INTERVIEW Storyteller of the ordinary and the fantastical

Miranda July explains the workings behind independent film, art … anything

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Miranda July wrote, directed, and starred in independent film The Future.
courtesy of roadside attractions

The Future

Directed by Miranda July

Starring Miranda July, Hamish Linklater, and David Warshofsky

At age 37, independent film director, actress, artist, writer, and musician Miranda July already has various forms of creative work under her belt, ranging from web-based experimental projects to novels and multimedia performance. July’s stories, inspired by magical realism and the avant-garde, often involves ordinary settings and situations examined in great depths. Her most eminent work, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), won several awards, including Caméra d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. July visited Boston last week to present her latest movie, The Future, at The Independent Film Festival Boston (IFFBoston), which took place from April 27 to May 4 and had more than 100 film screenings in theaters across Cambridge and Boston. At a roundtable, The Tech had the opportunity to speak with July about independent films, the artistic process, and, yes, school.

In your work you seem to focus on the little things in life — which are highly realistic — but at the same time there is a lot of surrealism, and your way of telling stories seems highly imaginary. How do you balance those two things?

Miranda July: Those two realms are most interesting to me. In my life I focus almost too much on the littlest thing. I’m just kind of floored by the person next to me on the plane: Everything about them seems so interesting, and that really easily turns into a story in my head. At the same time I’m trying to get at things that are really hard to articulate or explain and aren’t details, aren’t based in the tangible reality — I’m trying to find symbols or metaphors or place holders so I can to bring them into the world, There’s a scene [in The Future] where I’m in a shirt. I wanted to show — and I have had that feeling — of betraying myself so much that I felt like I was haunting myself. To have a security blanket T-shirt crawling after her felt like a more accurate way of showing that feeling than just being despondent.

When you first get an idea for a story or get an image such as a shirt crawling on the floor, how do you know personally what will be right for which medium?

MJ: Usually I just know because I’m trying to come up with ideas for a particular work; everything I’m thinking of is in that category. But this movie began as a short story, and a lot of the ideas, including the shirt, came about in the performance part of it. Weirder ideas are not that weird in a performance context where anything goes. It was an interesting challenge to make [a shirt] a character.

How do you view the connection between performance and writing process? Do you think actively about what kind of people will be performing?

MJ: I don’t. I act out the whole thing as I’m going, which is fine for my roles, but it means that I have a very specific idea how exactly I want it said by the time I get to the casting process, which makes it hard — I get very narrow and specific, and so many great actors are brought to me. It’s also quite visual, so I feel, why not be dumb about it and say, “Well, these two people look like they go together,” and be almost comic book-like about it.

Your characters seem to be speaking a private language. Do you have that goal in your films to connect the viewers — that even though things are happening in a very bizarre or particular way, they actually have some kind of universality?

MJ: When I feel like it’s good, working, I don’t worry about weirdness. I think even when people logically are a little unsure, on some other level they’ll be nodding. This is my job, is to go out on a limb while simultaneously being familiar and inviting. That’s the line to walk.

Independent movies have become more and more successful during the past years. Could you give us your perspective on the development of that community, and could you imagine working for one of the big Hollywood film studios even though that would mean accepting constraints?

MJ: Well, certainly. If anyone wants to give me a lot of money to do my script, I would love that. It’s not by choice. If you’re not going to cast stars and if you do something that looks as risky as this does on the paper, it kind of ends up being this budget. I don’t know. Have things really gotten better for independent movies? The last few years were definitely not a great time for anyone to get financing for their movies. When I was struggling to get money for this movie and I felt like it wasn’t that hard for my first movie, people would say, “You’d never be able to make that first movie now.” That was kind of the end of an era as far as companies thinking that this could be the next big thing. But at the same time, there is a lot more, much smaller-budget movies — ones that are a couple hundred thousands of dollars. And some of them break out. So in that sense there are just a lot more movies. Period.

When you decided to drop out of college, what was going on in your mind? Was it spontaneous? What was the motivation?

MJ: I was already doing fanzines and performances, and I took those things so seriously. In fact, I was insulted by the fact that as long as I did them in school they would be thought of as student productions. That just seemed so belittling to me. The impetus was I started dating someone in Portland and there was a moment — like when you quit a job. You just suddenly realize, “Oh, I could just leave.” It was part of becoming an adult. Some people become an adult through college, but for me, it took leaving it to really realize that I have that autonomy. I still love that feeling. How do you do that now? I don’t know.

The Future will open in Boston on July 29, 2011.