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Interview with "Little Miss Sunshine" Directors Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton

by Kim Voynar

When "Little Miss Sunshine"­­ debuted at Sundance earlier this year, it was one of the most buzzed-about films at the fest, partly because Steve Carrell, fresh off the success of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," was in the film, and partly because, well, it’s just a funny movie. Audiences at film festivals routinely subject themselves to endless war documentaries, serious relationship dramas, and bizarre experimental films, and sometimes, it’s just nice to sit back and watch a really well-crafted comedy. Husband-and-wife directing team Jonathon Dayton and Valerie Faris were in Seattle recently on their press tour, and very graciously took the time to sit down to chat about their film. They were a lot of fun, but keeping up with them as they riffed off each other and completed each other’s thoughts made for a wild ride. Read on…

Kim Voynar: Before you did “Little Miss Sunshine,” you were primarily known as music video directors. Out of all the films you could have chosen for your first feature, why this film?

Jonathon Dayton: The script spoke to us on every level. First and foremost, it was a film we’d want to see. I mean, it’s an interesting thing. A lot of times I would make a commercial or a video that, of course I want to see but I’m interested in the technique. But you can do that in a month. A film is such a total commitment of time and energy that you have to love it with every ounce.

Valerie Faris: And we also feel like, why do a film if it’s not what you love about film?

JD: But you know, it’s weird, because I hadn’t thought of it until just now, but it’s not only that we make a movie that we want to see, at least for me. It’s that I want to make the movie that was like my absolute favorite movie –-

VF: Yeah! Well, we’re trying to, we’re trying to do that –

JD: I’m not saying we achieved that fully. But there are certain movies, I’m sure you’ve had this, where you come out of the theater and you’re just like, Oh my god! I’d forgotten that movies could even do that to me, that I’m moved, I laughed – When I think of some of the great Hal Ashton movies – When I saw “Coming Home,” I was so blown away. That’s what you make movies for.

KV: But there’s that fine line between moving people and manipulating people emotionally.

VF: Exactly!

JD: Right, right. And that’s why I didn’t like “The Deer Hunter,” because I felt they were pulverizing us with these sort of cheap -- You know, if you do a Russian Roulette scene, you may be devastated by it, but I don’t see that as great filmmaking. So I think our sights were pretty high when we went to do this.

VF: It’s hard to judge, when you’re making it … would this be a film that I would love. I can’t tell –

JD: (surprised) Oh, really?

KV: But you knew from the script, right? Because the script must have touched you on some level.

VF: Right, right, and then I loved the actors, and it felt really right the whole time. But I don’t know how I would feel if I went to see this movie and it wasn’t mine.

KV: So did the script change at all from the time it first landed in your laps until you went into production?

JD: It changed some --

VF: No, the story was basically the same. We tried to do a lot of the editing that we felt would happen anyway at the script stage. And we worked a lot on the Richard character.

KV: So you measured twice, cut once.

J D: We knew we had thirty days to do this, so we had to be lean and mean. We didn’t want to shoot a whole scene and go, never mind.

KV: Especially when you’re shooting in the desert in Arizona.

J D: Yeah, yeah, oh God!

VF: It was trying. These were hard scenes for everybody. Most of the scenes there were six people in the scene.

KV: In a van, in the desert.

VF: Yeah, in the heat.

JD: In a way it’s weird, there’s certain things we’ve discovered since shooting -- we’ve since heard little stories about how hot it was, but at the time, everyone was really just, whatever it takes. There were no complaints. Val and I were constantly trying to figure out how to make it more comfortable for the actors. After the first day we asked the van prep people to drill a hole in the bottom of the van and pump air conditioning in there.

VF: We could only do that on the trailer.

JD: And we had our assistant run out to Brookstone and get them all their own personal fans. All these little things, trying to make, even if it was just a gesture, just to acknowledge that we understood it was really hot.

VF: I actually love working fast like that. You don’t feel this incredible weight. There’s not a lot of time wasted with people just standing around. It was really like, we’re here to work.

KV: So how is the dynamic between the two of you – you’re married –

JD: Married, three children.

KV: So when you’re working together, and you’re living together, and you’re around each other 24/7, you have to really like each other or you couldn’t tolerate that, obviously. But what I’m interested in is the dynamic between you when you’re working together. Do you bring your work fights home?

VF: With this film, we had so much time to prepare for shooting this movie. All the years we were trying to get this movie made – it was five years to the end of shooting. But in the prep years we spent a lot of time scoring the scenes, breaking it down, working through the scenes, acting things out, we work-shopped some of the scenes. So we’d sort of put ourselves through the paces with the whole film. We did our homework, and we went through a lot of the arguments at home, or at work, but with nobody else around. And that’s sort of how we work, we try to have this totally unified vision, and then on the set it’s fun.

KV: So by the time you reach the stage of actually shooting, you’ve worked all that out.

