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July 2006
LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE: An Interview with Director Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE: An Interview with Director Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton
by Brad Balfour

When a remarkable film like "Little Miss Sunshine" appears it deserves a break, and some scrutiny. Who is this married duo of directors and how did Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton happen to so brilliantly this dark comedy about a dysfunctional family with a 10 year daughter who wants to compete in these bizarre beauty pageants? Let's face it, few films feature an effective husband and wife team let alone be the successful creators of an impressive body of music videos for the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, Jane's Addiction, Macy Gray, Janet Jackson, Oasis, Weezer, and The Ramones; a hit MTV series, "The Cutting Edge;" and a slew of enduring commercials for all sorts of
major brands.


Yet on top of all that, they chose to do a really off-beat, laugh-out-loud indie film (it took five years to finally complete) and assemble a top flight ensemble of actors for the family ranging from Dad (Greg Kinnear) to Mom (Toni Collette) to the suicidal brother and
Proust scholar (Steve Carrell) to drug-addled and sex-crazed Gramps (Alan Arkin).


This film really delivers and has great emotional impact. How did you get this project; it took you a couple of years to film?

VF: Oh no. It was actually pretty quick once we started to film, then we finished, we went to Sundance with it, and we sold it.

JD: We finished it four days before it screened.

VF: And it was exactly a year ago that we shot it so the long part, the hard part was getting it made.

JD: It was nice because we enjoyed making videos, commercials and documentaries, and while we wanted to do a feature, it wasn't something that we had to do in the abstract. We really wanted to find the right script, and when we read this, we knew this was the project for us because it wasn't a music video director's piece; it was hopefully what you would not expect from a music video director. We were hopefully excited about taking it on, and knowing that performances were going to be the challenge, not some visual trickery.


How did the script come your way?

VF: Through Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, two producers whom we've known for a while—they produced "Election," and Albert produced "Crumb." We were always interested in working with them, and they had given us a few scripts that we weren't crazy about; then they gave us this one. Actually when we first read the storyline, we were like, "Tsk. I don't know. Beauty pageant?" It just sounded bad.

JD: "Road movie? Dysfunctional family?" all these things didn't seem very appealing. What's great about the script is that it takes this genre and turns it on its ear. That really meant a lot to us.

VF: I never even felt so much like we were doing a genre film. I just felt like it was a bunch of characters that I really felt I loved, and wanted to see come to life. I know I never felt, "Oh, we're doing a road movie comedy." In fact, we hardly approached this like we were doing a comedy. We weren't laughing on the set after each take. It was
more of approaching it from the kind of comedy we like, which is where the comedy comes from the kind of characters, and the situations where you're really identifying with them, hopefully more than laughing at their follies.

JD: If it's truthful, it's so much more satisfying than if you feel like they've chased a life, and here's this big joke delivered. If it feels like, "Oh my god! That's just like my life," when you're laughing at this, you're laughing at your own travails.


Weren't you at first tempted to do your own script or story as your first feature?

VF: It would take too long (laughs).

JD: Well, you know I have a lot of respect for writing, and while I enjoy it, there are people who are better at it than I am…

VF: Michael [Arndt] is a really disciplined, hard-working writer. We'd worked with other writers developing things, but we worked with Michael a little on the script just to trim it down, and get the tone to a place where we felt it was consistent for the movie. We had a
great time with him. He's just a very disciplined guy. He knows film inside and out.


I guess it's just that we clicked, and I would rather have Michael write our scripts although there are stories now that we have now, and now want to work with Michael on. It was just a good pairing for us. That's all he does: he writes, and we do too many other things to have the time to spend just ten years to write a script.


The casting here was crucial--I can see how you wanted everybody you have because they all have this body of work--but especially with Steve Carrell. Of course it was before Steve broke out; you'd seen him on "Daily Show" But that was it at the time.

JD: We always felt that Steve was an incredibly smart actor, and even when he took on the silliest of roles…

VF: Like in "Anchorman."

JD: He approached it with such vigor, and intelligence…

VF: …and freshness. It may be just schtick, but coming from him it
doesn't feel like that.

