Miranda July: ‘Kajillionaire’

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Miranda July. Photo by Ingrid Pop.

This week, Elvis Mitchell welcomes the multi-talented Miranda July to The Treatment to discuss her latest film "Kajillionaire," starring Debra Winger, Evan Rachel Wood, and Richard Jenkins. July, who is also an actor and performance artist, wrote and directed the film about an eccentric family who just barely subsists by scamming people. They discuss how "Kajillionaire," though written and filmed before the pandemic, somehow feels prescient of this time.

The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the hopefully glitch-free home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. Let me try to introduce my guest, who is a published author, a filmmaker, a performance artist who does radio pieces. She acts, and she is Miranda July. Her new film is "Kajillionaire." I'm trying to think of someone else who makes films about anxiety that are not judgmental, so we're neither laughing at the person nor feeling like they've been used for sympathy, and watching 'Kajillionaire,' and I have to tell you, I did something where I watched again right away after the first time, which is unusual for me. It really feels like it connects to the state we're in right now in the way movies often don't. Are people saying that to you about it?

Miranda July: Yeah, well, after I got over my initial disappointment, as we all did, over our well laid plans, I started to talk to people who had only ever seen this movie in quarantine in the pandemic. So there was no other version of the movie for them, but the one that related to who they are now, and it's not like it was a different movie, but all the things that were most intimate and personal to me that I worried maybe wouldn't come across, all those things were like foreground now. They were like the movie, the point of the movie; it wasn't the same movie at Sundance. 

KCRW: It's funny, too, because I think there's a kind of relief of laughter that comes in watching this movie with other people, because I was talking to a friend last night who saw it at Sundance who said, "I can't imagine watching that movie right now by myself because you almost feel the the antenna of the movie vibrating in tune with the characters. And the audience really was clicking with that. And it feels like it might be almost too powerful an experience to have by yourself." And I said, "No it's really not." I wonder what people are saying to you now about seeing it and saying that they connect within that way because so often in movies, anxieties are used as this kind of convenient crutch to explain character and for you, it's not that at all.

July: Yeah, I really wanted anxiety to be felt in this movie, not to be this intellectual thing, but to be the world in which Old Dolio, Evan Rachel Wood, grew up, and the only world she knew, and that's a world where the big one is always looming, and you're always thinking you'll die in it or hoping you'll survive it. And so I think we're in the big one right now. So I've gotten a lot of comments on that, and sort of also the transformational possibilities of surviving something terrifying. And then a lot of comments about touch, like touch is very intense for this extremely lonely untouched character. 

And there is a scene near the end where she does tentatively exchange touch with someone, and I remember thinking I guess I probably didn't go far enough with that, like you know, there's there's f---ing in movies like, I was just too far to one end of the spectrum, but for me, it felt very intense every time I watch that scene, and now I realize, 'no that is f---ing.' Anyways, yeah things that were maybe a lower register or slightly less accessible are highly tuned, like the surface of our skin feels so sensitive now. I will say the most recent thing someone pointed out to me because I, of course, have not watched it again in the pandemic is that the movie opens on the US Post Office, which is then robbed.

KCRW: It's truly disturbing.

July: I mean this is an institution that has been completely neutral for my whole life. So the idea that that would be a highly charged site is so...I don’t know. At that point you just say, 'Okay, I made this movie for now for us now,' and you just own it.

KCRW: Not only in front of a post office but people are about to get on public transportation. So it's charged in so many ways that you couldn't possibly even anticipate when you made it. But I do feel like your work tends to feel like kind of a weathervane anyway, not to say it's predictive, but I found myself in watching this thinking about the 'Amateurist,' which is also about anxiety, too, in a really interesting way, I've always thought. And this really, I feel like it's almost a companion piece to that, kind of a bookend because there's a scene early on when Old Dolio was kind of getting a massage, and I'm not going to give too much away, but fortunately, this is a movie you cannot give too much away about to make it more tantalizing to people. That idea of space, and how people inhabit kind of a figurative and literal space is what the movie is about too, and what we're going through now, which is to say how do we inhabit the world in which we live? And then when there's a kind of an intrusion, what do we do?

