Let the Sunshine in
An interview with directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
These days, the “music video helmer-turned-feature director” has become a Hollywood cliché. But Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris don’t fit the stereotypical mold. For starters, they’re married. Secondly, instead of picking some hip, quickly edited action flick, the couple settled on the quirky indie comedy Little Miss Sunshine as their debut feature.
Way back in 1983, Dayton and Faris were in charge of a little show on MTV called “The Cutting Edge.” The pioneering alternative music showcase introduced viewers to the likes of Jonathan Richman, X, The Smithereens, Tom Waits and R.E.M. After that, they directed videos by such personalities as Paula Abdul, Janet Jackson, R.E.M., The Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Weezer. Instead of snapping at the shiny lure of Hollywood (they turned down gigs for The Mod Squad and Bad Boys II), the couple spent the last five years developing Sunshine, luring such noted actors as Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin and Steve Carell to the low-budget project.
The gamble apparently paid off. Earlier this year, Little Miss Sunshine stunned Sundance Film Fest audiences, landing a record $10.5 million distribution deal. On the dawn of their film’s breakout release, the Alibi chatted with the dynamic duo.
This was a long-brewing project. How did you guys get started with it?
JD: Well, we’d been reading scripts for years trying to find the right blend of elements. Some producers, Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who had produced Election, sent us the script. It was just everything we wanted. It had a great sense of humor, but there was a real humanity in the characters. It was odd because, on the surface, it seemed like something we would really avoid: dysfunctional family, road trip, beauty pageant climax. It was not, on paper, what we wanted at all. But, in reading it, it just came to life.
As a couple of pioneers in the field, what do you think about today’s Hollywood chain of command in which music video directors are almost immediately turned into feature film directors?
VF: I think some video directors have made very good films, so I understand why there’s that interest. It’s probably going to change because music video is kind of a dying business.
JD: They’re not the force they used to be.
VF: No. But I think part of it was that we were very picky about the material. We didn’t want to do a movie that was like a music video. We wanted to do a movie that was like movies we’ve always loved. The other thing was we were raising a family, and we wouldn’t want to make a movie that would take us away from our family unless it was something we absolutely loved.
JD: Videos and commercials are very family-friendly.
VF: Short-term commitment.
You wound up doing this film without studio help. How important was Sundance?
VF: That was sort of the moment on this film, the defining moment for us. Up until that point, we all believed in it: the producers, Jonathan and I, all the actors, they did the film for nothing. So it was this labor of love. Although we all believed in it, we had no idea if it would catch on, find an audience. Sundance was the first time we were showing it to a large audience. In addition to all the studios that might be interested in buying it, there were critics there, other filmmakers. It was a very stressful evening.
You came out of Sundance with a record sale. Up until now that’s been sort of a curse. Any pressure?
VF: I’m hoping that it’s already become a moot point. I know so many films come out and don’t do well, so I don’t know why there’s so much focus on those couple of films that came out of Sundance that didn’t live up to their expectations. There’s hundreds of movies that don’t live up to that.
JD: Anyone can fail!
VF: The majority of films do fail. But, so far, the response to this film has been great.
JD: It was definitely a boost to have the attention at Sundance. But now we hope things can settle down and that it can really be a word-of-mouth, small movie--which is really what it is. We were very fortunate to get some very experienced and celebrated actors in it. But our hope is that there will be good word of mouth and that, slowly but surely, people will go to see it. We don’t want to hype the movie. It’s better if people discover it.
You really do have an amazing cast. How did those people get involved?
VF: First they read the script, then we had a conversation with them and talked about how we saw this group, how we saw the tone of the movie and how we were going to approach it. Greg [Kinnear] was somebody we met with early on and always thought of him for the part of Richard. Steve Carell was somebody who came up much later in this whole five-year process. Once we had the green light, we met with Steve and loved him and offered him the part. Actually, the cast came together very quickly once we had a start date and we could make real offers.
JD: Actually, this was kind of a unique opportunity for all of us, and I think the actors appreciated the chance to do something that was hopefully comedic but also had an emotional life. It was not a pure comedy. As directors, the real job was to find actors that could handle both elements. There are very few people who can do that.
Carell seems like an interesting choice. He’s playing a bit against the type he’s established up until now.
JD: We were very excited by showing an aspect of Steve that people hadn’t seen before. He did that not knowing he was gonna become the juggernaut that he became.
VF: We thought he was gonna become our discovery. “We found this great actor. He’s so funny!”
How did the film wind up being set in Albuquerque?
JD: Originally, the film took place on a trip from Maryland to Florida. We wanted to, for various reasons, have it finish in Los Angeles. We took a string that was 800 miles long on the map and kind of circled around and looked at various starting points. We thought Albuquerque just felt like a good location.
VF: And we knew we had to shoot a lot of the driving scenes in the L.A. area, so we tried to think what route could we match by shooting in Los Angeles. We figured the Southwest. It wasn’t so much by design, but by necessity. But Albuquerque, I think, actually is a good place for them. There’s something ... I don’t know. I haven’t really spent a lot of time there. What did you think?
I thought it worked. Albuquerque is, in many ways, a very ordinary suburban town.
JD: We certainly didn’t, in any way, want to make fun of suburbs or small towns. We just wanted to make a snapshot of a modern, struggling middle-class family.