JD: We’ve had our arguments, and we’re done. And now there’s a double-barrel shotgun, and it’s really fun because there’s just an energy from the two of us with the same agenda that’s really fun.

KV: So by the time you actually got to shooting, you were just immersed in it.

JD: Yeah, yeah. We – it was probably a really unwise thing to do, but we just stopped developing any other features. We just pursued “Little Miss Sunshine,” which nobody ever does.

VF: And our agent, who stuck with us for ten years, when we turned other movies down, and just didn’t – we didn’t want to do a feature for the sake of doing a feature. And he stuck with us through us through five years of “Little Miss Sunshine.”

KV: And now I bet he’s very happy he did.

JD: Well, I hope he is.

VF: I think he’s very happy. We used to say, I’m not sure if I’m happy for us, or for him, that this film is finally getting some attention.

KV: I’d like to talk about the casting for a minute. I read in the production notes that you essentially got your dream cast for the film. Any disagreement about what that dream cast was?

JD: No, no. We had a lot of really great actors. And we had – I don’t want to get heavily into this, but you probably know we were at Focus Features for a while before we left and did it independently. There we had arguments all the time.

KV: About?

JD: Just about actors.

KV: They wanted big names instead of character actors?

JD: Yeah. They wanted –

VF: --their business is foreign sales. So, I don’t know what they ever understood what the film was exactly, they just wanted big names for it to make business sense.

JD: They wanted big, big marquee names.

VF: And it’s not that they’re crazy, that’s just how they make films.

JD: And we needed to obviously know who we wanted, even if it wasn’t ever gonna happen, we felt like if we were going to argue with them, we needed to be able to say: No, not this one -- this one. And so when we finally got financing from one of our producers – it really helps when one of your producers is independently wealthy.

VF: And the two of us, and our producers, had been talking about casting for so long that it was pretty easy once we had the money and we had a start date to say, okay, let’s offer it to Greg Kinnear. We’ve met with him, we’ve talked with him before, we think he’s perfect –

JD: --Sold! And then Toni Collette, and Alan Arkin, and down the line, and the two kids.

VF: And Steve, in some ways, was the biggest leap for the producers.

KV: Right, because he wasn’t a big star yet.

JD: He wasn’t a big star, but it wasn’t that they were against him at all, they just wanted us to explain why we thought he was good. And there were rumbles already about his potential.

KV: And then what a bonus it was for you guys that “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” took off like a skyrocket, which had to boost your film.

JD: Oh, my god. It was great.

KV: I want talk about child beauty pageants: How you really feel about them, and how you tried to convey them in the film.

VF: When we first heard about the storyline of this script, you know: Family road trip movie about a family taking their little daughter to a beauty pageant, we were like, oh, uh, not interested. We don’t really want to delve into that whole world.

But then we read the script, and we loved it so much, and we realized the pageant is just kind of representative of the whole world, and the way we allow ourselves to be judged, and how wrong that is. And what the story really expresses is that no one should be judged or do anything for someone else’s approval.

So for us the issue was, how are we going to present this pageant in a way that can be as neutral as possible. For the most part, anyone who’s never seen what really goes on there, they’re going to be shocked by it. It’s a pretty shocking little subculture. But our goal was to try to just present it authentically, to just get real girls who do what they really do – we didn’t tell them when to smile, we didn’t tell them how to stand, we didn’t tell them anything.

KV: So the other little girls in the pageant are all real girls who compete in these child beauty pageants?

JD: Yeah, and they’re doing their acts, with their moms there.

KV: So how did you convince them to be in a movie that’s pretty much anti-beauty pageant?

VF: I think it’s anti-contest period.

JD: Yeah, yeah, but we explained – we didn’t let them read the script, but we completely filled them in on every aspect of the events that led the family here. This is really about a family that’s coming to an event they know nothing about. And because they were doing what they do, and I think they were okay with it. Now it’s going to be hard, no doubt, when they see this with an audience, and the audience gasps, and maybe laughs at certain times, it’s going to be hard.

VF: We did pick girls who we thought were really professional, who do this all the time, who are really good at what they do. I don’t really approve of it, but they were talented – they could sing, they could dance, or they were gymnasts. So we weren’t really trying to make them look bad. We tried to present it like: It’s a little bit of a talent show, a little bit of a costume ball. It is what it is.

KV: But in a way it’s almost worse that they were so polished and professional, because, especially as the mother of three girls, I was watching those scenes and thinking, my god, what are they putting these little girls through to get them to this level?

VF: But that is the truth – that they are put through a lot. They’re on that circuit every weekend. And I think it was important to have a contrast between Olive, who really didn’t have any experience with these things, and then those girls, who were very experienced.

JD: We talked to the cast about this – This movie is about life as a contest, or life as a dance. And ultimately, we hope, they find the pleasure in just the dance.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1897
originally posted: 07/26/06 20:23:33
last updated: 09/12/06 07:32:50
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