August 04 2006
Independent Filmmakers Alliance Newsletter
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In this issue, IFA writer Lisa Johnson talks with Little Miss Sunshine directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton about their critically-aclaimed Indie film.

Little Miss Sunshine is a Family Affair
By Lisa Johnson

Above; Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton on the set of Little Miss Sunshine. Photo credit: Eric Lee. Courtesy of Fox Studios.

After collaborating on more than 75 film, television, commercial and music video projects, the husband and wife directing team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton has finally released their first feature, and what a film it is. Some critics have already christened Little Miss Sunshine ’the best comedy of the year.’

The couple has directed videos for musical artists such as REM, Macy Gray, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane’s Addiction, The Smashing Pumpkins, Janet Jackson, Oasis, Weezer and the Ramones, as well as commercials for VW, Sony Play Station, Gap, Target, Ikea, Apple and ESPN. Still, the prospect of directing an offbeat family comedy was new to them.

Working with such a large, accomplished cast all at once was unique to them as well. They cast Greg Kinnear as the father, a failed motivational speaker; Toni Collette as a harried, decidedly middleclass mom; Steve Carell as her gay, suicidal brother; Alan Arkin as the foul-mouthed, drug-snorting grandpa; Paul Dano as the nihilistic teenage brother and nine- year-old Abigail Breslin played the eternally optimistic title character. A script by Michael Arndt (his first ever to be produced) put them all together in a VW minibus, on their way from New Mexico to California for a kiddie beauty pageant. But this is far from your basic family road trip movie.

“I don’t want to be your family! I hate you people! I hate you! Divorce! Bankrupt! Suicide! You’re losers!” shouts teenage brother Dwayne. The Brady Bunch this ain’t.

The directors sat down with IFA to discuss keeping their cool and their family together while working on this truly original project.

IFA: It’s going to be a surprise to most viewers to find out that A: You’re married, and B: This is your first feature film. You took a very seasoned approach. Tell us about your careers leading up to this.

Jonathan: Well, we’ve worked together for over 20 years, so we’ve had a lot of time to explore different things together. We’ve done documentaries, and we’ve done music videos and commercials, so it was really exciting to have an hour and a half to explore things that you never can do in a short film. Valerie: Not only that, but we had experience together as parents, and I feel like that was a big part of why we related to this material so much, both as being kids in a family, and then also being parents. So, I think a lot of our own experience was sort of infused into the story, and the film itself. I know it’s odd to have a husband and wife directing team, but in some ways it makes a lot of sense, because a production is often like raising a family. We sort of cover things that way - a little like mom and dad running around trying to take care of all the problems and keep everything moving. Jonathan: And make sure everyone eats their vegetables.

IFA: So which came first, the personal relationship or the professional one?

Jonathan: That’s the secret. We worked together for years before we actually started dating, and I think that was the secret in just developing good work habits, and then that carried on into our married life. Valerie: Well, we spent so much time together. Before we dated, we were spending 18- hour days together. So, we knew each other really well. It wasn’t like a sort of cavalier, “Hey, let’s just start dating.” It was more like, “We know each other, and we still like each other. We know each other really well, and we still get along” and then it kind of just happened.

IFA: What a beautiful story! And now you have three kids?

Jonathan: We do have three kids. We have twin boys who are ten, and a 13-year-old girl, so it’s a full house.

IFA: So when you’re filming, do your kids come along to the location, or how do you work that? Valerie: Well, It’s interesting. On the film they were around a little bit, and our days ended at a reasonable hour, so we got to see them during the process of filming. But having them around the set was hard. We realized that when you’re on a set you are so focused. I didn’t realize how focused I was until my kids came to visit on the set, and I realized, “I can’t deal with them right now. I can’t handle their issues. I’m dealing with this other family right now.” So it was interesting. We didn’t have them or a lot of other kids around. It was a very focused set. I think you kind of have to run it that way. I couldn’t multi-task to that degree.

IFA: This film has an amazing cast. How did that come about?

Jonathan: We put together this cast. The biggest job a director does is to assemble the cast. We had five producers and two directors, and we all agreed that this was the perfect group. And we were very lucky, because, you know, you may want someone for your movie, but the chances of getting them are pretty rare, and the fact that they are all available at once? That almost never happens. It seemed to be this harmonic convergence of talent. Valerie: And I think they all loved the material too. They were all there for the right reasons, and that made a huge difference. Probably the most surprising person was Steve, because our neighbor had worked with him on The Office, and we were looking for somebody for that part, and our neighbor said, ’Oh, you guys would love Steve Carell. You’ve got to talk to him. You should meet him.” And we know of him, but we probably wouldn’t have thought of him for that role, but then when we met him, it was just obvious he was the guy.

IFA: The sets looked extremely lived-in, a far cry from the pristine homes we usually see in films. That authenticity was a nice touch.

Jonathan: Thank you for saying that. That was important to us. Valerie: That’s good to hear. I hate the perfect home set. I know, because we have three kids and our house is messy. I mean, I never want anyone to come over and visit unannounced. Everybody’s home has that stack of mail, the clutter. . .

This couple has been able to successfully leave the clutter at home, to produce an amazingly crisp film with just the right amount of looseness. Theirs is a collaboration that will doubtless continue.

From left to right; Alan Arkin, Steve Carell, Paul Dano, Abigail Breslin, Toni Collette and Greg Kinnear. Photo credit: Eric Lee. Courtesy of Fox Studios.

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