Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton are the dreamiest filmmaking couple on the scene. Their directorial debut, "Little Miss Sunshine," opens in limited engagement July 26th. Read on to hear them talk to Rotten Tomatoes’ staffer Michael Campos-Quinn about the movie, being married, and making it big.
There’s a scene in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" in which the 10th century King Arthur and his servant Patsy come across a group of anarchists digging around in the mud and spouting post-Marxist utopian theories. The beauty of such quintessentially Python humor is that even though the filmmakers might agree with these proto-radicals, they also manage to embrace the futility of wishing for a simple map to what is really a chaotic and incomprehensible world; knowing full well that we’re always going to be going to hell in a handbasket, they let loose and everyone has a good laugh.
In its more indie moments, Valerie Faris‘ and Jonathan Dayton‘s debut feature film, "Little Miss Sunshine," shares something of this sense that the world, society, et al., is sometimes more in control than we are. But where the Pythons basked in the absurd and looked to French existentialism for explanations of why we are, this husband and wife directorial team offer a bit more redemptive look at the state of life as the 21st century lurches into gear. "Little Miss Sunshine" follows the Hoover family as they drive pell-mell from sunny Albuquerque to sunny Redondo Beach to reach the Little Miss Sunshine beauty contest in which the youngest Hoover, Olivia, is an unlikely contestant. Tension, personal growth, and comedy ensue.
At once road movie, family dramedy, and bizarre hallucination (the finale beauty pageant is pure middle-America psychedelica), "Little Miss Sunshine" is squarely in traditional American territory. Its working-to-middle-class heroes experience all the disappointments and frustrations of making ends meet in a culture itself just now learning to cope with fallibility and lowered expectations (at one especially poignant moment, the entire family stands in a hospital lobby, dejected, while a Ronco infomercial blathers on, the TV screen half in and half out of frame). Somehow, though, the flat irony that postmodern filmmakers and artists often rely on to parody consumer society never morphs into cynicism or hopelessness. The film only rarely makes a fuss of what it implies, and the real draw is watching a household with all the quirks most families try to hide relate to one another in a more or less realistic way.
Faris and Dayton have had their hands in the means of pop culture production since the inception of MTV in the early eighties, and have fostered an "indie" aura even in the biggest-budget productions. They’ve also had their eye on film, art, and music history since their careers took off together. Their many music videos include Smashing Pumpkins and Red Hot Chili Peppers numbers that recreate the silent masterpieces "A Trip to the Moon" (1902) and "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920); a glance at any contemporary photography in a gallery or museum will find echoes in "Little Miss Sunshine’s" cinematography. Like a more consumable "Me, You, and Everyone We Know," "Little Miss Sunshine" draws on all sorts of pop-art-indie references to offer its redemptive Americana.
To top it all off, the pair are unbelievably cute together and dress more like hip twenty-somethings than most parents with three kids. I spoke with them about the film, what they learned at the movies, and the art of living in America.
Rotten Tomatoes: Who first latched onto the story?
Valerie Faris: Well, we got if from these two producers who we’d been getting scripts from for a while, Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who produced "Election." They had met Michael Arndt, the screenwriter, when they were shooting "Election." They gave us the script and I read it first, and I’d never read anything I liked so much, and we’d been reading scripts for like fiver years. And Jonathan read it and I just remember him in the other room reading it and laughing. I thought, "How often do you laugh out loud when you’re reading a script?"
Jonathan Dayton: And also, when do you read a script in one sitting? It’s just so rare…
VF: When you just… It was such a light script, it wasn’t one of these things when scripts have these loo-oong descriptions, you know.
RT: Poorly written…
VF: Over-written. Or they’re over written in some ways and underwritten in others. It felt like there was a lot of really good work put into this, and it was done. We did do work on it, but there was really so much there.
RT: You say you’d been looking for a while for something to work on, for a feature. Was it just a natural progression from what you’d been doing?
JD: It’s funny because this is not at all, on the surface at least, what we were looking for. We didn’t really want to tell a story of a dysfunctional family or a road movie even, or certainly not anything to do with kids’ beauty pageants. But it was the characters that really drew us in. And also, it felt very truthful and just the mixture of humor and real poignancy seems rare. And a challenge, really, tonally to pull this off, it seemed like a really hard thing. And that was appealing.
RT: A lot of your videos and commercials have a strong sense of story and character, but how was that transition, going from a really small medium to an hour and a half?
VF: In a way, we keep likening it to getting a great group of musicians together and getting them rehearsed, so they know how to play together, and they all play a different part. It’s really an incredible thing in a film where each scene is like its own little movie. When you’ve got great actors, the way they interact, it’s actually easier than a commercial where every moment, you’ve got to direct a moment out of somebody. You don’t have to do that in a film. If you set it up right, and they know what they’re doing, and you know what you want, it really is much more like magic than manual labor.