July: Yeah.  First of all, I should say, bless your heart for referencing the 'Amateurist,' which exactly like one person has probably seen out there, maybe two. I love it. That's like a short film I made years before my first feature.

KCRW: But do you see what I mean about how they're both about anxiety?

July: Yeah, they are about this remote like two people who have this intimacy without even being in the same space. I'm that person. I mean, I had a prison pen pal when I was a teenager, you know, like, that impossible connection is always so meaningful to me.

KCRW: I think so too, because I feel like so much of your work is about people trying to communicate through whatever emotional states they're going through, which can feel like the end of the world. And just thinking about what it's like to see this film with an audience where you can have the relief of laughing along with other people versus seeing it on your own has gotta be an experience that you think about anyway when you're making a movie but now, it's just amplified.

July: Yeah. I guess you hope when you're spending years making something that you're digging down deep enough that you're in a level of the earth that is under everyone because if it doesn't last very long or it doesn't mean anything to very many people, it's such a big expensive medium. I mean, I worked in a few of them, so, for that one, I always do feel like this should not be obscure. It can be hopefully telling something in a new way or breaking ground but there's no point in not inviting people in because that is this medium, like it is easy. It's not a book you can just put yourself in front of it, and in a way, for some of us that's all we can do right now is put ourselves in front of things.

Quite a few people have said this is the first movie they've watched all the way through, which I sadly relate to. I'm a little shattered and haven't been able to finish longer things. You take your compliments where you can get them.

KCRW: Like I was saying it's about communication, and to see a movie like this that's about a family struggling to communicate inside of a frayed nuclear family system and then also trying to decide literally from moment to moment, what its relationship is with the outside world. It couldn't be more metaphorically potent than it is right now.

July: Yes. Yeah, in the sense that we are all siloed off, like if we weren't each in a cult before, we are now. There's a kind of doubling down that's happening. I mean, when you think about like, one of my great challenges as a parent now is trying to find families who might be enough like us in their approach to surviving this pandemic that we might be able to pod with them, which is like a social level of alienation that I have not known before, and we are each thrown back into this... insularity isn't even the word. 

It's also like the comfort that comes from what is known. Old Dolio: when you do see her first outside her home alone, it's so exciting, and all she wants to do is go back. And I think that I'm having that Stockholm Syndrome all the time. Now, I'll have to remind myself that you can actually go outside, like you don't have to stay inside. But we choose what is familiar over what is pleasurable.

KCRW: We should talk about the things that feel like touchstones now, and there's the scene on an airplane. I'm always so often aware when an airplane scene is well staged, and they so rarely are, and this one really is. You feel like your personal space is being violated anyway. You have to decide how much of yourself you want to literally physically expose, and the scene on the plane again happens to dovetail into so many of the things we would feel about airplane travel right now.

July: Yeah, I loved writing that. First of all, when you write a scene with a couple airplane rides, you're assuming you're gonna get a little bit bigger budget for this movie. I write completely alone. No one knows I'm writing a script, and it sort of makes me smile to think like, yep, write those two plane rides, Miranda. Like, somehow you'll get a plane. I mean, not like you actually fly anywhere, right? It's the set. We all know that. But the just teenage film nerd in me loved getting to work on an airplane set.

KCRW: But you also have a restaurant scene. This movie feels like a really big movie for you in a lot of ways. A restaurant scene with a lot of people in it, in which the characters are interacting with the rest of the restaurant.

July: Yeah, it was a nice case of if you write it. You write these things into being, like, you just start believing, okay, this one's bigger. And in a way, I think the day I first had the idea for this family, I realized, oh, there's no woman my age in this movie. And so I won't be in it. And then my next thought was, ooh, I get to cast female leads for the first time, and I have so many favorite actresses. So you see how it all kind of scaled up together like it was integral from the beginning with casting familiar faces and bigger spaces. Not that this is huge. We need to keep people's expectations in check.

