The Popcorn Reel Spotlights:
Directors Valerie Faris and
of the film "Little Miss Sunshine" -- the summer's best
F.D. AND THE "SUNSHINE" BAND
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
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
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.
CLICK FOR AN AUDIO EXCERPT FROM
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
"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
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 Twitchfilm.net 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
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
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
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
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
At right: Ms. Breslin with "Sunshine" co-star Alan Arkin, in New York City in
July. (Pictures: Mark Mainz/Getty Images; Evan Agostini/Getty
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. PopcornReel.com. 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