Little Miss Sunshine is a Family Affair
By Lisa Johnson
Faris and Jonathan Dayton on the set of Little
Miss Sunshine. Photo credit: Eric Lee. Courtesy of
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
The couple has directed videos for musical artists
such as REM, Macy Gray, The Red Hot Chili
Peppers, Janes 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 dont want to be your family! I hate you people! I
hate you! Divorce! Bankrupt! Suicide! Youre losers!
shouts teenage brother Dwayne. The Brady Bunch
The directors sat down with IFA to discuss keeping
their cool and their family together while working on
this truly original project.
IFA: Its going to be a surprise to most
viewers to find out that A: Youre 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, weve worked together for
over 20 years, so weve had a lot of time to explore
different things together. Weve done documentaries,
and weve 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 its 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
IFA: So which came first, the personal
relationship or the professional one?
Jonathan: Thats 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
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 wasnt like a sort of cavalier, Hey, lets 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 its
a full house.
IFA: So when youre filming, do your kids
come along to the location, or how do you work that?
Valerie: Well, Its interesting. On the film
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 youre on a set you
are so focused. I didnt realize how focused I was
until my kids came to visit on the set, and I
realized, I cant deal with them right now. I cant
handle their issues. Im dealing with this other family
right now. So it was interesting. We didnt 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 couldnt 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. Youve got to talk to him. You should meet
him. And we know of him, but we probably wouldnt
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: Thats 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.
Everybodys 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
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