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Who wants to be a ‘Kajillionaire’?

Miranda July talks about her new comedy of hearts and heists

Director Miranda July on the set of  "Kajillionaire."
Director Miranda July on the set of "Kajillionaire."Matt Kennedy/Focus Features via AP

In the nine years since the release of her second feature, “The Future,” Miranda July has published a novel, founded a messaging app, produced multiple short films, and created performance art across different mediums, including an Instagram-based love story with actress Margaret Qualley. She’s also acted in Josephine Decker’s critically-acclaimed “Madeline’s Madeline” as the mother of a young, experimental performer — and become a mother in real life.

July’s new feature, “Kajiillionaire,” isn’t the direct result of these projects and life events, but it’s clearly the work of an artist with an eye on much more than film. The movie is a coming-of-age for Old Dolio, a socially awkward woman in her mid-20s played by Evan Rachel Wood, who realizes that her small-fry con-artist parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) might not have raised her to succeed in the real world. Gina Rodriguez also costars.

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“Kajillionaire” is a heist film and a comedy, but it’s also genre-defying, with surreal sequences, family drama, and an element that can only be described as “Miranda July-ism.” Reached by phone last Monday, the 46-year-old filmmaker discussed fears of parenthood, finding her confidence as a director, and making art in the age of Trump and COVID-19.

Gina Rodriguez , left, and Evan Rachel Wood in  "Kajillionaire."
Gina Rodriguez , left, and Evan Rachel Wood in "Kajillionaire."Matt Kennedy/Focus Features via AP

Q. How are you doing? How have you been adapting to our new circumstances?

A. There’s all these phases, right? You look back and you think, “It seems so long ago when we were watching this show or reading this book during quarantine.” But I’m a parent of an 8-year-old, so my main thing every day is thinking, “Well, I’m fine. I’ve formed my brain. I want to keep doing what I’m doing and I mostly still can.” But it feels like there’s this silent bomb that’s been dropped on all kids that I don’t know how to get my head around.

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Q. This is a film that’s just as much about being a child as it is about being a parent. Were you trying to come from the place of a child as a writer, or were you putting on your parent hat?

A. I relate more to [Evan Rachel Wood’s character] Old Dolio, but I don’t think I would have made this movie before I was a parent. I think there’s a kind of tyranny in the parent-child relationship, some built-in heartbreak and mutual betrayal. The child will come to believe in a world that’s different from what she grew up in, and the parents will, consciously or not, describe a world that is not the truth for that child. I wanted you to feel those emotional heights, and that was important to me in a way that it might not have been had I not already felt so acutely responsible for someone. The crime of being a bad parent loomed large in my mind.

Q. But even with those emotional heights, “Kajllionaire” isn’t judging its characters, and you’re still using humor throughout.

A. I try to use humor, and try to keep the script a few feet off the ground in terms of realism, because I’m always trying to open up space. There’s something about the absolute literal truth that can kind of shut down a lot of possibilities and bigger emotions. It becomes very finite.

Q. Between “Shoplifters,” “Parasite,” and even “Hustlers,” con artists are having a bit of a Renaissance on screen. What do you think is linking this moment and this genre?

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A. In a heist, you’re often pretending to be something other than what you are. Although it predates Trump, I think it’s relevant that Trump came to us from reality television, and we’ve seen a sort of concocted reality, a new kind of truth in this era. I also grew up watching “Mission: Impossible” movies, and we all have this heist genre in our back pockets, and that combines with our own tricky relationship to money. But there is maybe something about our relationship to the truth that has become increasingly up for grabs, making this genre resonate right now.

Director Miranda July on the set of "Kajillionaire."
Director Miranda July on the set of "Kajillionaire."Matt Kennedy/Focus Features via AP

Q. Were you watching specific films while developing the script? Or are you pulling more from other sources?

A. For this movie at least, there aren’t specific films I’m pulling from. But I was just going back through reference photos and I had forgotten that the “breast crawl” scene was married in my mind to the endurance crawls by performance artist William Pope.L. He would crawl across parts of New York City, just on the pavement. I really saw that as an act of devotion. I also just came across this little book that I bought from Printed Matter called “How to Disappear in America.” It gave me a lot of ideas, including the PO box idea [from the film]. Even just that name, the idea that whether or not we exist is up for contention — I was taking all that on a conceptual level from the get-go.

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Q. How much of Old Dolio’s characterization is in the script, and how much came through Evan Rachel Wood’s interpretation? Her deep monotone voice and physical tics come to mind.

A. Because I’m a writer, I’m used to having to bear the burden alone of making a character fully formed in fiction. But with a movie, the script is really just a game plan. I did not have [Old Dolio’s monotone] voice in mind, but Evan has this lower register that’s actually her original voice. She explained to me that she used to get vocal nodes, so it was trained higher, but that she could drop down at any moment, and it was very natural to her. It really helped her get into the character. It’s such a physical performance, and that’s only going to happen through a real person’s body, so we worked together figuring out her physicality. That was quite fun. Evan’s just entirely committed, so I would feel giddy directing her.

Q. You said in a 2016 interview that of all the mediums you work in, you feel you’re the least confident in your filmmaking. Is that still true now?

A. I’m feeling a little cheerier about it now. I had a really good experience making this movie, and I was very supported, and I think you reach a point where you embrace the ways that you’re not confident as part of your voice. You’re like “Oh, I’m like a fully-formed adult now, so I guess that doubt is just a part of me.” And it’s not a bad thing! I’m sure that sexism in the industry plays a role in my confidence, but I would say that has shifted. Not by changing anything, but just by accepting my way of doing things.

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Q. How do you feel about the future of independent film in the wake of COVID-19?

A. I feel like it’s an interesting moment where big institutions and the powers that be are just as lost as everyone else. It means that anyone’s idea of how things should be is a possibility. In terms of filmmaking, we have recently gotten the tools of the medium in our own hands. The way an iPhone can shoot a movie that could be in theaters? That’s really different from where we started. And there’s a lot of things that equal distribution beyond streaming. We don’t need to look to the industry to fix this or figure it out. There’s many kinds of people who can apply their creativity and have the means to make something new.

Interview was edited and condensed. Cassidy Olsen can be reached at me@cassidyolsen.com. Follow her on Twitter @olsencassidy.