John Knoll Interview

Music video auteurs Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris on their stunning feature film debut

Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris have been elite music video and commercial directors for almost twenty years. The husband and wife team have made their mark on popular culture, shooting everyone from Janet Jackson to The Red Hot Chili Peppers. They finally make their foray into feature films with an absolutely fantastic first effort, Little Miss Sunshine. The film tells the story of a young girl's (Abigail Breslin) dream to win a beauty pageant in California. Her dysfunctional family (Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell, Alan Arkin, and Paul Dano) join her in their tiny VW Mini-Bus. While most video directors fail dramatically in their narrative efforts, Dayton and Faris make an Oscar worthy film.

This is your first feature film. We've seen hits and misses when directors move from music videos to narrative features. You two have taken a while for your initial effort. Why this film and why did it took such a long time to get released?

Valerie Faris: Oh, no. It was actually pretty quick once we started to film. It was exactly a year ago that we shot it; the hard part was getting it made. We went to Sundance with it and sold it.

Jonathan Dayton: We finished it four days before it screened. It was nice because we enjoyed making videos, and commercials, and documentaries and while we wanted to do a feature, it wasn't something that we had to do in the abstract. We really wanted to find the right script, and when we read this, we knew this was the project for us. It wasn't a music video director's piece. We were hopefully excited about taking it on, and knowing that performances were going to be the challenge, not some visual trickery.

How did the script come your way?

Valerie Faris: Ron Yerxa, and Albert Berger, two producers whom we've known for a while - they produced Election and Albert produced "Crumb." We were always interested in working with them, and they had given us a few scripts that we weren't crazy about, and then they gave us this one. When we first read the storyline, we were like, "I don't know. Beauty pageant?" It just sounded bad.

Jonathan Dayton: "Road movie? Dysfunctional family?" What's great about the script is that it takes this genre and turns it on its ear. That really meant a lot to us.

Valerie Faris: I never even felt so much like we were doing a genre film. I just felt like it was a bunch of characters that I really felt I loved, and wanted to see come to life. In fact, we hardly approached this like we were doing a comedy. We weren't laughing on the set after each take. It was more of approaching it from the kind of comedy we like, which is where the comedy comes from the kind of characters, and the situations where you're really identifying with them.

Weren't you at first tempted to do your own script or your own story?

Valerie Faris: It took too long (laughs).

Jonathan Dayton: I have a lot of respect for writing, and while I enjoy it, there are people who are better at it than I am.

Valerie Faris: Michael's [Arndt] a really disciplined, hard-working writer. We'd worked with other writers developing things, but we worked with Michael a little on the script just to trim it down. We had a great time with him. He's just a very disciplined guy. He knows film inside and out, and I guess it's just that we clicked. It was just a good pairing for us.

Can you talk about the casting, especially where Steve Carell is concerned? He shot this before The 40 Year Old Virgin and turns in a brilliant performance?

Jonathan Dayton: We always felt that Steve was an incredibly smart actor, even when he took on the silliest of roles. He always keeps it fresh. He demands that of himself. We were very excited about throwing him this role, which was so different, because we knew that he would rise to the occasion. It was a very exciting thing. I was really happy that he hadn't done something like this.

Valerie Faris: The ironic thing is that Steve was the biggest leap for us. During production, he was the one that we knew the least about in terms about doing this kind of role, but the minute we started rehearsing with him, it was just clear that it was going to be easy in that sense.

Jonathan Dayton: He was so serious about the role. He's one of those great performers that's very funny, but doesn't need to be funny every moment. There's no neediness there. He was just very focused, like the rest of the cast, and that made for a great set. They were really aimed at making the movie.

Was this cast pretty much the cast that you had wanted?

Jonathan Dayton: Pretty much.

Valerie Faris: Steve we hadn't thought of in the role until right before, a couple months before we starting shooting. Greg (Kinnear) we always thought of in the Richard role. With Toni (Collette), we had met a lot of great actresses, and Toni popped up, and we thought, "Oh my God, she's perfect for this." Abigail (Breslin) we had actually found, and Paul (Dano) we had found two years prior to starting production. We were just worried that they'd get too old, but luckily they stunted their growth somehow.

Jonathan Dayton: We had coffee and cigarettes for all of them.

How did you find Abigail Breslin? She's a brilliant young actress and really great in this film.

Jonathan Dayton: We had this great casting team. They launched this international search. Every country where they speak English, they went to. Abby was the only person that we found that we felt was right.

Valerie Faris: She was six-years-old when we first auditioned her, and we thought that she was almost too young, but she was great. She was in Signs when she was four.

