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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Miranda July on Kajillionaire and the art of parenting

As one of the most singularly quirky minds working in art and indie filmmaking today, writer/director Miranda July has enchanted audiences with her delicate storytelling, oddball characters, and intimate understanding of universal insecurity. She’s turned awkward womanhood into a virtue with films like Me And You And Everyone We Know and The Future, and that feeling is something her latest film, Kajillionaire, celebrates once again. Its lead character, Evan Rachel Wood’s Old Dolio, is stuck in perpetual adolescence, caught since birth in the web of her family’s selfish deceit and seemingly unable to recognize or chart a way out. She’s an odd character to look at, with her thick sheath of blonde hair and oversized track jacket, but underneath all that awkwardness, she’s emotionally underdeveloped, the product of her parents’ bad decisions. With Kajillionaire, July once again beautifully follows the journey of a character who’s trapped inside themselves in some way, and is hoping to break out.

The A.V. Club caught up with the filmmaker on the eve of the film’s release to talk about parenting, attachment, and her iPhone notes.

The A.V. Club: A lot of reviewers are calling Kajillionaire a “coming-of-age story,” though it’s certainly not a traditional one. Do you think of it as a coming-of-age story—although maybe a different age than that phrase usually suggests? 

Miranda July: Yeah. I think it’s interesting that you keep coming of age throughout your whole life. You keep transforming.

[Old Dolio] is obviously a bit delayed. Evan’s character is 26 at the time of this movie. But I don’t know. I think a lot of us come to these realizations about who we are like later than we’re supposed to.

AVC: Speaking of arrested adolescence, Old Dolio’s parents seem completely broken and incapable of functioning in the world. How much of their backstory did you create, even if we don’t see it on screen?

MJ: I don’t love coming up with that stuff, but I do. I’ve begrudgingly over the years discovered that it’s useful to just be loaded up inside when you’re directing actors. Some actors want to know, like Gina [Rodriguez.] We talked a lot about how she got where she is. Richard [Jenkins, on the other hand] is like, “Please do not burden me with a backstory. I hate backstory.”

For me as a director, it makes me more agile because no matter what’s thrown at me, I have an answer because I already know everything about them.

AVC: I’m a mom, and I think I’m a good mom, but watching this movie, I still thought, “Am I doing enough of this? Am I doing enough of that?” You are also a mom. Did you reflect on your own parenting style or even how you were parented while you were making this movie? 

MJ: The parenting class that’s in the movie that Old Dolio sort of accidentally ends up in is based on a class called Echo Parenting. That’s a real class that me and my husband took. And it’s an unusual class because there are a lot of people trying to regain custody of their kids in the class. So they might be right out of prison or in rehab or whatever. And then there are a lot of Silverlake residents. It’s a mixture because it’s serving different purposes for different people.

It was in that class that the idea of respecting the personhood of the child came about. And I brought that into the movie in a few different ways. But I also just remember sitting back in that class thinking, “Oh, my God, I could just sit here all day and hear all the different paths people took to parenthood.” It’s not like there’s one kind of parent in the world, or that all parents are very intimate.

AVC: The idea of respecting a child is interesting, because there’s a part in the movie where Robert says something to the effect of, “We agreed to this. You always agreed to this.” Can a child—or a baby, even—actually agree to something?

MJ: And [as he’s saying it] it’s in almost all cases. Their basic premise could be okay. You know, like, “yes, capitalism sucks,” but it’s taken to such an extreme that it becomes its own kind of rigidity that doesn’t let in things like tenderness.

AVC: The movie is set in L.A., but it’s very much not glamorous L.A. It’s the scrubby parts, the parts you don’t see on TV. What about those parts of L.A. appeals to you?

MJ: I walk around in this city a lot. Walking is a big part of my writing process. And to me, it’s always amazing when you’re walking past a building here and you’re like, “what is that? Oh, wow. Envelope Manufacturing, Inc.” There are some sort of cartoony buildings that apparently still manufacture things that you don’t even really think about. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, I guess some envelopes are made in L.A.” But the idea of a bubble factory, that’s pretty far fetched. That doesn’t even make sense. But to me, it still has its roots in a logic that I experience all the time when I walk around this kind of mixture of residential and relatively small manufacturing sites.

AVC: In a recent interview you did with The Guardian, you said that because of COVID, “There’s so much anarchistic potential for self-invention and to dismantle all these old-fashioned ways of doing things.” What about that kind of rebirth appeals to you, and what would you like to reset?

MJ: It’s interesting because I’m the kind of person already where, if I’m given a normal day where I’m supposed to follow rules, I’m always trying to figure out some way to make it more my own or more interesting. Usually that’s because of a wariness on my part in regards to whatever institution or company. But I have to say these days that it’s all kind of crumbling anyways and anyone’s guess is as good as anyone else’s. And so there’s a lot of room.

Even with this movie, I’m working with a big company. Focus Features is owned by Universal, and that’s owned by Comcast. But I still feel like there’s an openness that might not have been there before because they have to do things differently. We are all forced to. I guess it makes room for people who are not entrenched in old hierarchical models. They can continue being good at what they already are good at.

AVC: Lastly, where did the name “Old Dolio” come from? It feels like a cool series of words you heard, put in your iPhone notes and then circled back to use.

MJ: Exactly. And I heard it was from my friend, who texted me that she had had a dream the night before that me and Mike [Mills, her husband] had had 10 kittens. I had given birth to them and she had all their names there. Old Dolio was one of them. The only other one I remember was “Marijuana.” So I was like, “Well, Old Dolio is somebody, and I’m about to find out who.”

Marah Eakin is the Executive Producer of all A.V. Club Video And Podcasts. She is also a Cleveland native and heiress to the country's largest collection of antique and unique bedpans and urinals.