Walking on Sunshine: Twenty Minutes with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Even though Little Miss Sunshine marks the feature debut of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, they can hardly be called rookies. The husband-wife team directed music videos for REM, Smashing Pumpkins, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weezer and the Ramones, just to name a few. They’ve also done documentaries, commercials and episodes of the HBO cult hit “Mr. Show with Bob and David.” They waited for the right script to move into features. With Little Miss Sunshine, it’s clear they made the right choice. Sunshine drew raves at Sundance this past January so much so that Fox Searchlight paid more than $10 million for distribution rights. The film opened in select markets last week, earning mostly stellar reviews. It opens in the DC area this Friday, August 4.

In many ways, Little Miss Sunshine follows in the great American tradition of the road movie. Dayton jokingly called it “the thinking man’s National Lampoon’s Vacation.” In the film it’s the Hoover family taking the trip from hell. For the Hoovers “dysfunctional” would be a step up. Richard (Greg Kinnear) is a failed self-help guru who is nearly bankrupt. His wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) is on her second marriage and is just trying to hold everyone together. Her brother Frank (Steve Carrell) is a gay Proust scholar who attempted suicide after his lover left him. Sheryl’s teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) reads Nietzsche, won’t talk, and hates everyone. Grandpa (Alan Arkin) snorts heroin, loves porn, and uses language that would make some sailors blush. Finally there’s Olive (Abigail Breslin), a sweet but insecure eight-year old who desperately wants to be a beauty queen. At the last minute Olive gets into the “Little Miss Sunshine” kids pageant, prompting the Hoovers to head to California in an old VW bus.

Dayton and Faris, working off a script by Michael Arndt, take the characters beyond the quick descriptions I just used. They get rich, nuanced, performances from the cast. The result is a sharp, funny film that’s also warm and poignant. A couple of weeks ago Dayton and Faris sat down with me to discuss their film and their careers:

Adam Spector: What attracted you to this script?
Valerie Faris: I think, right off, the writing. We loved the writing and the economy of it. The characters all appealed to us. I felt like I could relate to everyone in the story at some point or another and I hadn’t read a script really up to that point where I liked all the characters. I was interested in all of them. I didn’t care that much for the story.
Jonathan Dayton: That’s the ironic thing. What attracted to us to the story, it wasn’t the story.
VF: Their voices, I was interested in them. As I was introduced to the teenage son, he’s reading Nietzsche and he’s not speaking. I liked this character. I wanted to see this character. I felt like the first time I read the script I wanted to see it realized. I felt like it was ready to be taken to the next plane...
JD: I felt like I wanted to be with these people for two hours ... It’s so rare actually that you read a script and think “Oh, I actually like these people.” You may find fault with them, but you enjoy seeing what they’re going to do. So many times you read a script and you just feel like “Why are they doing this? Are they dumb? Don’t do that.”
VF: When they’re sitting around the dinner table (at the beginning of the film), by the end of that scene you had to make people feel like “Oh God, how are these people going to spend the next three days together.” Setting up each character, I think the script does a really good job of doing that in a very simple way. Without them explaining themselves. That’s another thing I can’t stand.
AS: A lot of exposition?
VF: Yeah, Sometimes when you meet somebody you know instantly so much about them...
JD: Audiences are pretty smart and I don’t think you need to...
VF: ... bore them with all of that.

AS: Regarding casting, you’ve said that you got your first choice for every part. Steve Carrell may be a surprise to people. Greg Kinnear is also more known for comedic roles but he’s done some dramatic work. Steve Carrell has never really done anything like this before. What made you think he could pull of a role like this?
JD: He’s one of those performers who, no matter what he’s doing, brings an intelligence to his work. Even if he’s playing the dumbest weatherman ever there’s still just a real...
VF: ... freshness.

JD: He’s always interesting. He takes what could be a dismal role and makes it fresh and funny.
VF: I think he was so happy to not have to do things really big. He’s so used to people saying, “Can you give me a little more? A little bit bigger.” We had really admired his work and thought he was so funny and everything. You can tell from “The Daily Show” that there’s a good guy in there. And then meeting him we felt like he gets this movie, he loves this character. We’re on the same page about the way we’re approaching this. We’re going to play it very straight and very real.
JD: At the time it wasn’t as if we thought, “This guy’s going to be a big star.” But we did feel like for these people who know his work, wouldn’t it be interesting to see him do something different?
AS: You think he’s going to surprise a lot of people?
JD: Yeah, that alone was going to be worth noting, but since shooting the movie, obviously his star has risen exponentially. I still hope people come for the same reasons. Not because he’s a big star but because it’s fun to see someone do something different.

AS: It seems like many child actors are mugging for the camera or trying really hard to look cute. Abigail Breslin didn’t do that. She seemed so natural. Was that one of the reason’s you selected her?
JD: Absolutely.
VF: Yeah. She’s very natural ... she’s that way in life. She’s very comfortable talking to adults or kids. The great thing was, at the pageant, she played with the other kids. They did “Patty Cake.”
AS: Even though they seem to have come from two different worlds.
VF: She was right there sitting on the floor talking, sharing. You know it was never like “I’m the star.” She’s a kid. She is very smart and she’s a great listener. You watch her and it’s sort of like you’re watching some miracle take place. And we all got used to it but I know we’ve worked with child actors before on commercials and, even if you’re just doing 30 seconds, it’s hell if they can’t act.
JD: The first thing that goes with a child actress is the ability to be un-self conscious. Most children, when they go on camera completely lose all ability to be natural. Her gift is to be able to forget that she’s being filmed and that she’s doing anything other than play. I don’t know how she looks at it, what her process is, but she’s just natural and that is a gift.

