Talking Pictures: Faris and Dayton of Little Miss Sunshine with Brad Balfour
When a remarkable film like Little Miss Sunshine appears it deserves a break, and some scrutiny. So who is this married directorial duo and how did they happen to so brilliantly craft this dark comedy about a dysfunctional family with a 10 year-old daughter wanting to compete in a kiddy beauty pageant?
They are the successful creators of an impressive body of music videos for the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, Jane’s Addiction, Macy Gray, Janet Jackson, Oasis, Weezer, and The Ramones as well as MTV series; The Cutting Edge and a slew of commercials, the film took them five years to complete.
The L Magazine: How did you get this project; it took you a couple of years to film right? Valerie Faris: Oh no. It was actually pretty quick once we started to film, then we finished, we went to Sundance with it, and we sold it. Jonathan Dayton: We finished it four days before it screened. VF: And it was exactly a year ago that we shot it so the long part, the hard part was getting it made. JD: It was nice because we enjoyed making videos, 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 because it wasn’t a music video director’s piece; it was hopefully what you would not expect from a music video director. We were hopefully excited about taking it on, and knowing that performances were going to be the challenge, not some visual trickery.
The L: How did the script come your way? VF: Through 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; then they gave us this one. Actually when we first read the storyline, we were like, “Tsk. I don’t know. Beauty pageant?” It just sounded bad. JD: “Road movie? Dysfunctional family?” all these things didn’t seem very appealing. 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. VF: 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. I know I never felt, “Oh, we’re doing a road movie comedy.” 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, hopefully more than laughing attheir follies. JD: If it’s truthful, it’s so much more satisfying than if you feel like they’ve chased a life, and here’s this big joke delivered. If it feels like, “Oh my god! That’s just like my life,” when you’re laughing at this, you’re laughing at your own travails.
The L: Weren’t you at first tempted to do your own script or story as your first feature? VF: It would take too long (laughs). JD: Well, you know I have a lot of respect for writing, and while I enjoy it, there are people who are better at it than I am… VF: Michael [Arndt] is 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, and get the tone to a place where we felt it was consistent for the movie. We had a great time with him. He’s just a very disciplined guy. He knows film inside and out.
I guess it’s just that we clicked, and I would rather have Michael write our scripts although there are stories now that we have now, and now want to work with Michael on. It was just a good pairing for us. That’s all he does: he writes, and we do too many other things to have the time to spend just ten years to write a script.