After lots of success in the world of commercials and music videos, he husband-and-wife directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris has moved into feature films with “Little Miss Sunshine,” a comedy about a dysfunctional family’s redemptive road-trip in a broken-down van featuring an eclectic cast that includes Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin, Paul Dano and a little girl named Abigail Breslin, who plays the chubby seven-year old they’re all taking to a beauty pageant. And it appears that the duo is about to repeat their success on the big screen. The movie was a crowd-pleasing smash at this year’s Sundance Festival, where the distribution rights were bought by Fox Searchlight Pictures for a reported $10 million, and it’s now going into general release.
“We have always loved features, and it’s something that we certainly wanted to do,” Dayton said about their initial foray into the medium during a recent Dallas interview. “But it wasn’t like that’s the top of the mountain that we must achieve.”
“We weren’t just interested in doing any old feature film just for the sake of doing a feature film,” Faris added.
“But when we started doing videos,” Dayton continued, “and those videos started getting attention, we started getting scripts. But it took us five years before we really found a script that we loved this much, and then it took five years after that to actually get it made.”
“The movie is really about competition,” Dayton said, “and we told the cast that this is the struggle of two values, two ways of looking at life–looking at life as a contest versus looking at life as a dance.” Faris added, “Michael [Arndt], the writer, said he was inspired by a quote from Arnold Schwarzenegger, where he said, ‘If there’s one thing I despise in this world, it’s losers.’ And he just thought, oh, my God, that’s horrible! I think that’s what we loved about this story and this script–that it dealt with all these issues not in too didactic a way, but in a true-to-life way.”
Faris noted that the long gestation period in making “Sunshine,” while frustrating, was actually a blessing. “You benefit from spending time with material before you go to shoot it,” she said. “We’ve spent so much time working on the script and thinking through every scene. Then, when we went to make it, we were very confident with it–we loved every bit that was in there, we’d gotten rid of everything we weren’t crazy about and tried to solve as many problems as we could, so that when we went in, we were really just working hard, focusing on what was there and trying to bring it to life. Too many things go into production before the scripts are really done.”
Faris added that they’d had “a great relationship” with Arndt, and worked closely with him on molding the screenplay. Dayton mentioned that Arndt “told us once that he doesn’t think scripts are bad, they’re just not finished. And I think that’s really true.” He also recalled a meeting with Steven Spielberg while they were still wading through screenplays that made the same point. “I remember saying to him, ‘Well, we’re very low on the food chain, and all the scripts we get need a lot of work.’ And he looked at us and said, ‘All the scripts that I get need a lot of work.’ And I never forgot that.”
Dayton and Faris initially tried to make “Sunshine” through the regular studio system, but found themselves stymied by the process. So it became an independent production, and things moved quickly.
“When we had a greenlight and money to make the film and a start date, the cast came together incredibly seamlessly,” Faris said. “We went after our first choices, and we got all of them. You sort of cast the person. There are certain people that are just right, because of who they are, for the roles–they bring so much of themselves to the roles.”
“A film like this is difficult because there are no leads–it’s really an ensemble,” Dayton added. “And only certain actors are willing to share the limelight. Fortunately, I think all these actors loved the material and wanted to do something good. It wasn’t a payday for anyone–they got a fraction of their normal fees.”
It helped the cast, he noted, that they had the luxury of shooting the picture in sequence after a week of rehearsals. “I do think,” he said, “just as in the movie that the road trip starts to unify the family, the car scenes–which were very hot and difficult–bonded the actors at yet another level.”
Another unusual aspect of “Sunshine,” of course, is that it was directed by a team rather than a single person–hardly a common arrangement. How does it work?
“It’s essential that we work out all our disagreements in advance,” Dayton said. “And for the most part we agree on things and will plan everything. Our work is really about the intersection of our sensibilities. That doesn’t mean that we butt heads, it’s really about where they cross.” Faris continued, “And you explore things together. We had time on this script to go through every scene and sometimes act out the scenes together. It’s kind of what one director does in their own head. They have a dialogue in their own head; we just have it out in the open between the two of us. And we try to just make sure that we’ve done all that discussing before we get to the set, so that we’re of one mind.”
“We make a real effort to never contradict each other [on the set],” Dayton emphasized. “Even though we both do everything [rather than divide up duties], at any one moment one of us will stay with an actor on a scene and just give him notes, and it’s very nice because I’ll whisper something in Greg’s ear and she’ll whisper something to Alan, and they don’t know what notes each other is getting, so when the scene happens, there’s a freshness to it.” Faris added, “It’s something we sort of do intuitively, and for some reason it works.” (Dayton interjected, “For us.”) And Faris noted with a laugh, “I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to most husbands and wives!”
The couple is understandably pleased with the positive response “Little Miss Sunshine” is receiving, from the Sundance triumph to recent public previews. “We made a movie that we wanted to see, because you can’t do anything but that,” Dayton said. (Faris added, “When we were making it, it made us laugh.”) And Dayton continued, “But when you do videos and commercials, you never watch your work with an audience. And there is something really incredible when people are laughing together–hopefully not cheap laughs, but human laughs. We took a giant pay cut to do [the movie]. But the rewards are great.”