The Popcorn Reel Spotlights:

Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton of the film "Little Miss Sunshine" -- the summer's best



Left: Dayton and Faris in an undated photo; Right -- the cast of the couple's directorial feature film debut, "Little Miss Sunshine" - the summer's best so far.   (Film picture: Eric Lee/Fox Searchlight)

Husband-and-Wife directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton talk to The Popcorn Reel as part of a conversation with The Reel's editor, and cinema journalist Michael Guillen of the blog The Evening Class and web site TwitchFilm.Net

by Omar P.L. Moore               printer-friendly version           

SAN FRANCISCO, California --

It is just after 9:00 a.m. on the West Coast on an already rather hot mid-July morning in the City by the Bay.  Despite the heat outside, the Diplomat Suite Room inside the Ritz-Carlton Hotel finds the interviewees cool, casual and collected.  "We're used to the early mornings of these interviews," remarks director Valerie Faris, who is accompanied by director and husband Jonathan Dayton.  Dressed perhaps like Los Angelenos -- Faris is from L.A. originally; Dayton is from San Francisco suburb Marin County -- the beaming couple enters the room, full of energy as they enthusiastically greet their interviewers. 

Ms. Faris and Mr. Dayton's resumes boasts vast experience in the world of television commercials and music videos, including directing videos for such musical acts as Janet Jackson, Oasis, Smashing Pumpkins, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.  Now, the directors have been talking about their first foray into feature-length filmmaking with their film "Little Miss Sunshine", which has been garnering audience support and applause everywhere it has been shown.  Nothing prepared Ms. Faris and Mr. Dayton for the reception that the film received at this year's Sundance Film Festival, back in January.  "The Sundance screening was our first time in front of a real audience," says Dayton.  Faris crystallized the nerves they felt as filmmakers on tenterhooks before the mercy of an audience of strangers.  "You're partly just fearing, 'oh my God, is something going to be missing?, or, is the sound going to drop out here?'"  Dayton added that "it was actually literally the first time we saw it end-to-end finished."  "We checked it," Faris said, "but you don't really sit down and watch the whole thing." 

The festival "was the perfect place to introduce a film because you have this incredibly warm, receptive, interested audience.  So that was amazing and it was great,"  Dayton said.  He also gave kudos to the studio who distributed their film.  "We were so happy that we sold to Fox Searchlight . . . they seemed to love our movie, but they seemed to understand how to market films like this.  They are doing a lot of word-of-mouth screenings, which is really our choice.  It's our preference to just let this be a word-of mouth phenomenon."  Which this film is very likely to be.  Judging from one screening its impact will be far-reaching.  "Little Miss Sunshine" is the summer's best film so far.


While audiences went wild with glee at "Little Miss Sunshine" at Sundance, the real (or perhaps, "reel") test will be with the film's opening around most of North America on August 4.  (The film opened in New York City and Los Angeles on Wednesday, July 26.)  The film is an ensemble effort from actors who have all taken bit parts in previous movies and have enjoyed lead roles (with the exception of Paul Dano and newcomer Abigail Breslin.)  Greg Kinnear heads the cast as Richard, an eternal optimist who strives to remain positive in spite of all the obstacles life deals him and his family.  Toni Collette plays Sheryl, the housewife whose marriage to Richard is crumbling, while Paul Dano portrays Dwayne, their teenage son who hasn't spoken for more than nine months.  Alan Arkin is Richard's foul-mouthed, coke-snorting father, Steve Carell is a gay suicidal Proust scholar (self-proclaimed number one scholar in the U.S.A.), and relative newcomer, nine-year-old Abigail Breslin, is Olive, the little Miss Sunshine of the film's title, daughter of Richard and Sheryl.

"Little Miss Sunshine", which was written by Michael Arndt, instantly appealed to Faris and Dayton.  Says Faris: "Our interest going way back to when we started doing documentaries, has always been in character -- in people.  So even in videos -- the bands we worked with -- we were interested in the personalities.  So I think that's why this film appealed to us.  Six very interesting characters that we related to.  Each one of them we related to.  We always thought of them as very real characters."  Much of the film takes place on the road in a 1970's VolksWagen which encounters quite a few "technical" difficulties during the trip from their home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Redondo Beach in Southern California for a beauty pageant that Olive has dreamed about entering for some time.

