Miranda July Returns To Feature Filmmaking With ‘Kajillionaire’ As She Prepares For A Busy 2020 – Sundance Q&A

Joe Utichi

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It may have been nine years since Miranda July’s last film, The Future, premiered at Sundance, but if there’s any doubt at all about her prolific nature as a filmmaker and multidisciplinary artist, the year ahead should put paid to it.

Saturday night in Park City, July will premiere Kajillionaire, her third feature film, with a cast that includes Evan Rachel Wood, Gina Rodriguez, Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger. It’s a heist movie like you’ve never seen; an unconventional comedy about a family of grifters scraping their way through life, imbued with July’s trademark humanity as it delivers a heightened exploration of love, family and human connection.

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Me and You and Everyone We Know
Me and You and Everyone We Know

It is only one of a series of projects that will occupy July’s time in the first half of the year. In April, the Criterion Collection will add July’s debut feature, 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, to its library, and Prestel will publish a hardcover book that serves as a retrospective of her career in film, fiction, performance, public art, commerce, and even a smartphone app.

Sitting for her first interview to discuss Kajillionaire, and the busy year ahead, July insists that there was “no grand plan” to this confluence of releases. Kajillionaire came together in record time, with Plan B and Annapurna committing to her script with little hesitation, holding the work on the other releases. In the end, she says, “it couldn’t be better how it’s all unfolded.”

DEADLINE: The book is hugely retrospective; why did now feel like the right moment to take a look back?

MIRANDA JULY: A few different publishers over the years, including when I was much too young for a book like this, would say, “Why don’t we do a book of all your work?” I always said no, because I thought one should do that when they’re like 45 or something. I wanted to have enough work so that I felt like this would explain something.

I thought the right time was now. I sold the book to Prestel well before I started shooting Kajillionaire, and I told them, “I will work as much as I can, and then I will stop and I’ll make this movie, and then I will finish it.” And I did immediately jump from the movie to getting all those texts and stuff for the book.

Miranda July
Miranda July

For me, the main thing about the book is that every single interview I’ve ever done has had this question about my multidisciplinary-ness, and I would never really have a great answer for it. And so the book, in a way, is an answer. Not that everyone can read it, but hopefully the biggest goal of it was to show how these things overlap and interconnect with each other. Because I think that’s mysterious, and it is my life’s work. At this point, I think people have stopped asking like, “So, which one are you going to choose? Are you going to settle down?”

DEADLINE: It’s an odd notion, isn’t it, that you have to graduate from one form of expression to another without ever going back? Like the door should close on everything else once you make a feature film. You’ve made three feature films in 15 years, which may not be very prolific for a feature filmmaker, but ‘prolific’ is probably an apt word to describe you as an artist.

JULY: Yeah. And something I try to put forth in this, is that, like many filmmakers, I was a high school student who wanted to be a director, and my path to it was self-made. The things that I learned along the way were too interesting to stop doing when my feature came out. So, I think hopefully that becomes clear, that in a way filmmaking is the thread for me, it’s certainly where I started.

For me, I have to continue doing my work in other fields. Since The Future came out, I wrote a novel, I did a pretty big performance, I opened a store… You know, it takes years to write a book, and then promote it and everything.

So, to me, that question, although it certainly makes sense, I just feel like as a multidisciplinary artist I’m on this other schedule. It’s been a while since The Future, but if anything, I’m kind of amazed that I made Kajillionaire so quickly. I mean, frankly, this movie is the first movie that I didn’t have to spend time getting financing. When I was done with the script, I was able to get working, and so it has all seemed rather efficient.

DEADLINE: That was because Dede Gardner, of Plan B, latched onto working with you in a big way?

JULY: Exactly. She was reading my novel The First Bad Man when I was writing Kajillionaire, and she wrote me about that book and I replied and said, “If you like that, you might like this movie, I don’t know.” So, I sent her the script and she was just like, “Yes.” She came over and we sat down and there wasn’t really any question. Then we went to Annapurna and they were lovely. I felt very lucky. I would have done anything to make the movie—and I have in the past, on some pretty bizarre things—but this time, luckily, it was pretty straightforward.

It was the most flat-out support for me, at a pretty high level too. I mean, I could always use more days, but I was really taken care of, and everyone I was working with was taken care of. It’s funny, Dede was on the set almost every single day. She just sat there, but literally said nothing. I mean, other than if I needed something, of course, but no one pointed out anything I should do or shouldn’t do. It was just total freedom. That is, to be fair, how it was with the other movies, but on this one I expected perhaps that with more money there would be more oversight. But no. She loves artists and writers, and she was there because she wanted to be.


DEADLINE: Plan B and Annapurna have always been very artist-led, which is unusual for an industry that is so preoccupied by business.

JULY: Right. Like, there’s some confusion as to whether filmmaking is art. We wouldn’t say to other artists, “Why?” Why this music? Why this painting? Nothing needed to exist beforehand to justify it. And yet, with filmmaking, to be credible you somehow have be trying to do something you can point at. It’s odd.