KCRW: You talking about casting, and one of the things that really struck me about this is something happens to me when I hear Deborah Winger's voice, you know what I mean? That the vocal effect and the way she uses her voice in this role are so important. And I wonder if you were thinking about that when you were talking to her because you really need that voice to do a lot of different things including not tell us exactly where we are. 

July: That voice. I remember actually near the very end, when we were doing ADR and I needed like a laugh from her, and I've been living with that voice for months now, but something about hearing the laugh. I was like, "ah, that's a Debra Winger laugh." My starstruck-ness didn't quite ever go away. And it's a weird tool because it's this incredible sort of built in depth and history. Like we all have history with her. And this character, it's a little bit of a cheat, you don't know a ton about this woman, this kind of prickly mom, but you've got Debra Winger, so there's this like, deep soul, and she comes with a sort of fearless darkness, too.  I told her that. I said, you're partly in this movie because it's got a funny lightness to it, but I need like a bottom, like a bass note. That's just always there. 

And I mean, she's more than that. And she is also pretty funny. But yeah, just in her face and her voice and her total insane dedication to physical stuff. I mean, her with that limp was like a masterclass in acting, and she met with different doctors. She auditioned different limps for me, explaining what the medical background for each one was. It was fascinating. 

KCRW: You were talking about Deborah Winger's physicality, and there are scenes when the family is walking back and forth trying to evade sight. And that's almost like watching Jacques Tati or a live action movie about a group of elves trying to avoid being caught in plain sight that may be one of the most wonderful things I've seen.

July: I mean, I just love that stuff, like I'm here alone writing and then I'm jumping up and doing these things with my own body to work with as I'm writing, and I can't limbo as well as Evan Rachel Wood, but it brings me joy while I'm working on it. And someone pointed out to me the other day that there's a ducking down under the window in "Me and You and Everyone We Know." And I realized like, oh, gosh, I know what this is reminding me of. It's reminding me of how when Christmas carolers would come to the house when I was growing up, my dad would have us all, like, kind of duck down and just be very still till they left, like duck down under the couch. And that feeling, that memory of them singing, loudly and us just waiting hidden. And that feeling of being so close, like we're right there, but no connection like you slip by. So it's both funny and there's something just a little painful about it. 

KCRW: And I also think there's a bit of melancholy in Jacques Tati, too, which is what made me think of that. Also, Old Dolio and this family, basically they live in three or four different types of movies, and she gets to be an acrobat and kind of a ninja because, again, avoiding plain sight by staying away from surveillance cameras in the most obvious places.  That sense of these characters wanting to evade touch and being seen, I guess I want to ask you about where that came from because, again, we're at a point now we are wondering how we register in the world, what kind of literal and physical impact we're having and to make a movie about a family whose mission is to evade that kind of detection feels again, wholly kind of in tune with this moment.

July: I think the dad, Richard Jenkins’ character, at one point just describes how he prefers to just skim, and he means sort of financially, like skim off capitalism. But I always thought of them also as just skimming along life, like not really ever dipping down into the marrow of what it is to physically be here and be human, and the sort of opposite of that is Melanie, Gina Rodriguez's character's line "most happiness comes from dumb things." Like that's the most human being with a body thing to say and the opposite of skimming, and if you're really here, you're really seen, you're really touched. You're eating pancakes and living your dumb life as a human which, at the best of times, feels good.

KCRW: You were saying that you haven't watched it in a while. Are you not going to watch it again? Because I think it will be interesting for you, of all people, to see it. Not just hear from people like me to tell you what it feels like now, but being more intimate with it than anybody else to see it. Are you a little unnerved about the prospect of doing that?

July: Well, traditionally, I do not see my movies after the premiere. I just don't. But I also do traditionally stand outside of it waiting to do my q&a and watch the credits roll up and hear the end music again and again and engage with audiences who have just seen it, so I don't need to see it. I'm still participating, and since none of that is happening this time, I think I have a plan to drive next week. I think maybe theaters are open in OC in time for this movie. And I'm gonna go with just a caravan with a tiny group, and I'm gonna watch it.

