By Maureen Lee Lenker
September 25, 2020 at 04:00 PM EDT
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Matt Kennedy/Focus Features; Inset: Rich Polk/Getty Images

Warning: This story contains spoilers about Kajillionaire. 

The heist film has a certain aesthetic, a set of tropes and moments we've come to expect from works in its orbit. But writer-director Miranda July is the queen of the unexpected choice, a quirky mumblecore artist who continually zigs when you think she'll zag.

It comes as no surprise then that her latest film, Kajillionaire, out Friday, is unlike any heist film we've ever seen before. "It is looking at your parents from afar, as strangers," July tells EW of her earliest ideas for the movie. "The two things were inherently married, like they weren't at odds. In fact, the emotional sense of being conned was my way in. They were one energy for me."

Kajillionaire follows a pair of grifters (Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger) and their emotionally fragile daughter Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood). Their lives are upended when they bring a stranger, Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), in on one of their cons, and she forms a connection none of them ever expected.

"The movie's called Kajillionaire," adds July. "It has to do with, if not money, at least transactional love."

We called up July in advance of the film's debut to talk grift, critiquing capitalism, and the unexpected romance that crept into her storytelling.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Some of the aspects of their cons, the acrobatics and little contortions, particularly those of Old Dolio at the post office, feel very drawn from a performance art space, which you're well versed in. Would you say that was influencing it in some way?

MIRANDA JULY: I knew she'd be a physical character, that she wasn't verbal, that she wasn't articulate, and yet, she was a fully formed soul. Intuitively, I was always looking for ways to show that she was good at what she did. It was very questionable what she did, but she was still good at it because she'd been learning the way to avoid security cameras with her body, and landlords and so forth, her whole life. The writing of it made it make sense to me, more than the actual doing of it. I will say where I write, my studio, is just up the street from a post office where I have a P.O. box. And it's the one place I go to often as a break. With a friend, I choreographed a move to get into the post office one day. Somewhere I still have the video of me — not doing it as beautifully as Evan does, but mapping it out. It's part of being not just a writer-director, but a writer-director-performer, that there's always that way in, through my own acting and body.

The film definitely critiques capitalism, but there's also this undercurrent of the hypocrisy of choosing to opt-out of the system by trying to cheat or steal your way around it. How did you walk that line and why was that line the space you wanted to live?

I was interested in outsiders, but righteous outsiders. While it may have been a radical choice at one point, they're now basically righteously defending a dysfunctional, crumbling way of life. That's resonant right now in particular, but also in the face of that, you can never argue with someone like that. All you can do is build a new thing, which is very much what I wanted out of Gina and Evan's characters. You just have to let go. You're never going to convince these people. You're never going to outsmart them. It'd be easy to do that with normal characters. It just seemed more complex to have the outsiders be, in a way, the emotional oppressors.

Debra Winger was such a huge star in the 1980s and we don't see as much of her now. Did you write it with her in mind or what inspired that choice?

I generally don't write with people in mind. That character, we don't get to know a ton about her, but that's a complicated woman who's not the way we like to see our mothers. She's not trustworthy; she's not warm. I knew Debra Winger would bring all this depth. She came out two weeks early to just work with me alone and we talked, and we worked on her limp, and we tried out different hair. But mostly we did a lot of talking about family. She put herself through hell to play a character who's that craven.

The foam coming over the walls into the sort of cubicle where they live is hideously specific and sad. Where did you get that idea?

I've lived in places where the rent is amazingly cheap, but there's just one big thing wrong. Like it doesn't have a bathroom or something. I remember trying all different things and wanting something that you couldn't fix. Because I wanted to show how you can get used to anything, you can normalize anything. Then I thought like, "Well, how far can I take that?" And with a movie like this, there's not a lot of ways to get beauty in there. It's not a beautiful, good thing. It's a beautiful drag at best. [But I asked,] "Ok, Miranda, what's beautiful to you?"

Another big part of the plot is this hot tub, which is this symbol of normalcy or a weird American dream that then goes wrong. Why did you choose a hot tub?

It just seemed so ridiculous to me as something to steal and plan on returning. That made me laugh. I'm from Berkeley and hot tubs to me are a perfect symbol of an inappropriate boundary-lessness that is always on offer when there's a hot tub. It's like if there's a gun in the scene, it's going to go off. If there's a hot tub, you know that something inappropriate is going to transpire. I liked it for that loaded gun quality.

The last thing I wanted to ask you was about Old Dolio's connection to Melanie. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted it to be this connection of romance and attraction? Did you play with a more sisterly bond? How did you arrive at what it became?

In the very first draft, I knew Melanie, something was going to happen with her that was sensual. Initially, I wasn't sure. I remember being quite surprised like, "Oh, this is it. This is the romance." It was such a pleasure for me to write. Sometimes you're like, "Am I going to get away with this?" Then I realized, "No, actually, this is very, very important. It's not just to make me happy." It's really the heart of the movie, ultimately. I've dated girls like Old Dolio, and I'm excited for the opportunity to have a beautiful woman fall in love with basically the strong, silent type. Someone recently compared her to Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain but seeing those qualities in a woman, or we don't really know how she identifies, but that moved me.

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