It’s hard to say what a ‘typical’ movie plot for offbeat auteur Miranda July might be, but it still comes as a bit of a surprise that the latest offering from the writer/director of such Criterion-approved fare as Me You and Everyone We Know and The Future is a film about a family. Then again, Kajillionaire stars a different kind of kin: a trio of emotionally stunted con artists intent on maintaining an off-the-grid, glamor-free existence. Shifting between depictions of parent-child disagreements (relatable!) and scenes about robbing the terminally ill (less relatable!), Kajillionaire is a delicate, deft balancing act; it’s hard to imagine anyone without July’s distinctive vision and exacting attention to nuanced performances — the chemistry of discomfort between Evan Rachel Wood and Gina Rodriguez is delicious — pulling it off.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that figuring out a musical score to fit the Kajillionaire puzzle was a difficult, drawn-out endeavor for July. “[There were] months of me not being able to crack the music for this movie, which is weird,” July tells Billboard. “I’ve never had that problem before. I was kind of freaked out by the time I met Emile [Mosseri]. In retrospect, I feel like I was just waiting for Emile to exist so I could hear his score.”
The soundtrack, written by rising composer Emile Mosseri with significant input from July herself, is out today. Alternating between lush romantic fare and agitated pieces brimming with nervous energy, Mosseri’s score is an integral part of the film and a delight on its own, particularly since the soundtrack features a haunting cover of Bobby Vinton’s 1962 classic “Mr. Lonely” courtesy Angel Olsen (the original plays in the film’s finale).
July and Mosseri recently hopped on the phone with Billboard to discuss how the collaborative score came about, which scene gave them the most trouble, and what it was like for July to ‘direct’ Angel Olsen’s singing.
Miranda, before hearing Emile’s music, you were having a tough time finding the right composer. What wasn’t working?
Miranda July: The weird thing is it’s not like I need everything to be easy, but music is kind of like acting. You can’t fix it. The soul of it has to be there. You have to connect, and it has to flow to some degree. And that hadn’t happened yet with anyone. I’d worked with really talented people I still admire, but when Emile played… at that point, I had low expectations. [Emile said] ‘Oh I watched the movie, took a stab at a couple pieces, I’ll play them on my iPhone and you can tell me if I’m in the ballpark.’ And the first piece was that “Love Theme” that plays throughout the movie. And it was just… I remember feeling like I was falling all over myself. I was so happy.
The “Love Theme” is beautiful. Emile, what was it about the movie that made you come up with those particular sounds, the piano with the ethereal voices?
Emile Mosseri: I met Miranda like a day before I started making a record with my band. I fell in love with the movie and I was excited to work on it, so I would sneak off in the morning to write music for her. There was something helpful about that – doing the thing I wasn’t supposed to be doing. I was supposed to be making a record, so it was exciting to explore something else. So that theme, there was something that felt unapologetically romantic about the movie and Miranda’s work in general, and I was writing a bunch of music in the spirit of the film, and that specific melody I thought felt connected to her and the movie. And it was exciting that it came back and resonated.
How collaborative was the scoring?
Mosseri: We had such a limited amount of time, so Miranda came to my studio every day for like five weeks. We had a short window to get it done. The cut was locked, I was operating in real time. I played her the melodies earlier on, and we thought this worked or that worked or this could potentially be a theme for this character or the heist, but it was Miranda sitting behind me on the couch as I was writing and getting feedback from her in real time. It made it sort of dream-like, a very special experience – also terrifying, but each day it got less terrifying. I think it served the score. There was an instantaneous element: she was reacting to something in the room.
Were there any reference points you used making the score – other composers or films?
Mosseri: Not a specific….
July: Yeah! I sent you something. Didn’t I send you Heaven Can Wait from [Henry] Mancini? I had the Heaven Can Wait score in my head.
