Finding Peace in Fantasy: Miranda July on Kajillionaire

Finding Peace in Fantasy: Miranda July on Kajillionaire

One of the most versatile and consistently imaginative artists working today, Miranda July has done it again with her new film Kajillionaire. Discussing idiosyncratic families, the cult-like qualities of long hair and the labour of dreamscapes, the filmmaker opens up about her work to Caitlin Quinlan. 

Performer, writer, filmmaker, Miranda July has spent most of her cross-disciplinary career exploring how people come together. Her breakout drama Me and You and Everyone We Know, turning 15 this year and joining the Criterion Collection, intertwined characters across storylines of romance and emotional longing, while an app she created in 2015 called Somebody invited users to deliver messages to strangers in person, on behalf of the absent sender. For her, creativity and intimacy go hand in hand. 

It follows, then, that her latest film Kajillionaire takes a similar path, examining the rocky dynamic and mislaid hopes of the Dyne family. Evan Rachel Woods is Old Dolio, the lanky-haired, gruff-voiced daughter of two petty scammers, played by Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins. They’ve enlisted her in their sketchy dealings since she was born, instilling within her not only a knack for thieving, but a severe lack of self-esteem and an inability to understand the ways the world can be tender. When a stranger, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), tags along on their latest scheme, Old Dolio sees a life she didn’t know she was missing. 

It’s a film laden with July’s characteristic flourishes; from the shimmery, candyfloss pink bubbles that seep into the family’s office space home from a neighbouring factory, to the elaborate gymnastics Old Dolio performs before stealing letters from the post office. Yet what emerges through July’s quirks and fascinations this time is a narrative invested in the acceptance of distance, in understanding what it means when people, even families, are only destined to be apart. 

Why do you think families are so idiosyncratic?

It's a weird thing that families as we know them now have become so normal. The fact that we're so siloed, that no one knows what's going on in anyone else's family, that's such a petri dish for weird shit to happen in, and everyone's kind of sworn in this oath to not talk about it. That can obviously go very, very wrong, and in this movie I wanted to get at the ways in which we can all relate to that sort of cult-like quality of families. 

Do you have any favourite cinematic families?

When I bemoan the fact that I am not an autobiographical or more literal filmmaker, I think about the family in The Squid and the Whale. They’re not quite like my family, but you can really feel all the things that are probably quite true in that family. And the child's revenge – you just pray that your child doesn't grow up to be a filmmaker and become very good at telling your story. 

Your work is often concerned with the ways people look for connections, but Kajillionaire seems to settle more into understanding what happens when those connections aren’t going to be found.

Yeah, this isn't exactly an ode to parents and I think a lot of us have realised that to find peace with our families of origin we have to accept a kind of distance. We’re not necessarily going to be seen clearly, or communicate with them as well as we can communicate with other people. You're sort of inept when it comes to your own family. 


That realisation for Old Dolio seems to happen specifically through relationships with other women – her mother, Melanie, even a parental care worker. Were you thinking specifically about these bonds between women when writing?

Certainly for me I've been re-parented by both my best friends, who are always women, and my girlfriends in relationships that I’ve had are often Old Dolio-esque… I mean this is an ode to the Old Dolios out there! Those troubled, hot women, from my point of view. She's a film hero that we've needed for a while. That element is entirely personal to my life, and the things Melanie does – she's this seemingly conventional character, but it's really quite radical what she does for Old Dolio. 

Evan Rachel Wood seemed to really throw herself into the role of Old Dolio.

Oh yeah, I don't know if that person knows any other way. To go 100, she's the kind of person who you need. You have to remind her that that's a cliff, don't run off it! She's just so hardcore.

Can you talk about the process of building the character with Evan?

Because it was such a character transformation, we did have some work to do before she even met the other actors. A lot of it is quite physical, but I didn't want that to get laid over the top without the internal underpinnings so we did a lot of exercises. I would say “We're going to have a conversation but you can't use words”, and then “You can't use sounds, you can only use your body”, to make her use a smaller intellectual internal space which would explain why Old Dolio physically used herself more like a tool than an eloquent being. We found that this lower voice really allowed her to drop into the character also. 

Is there a story behind all that long hair?

It’s funny, I knew that it would be read as sort of like a cult-like indicator. There was a family I actually knew, I went to school with the kids, and they all had this long hair. We knew they weren't a cult and yet there was something that made it very clear you could always identify them as brothers and sisters. I also thought to someone like Melanie, Old Dolio’s hair would resonate as a kind of afterthought, that she hasn't cut it because that would involve more self-consciousness and she wasn't that kind of person.


Elements seem to have come to you in dream-like scenarios. There are also moments where characters seem to dream of family interactions, and even the name Old Dolio was dreamt by a friend of yours. Do you think of such dreamscapes as a big part of your work?

I do think the creative process is one of having this open channel to the unconscious and to fantasy and not judging it, just letting it come out and then later I can go back and craft and make decisions about it. The hardest part is keeping that channel open. I wish it was as easy as just going to sleep and having a dream and writing it down like, gosh, all my problems are resolved. But it's a weird kind of labour, protecting that space and waking life.

Melanie says at one point in the film “Most happiness comes from dumb things.” What are some dumb things that make you happy?

(Laughs) Clothes! My husband was just saying to me, “You really do get so much pleasure out of getting dressed every day.” He said, “One of these days you have to start some sort of clothing line or something” and then he said, “I take that back actually, it’s the one thing you do that's not work.” And it’s true, that’s a dumb pleasure that just doesn’t end somehow. 

Our MIRANDA JULY t-shirt.

Caitlin Quinlan (@csaquinlan) is a film writer and Bechdel Test Fest team member from London. She regularly contributes to Little White Lies, Sight & Sound, and The Skinny.

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