Exclusive: Miranda July Spices Up the Kajillionaire Press Run With a Zoom Performance
The incomparable filmmaker talks about Kajillionaire, astrology, and how to turn sitting through endless Zoom calls into a creative exercise.
In the editorial world, pandemic work schedules have shifted from moving through the usual in-office meetings to a work-from-home setup: Zoom. Another Zoom. Another Zoom after that. Maybe a 20 minute break. Another Zoom.
Filmmakers, like Miranda July, are not exempt from these doldrums. July has spent the past month promoting her latest film, Kajillionaire, which follows a family of scammers (played by Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins, and Evan Rachel Wood) as they convince an unwitting stranger (played by Gina Rodriguez) to join in on their latest con—in between collecting buckets of a mysterious pink foam that oozes from their $500-a-month apartment in Los Angeles, and refusing to truly connect as a family.
Pre-Covid, whenever a director like July might be promoting their film, a journalist would be invited to a location akin to a conference center at a hotel, where they would wait their turn to enter a room where the director (or actors) is holed up and ask them some questions for 15 minutes before the next journalist gets a turn. Not anymore. Now, we have Zoom press junkets. At least, July pointed out, when junkets occurred IRL, the real human interaction made the days bearable.
So, how do you turn a day filled with 57 interviews into something bearable? If you’re July, you choreograph 15 outfit changes, renewing not only yourself and your look, but the energy of the journalists waiting to ask questions. “I just wanted something that was going to add joy to the day,” she told W. “I know a lot of people are spending all day on Zoom, and it’s not unique to this job.”
“We had to script the day—add a jacket, take off a bracelet, add a necklace—so each change could be one minute,” she explained. “This is all ridiculous that I’m supposed to be promoting a movie and I really am, but I just have the kind of personality that has to make a new thing. It’s hard for me to just talk about the thing I already made.”
“It was also an excuse to work with some people who I love,” July added, pointing out the work of Jenny Tsiakals, who has put together looks that serve as inspiration for brands like Off-White and is responsible for the fashion entity Please And Thank You. The filmmaker worked with stylist Rebecca Ramsey to put together the pieces July and Tsiakals selected, and brought them over to the hotel room where July filmed herself changing her top 15 times over the course of a day. Editor Aaron Beckum put together a video compilation of the outfit changes, and below, in her Culture Diet, the incomparable director talks about the process of making her third feature film, astrology, and how to turn sitting through what feels like a million Zoom calls into a creative exercise.
You’re shifting your press junket for Kajilionaire onto Zoom during a time when we can’t physically be in rooms with other people. Something that stood out to me in the movie was the lack of connection that Evan Rachel Wood’s character Old Dolio has with her family and people around her. Was that on your mind when you came up with this more elaborate promotional exercise for the film?
I certainly have come to re learn this movie through the experience of people watching it who’ve only ever seen it in quarantine. Old Dolio’s inborn loneliness, that’s something that was very personal to me, and her sensitivity to touch. I didn’t know if that would come across as intensely as I felt it. I think what I’m getting from talking to people is that those subtler or more personal aspects of the movie are now readily accessible. They’re not obscure, they’re front and center now. There’s no group of people I would want to give this movie to more than us in a pandemic. It’s for us now.
A lot of the themes from the film, like you said, are things we are engaging with more acutely in quarantine, but visually, the movie felt like it could have existed in another decade. The clothes from the film didn’t necessarily feel situated in a particular time; they felt timeless.
I know what you mean. I’m also thinking, “But Gina Rodriguez’s clothes are all Instagram and of the moment!” I think it has to do with the color palette, the locations, the pacing, the music. It’s something that’s hard for me to shake. I think it’s my own sensibility, that even when I’m using the current moment or the current technology, there’s something that, nonetheless, is, like, a sort of basic-ness that I can’t overcome or I just accept. [Laughs.] I would say classic if I wanted to elevate more.
There is that color pink in the foam oozing from the walls in the apartment. Where did you get that color? What exactly was the material?
