Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have been working together for more than 20 years doing videos for R.E.M, the Ramones, Weezer and the Smashing Pumpkins. They’ve shot commercials for Volkswagen, Apple and ESPN. Now their first feature film, “Little Miss Sunshine,” is generating some huge buzz. This ensemble dramedy features Greg Kinnear (“As Good as It Gets), Toni Collette (“About a Boy”), Steve Carell (“The 40 Year Old Virgin”), Alan Arkin (“Slums of Beverly Hills”), Paul Dano (“Fast Food Nation”) and Abigal Breslin (“Signs”).
The film is about a dysfunctional family which goes on a road trip to help Olivia (Breslin) enter the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant. It took Dayton and Faris 5 years (and only 30 days of shooting) to put together. Amazingly, the directors were able to get their first choices for each role.
Bayer sat down with the directors to talk about whether “Little Miss Sunshine” is a comedy or drama, how they work together and having beers with rock stars. They finished each other’s sentences like a married couple.
Good thing they are.
Bayer: How long have you guys been together? Jonathan Dayton: We’ve been together since college. Working relationship first. We worked together for 6 years before we started dating. I think you development a certain working relationship and … Valerie Faris: Respect. We knew each other really well before we got into a relationship. After 6 years we just started doing things together. Dayton: (Our first date) became a date retroactively. We went to see Screamin’ Jay Hawkins because we both loved him and it just became a date.
Bayer: Why does “Little Miss Sunshine” need to be told? Dayton: The story, I don’t think needs to be told in the sense, it’s not so much about the story of this film as it is the interaction of the characters. (To Faris) You may disagree. Faris: No, no, go on. Dayton: The synopsis wasn’t anything we were personally interested in. Faris: If you describe the story as six people who have nothing in common except they are blood related …the story of how a family actually can band together out of love for each other … there is something valuable about that story. You can always go back to your family, even if it’s not your first choice. Dayton: Like Frank (Carell). Faris: It’s the value of family as opposed to family values.
Bayer: Aside from time, what is the difference between directing music videos, commercials and film? Faris: A lot. I think it is really different. I think the thing that is similar is the way you work with your crew, creating an atmosphere on the set and the approach to working. And we had a lot of the same people working with us (that had worked with the couple on previous projects). Dayton: They knew our shorthand. And there is a similarity to working music video. When you’re working with a great band, you don’t have to do a lot of work to get a great performance. It’s their job, it’s their gift that they are amazing performing. In this film, we had to assemble a family, assemble a band. And once that work was done … for the most part we just set them up and let them run. That is the pleasure of all filmmaking. Faris: It was almost like we were shooting a documentary. Like, I need to be here to see everybody and wanting to see things from (Frank’s) perspective since he was new to the family.
Bayer: In a good way, nobody steals the show. Was that a goal? Dayton: Absolutely. Faris: In casting, as well as performance. Dayton: That’s a credit to all parties. We’ll take some credit, but it’s really the actors. Before we cast these six individuals, we were thinking, “Alright, there are going to be six actors in almost every scene; we can probably (deal with) one or maybe two a**holes.” … There are real games that are played. This was just the most boringly harmonious (shoot). Faris: No one steals the show, but everyone has their moment.
Dayton: Was there blue or green screen (special effects) used for the driving scenes? Dayton: Never. Faris: Not at all. Dayton: We suffered. It was grueling and I thanked our actors every day. … (It’s) that feeling that everyone has, when they’re in a car with their family … Faris: And it was uncomfortable, they were really uncomfortable, and I think that adds to the tone.
Bayer: On the set, did the nine steps (Kinnear’s character has a nine-step program to make someone a winner) ever expand? Faris: Greg at one point had this idea, to end the movie — the ending of the movie was always a little up in the air. We didn’t like ending in the script, we shot it and knew instantly that we couldn’t use it — Greg was trying to figure out a tenth step. It just didn’t work for the movie.
Bayer: If there is still a Blockbuster Video in a couple of years, where does “Little Miss Sunshine” go, comedy or drama? Faris: That’s a clever way of wording it. Dayton: Yeah … alternative. Faris: I would have to say comedy. Dayton: But, it’s a good question, and I’m glad you asked it and I think if it has to sit on a shelf that’s where you put it but I hope people will appreciate (the drama) … Faris: Hopefully that’s the surprise. I think if I came into it thinking it’s a drama I might miss a lot of the humor. I hope, I hope, there is no Blockbuster.
Bayer: Hollywood is about connections. You did a short with Kevin Connolly (Eric from “Entourage”). Any chance of you guys showing up on “Entourage”? Dayton: No. Faris: We weren’t made for TV. Dayton: We did “Mr. Show” and that was really fun, but TV is a producer/writer medium. Faris: I don’t like things about Hollywood. I couldn’t watch “Project Greenlight.” Dayton: And I don’t watch “Entourage” because I don’t want to be reminded … Faris: That is an aspect of what we do. We live in Los Angeles, but I think we’ve made it a point of living as far outside … Dayton: We’re on the edge of the planet there.
Bayer: Last question, one of my Atlanta friends is a huge R.E.M. fan, any stories? Dayton: You know what we have that has to get out, we have a documentary we made during the Monster tour called “Rough Cut.” It’s an amazing documentary, Bill Barry’s last tour with them. Faris: Our first video with them was for their EP “Chronic Town.” The video will hopefully never be seen. We had no idea what we were doing. We brought a turntable, put the record on the turntable and I would put the needle down on the song while John would film on this monster video camera. Has to be one of the worst videos ever made. And we made friends with them after that, which is a miracle.