When Miranda July started writing “Kajillionaire” in 2016, she had no idea how topical it would become. The movie follows an eccentric Los Angeles family — mother Theresa (Debra Winger), father Robert (Richard Jenkins) and 26-year-old daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood) — who survive off low-rent scams. By the time July was shooting the film in the summer of 2018, scammers were all over the news. It was the year of the grift, from Elizabeth Holmes’ well-documented Theranos fallout to the “con queen” impersonating Hollywood producers. Sometimes movies arrive as if willed by serendipity, and “Kajillionaire” is one of them.
It’s also one of 2020’s best. At once whimsical and humane, “Kajillionaire” asks how someone might come of age without parental affection or the conventions of capitalism. Theresa and Robert treat Old Dolio more like a partner in crime than a daughter, feeding her false ideas about how the world operates and stunting her self-actualization. When the three attempt to pull off a scam involving airport luggage, they recruit a cheerful “Ocean’s 11” enthusiast (Gina Rodriguez) to help, after which Old Dolio begins to realize just how off-kilter her upbringing has been.
July’s first two movies — 2005’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know” (newly available through the prestigious Criterion Collection) and 2011’s “The Future” — capitalized on her background as a DIY multidisciplinarian who got her artistic start in Portland, Oregon’s riot grrrl scene. She has since published short stories and a novel and created a number of idiosyncratic theater pieces. Her brand of quirk isn’t for everyone. In fact, a New York Times Magazine profile of July from 2011 focused heavily on how many people detest her sensibilities. (“‘Precious,’ ‘light,’ and ‘twee’ all describe conventionally feminine qualities, and all have been tossed July’s way as insults,” the story reads.) Whether “Kajillionaire,” which opens in select theaters Friday and premieres on video-on-demand platforms Oct. 16, will win her new fans is questionable, but it is July’s most grounded and accessible outing to date.
Earlier this month, I got on the phone with July to discuss the new movie, scams, why she finds herself drawn to stories about money and how the deep voice that Wood uses in “Kajillionaire” originated.
This is probably not the landscape in which you expected to be promoting this film. How are you feeling about it entering the world at this specific moment?
Great. I mean, yes, I was definitely disappointed, as we all were, that my well-laid plans were basically smashed to pieces. But I have to say, in the last month, as I’ve been talking to people who’ve seen the movie within the pandemic, I’ve begun to own the idea that I made this movie for us now. The reality is that there is always some moment when a movie enters the world. It’s part of the alchemy of what actually makes that movie. People keep calling things to my attention, these uncanny resonances. The most recent one someone pointed out that I hadn’t thought of was the post office, [which] was, until recently, this neutral symbol. And now it’s not. The United States post office is what the movie opens on. I mean, not that I’m like a prophet, right?
It’s interesting that you shot “Kajillionaire” in 2018 at a moment when, in a weird confluence of events, there were a number of grifters and scammers in the zeitgeist. I’m thinking of people like Elizabeth Holmes, the Fyre Festival, Anna Delvey, the women who inspired “Hustlers” and obviously Donald Trump. When you started writing the film, you couldn’t have known that scams would become such a phenomenon. But I wonder whether it was on your mind during or after the shoot?
Yeah. I mean, it was weird because I was still writing when Trump was elected. And I remember initially there being some sort of uneasy connections that couldn’t help but be made. Like, I remember Richard Jenkins saying at one point on set, “Do I actually believe what I’m saying here? Or am I like Trump and it doesn’t matter because the truth doesn’t matter?”
How did you respond to that question?
In general, I try not to answer all their questions. But I probably said like, “Huh, that’s really interesting.” I just try to let him go down that road for the next take and see what it did.
But then when I was working, people would forward me think pieces on this being the year of the grift. And I actually remember right when “Shoplifters” won a big prize at Cannes. I still have yet to see that movie just because I’ve been busy, but I remember being like, “Oh, that’s unfortunate. We’re about to make our movie and that sounds really similar.” Little did I know that, well, don’t worry about “Shoplifters,” worry about “Parasite.”
“Parasite” is another great scam story.
Yeah, and then I guess at a certain point you think, well, none of us knew about each other as far as the filmmakers. We’re all breathing the same air, living on this Earth at this time — a deeply uneasy time where the truth is very up for grabs and there’s this kind of generational slippery divide. I don’t know. Maybe at a certain point, it’s hard to keep it out.
I attended “New Society,” your interactive theater piece, in 2015 in New York. Part of that performance involved having the audience rip up the program and use the paper as currency. Fast-forward a few years and here comes “Kajillionaire.” You’ve got a family that flouts the kind of standards of capitalism and finds their own amateurish way to get by. Between those two projects, it seems like money has been on your mind. What is your relationship to money, and why do you think you’re focusing on it right now?
Right, and there’s even another one in between there: my interfaith charity shop, which literally dealt in money and commerce.