I was solving a problem with that idea. I needed the rent to be very cheap for them, for that to make sense. So there had to be one big thing wrong with where they lived and I decided it would be a leak. And then I realized there’s not a lot of purely luxurious beauty for your eyes in this movie. The locations are all pretty humble, there are hardly any sweeping vistas. So my idea of beauty is pink bubbles. I love the abstraction, the shapes, being able to move into something sculptural, beyond language. I always am looking for ways to bring that into very narrative, grounded work. So it was like a free pass. These bubbles get to say all these things that I can’t say in a more literal way. They get to be this sort of irrepressible beauty. And pink always seems like a cheat to me. If you want to make a scene come alive, put her in a pink shirt! It’s joy.
The moments where the leitmotif of the pink bubbles emerged were when I felt relief from the antics of this family scamming people. The foam is predictable—it will always leak—whereas their scams are unpredictable, which is stressful for the viewer.
I think that’s just right, because it’s the moment when Old Dolio rushes back to collect the foam—instead, she just lets it fall. That to me is, is a relief too, and in a passive way, it is the start of her rebellion.
I want to ask you some more personal questions, as part of your Culture Diet. A lot of people have either developed new routines in quarantine or let old routines go. Do you have a morning routine? What’s the first thing you look at when you wake up?
First, I plug in the internet because I unplug it every night. I don’t know if everyone does this, but I think it’s healthier not to sleep with it on. Then I immediately write down my dream. I’m typing that up before I’m even really awake. It takes a while for the Internet to come on; there’s no chance that it’s gonna come on while I’m typing my dream. I, at least, have that moment. Then I glance at whether there any fires that happened overnight that I need to put out. I’m a mom, so I need to go do all the mom things. My husband and I have to distance teach school. I have the morning shift. It’s very complicated, but I have a few hours in the morning where I’m at my studio and then I go back and teach school, and then I come back here. I’m always going back and forth, but I chose that shift because I’m trying to create a seamlessness from my writing down my dream to writing my fiction.
How do you get your news?
The New York Times homepage, although as it gets closer to the weekend, we get the Sunday paper delivered, so I can’t look at it past Thursday when that stuff comes online. I’m always saying to [husband Mike Mills], “Just don’t look at it! Don’t click! Keep the surprise!” So then I just switch to Google News.
How are you feeling about the news coverage of the election?
Just before this call, I was like, I need to post something for National Voter Registration Day. You feel like, you need to at least do the minimum, and do a hell of a lot more than that. My heart is in my throat when I spend any real amount of time thinking about it. I’m getting through this movie promotion and then I see it as all hands on deck. Because it’s quite soon, and not to say that I’m going to singlehandedly impact the election, but we all have to think like that. Meanwhile, my dad sends me emails that are like, “How Putin could help Trump steal the election,” these things where I’m just like, “Delete.”
You have to be so vigilant about where you look and where you cross-reference what you read because it’s hard to discern what’s real and what’s not.
Right. I know. I was encouraging people to call their senators about the Supreme Court Justice seat that’s open. People were questioning if that was even a good thing for the election. I think my thinking was, it’s important for people to be engaged in democracy so that they notice if it goes away. You’re more likely to revolt if the election is stolen if you were calling your senators and availing yourself as a citizen. I generally think, even if you could argue that something does nothing or maybe even harms, as someone suggested to me, that no, there is something about the practice of it that alerts us and is not what they want—which is to get exhausted and tune out.
What’s the last thing that you Googled?
Oh God. Let’s see. I Googled Jonathan Majors. I had only seen him in The Last Black Man of San Francisco, and someone tweeted something really vague about him. I was worried that something had happened to him! Then I learned that like, wow, he’s been incredibly busy, which is great. That’s what I would have wished for him after that movie. But it shows how out of the loop I’ve been.
I think I saw the same tweet you’re referring to and coincidentally he was the first thing I Googled when I woke up this morning.
What’s going on? I don’t know what happened. Did something happen?
I think there was some discourse about his attractiveness as it pertains to certain eras of the past. It was very…wild.