It's not gonna be pleasant, but just for the sake of history. I hope it'll be pleasant for everyone else. I just mean for me, like, ah, who wants to watch the movie again? But I do want to sit in that 25% capacity theater, where I'm also asking the people to do that, and I want to know how I actually feel.  Completely on the side of everyone doing just what feels safe to them. And it will stream, and we all know that, but I love love love seeing movies in theaters, and I want to do it.

KCRW: I think we talked about this for "Me and You and Everyone We Know," the scene with a flame and the hand, and I wonder, too, if the family wiping down the walls, and I'm not going to give too much away, but it could be something out of a short story. It could be out of Roald Dahl, but it also is about how we can tell this is a family by the way, they're doing this task; each person has something to do in this room that's being filled with this cascade of pink bubbles. And I wanted to ask you about where that scene came from, because I think of you as being that kind of filmmaker be it in the shorts or in the feature length in the pieces where, there’s a scene that, to me, feels like you can see it and think this is where the movie is.

July: Yeah, the pink bubbles, like so many things were sort of like I had a problem to solve. And the problem was, their rent has to be really cheap, like they don't have any money, and yet I wanted them to live in this kind of big former office space. And I thought okay, so there needs to be one big thing wrong with it. And I've lived in places that had one big thing that I got used to, that made the rent cheap, like no bathroom.  

And my first idea was actually that there would be a horrible sound coming from the factory next door. And then I was like, well, that's a big drag for the movie to have a horrible sound in it. Like, how's that gonna help the movie? And then I thought, actually, what would help the movie? What do I not have enough of that I want more of? And it was beauty. Because these people are poor, and there's not a ton of vistas or sparkle and so I was like, oh, you get a free pass here. Pink bubbles seem beautiful and kind of luxurious, without actually being expensive and this level of abstraction that I could get in, and then I loved that it was this sisyphean thing. You can never fix it. All you can do is manage it, repress it every day.

KCRW: But it's also this sort of subtextual thing; I hate to keep going back to this, but we are living in this moment. It feels like an environmental threat, too.

July: Yeah, it's a leak and it's also a flood, it's of a scale. I mean, they're bailing out their space every day. I remember actually, when we were shooting it, because there's a scene ultimately where they're not there to manage it, and the bubbles just kind of fall and take over. And we could only shoot that once because the reset was so, so hard after letting the bubbles go, and so I just let it roll and let the bubbles keep coming and coming much, much further than I do in the movie until they were almost coming up to the camera. And then I got scared, and I yelled, "cut," but I just remember the whole crew all of us standing there as the bubbles march towards us like this slow tsunami. 

KCRW: This is such a great cast. I think it's the thing I was really struck by; the women, between Evan and Debra Winger and Gina Rodriguez, who we really haven't talked about enough here, is the voices and how each voice represents something different emotionally. And there's so much earth and knowing and not judging in Gina Rodriguez's voice. And I was wondering, too, one of the things you talked about hearing Deborah's voice, if when you heard Gina speak you thought, this is who I need for this. This is the counterbalance to what's going on, the kind of vibratto of terror in all the voices of the family. At some point, there's a choke from all of the members of the family that we don't hear in Melanie's voice.

July: Yeah. I mean, she was the one person who I had in mind while I was still working on the script. Near the end, I felt like I was writing for her. I didn't know if she would want to do it yet. And writing that dialogue and then eventually hearing it in her voice like hearing her say, chug, chug, chug, chug, like everyone's ok and there's no judgment for a while, and it was a total delight.  Actually, she joined us late; she was on another movie, and so my rehearsal with her consisted of the two of us sitting in my studio, just reading through all her parts together aloud. I just was smiling the whole time because the way she did each line, I guess that's when you've basically written for someone. It was just pure pleasure for me.

KCRW: Well this has been pure pleasure for me. I can't thank you enough. 

July: Thank you.

Credits

Host:
Elvis Mitchell

Producer:
Rebecca Mooney