Jonathan Dayton: Her gift is that she's still a child. She's not like a mini-adult. She's a child who's smart. It's everything for that role, and we were just so happy. If Olive wasn't right, you have nothing.

We've heard that Alan Arkin was very sceptical about having two directors. What was he like?

Valerie Faris: (laughs) I can only say that we had jitters, first even talking with him on the phone. "God, it's Alan Arkin."

Jonathan Dayton: We had so loved his work; we'd grown up with it. We first thought that he was too young for the role, but then we realized, "Come on, it's Alan Arkin. He'll do it. My God." He was definitely the one that said, "Two directors?" He was really suspicious.

Valerie Faris: "How does this work?" We were nervous the first couple of days. "Is Alan just laughing at us? Does he just think that this is a joke?" I actually think that the rehearsal process was the key.

Can you talk about the bus scenes? It's funny because you can actually see them jumping in every single time. How did you film that?

Jonathan Dayton: We had a stunt coordinator there to make sure everyone was safe, but what was so beautiful was that everyone said, "Oh, I'm going to do it. No stunt doubles." The actors were so committed, and they loved what they were doing, and they were just eager to dive in.

Valerie Faris: Greg [Kinnear] did all the driving pretty much. There are a couple of shots where its second-unit work, and a little bit of stunt-driving when they get to the pageant, but for the most part Greg was driving, sometimes it was a stick, sometimes it was an automatic. He was on the freeway with the whole cast, and us in the back, and the cameraman.

You were actually in the van?

Jonathan Dayton: In the van, yeah. We were filming out the front window looking back at the car. We were on a tow unit. We realized pretty early on that the van was another character in the film, and in fact the ending originally didn't have them pushing the van, but we eventually realized that after the pageant, you needed to have one last connection with that van, that tells you how far the family has come. We didn't want to have that Disney ending. We didn't want it to get all sweet and syrupy.

Was the van always a part of the script?

Jonathan Dayton: Oh yeah.

Valerie Faris: They should do a VW van documentary story because so many families have stories. I went across Europe in a VW camper with my parents, and then we had a passenger van that broke down and that we had to push it. Michael (Arndt), the writer, swears that the door fell off his van, and that's where that came from.

Jonathan Dayton: When we first started dating, I had a VW van. I won't say anything more.

Did you immerse yourselves in the world of child beauty pageants?

Jonathan Dayton: It was very important to us that the film not be about pageants. It's about being out of place, it's about not knowing where you're going to end up.

Valerie Faris: It's about the contest of life. The Richard character always feels like he's being put to the test. You feel like he's trying so hard, and that everything is a test. The final test is this contest where he has no control over it, but to see him take over, and defend her is a really great thing. For us, the beauty pageant was a really clear contest, and a context to put this beautiful, little girl in contrast to girls that are brought up to be beautiful.

What was it like filming the pageant? Were all the girls actresses?

Jonathan Dayton: This is really important, there were no directions. Those were real pageant girls, done up by their mothers. They brought all their own equipment. They brought every aspect of that. It's tricky here, because this is a community that has been beaten up so much, and they were really paranoid.

Valerie Faris: Very sensitive.

Jonathan Dayton: Our first sentence to them was, "Okay, this is not going to be Jean-Benet Ramsey's," just to get it out on the table, because they know.

Valerie Faris: When we did the bathing suit contest. We said, "Okay do what you do in a bathing suit contest." So we get one of the moms to organize this. They told us, "Well, this is how we do it," and they all came out just to hit their poses, and she comes out pigeon-toed, and that was just the way it happened.

Jonathan Dayton: Our point is not to make a big editorial statement about beauty pageants, it's to depict it as honestly as we can and then to let the audience make their judgment.

Are you worried about the summer release date? Would it have played better in the fall? I think this film is definitely Oscar worthy, especially for the performances and screenplay...

Valerie Faris: That's really nice. I hope it deserves that.

Jonathan Dayton: It's so tricky. It's certainly something we know very little about, but I think it's fun that this is counter programming to all the big blockbusters. When you're sick of all these effects-filled movies, you can have this little engine that could hopefully. As far as people remembering some of these performances in the fall, I hope they do. I really hope they do because these people really worked hard.

What are you two working on now?

Jonathan Dayton: We have a couple of projects that we're working on that are being written, but unfortunately it's going to take forever. We have a Red Hot Chili Peppers video that's coming up next month, and we'll continue to do other things as we nurture these films along.

Valerie Faris: I think that we see ourselves doing more small films. That's the way we like working.

Little Miss Sunshine is in limited theaters Friday, July 26th, and is rated 'R' for language, some sex and drug content.