Miranda July on Stepping into a Deeper Level of Directing in ‘Kajillionaire’

Director Miranda July (left) and actor Evan Rachel Wood (right) on the set of Kajillionaire.
Focus Features/Matt Kennedy

In a time where the very meaning of human connection is being reimagined, the work of Miranda July has never felt more relevant. From her first feature Me and You and Everyone We Know to her 2014 app Somebody, the multidisciplinary artist is renowned for her innovative and whimsical ways of exploring human connections and relationships, July further builds on her extensive portfolio with latest film Kajillionaire.

Evan Rachel Wood gives an unforgettable performance as the ineffable Old Dolio, the child of Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa Dyne (Debra Winger). The family trio commit absurd cons to make ends meet and pay for the rundown Los Angeles office block they call home. Old Dolio’s relationship with her parents is distinct, to say the least.

There is an indescribable childlike wonder that Old Dolio possesses, having been treated as an ‘adult’ in the world her parents built around her, she sees the world as a battleground to be faced by her and her parents — inhibiting everyone else from getting in. This all changes when the family encounters Melanie (Gina Rodriguez). Embodying the antithesis to all Old Dolio has ever known, Melanie introduces her to connections and experiences she’s never had before; from making pancakes in the morning to the heartrending concept of letting go and building a newfound family. 

Kajillionaire is 2020’s perfect antidote, reminding us of both the beauty and the heartbreak of yearning for the very basis of what it means to be human. Miranda July talks to SQ about her incredible third feature as well as offering advice for young female creatives. 

(L to R) Richard Jenkins as "Robert Dyne", Debra Winger as "Theresa Dyne" and Evan Rachel Wood as "Old Dolio Dyne" in director Miranda July's KAJILLIONAIRE
Focus Features/Matt Kennedy

Graciela Mae: Hi Miranda! Congratulations and thank you for this wonderful movie, I don’t think any other film during quarantine immersed me that much into its world.

Miranda July: Aw. Good!

First and foremost, I’d love to talk about the title, Kajillionaire. It really encompasses the idea of Old Dolio being stuck in this childlike wonder at the world her parents have created for her. Where did the name come from? 

Well, I knew that I wanted the title to have something to do with money, which is never used in a straightforward way in this movie, but holds a lot of emotional weight. And then Kajillionaire, yes, it is like this childlike understanding of money, there’s no such thing as a ‘Kajillionaire dollars’, it only exists in a dream. 

Building on from that, the film explores such an unconventional family yet manages to feel so familiar. Despite the absurdity of their family and their cons, I found myself deeply resonating with Old Dolio’s relationship with her parents. Was writing about the child-parent relationship at the forefront of your writing process for this film? 

For the first draft, I’m really writing from my unconscious. I think I didn’t know quite how deeply it was about that parent-child [relationship], that kind of gain and heartbreak felt built-in to that relationship. Because, of course, I had these characters that were just so fun to write dialogue for, and the heist and making that plot work. And then the emotional underground gut punch of it knocked up on me and I thought ‘oh boy, yeah this is uncomfortable stuff’ that I probably wouldn’t have willingly approached.  

I was so enthralled by the relationship between Old Dolio and Melanie, it felt so organic and they were so well written. Evan Rachel Wood and Gina Rodriquez also gave such incredible performances, could you talk about their casting process?

I had Gina in mind really early on, even when I was finishing writing it, I sort of began writing for her — I was really so happy when she said she would do it. And then it was kind of easy, I know she could do that part well, she ended up playing it better than I thought she would, she made it her own. Whereas, with Old Dolio, there really wasn’t a major star like Old Dolio. I just really love Evan as an actress, I know she’s really very good, but it wasn’t until I met with her and we really talked that I began to grow confidence. Like, this hunch, isn’t just me projecting a fantasy onto Evan Rachel Wood, she’s really got some Old Dolio soul in there.

Gina Rodriguez (left) stars as "Melanie" and Evan Rachel Wood (right) stars as "Old Dolio Dyne" in director Miranda July's KAJILLIONAIRE
Focus Features/Matt Kennedy

Did you further build on the character [Old Dolio] with her or was it set in stone once you got her on board? 

I thought I knew the character, but of course, she added so much to it. Even down to her voice. I wouldn’t have asked an actor to deepen their voice — that thought would have just terrified me, actually. But she began talking in that voice and she said ‘this is my original voice, I trained it higher because I was getting vocal nodes, but I can drop down here if you want me to’ and that was so interesting. And I saw, when she did drop [her voice] down, she did become Old Dolio. 

I’m going to try my best to not spoil anything for our readers, but the scene involving ‘the big one’ really struck me, it was so pivotal for Melanie and Old Dolio’s relationship, even though we didn’t see them on screen, can you talk a little bit about how that scene came together?

I remember having in my head the idea of ‘if you could show two souls, talking in the after life, wouldn’t that be interesting?’. And not that the movie would have to actually go there, but if you could get that feeling in a really simple way… that was the genesis. And also that there is something so sad about these souls having lived their lives reflecting back; would there be bitterness? Would you feel that you’d really lived? I’m kind of overstating it, it’s very grounded in reality in the movie, but that was the starting place. In a way, I had to start quite far in this almost spiritual place to ultimately keep that feeling, to get to quite an otherworldly space for a moment. 

This is your first feature wherein you don’t also act as well as writing and directing. Did you always see yourself taking a step back from that role for this story? And how did that affect your directing process?

It wasn’t a plan, but once I had the idea, I liked the idea, and then maybe a day later I thought ‘hold on there’s no woman my age in this movie, I guess I’ll just direct this one’. And that didn’t seem disappointing, something about it felt right, a kind of step into a deeper level of directing. And also I can act in other ways, I can act in other people’s things. I felt those two things could exist apart, whereas I’m the only one who can direct my movies, but other people can play the female lead and be better at it.

(L to R) Evan Rachel Wood as "Old Dolio Dyne", Debra Winger as "Theresa Dyne" and Richard Jenkins as "Robert Dyne" in director Miranda July's KAJILLIONAIR
Focus Features/Matt Kennedy

And just to close, Screen Queens is a site focused on amplifying the voices of women in film, both in film criticism and in filmmaking. Sites like SQ feel indebted to projects such as Joanie4Jackie which championed female voices without the resources we’re lucky to have now. Do you have any advice to young women who are trying to find their place, not just in film, but in the creative industries in general?

I always recommend thinking about what you can do today, right now, with what you have, with the time and energy available to you now because I think we so often wait for everything to be perfect or better and often it’s not gonna get better or not until you take that first step. There was one point where the only thing available to me was to make a pamphlet out of paper, which was the beginning of Joanie4Jackie. I couldn’t even make a movie, all I could make was this pamphlet, but eventually that led to me being able to make my first short movie.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and length

Kajillionaire is now playing in select theatres in the USA and is a part of the virtual 2020 BFI London Film Festival selection. The film will stream on the BFI Player on October 7, 2020.

by Graciela Mae

Graciela Mae is a Filipina studying Film, Television and Digital Production at Royal Holloway, University of London. When she’s not watching films, she’s probably attempting to make films herself. She swears she has other hobbies. Her favourite movies include Rushmore, Cléo from 5 to 7, 20th Century Women, and Carol. You can find her on twitter: @notgracielamae

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