JD: Magic versus manual labor! I like that!
RT: There are scenes in the film that are their own little capsules, that exist on their own.
JD: It’s an ensemble cast, but it’s really an ensemble effort, because you have all the actors giving, and then the writer, and then our efforts and the crew. I think that’s really the director’s job, to get everyone on the same page, cheer them on, and then jump out of the way. And not feel like you have to impose your will at every moment. Alan Arkin, frankly, was quite nervous about working with us.
VF: First time directors, a couple, commercials. [laughs]
JD: And it’s funny, because we were nervous about working with him! But for different reasons; we respected his work so much. But it felt like we pretty quickly grew to understand that he saw that we were going to speak with one voice, and that we were also interested in what he would to bring to it, that it wasn’t just…
VF: Trying to prove something. A lot of times, on your first film, it’s your chance to show everything you can do. Luckily because we’ve had so many years of working together, those tendencies have been taken care of earlier. I think, because we’re older, and we’ve done it for a while, we have a certain confidence level. And when you hire great actors, it’s so pleasing to see them bring something to it, sometimes what you didn’t expect, and sometimes exactly what you had in mind. With these actors, I just felt most of the time, they were really right where we hoped they would be. And if there were surprises, they were usually really amazing. [laughing] Casting, it’s like a family where you get to pick the family members.
RT: And your relationship is interesting too. The most I’ve ever done is helped carry my girlfriend’s camera a couple of times… [everyone laughs] So on the set, you’ve said that you speak with one voice, it seems like you’ve got an idea of what you want and you agree on it. You’re meshing two personalities in the film.
JD: We argue plenty. It’s just that when we’re on the set, it’s time to carry out something that you’ve planned prior to getting there.
VF: It’s not even so much arguing as like, we’ll take a scene (we did a lot of homework on this movie) and we would go through the scene and I’d play one part and he’d play another and we’d explore the scene from those two characters’ points of view[…] Arguments happen, but it’s so much less about arguing than like solving things together like you do as parents. We always say, "We’re raising three children, if we can’t direct together, how can we raise a family together?" It’s very similar, I mean, you have to deal with problems, you kind of have to be of one mind, or you’re going to mix your kids up.
RT: And there’s respect.
VF: You have to try to respect each other. It’s huge.
JD: Respect is everything. I respect Val, and, you know, I look forward to what she’s going to say. She does surprise me. Even after…
VF: We still do surprise each other. I keep trying to make him into me, but it doesn’t work out. [everyone laughs]
RT: This feels like the kind of film that could be just a really solid indie movie, on its own, that exists in the substratum. But this has money behind it, it has Fox Searchlight. Did you ever feel yourself being directed in certain ways?
VF: That didn’t feel right for the film?
JD: Not really. I think the film happened in the best way possible. It was funded by one guy who was intimately involved in discussions of what the film was going to be. So he knew what we were going to do. With that cleared (we had five producers I should say; he was the money man, but there were four others), everyone knew what we were going for and they agreed with it and then they let us do it. Then when the film was done we brought it to Sundance and basically said, "Here it is, hope you like it, it’s done. We’re not changing it."
VF: We’re not changing it.
JD: It’s not going to be a PG movie. If you like it the way it is, we’d love to be in business with you. Fortunately Fox seemed to love it, and we met with a lot of great studios who were interested in buying it, but there was a chemistry with Fox that felt really right and continues to this day. And it’s tricky, because I hope that it can be a word-of-mouth thing. And I hate… I like critics to write about it, and I like friends to suggest it, but I hate those one-liners in ads…
VF: [pointing to the huge yellow poster behind me] Like the ones that are on our poster!
JD: The one thing we asked Fox is "Can you just do some posters without any reviews?" Because at this point you can have one-liners for the worst movie in the world and I don’t feel like people trust that. A detailed article, or a friend talking about it, that’s how I hope people will hear about it.
VF: And at least they’re spending their money on that. We’re going all around the country showing the film. I don’t know how much money they’ve put into it, but they haven’t put money into trying to change what it is, and push us into advertising it too much in a way that we’re uncomfortable with.
RT: I want to ask you a little bit about the photography. Some of the shots are just astounding and I’m wondering how much the two of you worked with the DP and how much he brought to it. It seems really in tune with a lot of contemporary photography.
VF: I think when we first read the script, we had a lot of these images in our heads. It was going to be about the faces, through portraiture, and then landscape. Those two things were sort of the visuals of the movie. It was hard when we were looking for visual references for this. We looked at a lot of contemporary photography, but none of it felt just right in terms of feeling. But we did love those sort of empty, wide open, very flat landscapes and a certain sort of blandness on the interstate, or just American landscapes unromanticized.
