How ‘Kajillionaire’ Production Design Team Used Character, L.A. Architecture Cues to Enhance Tale of Grifters

Miranda July Kajillionaire
Matt Kennedy/Focus Features

Miranda July’s “Kajillionaire” is set in Los Angeles but doesn’t play out amid the glitz of Hollywood. The Focus Features film, which hits theaters Sept. 25, is about a family of grifters. Evan Rachel Wood plays Old Dolio, the daughter of parents (Richard Jenkins and Debra Winger) who have taught her the family trade: running scams to pay the bills. But her world changes when she meets an outsider, Melanie (“Jane the Virgin” star Gina Rodriguez), who has been invited to take part in their biggest heist yet.

Production designer Sam Lisenco (last year’s “Uncut Gems”) points out that July’s locations were composed of “North Hollywood, the City of Industry and Vernon — all these subservient satellite regions of L.A.” For him and costume designer Jennifer Johnson (“I, Tonya”), the family’s circumstances, as well as the instructions of the director, comprised the story’s focal points. 

Here’s what the two crew members had to say about creating the film’s idiosyncratic world, including finding the movie’s color scheme in a watery-blue library that stood in for a post office and a hunter green smelting factory that became the exterior of the apartment complex the family lives in. 

Sam Lisenco, production designer

“We made this giant wall with the entire movie mapped out, based on location. We could figure out the aesthetic hit points and where these moments of emotional engagement occurred relative to how the movie was looking — and how Los Angeles was a character [alongside] these characters who are just struggling to exist.

We lucked into the color [scheme] along the way. The Postal Service scene was a library because the USPS was not willing to play ball with our production. The blue of the library was inherently perfect for the story we were trying to tell. 

For the exterior of their home, we wanted an industrial space that Miranda had had in her head for many years. I drove around L.A. with [location manager] Dave Conway for weeks, and we couldn’t find [a suitable] place. We pulled up at a stop sign and threw in the towel. That’s when we saw this Dr. Seuss-green monstrosity. From that point forward, it was about which locations could be juxtaposed with that. L.A. is this city of postwar dreams where you have a strip club next to a church, and it has created this beautiful landscape of palettes that have to stand out in the desert. You have the green of a factory building and you have the blue of a [library]. 

We wanted to approach Old Dolio’s bedroom from the perspective that she — and, in fact, the three characters — haven’t found their mature level of being able to communicate their internal needs to the exterior world. If you were left to your own devices and had no access to the influence of adults, what would you presume independence or self-sufficiency would be like? And that wound up becoming this kind of hoarding of objects to make it feel like a person is alive.”

Jennifer Johnson, costume designer

“Miranda had ideas for Old Dolio. She needed to have a nonbinary expression. We went to Walmart and bought men’s and boys’ clothing. We did some in-person live testing with [Evan Rachel Wood]. 

But once we got into the meat of the prep, for me, the parents were steering the relationship and why the family was so insular. I thought about families in cults and dogmatic religions — strict with how they dress. I looked at the Pentecostal religion where they’re covered up and modest, and that made me think about how shielded they were from the outside world. Even when they went out, they were trying to be in disguise and keep themselves under wraps.

Theresa’s style had dogmatic sensibilities. How do you get into the mind of someone not allowing their daughter to grow up? So I ordered clothes from an Amish thrift store for her. 

The conceptual idea that was hard to express visually was that [the family’s] clothes were already worn or stolen, and we see that when the dad steals the tie. All the costumes were meant to be promo material or stolen from Amazon shipments — hence them lurking at the post office.

In contrast, Melanie is the type who is on Instagram and interested in cheap and cheerful fashion that you’d find in the mall. Her palette was this Kardashian skin-tone palette of nudes. She’s the opposite of Old Dolio and her family. She’s comfortable with her femininity and sexuality. She wants in on their scam and ultimately, helps Old Dolio come out of her shell.”