Mosseri: Maybe you did and I internalized it and forgot about it. For certain references, the film felt so classic but also so new. Miranda’s work is endlessly charming but also has teeth to it. I feel like the music had to have that charm and feel romantic. It also is an L.A. story, so there’s an old Hollywood element of the music that is working for a reason. So one side of the score we leaned into that, and it was more influenced by Italian scores by Nino Rota, like some of the scores he did for Fellini – there’s something off about them, but they’re incredibly romantic at the same time. That was one piece of it. And the other side was more mischievous and had these primal breathing chants and percussion that was more the heist music for this family when they’re up to no good.
July: We kept trying to figure out the “huh,” the vocal sound.
Mosseri: I did all kinds of breathing exercises. I would play her five different versions of me panting and breathing. It ended up being a combination of me breathing and saying the word “HA” through a Vocoder and adding some other woodwinds and sounds. There was a human element to it but it’s somehow synthetic.
Was there a scene that was particularly difficult to score?
Mosseri: I have one in mind, let’s see if it’s the same: “Fake Falsey People.”
July: Yeah. It’s when Old Dolio [Wood] wants her mom [Debra Winger] to call her ‘hon.’ I came with a theory that while that scene needed to have music, it needed to be a long, slow build, where you almost didn’t notice it was there and then it was overpowering and dramatic. Which is a little bit like Melanie’s [Rodriguez] role in that scene. Emile must have had so many layers, so many tracks on that, it felt like we were speaking a secret language on it by the end. I also just didn’t want it to sound like a boring synth pad, you know, music to make your baby go to sleep to.
Mosseri: That was a challenge. It was finding enough movement in the piece so it came alive. There was woodwinds and flutes playing this repetitive figure and then that would fade in and out, and then we had dots – synths sounds that Miranda would call the dots – and it was really important to get it just right. When the dots came in, they highlighted this one moment in the scene.
July: But Emile feels like they’re up too loud.
Mosseri: [Laughs] That’s the one battle I lost that I’m still sore about
July: But I love it.
Mosseri: Well, that’s what matters most. But those are subtle things. You only get to the point where you can have a disagreement about the volume of the dots if it’s on music you’ve spent countless hours listening to — the familiarity is so heightened. We got really deep into the weeds. In the end, it’s one of my favorite scenes in the film and the payoff at the end of it clicks.
The film ends with Bobby Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely.” Did you have that song in mind from the start?
July: I was trying to crack what song that should be while I was editing, before I got to Emile. There was a long checklist of all the things the song needed to have. It needed to stand on its own instrumentally because it’s this hold music that Old Dolio listens to, and then she needs to be able to dance to it, and the lyrics have to come in later for the end to play the way I wanted it to play, this slow-burn realization on Melanie’s face. And the lyrics had to matter — they had to be correct. In the end I was just going year by year through every song from the ’50s and ’60s until I was suddenly like, ‘wait, this one does all the things.’ And I knew that song, but you have to hear it to remember. And then Emile had such a beautiful idea, when we were all done, to ask Angel to cover it. He rearranged it. He sent me him singing it — Emile has a beautiful voice secretly — but we both wanted a woman’s voice. And we wanted to renew that song for people who weren’t going to listen to the classic.
How was working with Angel?
Mosseri: It was a dream. Miranda and I are such fans of hers. Early this year when we started talking about who our dream, pie-in-the-sky singers would be, she was at the top of our list, and we got so lucky. She came by the studio right before the whole world shut down. We let Angel set the tempo and I was following her, so the time was elastic. She was telling a story and not locked into a track. And in that process, Miranda was also directing her emotionally, how to sing a song and pushing her to be more vulnerable so it would be more connected to Old Dolio. The closest thing I get to see her working with a great actor was working with a great singer. And the three of us kept pushing it until Angel ended it up taking it to the moon.
July: I remember thinking, I’m so used to directing, ‘Does this work, can you direct a singer the same way you can direct an actor?’ I remember saying, ‘what if you were so vulnerable at the beginning that you almost weren’t singing, you were whispering?’ And I got that from her, it’s not the first time she’s done something like that, but it was so fun. It was like a different kind of acting.