By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006; N01
The idea of a hot music-video director making his feature film debut usually brings to mind a hopped-up, super-stylized visual statement, the kind David Fincher made with the edgy imagery of "Seven," or, say, Spike Jonze with the surreal mind-bends of "Being John Malkovich." When viewers hear that a filmmaker is coming from MTV, in other words, they think color, flash, speed. And lots and lots of jump cuts.
"A lot of people say this isn't what we expected from music video directors," said Valerie Faris over lunch at a Georgetown hotel recently. With her auburn hair pinned up against the July heat, her finely chiseled features seemingly devoid of makeup, Faris was in town with her husband and co-director, Jonathan Dayton, on behalf of their first feature film, "Little Miss Sunshine," which opens Friday, and in which nary a jump cut can be found. The closely observed comedy-drama stars Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin and a surprisingly somber Steve Carell as a family embarking on a road trip to take Kinnear and Collette's daughter to a children's beauty pageant.
By turns antic and downbeat, the picaresque tale unfolds with few of the visual tics or hip narrative ironies that one might expect from a team that has made award-winning videos for R.E.M., the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Oasis and the Smashing Pumpkins. Because of that track record, which also includes commercials for Target, Ikea and Volkswagen (they were responsible for bringing Nick Drake's "Pink Moon" to millions of new fans), the script "could have easily not been given to us," Faris noted, "and we might never have found it."
Dayton, sporting a closely cropped beard, a black porkpie hat and dark sneakers with orange shoelaces, chimed in. "I think everybody expects some visual tour de force or gratuitous imagery," he said. "Style over substance. But I don't think people who really knew us expected that. This felt tailor-made for us, like a glove you just slip on."
"It's a world we feel like we know," said Faris. "Not beauty pageants, but --"
Dayton offered cheerfully: "Dysfunction."
Anyone who spends even a few minutes with Dayton, 49, and Faris, 47, would probably not use the word "dysfunction" to describe them, either as a warm and attractive couple with three kids and an 18-year marriage or professionals with an even longer partnership. In 1978 they were both juniors at UCLA, where Dayton was a film student making ends meet working at a used-clothing store and Faris was studying dance; they met when he filmed a few of her performances.
By coincidence, the two were asked to make a film about performing arts at UCLA in 1980, and quickly thereafter began collaborating on various documentary projects. In 1984, through a friend from UCLA, they were hired by MTV to create a new show, "The Cutting Edge," which turned out to be a precursor to programs such as "Unplugged," featuring such relatively unknown artists as the Blasters, R.E.M. and Jonathan Richman performing acoustic versions of their songs. "We wanted it to be alternative, back when alternative was still meaningful," Dayton said.
Meanwhile, Faris, whose maternal grandfather was an electrician for Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock, and whose parents, a painter and an editor, met doing "Tom and Jerry" cartoons at MGM, had become romantically involved with Dayton, the son of a schoolteacher and a banker, who grew up near Lake Tahoe and the Bay Area. They were wed in 1988 at the Troupers Hall, an old vaudevillians' club in Hollywood. "We got married under the comedy and tragedy masks," said Faris with a rueful laugh. The couple, who live in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles, have a 13-year-old daughter and twin 10-year-old boys.
"People always say, 'I don't know how you do it,' " Faris said of being married to the person she works with. "We have to be good to each other, we have to treat each other well, we can't let arguments fester -- what's good for us in work actually benefits our marriage and our family."
Dayton added: "You can't retreat."
"Yeah, you can't hold back," said Faris, pausing. "We actually don't think about it too much, not until this process, where we've had to talk about it a lot."
By "this process" Faris means the publicity tour for "Little Miss Sunshine," the penultimate leg of an arduous journey that began six years ago, when producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa saw first-time screenwriter Michael Arndt's script and showed it to producer Marc Turtletaub, who promptly bought it. After considering 14 directors, the team settled on Dayton and Faris, whom Berger and Yerxa had been courting for years.
"I'd known them socially for 10 or 15 years," Berger recalled, adding that two videos in particular, "1979" and "Tonight Tonight," both for the Smashing Pumpkins, suggested they were capable of directing a feature. Like many of their videos, "Tonight Tonight" harked back to cinema history, in this case as a homage to the classic 1902 silent film "A Trip to the Moon."
"There was sort of a sense of hyper-magical realism, almost, to the 'Tonight Tonight' video," he said. "And then there was a sort of grittiness or truthfulness to the '1979' video, and they were both very powerful in very different ways that showed a wide range of abilities and sensibility. . . . Both Ron and I felt the humanity in John and Val's work, as well as the lyricism, would translate very well to a film."
Together, the directors and producers shopped "Little Miss Sunshine" around Hollywood, finally landing at USA Films, which later became Focus Features; there, the project endured a series of false steps for two years, while actors came in and dropped out and the script went through a series of rewrites. At one point, Arndt was fired and another screenwriter, whom Dayton describes as the "king of quirky comedy at the time," was brought on. "But there's quirkiness and then there's soulfulness," Dayton said of that writer's draft. "And he couldn't write soulfulness. He could write these odd characters, but they weren't true."