DEADLINE: In the book, you talk about feeling like the most precise form of expression was writing your novel, because it was all you, and you had total control. But then reconsidering that maybe, in a collaborative medium like film, the precision actually comes from the frisson of gathering a collective of people together and dealing with what results. Where did that thought come from?

JULY: I’m glad you saw that. It was one of my new ideas in the book that I was like, “I hope this is true.” But I did hold this idea that, when you’re writing fiction, you think, Well, this is the ultimate, I have the most control, word by word, I can change it as many times as I want, it’s just me. But what if the thing you’re trying to make can’t be made through effort, or if control is in fact not what gets at the essence of it? Then a medium where this unpredictability is built in, and where other voices are going to come in, whether you like it or not… You then have to apply this sort of dream logic to the process, and maybe, in fact, it makes filmmaking the most precise because of its lack of control.

It was a thought that came to me while I was editing Kajillionaire, because I was so deep down the well and I was thinking, It’s weird how this gets better. You build the brain that can make this movie work even without all the tools you have when writing.

DEADLINE: Instead we often see that as struggle, when the elements of an overarching vision come together in a different way to what’s expected, it feels like that vision has been compromised. But so many of our classics probably emerge from the collaboration meeting the vision, not the vision in isolation.

JULY: Right. Struggle is inherent to the medium. And, in fact, it’s something that’s really special about the medium. Not to get too lofty about it, but if you had total control over the process, how would you once in a while be able to make something more achingly human than should be possible?

Oh great, now I just need to put what we just figured out—the rest of it—into the book [laughs]. It’s like I had a hypothesis, and we just fleshed it out.

DEADLINE: Do you think perhaps it’s a revelation that can only come with experience? Maybe it requires an evolved mind to let go of the distance travelled between the movie that plays in your mind as you’re writing and the one you get once it’s been handed off to actors and crew and the elements, and gone through the edit.

JULY: I think so. I’ve now made so many things in so many mediums, that an idea like that comes from having this weird perspective. If filmmaking was the only water you were swimming in, you perhaps wouldn’t notice it. But I guess, for me, I ruminate because I also know I’ll be sitting writing for years and there won’t be this same feeling with my next novel, or whatever.

DEADLINE: In practical terms, then, to take Kajillionaire as an example; you had a vision of Old Dolio in your mind before you ever cast Evan Rachel Wood in that role. How do you re-evaluate the character now, after it has gone through the filter of her doing it?

JULY: I will say, if you talk to any of the actors, I think they’ll all agree that I’m pretty meticulous, maybe to a fault. I don’t know, I guess I’ll find out in the next few days [laughs]. So, with Evan in particular, Old Dolio could not have been more fleshed out. I mean, the clothes, the hair, the everything. And she became it.

I know a lot of filmmakers are like this, but when I’m writing I’m acting. I’m everyone, right? I know exactly, down to the last breath, how each thing should be said. And she and Gina, especially, were uncannily right on. And that’s just simple casting. I mean, it shows that you picked the right person, and that’s the most of it.

Although Evan was a bit of a surprise to me. I didn’t initially see it. It was only in getting to know her a little bit where I was like, “Oh wow, what an exciting thing that you are right. You can play this role.”

So, I’m not totally sure what happens next, but even when it’s uncanny how accurate it is, they still lift it up. They do something that brings their own soul to it and it becomes so much more alive.

With this one, probably because I wasn’t in it and I could cast all these amazing actors and see them—and I mean literally, they were always in front of me, because sometimes when you’re acting someone will literally be behind you—every day I had this feeling that we were shooting just so far past my expectations. And really, all I’m trying to do is get my expectations.

And it’s not some perfect process either. That’s the thing. You’re trying it this way and then that way, and maybe even on the day you’re like, “That was it,” and then you get to the editing room and realize it wasn’t.

I mean, I’m still pretty fresh to this movie. So, I remember on one of our last days of editing, there’s this moment where Evan’s crawling to Gina. And we had the look on Gina’s face, which is of course so important in that moment. We had this other look in place for so long and I thought it was great, and then for some reason we decided to just go back through one more time and look through all the other takes of that moment. And suddenly there was something a lot more deadpan. A lot more internalized, where it hit deeper. It was scary, because what if we hadn’t gone back?

But it’s things like that. It’s not automatic or easy. It’s still that weird distillation.

Miranda July
Miranda July

DEADLINE: Where did this particular group of characters come from in the first place?

JULY: So, to be honest, this is my first interview, and I have a few answers to that question that I haven’t totally worked out. I mean, one answer is I tried a few times to write this third movie. I wrote two drafts of two scripts and they weren’t quite right. I knew it. I knew enough to know there would only be trouble if I went down those roads.