One of the most impressive performances, aside from Abigail Breslin's gem, is by actor-comedian Steve Carell.  At the time of the filming of "Little Miss Sunshine", which lensed during the summer of 2005 and was completed just two days before its debut at Sundance this past January, a then-little-known Mr. Carell was just emerging in movie theaters in the film "The 40-Year-Old Virgin", which would go on to make over $100 million last year at the North American box office.  Mr. Carell was playing a dramatic character with humor flickers in a film that is not necessarily a comedy. 

The actors in Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' first-time feature film "Little Miss Sunshine";  Right - Get me to the pageant on time: Steve Carell and Toni Collette lead the charge out of the VW that is falling apart as a family gradually comes together.  (Photos: Eric Lee/Fox Searchlight)

Essentially, Mr. Carell was an unknown entity to the directors at the time of filming.  "We didn't know he could do this [role of Frank] based on what he had done, but when we met with him and talked to him about the character and the tone of the movie and the way we were approaching it, he was right on the same page with us and wanted to approach it from a very real point of view," said Faris.  Mr. Carell, who since the end of shooting "Little Miss Sunshine" has gone on to do the American version of the highly successful BBC television comedy series "The Office", understood that the character he played was not going to be a gimmick or stock stereotype.  Impressed with the results, Faris sung his praises.  "He loved the part, he loved the character.  He's so smart, so funny.  He's funny, but he doesn't need to be funny all the time."  Dayton added, "Steve was really excited about stretching out.  He had shot "40-Year-Old Virgin" -- it wasn't out [yet], and that was certainly a big step for him and then I feel like this was yet another jump into true drama, because there are moments when he's plainly not humorous."  Cinema journalist Michael Guillen of The Evening Class and was impressed with the fact that the representation of Frank as a fully humanized individual was done without the need for any "knee-jerk politicizing" -- something that has been prevalent in some of Hollywood's bigger-budget fare.  On a larger scale, Faris pointed to the fact that "we didn't want audiences to laugh at these characters, we wanted people to go on this journey with them."

Steve Carell's character Frank takes on a quiet, organic transformation during "Little Miss Sunshine" and the depression Frank is immersed in at the beginning of the story begins to lift ever-so-slowly, but surely, by its end.  Carell's on-screen character and the characters the other actors played felt so real to director Jonathan Dayton, who attributed their authenticity and quality of the acting in part to the film's screenwriter, Michael Arndt.  "I think there were many factors that led to all the good performances in the movie.  Certainly it starts with the writing.  I think Michael, to his credit, writes characters who have longings that reach beyond the immediate needs of the story.  Sometimes you see a character [in a film] and it just feels like it's just existing there in this little flimsy version just to serve the needs of the immediate story, and they don't really dream beyond what's happening in the now."  Dayton continued to talk about how the six characters punctuated the theme of the film, with the three-day road journey as a metaphor for their own personal journey.  "These characters had giant dreams . . . they were lifelong dreams so you immediately identify with that, because of course hopefully we all have those dreams in our lives.  The characters become more universal because of that."

Equally impressive was the fact that as first time feature film directors with such heralded star actors as Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette and Alan Arkin that Dayton and Faris were able to cultivate from the acting ensemble a uniform series of performances from all involved.  "That's what we loved about it -- it was a true ensemble film," says Faris.  "If there is a protagonist, it's Olive.  Most of the scenes have all six characters in them.  I think that's what drew us to it, you get to create this sense of family in an ensemble, and the way they then are able to work together as actors instead of each person separately doing their lines, doing their scene.  Each scene you see them, they're interacting.  Those scenes were played in long pieces so that they could develop with their own rhythm.  I think that maybe that's why it has more of a sense of reality."  Dayton said that they did five-minute takes so that people could "start boxing with their fellow actors."

Speaking of actors, young Abigail Breslin, who previously appeared in such films as "Signs", "Raising Helen" and "The Princess Diaries 2", landed the role of Olive after a worldwide search was conducted by casting directors Kim Davis and Justine Batterley, who had cast all the directors' music videos, and many films.  "They had representatives in every single English-speaking country. . . we looked everywhere."  After seeing "hundreds and hundreds of girls . . . the only one that struck us as being right was Abigail," Dayton said.  "She's just got an intelligence about her, she's very present. . . she's a really good listener . . . she can play a six-minute scene . . . you could see that she was in that moment," said Faris.  Added Dayton, "She didn't overdo it, she was one of those people who was actually very plain, it wasn't like she was turning on her charm, you know, 'let me show you this', she had the ability to be completely natural." 