By the time I got to Twitter—and I only ever dip in and dip out for a few seconds—all I read was “poor Jonathan Majors.” [Laughs.] So that’s why I was like, “Oh no, I never want anything bad to happen to Jonathan!”
What books are on your bedside table right now?
I just finished the John Giorno autobiography, the poet who was partners with Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. So I just had a lot of anal sex happening with me. [Laughs.] He lived through a pre-AIDS pandemic period, and as he gets older, watching how his life shifts is interesting and also exciting.
What was the best meal that you’ve had in quarantine?
My friend Isabel and I, the whole time, we have met and sat six feet apart in two chairs in my backyard behind my studio. For a long time, we weren’t brave enough to order food, but now, that’s our treat. We get this same meal: this chickpea thing, and it comes with a poached egg, and it’s just really good. Once we diverged from it and got something else and we really regretted it! [Laughs.] My other love right now is this restaurant called Jewel. It’s vegan, except you can get an egg with things, which is sort of my style. I’ve been rooting for them all through quarantine to just survive as a business. And they just opened up their outdoor patio again. I wanted to cry with joy. I think I’ll have my favorite thing from there, which is the breakfast burrito, on their patio this weekend. That’ll be part of my Kajillionaire release celebration. Living the dream over here.
Have you been watching any television series in quarantine?
I don’t have a ton of time. I did watch I May Destroy You and loved that. PEN15 is like gold waiting in my pocket. I can’t wait to start it.
Do you remember the last movie that you saw in theaters?
It was mine, at Sundance. Ridiculously, I am also going to drive down to Orange County with a few friends, caravanning safely and because theaters are not open in L.A., to see a movie outside of L.A. It will be the first movie I see in quarantine. I usually don’t see my movies again after the premiere, but it’s just going to be so weird with 25% capacity, and an Orange County audience. I’m going incognito.
What’s the last piece of art that you bought, or the last piece of art you ogled at a museum or gallery?
My friend Isabel, the same one I had that meal with, has a show that just opened here called Sextet that she’s been making for the last year. It just opened and we all got to see it by appointment. That was, in a way, better than an opening because you actually get to walk around with her and talk about the work and really see it. It’s beautiful, it’s at Nicodim Gallery.
I didn’t buy it, but I was given a beautiful piece of art by my friend Louise Bonnet, who has a show that just opened at Gagosian in New York. I interviewed her for the Gagosian magazine and I truly did not think I was going to be rewarded with a drawing of hers. [Laughs.] My new thing is, who else can I interview? I didn’t know about that economy before. Big collection dreams now!
What’s the last song you had on repeat?
There’s this Perfume Genius song called “Queen.” It’s just so good. I have been listening to his new album, too, but then my Spotify will always go back to “Queen” and I’ll just loop that for a long time, which is not what anyone wants to hear. But it’s such a perfect song!
Do you remember the last concert you went to?
I think it was probably Sleater Kinney. Those are my old friends and that was a while ago, but it was quite sweaty and hard to conceive of now. It was never hygienic to begin with. Now there are a lot of things where I think, Oh yeah I actually did usually get sick after those activities. [Laughs.].
Your birthday is in February. Are you into astrology at all?
Yeah, not in a knowledgeable way, but I sometimes hit Pattern pretty hard.
Do you feel like it’s accurate?
I really do. I’m an Aquarius. Pattern is useful to me because of being able to look at the signs of my friends and other people I know. It has helped me understand that other people’s paradigms are different. That they are doing things because they are on their journey not having to do with me. That fundamental truth, I feel like I didn’t really understand until Pattern. I knew it intellectually, but now I can actually check and verify that that’s true. [Laughs.]
What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?
I read and then I take like nine different ineffectual sleeping things, like homeopathic variations on a theme sleep-wise. I put my sleep mask on, my earplugs, in my teeth guard and it’s a whole bunch of things. When there was an earthquake the other night, there were 50 things I had to do to be able to run out the door. [Laughs.]
Is that before or after you unplug the wifi?
After I unplug it. I put my phone in airplane mode, so it doesn’t try all night. Then I put all my blinders and things on because I’m a light sleeper and a teeth grinder. It’s all so erotic.
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