I guess it’s like I never formed quite — and I think a lot of people are this way — the normal relationship with money, or the one that you’re supposed to have where you just want it. Of course, I need it. I need to be able to live. But it’s such an intense symbol. It’s such a carrier, especially within families and within societies, of shame, of anxiety, of aspiration, of fantasy, of even lust. It’s almost like I’m also writing about sex, but not in a direct way. I guess it’s also so colloquial. It’s so easily recognizable. It’s like the sky or something, but dirty and we invented it. And so, if you’re going to be in a fairly esoteric realm where you engage in all those things I just mentioned like shame and anxiety, if you could just use money instead of ever actually saying any of those other words, that would be handy. And no one has to actually make money or even care about it in the usual way for it to function within the story.
I have to imagine that one of the most fun things about writing this script was concocting unusual ways for the family to steal and to survive.
Sorry, I just thought of one last thing that occurred to me right now. I also think ― because I was thinking “but why now?” in terms of this money thing ― as I hit middle age, there’s a point where you’re really supposed to have money. It’s like, you always pictured growing up that by now you would have money. And in lieu of that, I have created money. I have had prop money. I’ve had my audiences making money from their programs. You know, I’ve had money all around me. I don’t know, that just kind of struck me. OK, go ahead.
I want to hear about the process of concocting ways for the family to steal and to survive. You’re not having them do the obvious, like hold up a cash register.
Right, yes. Pure fun for me. I was drawing on an amalgam of stuff that me or my friends did in my punk days. The luggage scam, you know, that one’s real.
That one’s real? You did that?
Well, I feel like if I say that on the record, that’s very bad.
I mean, it was so long ago, right? What’s the harm at this point?
Let’s just say I’m familiar with it. What’s the statute of limitations? “We’re arresting you right now.” Yeah. It always struck me as a kind of poetic scam because it requires people who know each other to pretend they’re strangers. I always found that sort of chilling, the idea of in public treating someone you knew as a stranger. It was one of the first images of the script, with them at the baggage claim.
I remember sitting at my desk and writing the post office box scam. And if there’d been anyone filming me at that moment writing, they’d have seen me reach out into the air and reach my hand around [to steal from the adjacent P.O. box] and think, “Well, that’s going to look incredible.” Do post office boxes have backs to them? Probably, but who’s going to think about that? And to be honest, we even shot more because I kind of went to town.
Can you give me an example of one that you particularly loved and were sad to see go?
There’s one that I did in real life that did also make it into the script and shooting, but not the movie. You go to a lost-and-found and you ask them if they have your, you know, sweater or whatever. If they don’t, they don’t — that’s fine. But if they do have one, you say, like, a black cardigan or whatever. Then there you go, you have a sweater. And that’s it.
I don’t want to get too into details because I don’t want to unravel part of the movie. We used that one as a fairly harmless one that used to be in there. But the main idea was they all have to be so low-stakes. My favorite is really the idea of trading a watch for a massage gift certificate and then trying to return that. The diminishing returns should be to the point where it almost becomes just some weird ritual and not even about money.
For them, it is as much a lifestyle as a means of income.
Right, it’s like a religion or something.
I know you often have specific ideas about the way particular lines should sound or the rhythm that a scene should have. And in the past, you worked with great actors in John Hawkes and Hamish Linklater, but nobody in “Me and You and Everyone We Know” or “The Future” was a true celebrity per se, at least not compared to Evan Rachel Wood and Debra Winger. How did that change your approach to directing this project?
I don’t know that it is that different. For one thing ― I probably shouldn’t say this ― but I think because I was acting in those [earlier] movies, I didn’t really want to put a megastar next to me because I just wasn’t confident enough. I just wanted to keep it all chill, you know? Like, let’s just play on a certain level where I’m comfortable and where we can kind of believe this reality. Often I would get into almost casting someone more well-known, and then I would just think, “This is going to seem weird. Like, who am I?” I just didn’t buy it.
It was actually Hamish Linklater himself. I remember he texted me, and I said I was working on something new. And he said, “I hope you’re casting real stars this time. They’re stars for a reason.”
How did that make you feel?
I thought it was, first of all, the sweetest thing in the world. Just very generous. And it made me curious, too. I was like, “First of all, I am.” I wrote a movie that from the get-go I knew was going to cost at least three times as much as anything I made, and that was part of what was going to be fun about it.
But I guess a star like that, they’ve worked a lot and they come with things you already know about them, so you get this joyful surprise. It’s the surprise of when your partner wears something that you’ve never seen them in before, and you’re like, “Oh, aha! You can look like that! You’re new to me again.” I always think that’s so thrilling, and to get to be the one to do that, it’s very powerful.
When you were writing the character of Old Dolio, before Evan Rachel Wood came into the picture, was it always clear to you that whoever you cast would be doing some kind of off-kilter, deep voice?