"Little Miss Sunshine" takes place over a three-day period, so it was incumbent upon the directors to marshal together as much information about the characters as possible to meet the challenge of time compression.  Valerie Faris talked about the need to develop a chemistry between the players from the get-go on a film whose shoot was very quick, just over 30 days long.  "In rehearsals we really worked with [the actors] on their relationships with each other, the history and tried to build a sense of the past they had together."  The film's signature headquarters is its egg-yolk yellow VolksWagen, operating as a pressure-cooker for familial tension -- a "yellow submarine" of sorts.  Within the vehicle lots of banter and non-banter in the case of Dwayne (the character played by Mr. Dano) occurs.  All the while, the goal is to reach Redondo Beach and enter Olive as a contestant in the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant.


We are family: Alan Arkin, Paul Dano, Steve Carell, Greg Kinnear, Abigail Breslin and Toni Collette; Right -- the directors on set.   (Photos: Eric Lee/Fox Searchlight)

Furthering this mission goal is the relentless idealism and optimism of Richard (Mr. Kinnear's character) who in some ways was reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart's working stiff family man of the classic Frank Capra film "It's A Wonderful Life", something Dayton acknowledged.  "I remember as a child really being influenced by Capra films.  I think that we all look to film to tell us about the rules of life.  Certainly in America we are taught that if you work hard and play by the rules you will be rewarded.  What was interesting about this film is that you have these guys who are trying their best to do what is expected of them, and it may not pan out for them.  We thought this family was an interesting modern middle-class family, because even though they have a house and two cars, they're actually teetering on the edge of financial disaster."  Valerie Faris adds that Richard "is trying so hard.  He does keep pushing them . . . the fact that they do make it there -- I feel like he's redeemed in that way -- and just to kind of celebrate that effort, as well as what the end result is, was important to us.  We [in American society] sort of devalue experience and only value achievement . . . we liked that it was really about the experience, that's what they [the characters] gained."

Dayton analyzed the construct of "Little Miss Sunshine", breaking it down into two elements.  "We talked to the actors about how this is a film that compares two value systems . . . looking at life as a contest versus looking at life as a dance.  The first words in the script are 'there are two types of people in this world, winners and losers', and through the course of this drama, this adventure, they come to see life more as a dance, which is something where you can find joy and you can prevent people from judging you."  In a society saturated with sound bites and buzzwords like "family values", Dayton made it clear during the time he and Faris met with the cast that "Little Miss Sunshine" was a film about "the value of family."  "Hopefully there's true power in seeing people who actually love each other.  Beneath the arguments and the bickering, there's something that endures."

The directors acknowledged that the scenes in the VW on the road took its toll on the actors.  "It was very rough on them.  It was uncomfortable.  Most of the time it was all six of them in the car together.  You're on a freeway and you can only shoot in one direction, then you had to turn around and shoot in the other direction," said Faris.  Despite the arduous nature of the road shoot, "they still loved each other . . . these guys got along great, so they still had fun [through the miserable experience of the road] . . . they bonded in a way."  Dayton and Faris shot the film in sequence, "so the car stuff did come after the dinner scene, so you did start to feel certain tensions building, like between Richard and Frank.  It was very easy for them [the actors] to kind of tap into frustration and the anger, because it was a tough shoot."


           LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE A family determined...                                           Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette in Fox Searchlight Pictures' Little Miss Sunshine

Big smile: Abigail Breslin in "Little Miss Sunshine."   Toni Collette smiles while Greg Kinnear frowns in "Little Miss Sunshine".   (Photos: Eric Lee/Fox Searchlight)

Perhaps adding to the difficult aspect of the road scenes was the challenge of acting before two directors instead of the usual solo director.  "We both do everything," Dayton said.  "The key is just to be prepared. . . having said that, there are always things on the set that happen that you don't expect . . . Val and I in a way, are like this idea incubator . . . having the two of us as this sort of safe zone to talk about any idea, no matter how silly, allows us to entertain things that I know myself I would never speak openly on a set.  But when you have someone you can trust and you can be vulnerable with, you can encourage ideas that would otherwise never see the light of day.  And then when we talked to actors we were very aware that it [two directors] was a giant issue, that you couldn't in any way set up a situation where they would hear mixed messages." 

