‘Every Family Is Kind of Cultlike’

Miranda July discusses her new movie, Kajillionaire, a quirky ode to the relationships that can shape us—and alienate us from the rest of the world.

A photo of Miranda July, the director of 'Kajillionaire'
Getty / The Atlantic

Miranda July’s cinematic output has always been concerned with human connection. Her first two features, 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know and 2011’s The Future, are crucial tales of generational malaise in a diffuse, internet-dominated culture. But in the nine years since July directed a movie, she’s embarked on other acting work (in the great Madeline’s Madeline), premiered new art projects, developed a social-messaging app, written a novel, and had a child with her husband, the filmmaker Mike Mills.

Starting a family informed July’s new movie, Kajillionaire, a sweetly offbeat comedy that’s far more high-concept than her previous films. It follows a family of shabbily dressed con artists, Robert (played by Richard Jenkins), Teresa (Debra Winger), and their daughter, Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), a tracksuit-wearing oddity who speaks in a guttural register and whose hair extends down to her waist. The family exists in a world of marginal crime, robbing post offices and executing coupon scams. While performing one of their many strange heists, they make a new friend in the chipper sales clerk Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who forms an attachment to Old Dolio that starts to splinter the family’s bizarre domestic unit.

Kajillionaire—which is in limited theatrical release but will be available on demand within weeks because of the coronavirus pandemic—is July’s best work, mixing her gift for quirky comedy with a heartbreaking story that tries to understand the ways our families shape us and alienate us from the rest of the world. She spoke with me about her approach to story genesis and character creation, the trust her actors put in her idiosyncratic filmmaking sensibilities, and the sublime presence of Jenkins, maybe the finest of all character actors working in Hollywood. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

David Sims: You haven’t made a movie in a few years—were you looking for the right idea to spark?

Miranda July: No, I pretty much just alternate between books and movies, and then I fit in art and performance, and all that just takes a long time. Once I finished my novel [The First Bad Man, published in 2015], I knew I would make a movie next. They come from nowhere. It’s a very internal process which took maybe a year of not knowing, writing a couple ur-movies, the thing that has to be born for the real thing to be born. Often, when you do several wrong things first, then the right thing just comes all at once. That was the case with this one.

Sims: Did you want to write something about the family unit?

July: It’s the first movie I’ve made as both a daughter and a parent. So I guess I’m able to think about the uncomfortable parts of that with a little more complexity: how we become ourselves, how you survive your childhood. And also the idea, with parents, of people who are supposed to be familiar becoming strange when you leave home.

The family at the center of Kajillionaire exists in a world of marginal crime, robbing post offices and executing coupon scams. (Focus Features)

Sims: Did they start out cartoony, or did you push it to further extremes as you developed it?

July: Honestly, I was lying in bed, and these three people, where two women have the long hair, just came to me. All the heist stuff they do was there right away, and it wasn’t shocking to me—I can write that stuff all day. That was there, and more, frankly. There’s endless unused footage of Richard Jenkins hilariously doing low-stakes crime. I eventually needed to pull back because it’s Old Dolio’s story, but he’s so captivating. But I wouldn’t have wanted to make this movie about this icky family stuff if I wasn’t laughing. If I just went headlong into it, I’d be like, Oof, no thanks.

Sims: Do you like heist or con movies generally? When I think of films like The Grifters or House of Games, they are often about units, family units in a way, and they always have a lot of rules and procedures. Their lives are almost religious.

July: Really, my deep basis for all this is watching endless episodes of Mission: Impossible, the TV show, with my big brother growing up. That was pretty formative for us.

Sims: That TV show is much more focused on performance and trickery, not like the movies that are obviously more big-scale action.

July: Exactly. And I grew up in a pretty anxious family, so there was a certain resonance there. A bad person peeling off their mask to reveal a good person—to a kid, that [provokes] a deep archetypal feeling that you really don’t know who to trust. And there’s the idea of [these secret agents] positioning themselves as outsiders, but nonetheless they have this rigidity that ultimately wasn’t radical. In Kajillionaire, Melanie is the opposite; she’s just a picture of conventionality, but she opens up a much more radical space [for Old Dolio]. Their relationship is transformative without any of the trappings of being countercultural, while Old Dolio’s family is very righteous and controlling. Every family is kind of cultlike, has their way of doing things and positions themselves in opposition to the rest of the world.

Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) opens up a much more radical space for Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood). (Focus Features)

Sims: There’s so much anxiety layered into the family—they’re afraid of flying, of earthquakes, of the realities of the outside world.

July: It’s not just financial for them; it’s not just not having a credit card. They’re skimming across the surface of life, not really engaging, and Old Dolio hasn’t engaged enough in life to even miss it. And I think you do that out of fear.

Sims: How’d you build up the characters with the actors? They have such specific physicality. Do you rehearse?

July: Evan and Debra’s characters did have more intense physical stuff, so I did spend a lot of time on it. Finding Old Dolio was a physical process—we had rehearsals at my studio; I gave Evan baggy clothes and interviewed her as if I was a therapist asking her questions the character would find uncomfortable. Then I said, “Okay, same thing, but you can’t answer with language—just grunts and animal sounds.” Then I said, “No more sounds, just be physical.” She knocked books off my bookshelf! And at that point, we went back to the script. The idea of Old Dolio is, she’s a full soul in there, but intellectually her output valve is pretty small. So once Evan felt that, she got it. And she started talking in this low voice, which she said was her original voice but she was trained to speak higher after she got vocal nodes. And I was nervous—I already had these crazy wigs, I wasn’t sure she could do it for a whole movie. And she was like, “Oh, it’s no problem.”

“The idea of Old Dolio is, she’s a full soul in there, but intellectually her output valve is pretty small.” — Miranda July

Sims: Was the process different for Gina Rodriguez’s character, Melanie, who’s so comfortable in her own body?

July: Yeah, she was on another movie and joined us a week into shooting. She was the only person I knew I wanted to cast from the get-go, and it was such a joy; she did every line as it was always meant to be. What I had in mind was a kind of all-American avatar. Who could be, like, America’s sweetheart at this time? It would be Jane the Virgin, it would be Gina. So I almost slightly typecast her, but she’s quite powerful in her femininity, so she complicated that perfectly. Whereas with Debra Winger, I had no idea how she’d feel about this long gray hair and no makeup. It’s a testament to her dedication.

Sims: And Richard Jenkins—

July: —could do that part in his sleep? Yes.

Sims: He’s just so funny! You’d never worked with him before, right? Was he also who you had in mind?

July: There were maybe a couple of people in the right age range who could have played the part. Now, of course, I don’t feel that way; it had to have been him. But at the time, when you’re casting … The thing is, I didn’t want to work with any of those other men. You’re casting for who is going to help you inside the movie, who you want to hang around with, who’s not an asshole. [Jenkins] is not gonna hit on one of the girls, and he’s kind of unique and humble. Now, he’s this Oscar-nominated star [most recently for 2017’s The Shape of Water], but he came to that late enough that he’s always talking to day-players really deeply about something, because that’s who he’s really relating to. I needed someone who wasn’t going to be a problem, and it’s weirdly hard to find a man that age who’s not going to be a problem, ego-wise.

Sims: I know what you mean. There’s that phenomenon in Hollywood of people who got famous later in life having a better energy than someone who’s been a big star since they were young.

July: That shouldn’t be the only thing I say about him, because he’s phenomenal, and he and I would really tussle over the lines. We’d have running, good-humored arguments about a single word, but in a way where I really learned a lot. Nothing felt better than giving him a direction that was helpful.

Sims: I saw the movie at the Sundance Film Festival with a big crowd, and there are moments that are incredible to experience with an audience, like the big scene where Old Dolio is locked in the bathroom and the screen goes completely dark. How do you feel about the moment we’re living through and how the film will be experienced now?

July: I was pretty focused on all the things you just said, how the movie would look and feel on streaming. But now that I’m getting feedback from people who have watched it during the pandemic, I keep getting emails about the uncanny resonance of it, about things like Old Dolio’s intensity over being touched, of the pandemic being the Big One that the family fears so much. I guess I feel like this is the world the movie was made for, and I’ve tried to have trust in this whole process. I’m not saying I’m prophetic or anything, but it’s allowed me to let go.