I say that partly so that it’s less annoying when I say I was lying in bed wedged between Mike and our child and they were both sick, and maybe it was a little bit that I was sort of half-awake, but I felt pretty trapped between two people. Maybe it’s as simple as that. It felt like these three figures were walking towards me as I was half-awake. Slightly dreaming. I remember thinking, You can either fall back asleep or you can reach across Mike and try and get your phone and start just dictating what you’re seeing. And well, this just might be it.

So, I did grab my phone, and every other second it was like more would come. When I look back at those notes, it’s crazy, because so much of it is there. The baggage claim scene, and a lot of the big pieces. No dialogue or anything, but sometimes the mean humor of the parents and things like that.

What I guessed about it was that it was something really old, deep inside, like it took a lifetime to brew and then it just came out. I’d been working on it, first as a child, and then as an adult, and then as a parent of a child. Finally, there was this 360-degree perspective.

And to be honest, I wrote the entire first draft and I would come home and say, “I don’t know, this is pretty goofy.” I couldn’t stop writing, but that didn’t mean it would be good. But I just kept going and got to the end. And I just felt so sad at the end. I was like, Oh, I think this is about stuff that I never would have chosen to write about. Just the ache of this basic betrayal that’s built into the whole deal with parents and children. You are going to have to betray your parents by leaving, and your parents betray you by giving you this vision of the world that is never going to end up being true. Right? It’s almost this basic trick that we can’t help but do.

And so, there’s no inspiration in the sense that I wasn’t like, “I’m going to address this issue,” but it was a lucky case of just keeping on, following the mystery. And what came out of it was sort of a gift from the unconscious.

DEADLINE: Without spoiling it, the story of how Old Dolio got her unusual name is hilarious, but it’s also the distillation of that sad theme you’re talking about there.

JULY: I love that late reveal. Humor is such a big part of how I write. When I wrote that line about Old Dolio’s name, I mean, I was smiling when I wrote it. It was really enjoyable to write, and yet I know it’s also really painful. And I’m writing it funny because there’s no other way to get across that kind of pain sometimes. You can’t go straight towards it.

DEADLINE: As you say, these are universal truths of human experience—everybody can relate to the complication of the parental relationship. The film itself, though, takes place in a heightened reality. This particular relationship is extreme to say the least. But it’s pretty clear this isn’t the real world. It’s like a Xerox of the world we live in.

JULY: Totally. That’s a good way of putting it. Somehow, for the feelings to come out, it can’t be too close to certainly my life, or just real life in general. I feel like a stenographer or something if I get too close to reality. I lose my agility. And then if it’s just the right world, I don’t have to be so self-conscious. I just enjoy the world. And so, the deeper stuff comes out in a looser way because I’m not really reminded of how I am going to represent things so close to me. But certainly, people I know in my experiences can come out.

DEADLINE: When you say you feel like a stenographer, do you mean you think the result of writing the real world would be boring?

JULY: I’m just not good. I stop being good at what I do.

DEADLINE: Is it a self-defence mechanism in any way?

JULY: No, no. I just mean that the art of it kind of gets lost. The thing that catches fire. If I was just like, “These are my parents, Richard and Lindy Grossinger, and I grew up in Berkeley,” there’s so much there—I mean, a wealth of stuff that would, in some way, be interesting—but whatever it is that I’m good for, I don’t think it works so well in that world. For me, for it to be deeply personal, it can’t be autobiographical.

DEADLINE: Do you find the work therapeutic?

JULY: It is therapy. Not in the sense of, “Well, I really worked out those issues.” But more in the process of throwing myself into making something. Doing it again and again is kind of a way to live day by day for me, so that life makes sense. It’s a place to put care, and a place to also kind of get into life. It’s like, how do you work with this weird thing we’re in? It drives me nuts, this whole thing we’re living, and so it’s therapeutic in that if I didn’t have a way to work with it, I’d feel much worse.

DEADLINE: Your premiere is tomorrow night. What’s the premiere night experience like for you?

JULY: I’ll definitely sit there and watch it, and I will only watch it that once. I can’t remember anything else, but for my previous two movies, I definitely remember exactly what I was thinking as I was listening to the audience. And it’s just so painful, probably in the parts that I think aren’t so good [laughs]. I’ll lower my eyes, as if maybe if I just don’t see them, they’ll go away. I mean, this, for me, was a good one, but they never feel perfect, you know?

The actors will be there, and that’s a part of it. Gina hasn’t seen it. Evan has, but I haven’t gotten to talk to her yet. Richard hasn’t seen it. I’ve already talked myself through, OK, this is where you hope they’re laughing, and this is where they should hopefully be quiet.

DEADLINE: There are moments where I honestly wondered if I should be laughing or not.

JULY: Right! I think I’ve had that for almost all of my work, where someone afterwards will say, “It it OK that I laughed?” It’s played so dry, and these actors were so good at that.

God, at this point, I’m just like, “Let’s just do this already!” [Laughs].

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