JD: He always keeps it fresh. He demands that of himself. We were very excited about throwing him this role which was so different because we knew that he would rise to the occasion. When we sat with him just to talk about his role, we saw that we were on
the same page. It was a very exciting thing. I was really happy that he hadn't don't something like this.

VF: The ironic thing is that Steve was the biggest leap for us. During production, he was the one that we knew the least about in terms about doing this kind of role, but the minute we started rehearsing with him, it was just clear that it was going to be easy in that sense.

JD: He was so serious about the role. He's one of those great performers that's very funny, but doesn't need to be funny every moment. There's no neediness there. He was just very focused like the rest of the cast, and that made for a great set. There were no
distractions while you waited for someone to crack everyone else up. They were really aimed at making the movie.


Was this cast pretty much the cast you had wanted?

JD: Pretty much.

VF: Some of them, no, we didn't think of them until later. Steve we hadn't thought of in the role until right before, a couple months before we starting shooting. Greg [Kinnear] we always thought of in the Richard role. With Toni [Collette], we had met a lot of great
actresses, and Toni popped up, and we thought, "Oh my good, she's perfect for this." Abigail [Breslin] we had actually found, and Paul [Dano] we had found two years prior to starting production, and we were just worried that they'd get too old, but luckily they stunted their growth somehow.

JD: We had coffee and cigarettes for all of them.


How did you find those two?

JD: We had this great casting team, and they've done all videos, and commercials, and they've done Spike Jonze's movies, and they launched this international search. Every country where they speak English, they went to. Abby was the only person that we found that we felt was right.

VF: She was six years old when we first auditioned her, and we thought that she was almost too young, but she was great. She was in "Signs" when she was four.

JD: Her gift is that she's still a child. She's not like a mini-adult; she's a child who's smart.


That's so important for that role.

JD: It's everything for that role, and we were just so happy. When we said, "You've got the job," we said, "Thank you. We are so happy. Let's find Olive," because you could have the biggest cast lined up, but if Olive wasn't right, you'd have nothing.


Who do you think had more jitters: Alan Arkin being directed by the likes of you or you directing Alan Arkin?

VF: (laughs) I can only say that we had jitters, first even talking with him on the phone. "God, it's Alan Arkin."

JD: We had so loved his work; we'd grown up with it. We first thought that he was too young for the role, but then we realized, "Come on, it's Alan Arkin. He'll do it. My god."

VF: The minute we talked to him on the phone, we knew that he loved the character, and he got it so thoroughly. In fact, he was so great that his concern at one point when we were shooting was that in the scene with him and Abigail, he was concerned about going too soft.

JD: When they're in the hotel room, and she asks him.

VF: Originally, the way it was written it was even more sweet, and we just loved the fact that he was, "I just don't want to be this sweet old guy the night before I die." We worked with him to make that scene not purely sweet. There was a little humor, and the way he talks to her is just a little less precious. Thank god we had him, because he had the right concerns. With all the performers, you don't audition people when you have you have actors like this. You meet with them, but we felt from all our meeting with these actors that they got the characters, that they saw the movie the way we saw it, that it was going to be played very real, and not just purely comedic.

JD: He was definitely the one that said, "Two directors?" He was really suspicious.

VF: "How does this work?" We were nervous the first couple of days thinking, "Is Alan just laughing at us? Does he just think that this is a joke?" And I actually think that the rehearsal process is the key.


Can you talk about the VW bus scenes when they travel to the beauty pageant? It's funny because you can actually see them making this jump every single time. How did you film that?

JD: We had a stunt coordinator there to make sure everyone was safe, but what was so beautiful was that everyone said, "Oh, I'm going to do it. No stunt doubles." I think that that was such an important part of the film that the actors were so committed, and they loved what they were doing, and they were just eager to dive in.

VF: Greg did all the driving pretty much. There are a couple of shots where its second-unit work, and a little bit of stunt-driving when they get to the pageant, but for the most part Greg was driving, sometimes it was a stick, sometimes it was an automatic. He was on the freeway with the whole cast, and us in the back, and the cameraman.

JD: We were stuffed eventually where grandpa's body ends up. Val and I were in there, looking at a monitor.


 

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