JD: Tim Suhrstedt, the DP, brought a lot. I think the framing is probably more about what we wanted to do. But Tim certainly contributed to that. He also was so good about creating an environment where performances could happen. Sometimes the DP can dominate a set and feel like, "You’re all in service of me," but Tim really knew that, especially on a comedy, he had to support the performances.
RT: When you see the film, you think of [photgrapher] William Eggleston.
VF: We did want the lighting to be as natural as possible.
JD: Definitely, he’s an influence.
VF: Colorwise, he’s so great at those accents of color. In the house we wanted this warm environment, and then to have these accents of turquoise and red and yellow. In a very simple way, to make this feel natural, but to have a little awareness of color and a kind of order.
JD: It’s tricky. We never wanted to take you out of the movie with those aesthetic choice, but we wanted them to be there, drawing you in, and maybe in retrospect, an image may burn in your head. But not in any way feel like it was going to separate you from the moment.
RT: There are certain punctuating shots where you have this emotional landscape that just opens up. At certain moments of desperation, etc., the composition of the frame and the little pause that you get are that much more effective.
JD: Sometimes films have incredible images, but you’re never allowed to enter them.
VF: All these faces, they were… there was so much to look at. Even through editing the movie, I never got tired of looking at it because I would notice "Look at what Abigail [Breslin] is doing!" and I’d be watching Richard [Greg Kinnear] and then I’d notice something that she was doing. There was always a lot going on, just their faces were great. We’ve always loved portraits, and we’re interested primarily in people. That’s why this was so fun, since they really became the characters. It was a lot like shooting a documentary.
RT: That’s surprising…
JD: The challenge in a documentary is to always figure out where’s the best place to be at this moment. You can’t stop it. You have one shot. It’s live. And there are places where you can be and you can tell the whole story in this one shot. When Dwayne [Paul Dano] freaks out, and his family’s up above him, we knew that we could just sit on that shot and that would tell you everything, emotionally was well as intellectually.
RT: To get back for a second to the photography, there’s something that photographers like Eggleston and Stephen Shore are doing with American imagery and the American landscape that seems related to your film. Even just beyond the fact that it’s a road movie, the landscapes that they’re in, and the trajectory of the story…
VF: I think it felt like a really contemporary take on American families and on America. Just that you have this middle-class family that appears to have everything that they need and want, but really they’re totally struggling, barely, barely making it; it could fall apart at any moment. I feel like families are more stressed now than they have ever been in this country. We have this whole idea of family values, but we’re really putting families [last]. The whole thing about gay marriage, that it’s going to destroy marriage, when actually, what we do to marriages and families now with people having to work so hard to barely make a living. And there’s no government support for anything. We’ve robbed the middle class of a decent life. And I think that was important in this, to show the stress that we’re all under, and empathize with them, to be compassionate.
JD: Even though we have all these trappings, all these things that appear to be success–
two cars, and a decent house…
VF: A three-bedroom home…
JD: Actually, they’re on the edge of calamity.
VF: They’re not really yours.
VF: We don’t even own this country anymore.
JD: So we didn’t want to romanticize. What I think is really interesting about a lot of photography now is that the whole notion of Route 66 and the open road has changed and we wanted to show the roads as they feel now, that you can drive 500 miles and it looks exactly the same.
VF: With an Econolodge and Burger King and a Barnes and Noble. We also loved paintings by [photorealist painter] Robert Bechtle, who’s a Bay Area painter. His paintings were really interesting because it wasn’t like we could directly translate it, but the way he would capture these moments in time, you really felt the time of day and the season… We didn’t really have one specific interest, but we looked at any depiction of family.
JD: And of course, Bill Owens, who’s the granddaddy of suburban life. Which at this point has been so overused, but I grew up in the East [San Francisco] Bay [Area] at the time that he was photographing, so his stuff felt really close.
VF: And the messiness of life was important to us, that we shot on location. We just wanted the house (we could have gone further) we wanted it to feel like it’s just sloppy, life is that way. Life is just messy. You don’t see that all the time in films. A lot of times they’re sort of cleaned up, and it’s horrible.
JD: I want a film to connect me more to my life. I don’t want to feel inferior because my house isn’t directed by a Hollywood art director. I realize there’s a place for idealized depiction. But on some level, that only makes me feel worse about myself. What’s hopefully working in this is that people can see themselves and see the life that they live in.
VF: And get a little relief.
RT: Are you looking for more features?
JD: Oh yes, it was such a fun experience. The key for us is definitely waiting for that right script. We’re not waiting. We’re developing two, no three things.
VF: We don’t want to do too many things. But we have three stories we really love, and we’re just working on those. And getting a lot of stuff. It took us a long time to find this and I doubt something will just land in our laps. This was pretty special and we loved the writer. We’ll hopefully do something with him again soon.
RT: Thank you!
JD & VF: Thank you!