Throughout the process, Dayton and Faris fought to keep Arndt on the project, and to maintain his vision for the film, which combines such dark elements as addiction, suicide and shameful family secrets with a whimsical and finally deeply forgiving sense of humor. "I thought we were going to get fired, we were so stubborn," Faris recalled of their dealings with Focus about Arndt. "We just fought for him."
Arndt himself became far more demoralized than the directors. "I got so beaten down by [Focus's] continually asking for notes that I was ready to start making the changes they asked for," he said. "And it was John and Val that outlasted even me and insisted that they pretty much liked the script the way it was. So it's a testament to their fortitude that they believed in the script even more than I did."
Finally, with "Little Miss Sunshine" virtually dead in the water at Focus, Turtletaub agreed to finance the $8 million production himself. And in the summer of 2005, Dayton and Faris embarked on a grueling 30-day shooting schedule, much of it in a rusty VW bus in Arizona and Southern California with a cast that, unbeknown to everyone, included the man who in a few weeks would become the summer's biggest comedy star. Dayton and Faris had cast Carell, who plays a depressed, gay Proust scholar in the film, at the suggestion of a neighbor who had directed a couple of episodes of "The Office."
"He said, 'You know who you should look at, this guy Steve Carell,' " recalled Dayton, who had seen the actor playing the mindless weatherman in "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy." "And we went, 'Oh, yeah, we love Steve Carell!' And he goes, 'No. This guy --"
" 'I just worked with him. You'll love him ,' " Faris interjected.
"You know, 'Anchorman' is not my kind of movie," Dayton said. "But even playing the world's stupidest weatherman, [Carell's] choices were always really dedicated and --"
"Full commitment," Faris interrupted again. "Like, 'I'm going to be really stupid.' "
"Yeah," Dayton continued. " 'You want stupid? I'm going to show you the most intense, fresh version of stupid.' "
"Also, we saw those episodes of 'The Office' that our neighbor directed," said Faris, "and the way he worked with the other actors, we felt like he was going to be incredible."
"We felt like this was going to be a stretch [for him], so that would be interesting," Dayton added. "But we had no sense that he was going to be the comedy juggernaut that he became."
Having lived with "Little Miss Sunshine" in their heads for five years, and having meticulously acted out each scene with each other in workshops, the directors came to the set exceptionally well-prepared, a work ethic they learned through years of laboring to come in on time and under budget with their videos and commercials. Rather than observing a strict division of labor, they did everything together, from taking meetings to huddling behind the monitor and chatting throughout each scene, whispering after each take. It was a habit that at first disconcerted the actors but one they eventually got used to.
"After the first day, it felt like working with seasoned directors," said Alan Arkin. "It felt as if it was their 10th feature rather than their first. This was a very, very low-budget film, with a very fast schedule, but the remarkable thing about it was that it never felt rushed and it never felt skimpy. I've felt much more rushed and pressured on huge-budget films than I did on this one."
"We called them Johnval," said Peter Saraf, one of the film's five producers. "They work as one." Saraf recalled the week before shooting started, when Dayton and Faris led the cast in a series of "Acting 101 exercises that, had it not been for John and Val's unbelievably giddy enthusiasm and true sincerity, they might not have been able to pull off with a group of jaded actors."
"We liken it to parenting," Faris explained of their directing methods. "You're just tag-teaming how to deal with all the issues that come up." Rather than each of them working with particular actors, which they expected to do, it turned out that each had expertise in directing specific scenes. It all came down, Dayton said, to "tonal management."
Which is not to say Johnval don't have their differences. "It's true; I tend to like to do stuff in post," Dayton said somewhat sheepishly, referring to tweaking sound and images in the editing room.
Faris volunteered: "I'm the worrier."
Dayton chimed in: "And I'm like, 'Go for it.' "
Faris: "I usually take the more pessimistic view of things."
But surely even Faris relaxed when, at the Sundance Film Festival in January, "Little Miss Sunshine" became the first high-profile acquisition when Fox Searchlight bought it for a reported $10 million. Since that splash, Dayton and Faris have been talking to Reese Witherspoon about directing a project she would produce and star in, and they're hoping to collaborate with Arndt on another film. But, having saved their ingenue moment for middle age, they know better than to succumb to feckless, flavor-of-the-month passions.
"I'm so glad we never did a feature before this," said Faris of being a rookie at almost 50. "I just think we learned so much from doing videos and commercials, and then raising a family. People always ask, 'What films were you influenced by?' I feel like so much of our influence has actually come from real life and our experiences. I'm amazed, sometimes, at how a 25-year-old can do a film with so much feeling of experience."
Dayton nodded and again chimed in: "We're just not those people."