No, not at all. And I wouldn’t have ever had the balls to ask an actor to do a different voice for a whole movie. That seems really a sketchy idea to me. But Evan, when we were rehearsing early on, suddenly dropped her voice, and she was like, “You know, this is my original voice, and I used to get vocal nodes, so I worked with a vocal coach to train my voice up. So now I speak with this voice that everyone knows me as, but if you want me to use this voice ...” I was kind of like, “Wait, are you kidding me? That other voice, that’s a natural voice to you? That’s not going to feel hard or false or something?” And she was like, “Oh no, absolutely not.” And in fact, it was obvious that it helped her drop down into that character. We just didn’t really look back. I mean, I kind of forgot, to be honest, until people saw the movie.
Even if it had just been a choice of mine, I kind of think voice is one of those very fluid gender identifiers that’s ours to use as we like. I have friends who definitely, whether because of hormones or just because their identity was on a journey, their voice changed, so I do think it’s an interesting, subtler queer indicator.
In the book titled “Miranda July” that came out this year about your work, you talk about meeting other filmmakers after you’d done “Me and You.” Miguel Arteta was introducing you to people, and they were mostly men, which left you feeling competitive. Do you still feel that way with other filmmakers and perhaps the industry at large?
I think that was a particular moment. I’d have to be pretty in my own world to not feel competitive. I had literally just moved to LA and right out of the gate was making a movie there.
At this point, I have so many women artist and filmmaker friends here, and I guess also I’ve come to realize that it’s a lot more porous than I thought. It’s not like there’s different worlds for each kind of film. You know, Brad Pitt produced this movie. I think I felt not just marginalized but like, “Who even am I? I exist within my own context.” And now I feel like, well, I don’t know. I think everyone feels pretty weird. I’ve now, at this point, met enough people who I thought should be at the apex of owning their Hollywood credentials and realized, “Oh, that person feels completely uncomfortable 99% of the time.” At this point, I’m like, “Oh, it is all a construction and we’re just sort of pedaling around trying to keep our heads above water and maintain our friendships so that we don’t lose our minds.”
Everything you’re saying works in conversation with this common thread in your films, which is characters’ fairly urgent desire for a connection that they have gone without. In this case, we see a 26-year-old whose parents have never shown her any real affection or even taught her accurate ideas about the world. Why is that theme — the absence of connection — so important to you?
I guess it sort of goes without saying that clearly some deep childhood lonely feelings that I should, you know — like, my life doesn’t look like that anymore. I’m an autonomous adult person. And yet I realized if you have a wound, at a certain point it stops being a wound and it’s just you, your fabric. But if it goes deep enough, then any time you’re alone even for a second, it gets triggered and you go right back in that well. If you were hungry once, you just get a little hungry and you’re fucking starving. You can’t calibrate.
There’s just a few things that I probably will never be very good at having any middle ground on, and one of them is the alone-and-together thing. I’m very good at the extremes of that. I can happily be devastated and alone in my own kind of fugue state ― or let’s-dream-the-same-dream kind of intimacy, like, let’s enter each other’s psychic space. But the huge gray zone in between, that is utterly confounding to me.
Before you go, I want to ask about the fabulous Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who is hilarious in two short “Kajillionaire” scenes as a massage therapist. Her career has really taken off in the last couple of years. Can you walk me through what kind of direction you gave her to achieve that quiet comedy?
Yeah. I mean, I was madly thinking, “What did I do, what did I do?” And then I was like, “Oh, nothing.” Because I can recall very clearly her audition. I’m sitting there — these are callbacks — watching a bunch of different Black women audition, all them various ranges of good. And she comes in and it’s like that moment you always hope for. It’s like from a movie or something where you’re just kind of falling off your chair. And that was basically what she did [during the shoot]. I mean, she’s an incredible actress with the perfect slow blink. Old Dolio’s just like a spinning top in front of her. I didn’t know her work before then. Evan did. I remember Evan walking in on the day and seeing her and them just hugging for a long time. And I’m like, “Of course they know each other.”
Was there a specific reason that you were looking for a Black woman for the role?
That whole family [who are part of a scam that occurs early in the movie] was written to be Black. I was kind of interested in different parts of LA. No one’s really going to catch this, but it is said that they live in Ladera Heights and that is a wealthy Black neighborhood. I just feel like I haven’t seen a lot of Ladera Heights in movies, especially not a movie like this. I think it was just part of trying to show different parts of LA and that this family would, right out of the gate, sort of disarm [Old Dolio’s family] on a number of different levels.
I could see those same characters as white, and I didn’t want to be annoying, like an annoying cliche of an LA masseuse. You go from comedy to something a little more sincere. I actually have a Black masseuse that I’ve received many great massages from, and I always am struck by, like, yeah, this is not the cliched LA masseuse, you know? I don’t know. I mean, it’s these many little decisions like that.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.