AS: You’ve mentioned that you had a week of rehearsal before shooting. Were there any things that happened during rehearsal that you added to the movie later?
JD: There were lots of things, little things. We had them go on this field trip where we gave Toni and Greg $300 and said “OK, today you are organizing a family trip and we’re not going to tell you where to go.”
AS: In character?
JD: Everyone had to be in character all day.
VF: And the end destination is the house. We wanted it to end at the house so they could get a feel for where we were shooting.
JD: Val and I and the cameraman went with them in this big van. We didn’t have the bus but we had a giant passenger van. Greg drove and Toni navigated and Paul couldn’t talk.
VF: He was writing on the pad at one pont “Grandpa smells.” (laughs)
JD: There were little things. We went to lunch at this café that was connected to a bowling alley. They went bowling and at one moment Paul started playing with the straws ... and we thought that would be a perfect way to end the dinner scene.
VF: Paul taking a shot at Richard.
JD: Little bits of behavior.
VF: Alan came up with the idea of doing something in the car. We wanted a game. Some kind of game for him to play with Abigail.
AS: The popcorn?
VF: The popcorn. He was playing around with that in rehearsal.
JD: We had this solid foundation with the script and then it was really a matter of: How do you bring it to life? How do you just add details that made it feel like your own life? These little bits of behavior and the actors brought it all really... It was our job to go, “Oh, I like what you’re doing there. Let’s bring that to the movie.”

AS: Along those lines, is that why it was important to you to shoot in sequence?
JD: Yes. These actors are skilled enough to be able to make those shifts, but there’s nothing better...
VF: Certainly helped us, I think especially for Greg’s character, because he has the biggest movement.
AS: He changes so much.
VF: We could easily have done it out of sequence. We knew the script inside and out. But it was really nice to feel that. It’s interesting how what’s happening in the film affects the feeling on the set. I really felt it was so incredible to end the shoot with the dance sequence.
AS: That was a perfect catharsis.
VF: It was such a high point for everybody...

AS: There’s one particular scene where Dwayne has a real devastating blow. You expect there to be a lot of dialogue and there isn’t. His sister comforts him with a real simple action, very quiet. Was that in the script or was that something you came up with later?
VF: I don’t think there was anything written. She came down and I think there was really just her presence that had gotten him to eventually change his mind and come back up. But what was so incredible was doing it with those two actors. All we told Abigail was just to go down, sit with him, and comfort him. And then when she came down there, when she sat, when she put her head on his shoulder. You know, we didn’t tell her to do that. I remember thinking, “Oh, my God.” It’s those kind of instincts that she has. I think that’s what we loved about the script. You didn’t need words to do that, to really know what was going on in the scene. It was so much more beautiful. Just put it out.
JD: Emotion is so much more vivid when you have those moments of truth.
VF: You’re going to project onto it all the feelings that you’re having. It’s nice not to be told what you’re supposed to feel.

AS: One thing that struck me when I was reading the press notes was that you had made your bones doing music videos. When you think about films from music video directors you think flashy visuals, quick edits, and your film is anything but that. Were you consciously trying to go in a different direction?
JD: Absolutely.
VF: But our videos were not that either. Our videos aren’t fast cutting, flashy. They’re pretty conservative in that. So I think we’re inclined that way anyway. We’re sort of anti-short attention span directors.
JD: On the Little Miss Sunshine website there’s a link to a bunch of our videos under "Dayton/Faris fans click here"). The fact is that we were going to be labeled as video directors doing a feature. What’s always important to us is to do whatever feels appropriate for the project we are working on. One thing that attracted us was that it didn’t feel like a music video director’s movie.
VF: It felt like our kind of movie more than anything we’d ever read. I think the funny thing is this movie is probably more representative of the kind of work we love and that we want to do than a lot of our videos.
JD: I think the music video influence was more the soundtrack that we chose. We really loved this and (the band) DeVotchka and the music plays an upfront role. We really let it play loud.
VF: We really didn’t have a lot of music.
JD: No. In that scene with Dwayne you were talking about, we let it be perfectly silent.
VF: Our editor , when we first saw the rough cut of the movie, the rough assembly, she put music in there and it was really...
AS: Overdoing it?
VF: There were some places where she had music and we were like, “Oh, man!”
JD: I think the thing that’s really important is that we do trust the audience to meet the film halfway. We don’t want to spoonfeed people. We know that people can feel plenty of emotion without having to clobber them.
VF: I hope it doesn’t do that. There’s still places where “Oh, we don’t need music right there.” But for the most part we tried not to be too manipulative.

AS: You’ve been doing plenty of interviews promoting Little Miss Sunshine. What do you hope people will take away from those?
JD: I hope people will take away from the press that this is hopefully an emotional movie that is more than just comedy. But that you’re going to be on this roller coaster ride where you’re invested in this family, you care about them.
VF: We do.
JD: And just really strong performances. There are great actors doing great performances all the time. But I do think that it’s pretty rare when six actors all work together as well as these people.

Adam Spector
August 1, 2006

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