Miranda July and Evan Rachel Wood Mine Joy From Dumb Things in 'Kajillionaire'

Thrillist spoke with 'Kajillionaire' director Miranda July and its star Evan Rachel Wood about finding the sweetness in the movie's strange characters.

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There's a line of dialogue in Miranda July's Kajillionaire that has stuck with me since I saw it during its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival back in January. Gina Rodriguez's character Melanie is making tiny pancakes for Evan Rachel Wood's Old Dolio. Old Dolio has been sheltered by her small-time grifter parents, Theresa and Robert Dyne (Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins), for most of her life, and is befuddled by the inefficiency of making adorable small treats instead of one large one. "Most happiness in life comes from dumb things," Melanie replies. 

It's a bit of dialogue that gets to the core of July's wonderful film, now out in theaters, about the smallest-time criminals imaginable, the con of family, and unexpected romance. "The Dynes have this kind of self-righteous outsider credo that seems maybe meaningful -- like, I'm against capitalism, too, and whatever -- but, ultimately, they aren't just skimming the way Richard Jenkins' character describes it. They're also skimming across the surface of life, just in general," July tells me over the phone. "They aren't participating physically, and the truth is, yes, well, sugar and caffeine and credit cards can be bad, but we also have bodies and this is how we make meaning, by touching each other and putting things in our mouths and feeling things. That is the counter-argument to skimming across life: Most happiness comes from dumb things, which to me is kind of a radical statement. It's pro-pleasure. It's saying that pleasure is actually profound." 

It's a sweet message that feels even sweeter now, and is perfectly in line with the ethos that drives most of July's work. The writer, director, actor, and performance artist is known in the indie filmmaking community for works like Me and You and Everyone We Know, which combine the uncomfortable with the tender. Kajillionaire is her first movie in which she doesn't star. 

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In July's askew version of Los Angeles, the Dynes get by on scams that barely yield any profit while living in an office space owned by a bubble factory. When a plan by Old Dolio has them flying across the country and back to intentionally lose luggage, they meet Melanie, whose bubbly personality and flashy style is in complete opposition to the Dynes, who rely on conspiracy theories and baggy clothing to help them hide. These people on the margins were a way for July to talk about the sometimes toxic nature of parenting.

"I was interested in a heightened version of the inherent betrayal, the inherent deception, that all parents accidentally do, which is we describe a world to our children as if it's the only reality and then they go out there and they suddenly realize that's just us," July says. 

Old Dolio is threatened by Melanie's presence, but their relationship ultimately becomes her liberation from her parents who see her as a cog in their broken machine. Wood, who grew up a child actor, saw parallels to her own life in her character. "I could relate to her in the way that we both had very unconventional childhoods. I was certainly around adults more than kids, and at times was seen more as a peer rather than a child. And I think that is Old Dolio's experience," Wood says. "To her, love is based off performance, and how well she does in these cons and that is how she gets love and affection from her parents -- or what seems like love and affection. I don't think they really give her affection." 

Miranda July | Focus Features

To really dig into the movie, you have to investigate Old Dolio, whose moniker came from a friend who dreamed July gave birth to a litter of kittens, one of whom was named, yes, Old Dolio. Her voice is low and her long hair covers her face. She lumbers around, shoulders hunched. "Actually the very first image in my Kajillionaire file was this long-haired, butch woman and I knew her pretty well from the get-go," July says. "I knew women like this and I'd been in love with women like this."

Wood and July collaborated so deeply on creating Old Dolio's mannerisms that Wood has a hard time remembering who came up with what. While writing, July would move around her studio, trying to embody Old Dolio's gait. The character's voice, however, developed after Wood remarked that her natural tenor is actually quite low. "I told her my voice actually is low, naturally, but since I'm a singer I speak in a higher register because it's better for my vocal cords," Wood says. She then went a touch lower. "We actually studied animals for Old Dolio as well," Wood adds. "The one that we settled on for her was a proud lion."

That a character as unusual as Old Dolio feels as real as she does is a testament to Wood's performance but also July's mind at work, finding tactile moments between Old Dolio and Melanie that signal their mutual attraction. For instance, the former starts to peel off the latter's fake nails after a conflict. "I'm always sitting alone when I'm writing these things and it can get pretty esoteric and kind of abstract," July says. "I'm often grounding myself or finding pleasure in these simple physical things. I remember picturing the nails and walking down to Rite Aid and buying some fake nails and experimenting with pulling them off. There's something so satisfying about them. They are these kind of pink feminine shapes which I've always been drawn to on an abstract level. The more that I can find ways to ground these things I'm feeling in very friendly recognizable details the more grounded and happy I become as I'm writing." 

The "pink feminine" aesthetic also invades the Dynes' living situation. Like clockwork, pink bubbles seep from their ceiling, which the Dynes scoop up in buckets. July wanted to find a reason they would be able to afford their home and aimed for it to be something that would "add beauty to the movie." "Pink bubbles are beautiful to me and they are out of control, they aren't really containable, especially as they keep coming," July says. "I like them as this dysfunctional method of controling something through sheer force of will and then Old Dolio would ultimately not and let it all fall down." And, of course, that would mean that July herself got to work with bubbles, talking to the effects team about the appropriate color and viscosity. "People tell me the smile across my face was just so obviously like a child," July says. "Just pure glee that this had become a reality."

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.