did that from such a young age. There's not a lot of middle ground. When I'm not working, which is rarely, I almost can't even exist, like I'm a child."
The Future acts in part as a meditation on this drive to create, and how it can both inspire or smother the soul. Those familiar with Me and You and Everyone We Know might find surprises in the dark themes of The Future. While July's first film touched on childhood sexuality and inveterate loneliness in powerful ways, it was also imbued with a cute buoyancy that brought out the haters—including the people who started the "I Hate Miranda July" website.
July says that she intentionally set out to make something sadder. While making Me and You and Everyone We Know, July recalls, "I was going through a lot of sadness, and even kind of scary, scary stuff, like lots of changes in relationships, and here I was editing this pretty relatively light movie.
"I remember thinking, this [new film] should start out normal and lighter, and by the end you should, without even knowing how you got there, be in a really different space, and it should kind of creep up on you."
The end result, after two hours of talking cats, talking moons, the stopping of time, the manipulation of space and, yes, a T-shirt that crawls through suburban streets in search of its lost owner, is a film that captures the bewildering sadness of life in a disarmingly surreal way. With The Future, July's years as an artistic explorer of the tension between connection and alienation, between mundane everyday moments and the unavoidable death of all that we hold dear has scaled new heights. "I know it's a very small story, ultimately not very much happens, but I saw it was an epic drama in sort of a traditional sense, almost like a fable, or something," she says. "I think a lot of just writing, pure writing, got me to that place."
'The Future' opens Friday, Aug. 26, at Summerfield Cinemas in Santa Rosa.