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20 Q&As: Miranda July

In the new 20th Anniversary Issue of Dazed & Confused, we talk to the artist, writer and filmmaker about 1991 being the year of many firsts and her latest project

Miranda July emerged from the West Coast punk and riot grrrl scene in the late 90s, after growing up in a bohemian Berkeley household. A prolific performance artist, writer and filmmaker, the 37-year-old’s latest creation is The Future, a follow-up to her Caméra d’Or-winning first film Me and You and Everyone We Know. Underpinned by a tougher, darker streak than her debut, it’s the occasionally surreal tale of two 30-something Los Angelenos – Sophie (played by Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) – who are suddenly confronted with impending adulthood when they decide to adopt an injured cat.

With 30 days of freedom before the feline moves in, they decide to shake themselves out of cosy cohabitation, and end up literally altering the course of time. Narrated by the cat (sounding suspiciously like July), there is interpretive dance, t-shirts with souls and a man in the moon, but for all the idiosyncracies, at its heart is July’s uncanny comprehension of the human condition and a magical feel for the possibilities of cinema. Dazed spoke to July in Minneapolis to discuss talking cats, sex with strangers, and, of course, the future…

Dazed & Confused: Can we go back 20 years to when Dazed started out?
Miranda July: Oh well, that was the big year for me! The year I did my first play. I also lost my virginity. That was the year it all happened, the year I became an artist! 1991 must have been astrologically important – it wasn’t just me, it was your magazine too. And that was the year I changed my name, I became Miranda July.

D&C: Where did the ‘July’ come from?
Miranda July: I know – it’s such a teenager’s idea of a good name! It was from my best friend at the time, Johanna Fateman [later co-founder of Le Tigre] she’d written a story about two girls named Ida and July in a zine, and I was July.

D&C: What was this first play about?
Miranda July: It was based on the correspondence I had with a man in prison for murder. It started with the classified ads – it was sort of the beginning of my reaching out to strangers. In the back of this magazine, I found a list of ‘prison penpals’. I picked this one name and we began writing – it wasn’t romantic at all, but it was a very intense relationship for me, a pretty formative time. That play was the first thing I’d done that was ‘professional’ – I was 16, so I don’t know if anyone else thought it was professional. But I very consciously put it on outside of my high school, because I wanted it to be in the ‘real world’, which for me was this punk club, 924 Gilman in Berkeley. The walls were covered with crazy graffiti and it was a totally wrecked-looking space but it was an all-ages club so there was something unique about it.

D&C: Did you play yourself in it?
Miranda July: No. I hired this Latino woman in her 20s to play me – she looked nothing like me! It sounds so random now, telling you this. And then this 38-year-old drug and alcohol counsellor – that was his day job – played the prisoner. I don’t think the people auditioning really got how young I was – we had to rehearse in my parents’ attic.

D&C: Did you get any reviews?
Miranda July: One – in a fanzine. But it was a very serious review, I have it still, because it was the first time people I didn’t know came to see something I had made – not a lot of people, it has to be said, but enough that I was kind of hooked. It was so excruciating I could barely endure it, and at the same time, I wanted to do it forever.

D&C: Aren’t you working on a book involving the classified ads now?
Miranda July: Yeah, It Chooses You. That was during a time when I wanted to take a break from The Future script – we were trying to get financing during the recession: really fun. So I started calling people up in Los Angeles who had ads selling stuff in the PennySaver. The first man I visited opened the door and he was a burly 60-year-old man with a pink blouse and boobs and pink lipstick – he said very quietly that he was going through a ‘transformation’. Not what I was picturing, at all. Then I talked for a long time with a guy before he lifted his pant leg up and showed me his house arrest anklet. The last person I met was an old man who Joe and I cast in The Future. There were these uncanny connections – the talking cat in my film is named Paw Paw, and he met his wife 62 years ago at Paw Paw Lake. He was in his 80s and openly, obviously at the end of his life, and he talked about that, and it really shifted how I was thinking about time and relationships in the film – his wife was still alive, and he would make these really dirty cards for her! Later, I had the idea that he could be the voice of the moon in the film.

D&C: Is that your voice as Paw Paw the cat?

Miranda July: Yes, initially I was thinking maybe Björk could be the cat. I didn’t realise having a cat narrator might be a difficult selling point, and I’d go into meetings leading with that: ‘… and there’s a talking cat! What’s not to love?’

D&C: There’s this idea of wildness in the film, both the cat and Sophie talk about being ‘wild’…

Miranda July: I met my husband and got married during the time I was making The Future, and I think on some level I was wondering if I could be ‘domesticated’. Could I have the faith that I could be loved and not just go running into the night? It had never occurred to me that I could have this great friend around, forever. And that if we do that, we’re going to die on each other! I wasn’t entirely convinced, so I explored that through the stray cat and through my own character, Sophie, who does exactly what I feared I’d do with her life.

D&C: Sophie ends up leaving Jason and having sex with a stranger...
Miranda July: Actually, an ex-boyfriend read a draft of the script and said: ‘I’ve never seen this before – a woman who’s written a sex scene that she’s going to direct and act in. I know you can push this further.’ So I thought, ‘Okay what haven’t you seen on film?’ I wanted it to be particularly female. Sex with a total stranger is oddly liberating – someone who doesn’t care about all the things you think are special about yourself – he doesn’t even care if Sophie’s clothes are interesting. There’s something horrifying about it for a smart woman who demands a lot of herself. Like everything about you is erased. But it’s also freeing.

D&C: The young girl in the film half-buries herself in her backyard in this strange ritual – I couldn’t help wondering if she was anything like you as a child?

Miranda July: I had some pretty intense rituals. The idea of putting yourself through an ordeal and thinking that it was somehow magical – that was very much me as a kid.

D&C: What kind of ordeals?
Miranda July: I would pretend to be mute for days at a time, like a cry for help that’s silent. My mom would just say, ‘Oh right, you’re not talking.’ But for me, it was all very intense and when I would decide to talk again, I felt like I was slowly becoming human again.

D&C: Your husband Mike Mills was filming Beginners at the same time you were making The Future – how was that?
Miranda July: Intense, a total hothouse… But you don’t have to explain anything, you walk in the door, collapse on the floor after a day of shooting, and it’s all transparent. We didn’t share our movies with each other while we were making them. Frankly, you want to believe you’re the only person in the world making a movie.

D&C: What does the future hold?

Miranda July: A novel. I have an editor waiting. And then some things not related to work… I’ve been running since I was 16, since I first began thinking of myself as an artist. It’s not too late to make time for things outside of that.

Hannah Lack is film editor of Dazed & Confused
Photography RJ Shaughnessy

Dazed & Confused's October issue, 'Come Together: 20th Anniversary Special', is out now. Click HERE to check out the other, already published, Q&As celebrating the issue