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A Conversation With Berkeley-Raised Miranda July

 
The filmmaker talks about rising fame, changing her name and writing

Miranda July 'The Future'
Miranda July’s
 films have been called everything from brilliant to hip to irritating, but they do one thing for certain: capture attention.

The first film made by the Berkeley-raised filmmaker, "Me and You and Everyone We Know" was released in 2005 and promptly won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Film critic Roger Ebert said it had a “fragile magic”.

July’s second film, "The Future," will be released at the Landmark Shattuck and other East Bay cinemas on August 19th. It tells the story of Sophie and Jason, a couple in their late 30s who seem to be floating through life, accumulating cast-off furniture and low-level jobs that neither tax their minds nor pay them well. They have an indifferent, detached attitude, brilliantly illustrated in an early scene when they sit across from one another on a couch, their feet entwined, their eyes glued to their Mac laptops, barely talking.

Sophie (played by July) and Jason (played by Hamish Linklater) break out of their inertia when they decide to adopt a sick cat, which they name Paw-Paw. They can’t actually pick up Paw-Paw for another 30 days, and decide to use that time to throw themselves into life.

They both quit their jobs. Sophie, who has been teaching toddlers how to dance, decides to post a month’s worth of videos of herself dancing on YouTube. Jason, who does phone tech support, decides to not decide and let providence take him on his next journey. He ends up going door to door, selling trees. Of course, nothing ends up like Sophie or Jason expect, and their lives and their relationship are strained and tested.

Oh, yeah, and the cat narrates the film.

If this sounds a bit bizarre, it is. The film is whimsical and abstract, entertaining, and hard to grasp. “July may be contemporary art and film’s most committed chronicler of neediness and suspended development,” says LA Weekly.

"The Future" may not make millions at the box office, but it has made July a star. While she was previously admired among the hipster and art house film set, she is set to enter the popular consciousness. She was the subject of a New York Times Magazine cover story in July and has been featured in dozens of other stories since then, including in a cover story last week in LA Weekly.

With her petite frame, curly black hair and piercing blue eyes, Miranda July has a waif-like, fey look about her. The daughter of Lindy Hough and Richard Grossinger, who founded and ran North Atlantic Books, a spiritual and New Age publisher, July lived in and around Berkeley and attended local schools from the time she was a young girl until she moved away to attend UC Santa Cruz.

Now 37 and living in Los Angeles with her husband, Mike Mills, who was born in Berkeley (and whose film "Beginners" was also just released), July still stops by the East Bay regularly to see her parents and her older brother, Robin Grossinger, a scientist at the San Francisco Estuary Institute.

July went on a publicity blitz for "The Future" in late July, including a one-day stint at the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco. She spoke to Berkeleyside by phone about her childhood haunts, growing up in a semi-counter-cultural household, and fame.

Can you tell me what schools you attended growing up here?

We lived in Richmond first so I went to a school called Crestmont. Then I went to Le Conte Elementary School. Then I went to Head-Royce for a few years. Then I went to the Academy and then I went to CPS (College Preparatory School).

That seems like a lot of schools to go to.

Well, yeah, I wasn’t really a school person and we were always trying to find a place where I would be happy but I don’t think it was ever going to happen.

When you say you were not really a school person, did you not like paying attention in class or did you just think differently than they wanted you to think?

Like a lot of artists, I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. I had my own interests. I didn’t really like any sort of institutional control. I wasn’t a wild child, but it wasn’t where my talent lay. But I loved to read and write so I did fine.

Your parents have North Atlantic Books. Your mother is a poet and a writer and your father is a writer. I read in one interview that you identified primarily as a writer even though you have made a number of films. I was wondering if you could talk about the environment in your house growing up and how the fact your parents were both writers influenced your decision to be a writer.

I’m a much more established filmmaker than I am a writer but when I say things like that what I mean is writing is at the basis of all the things that I do.

You grew up in such a literate household.

There was so much I learned from my parents and all the books we had around us, which I gradually discovered. They were always writing. There was almost no time when my Dad was home that he wasn’t typing on his IBM Selectric –  loudly. It’s my idea of how to be an adult. You run your own business. You do what you are passionate about. You create your own job. And you write.

In Berkeley, certain people don’t value traditional paths as much as other communities.

I am 100 percent a product of that because I never for a moment had the thought I would get a job or have a career working for somebody. Not just my parents but everyone we were surrounded by had a life revolved around their passion. Sometimes it was a fanatical passion. That was the norm. All Berkeley kids know the rest of the world isn’t like that. I certainly had times I longed for normalcy but I also knew I was pretty lucky.

Were you a cool kid growing up or were you an observer kid growing up?

The schools I went to were so small that there weren’t that many cool kids. I wasn’t a cool kid in the sense I wasn’t straight or a jock at all, but there were plenty of other weird art girls. That wasn’t really a minority. I felt alienated, but that was because of my own inner spirit. Probably wherever I was I would have leaned in that direction because I was not super social.

What was the Berkeley of your youth? What were your landmarks?

We lived right below Telegraph (on Blake) until high school so I did a lot of walking around on Telegraph by myself as a preteen. I remember walking up to Moe’s, to Cody’s, to Half-Priced Books. Then we moved up to Woolsey Street near College Avenue. I would walk around there. I didn’t ever drive. I really remember walking massive distances. I remember once walking home from a party near Solano Avenue, walking all the way home to Woolsey Street at 3 in the morning and just pretending like I had been dropped off and I hadn’t spent the last three hours walking.

Why did you change your name from Grossinger to July?

My dad didn’t grow up with the name Grossinger, he grew up with the name Towers, so it’s a different feeling when you know it’s not a blood name, when you are not related to any of the Grossingers. (Explanation here.) It’s a complicated patrolineage that he himself was kind of excavating my whole childhood. It wasn’t even a big deal. I did it with the first play I wrote in high school. I wrote, “A New Play by Miranda July.” That’s all. It’s the kind of thing teenagers do, but I stuck with it. My mom didn’t use that last name either. It didn’t feel like a heavy thing to do when I changed it.

I wanted to ask you what you find so interesting about relationships in crisis, why that seems to be a theme in some of your work?

It’s interesting. It’s not the main theme, I don’t think, or at least I have never consciously thought that. In your life when you are working things out, or changing, or a lot of things are mysterious to you, you feel like you don’t know everything and you are uncomfortable, those are fascinating times. I am mostly interested in people’s inner worlds and finding ways to show that and externalize that. It isn’t usually more about relationships, it’s more about people.

You have a press agency and you’re at the Four Seasons to meet all these different reporters. You are on the front of the New York Times Magazine. How is this feeling for you? Have you ever had this much attention in your life? Or is this something that has been the norm for you for the past couple of years?

It’s not that different from the first movie. It seems fancy, or weird.  None of it is me. It’s just the movie. Everyone goes through the same mechanism. When you have a good distributor, you have to do the work and go through the system. Once it’s done, and it’s almost done for the U.S., I will not set foot inside the Four Seasons again. I don’t associate it with my life.

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