Dayton and Faris would handle this situation by discussing a strong feeling about something after a take, then the director who had the need to discuss something with the other director would then go off and discuss it with the actors.  That same director would continue to talk to the actors throughout the same scene.  Faris explained the process of their on-set co-direction further. "Per scene, I'll work with Greg on this one part of a scene, Jonathan would talk to Toni more in that scene.  We're kind of tag-team, but it's not consistent throughout the whole film, it's just scene by scene.  It may be that [Dayton] has a stronger feeling about something that we're looking for, or about how to get it from that actor, or I may have a clearer way of expressing it to the actor.  We're pretty much always five inches apart . . . we're kind of like one director, but hopefully with two separate heads."  All kidding aside, Faris acknowledged the sensitivity of the actors having to work with two directors.  Still, she said that the actors never complained about the presence of two directors.

There was an obvious difference between shooting music videos and commercials and doing feature length films.

"In music videos and commercials it's storytelling by frame.  In the film we really decided that our frontier was to get great performances."  Faris pointed out that the crafting of great acting and interaction between the film's performers was not something that was created solely for the lens.  "If there's something happening in the room, then you can put your camera pretty much anywhere."  Dayton said that they had staged scenes for the movie "for years prior to actually shooting."  He added that in the five years it took to make "Little Miss Sunshine" they work-shopped the entire film.  This technique of depth and detail enabled them, he explained, to have a greater insight and knowledge.  Essentially, said Faris, they had three and a half years of preparation for the film.  She admits that it "was really discouraging at times" but that they believed that "Little Miss Sunshine" would come together as a complete product.  There were 14 other directors on tap to direct the film originally, but Dayton and Faris were "really passionate" about it.  They thanked Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, "because I don't know if somebody would look at our previous work in music videos and commercials and say, 'oh, yes, this is a perfect match!'  They knew us to know that we would respond very well to the material," Faris said.


                                                    (L-R) Directors Jonathon Dayton and ...       (HOLLYWOOD REPORTER & U.S. TABLOIDS ...
At the closing night of the Los Angeles Film Festival screening of "Little Miss Sunshine" in July.  The directors are joined by Paul Dano and Abigail Breslin. 
At right: Ms. Breslin with "Sunshine" co-star Alan Arkin, in New York City in July.   (Pictures: Mark Mainz/Getty Images; Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

As veterans of music videos the directors went a different route with "Little Miss Sunshine", cutting the film without any music whatsoever, and then later recruited a band called DeVotchka, who they described as a hybrid of Latin and Eastern European sounds.  The music adds to the ups and downs and ebbs and flows of the onscreen dysfunctional family who are trying to find each other as much as they are trying to get to the beauty pageant on time for the sake of Olive, who symbolizes their collective dreams, a mascot perhaps, for all their frailties, imperfections and ambitions.

Jonathan Dayton conceded that with "Little Miss Sunshine", "I really like being considered an 'indie underdog film' - we're kind of teetering on the edge . . . let's be frank.  It was made for very little money.  It was made like an indie film, but we have big stars."  Faris added that Steve Carell's presence in the film brought further attention and interest in it even before it got to the Sundance Film Festival.  Faris also pointed to the challenges that they as a married filmmaking tandem faced on their first feature-length film directing venture.  "We spent so long trying to get this movie made . . . it was so hard to convince people that this was a word-of-mouth film,"  Playfully, her husband adds, " . . . even worthy of shooting!" 

The filmmakers talked about the type of critical reception that the film may get when it broadens to the rest of the United States and North America.  "We love film, but we are not film scholars."  "We love Capra . . . but we weren't looking at other road movies and thinking, 'how do we update this genre?'"  "I welcome criticism . . . but if people start getting into this game of comparing certain plotlines, then we really lost."  "I hope people will have an emotional, cathartic experience and I hope they'll [the critics] will look at that . . ."  Faris adds, "well if you're not going with the film.  If you're going to sit back and just watch it for those things, you can criticize it all you want . . . you can't expect to win everybody over."  At the same time however, Faris is confident that most people will see it for the film that it really is.  "If you let yourself [go for the ride of the entertainment] I think it's a pretty enjoyable film."

Copyright 2006.  All Rights Reserved.


                                                                                       Movie poster shot.  (Courtesy: Fox Searchlight)

Great indebtedness and thanks to Shelley Spicer of Terry Hines & Associates for all her hard work in making this interview happen.  Thanks also to Michael Guillen for his valuable insights.



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