Miranda July, the uncategorizable artist who has produced everything from public sculpture to short stories and performance art since the mid-’90s, has finally directed her second feature film.
Her surrealism-tinged “The Future,” which opens Friday, will surely baffle many who know July only from 2005’s odd but realistic “Me and You and Everyone We Know.” Of the new film’s fantastic elements — a man who stops time, a weary moon that needs help moving Earth’s tides — the most challenging is Paw Paw, an orphaned cat who narrates much of the story. Fans aware that July is married to fellow artist/director Mike Mills might note that his recent “Beginners” featured a talking (or at least telepathic) animal. Coincidence?
“Yeah — neither of us has a very good answer to that question,” July said in an interview, while noting that the animals serve different purposes: The spunky Jack Russell terrier in “Beginners” was inspired by a dog the couple inherited from Mills’s father, while July’s cat is more symbolic.
“It became a stand-in,” she explains, for the movie’s broader concerns about passing time, delayed parenthood and, as she puts it, “the buried sense of waiting” for one’s own parents “to see you, or to come get you, even though they’re their own people with their own problems.”
Those themes aren’t the only ways in which “The Future” proves darker than “Me and You,” which dealt with weighty topics but did so with lots of humor, a terribly cute 6-year-old and a happy ending. July dreads talking about the first film after years of immersing herself in this one.
“It’s a little bit like someone saying, ‘Let’s talk about your ex-boyfriend,’ ” she says, laughing, “and you’re, like, ‘I loved him, I learned a lot from him, but I had to move on, and it’s kind of painful.’ ”
But that “ex-boyfriend” was loved by many, leading viewers who had never seen July’s non-film work to expect more of the same. The artist tried to evade those expectations by refusing to make a follow-up immediately.
“I was very, like: ‘You don’t know who I am! I’m a writer! I’m a performer!’ ” she says, recalling that while it was tempting to please the fans the film brought her, given the strange paths her work often takes, disappointing some of them was “inevitable. I’d gotten a whole lot of fans I was never going to keep, you know?”
It’s not as if July’s sensibility is entirely avant-garde. Though she describes the art films of Jane Campion (“The Piano,” “Bright Star”) as formative teenage viewing, “as far as really opening up some more vulnerable part of me, and thinking that would be worthy of sharing,” she also draws inspiration from more commercial, even embarrassing, touchstones: While envisioning “The Future,” especially its time-stopping factor, she often referenced the sentimental 1980 Christopher Reeve vehicle “Somewhere in Time.”
While “The Future” has a dark side — July described it to indieWIRE as “my style of horror movie, which would involve someone forsaking themselves to such a degree that they were really physically haunted” — it’s also informed by the kind of romantic idealism one might expect from a closet fan of “Somewhere in Time.” If its ending isn’t as upbeat as that of “Me and You,” it does leave room for optimism.
“I worked hard not to tip it either way,” July says of the ambiguous final scene, explaining that her biggest concern was that, for characters who have spent the whole film preoccupied with what the future holds, “you have this feeling of, whoa, they are so in the present right now. There’s nothing else going on but this moment. That’s the happy ending, that’s the achievement. Whatever will happen next, they are not darting about, hoping and fearing; they’re just right there.”
And is the director beyond worrying about what moviegoers will expect from her next outing?
“Part of me would love to get to jump in and learn from all my mistakes immediately,” she says. “The day after I finished shooting, I wrote an eight-page letter to myself for before I start shooting a third movie. I felt I had forgotten so many things, and I didn’t want to forget next time. Really specific things, even things about what I should be eating, what kind of panic attacks I was going to have and why they didn’t matter.”
But instead of making a feature right away, she’ll probably finish her novel, “and I think I’ll perform and do some more art things.” She tries not to worry about squeezing it all in.
“It’s just the finiteness of life,” she says. “You don’t live 12 times.”
(91 minutes; rated R) opens Aug. 5 at Landmark’s
E Street Cinema.