Directing Couple Conducts Family Road Trip (8/06)

Every Sundance Film Festival seems to have at least one breakout hit, and this year it was Little Miss Sunshine, a road movie with a perfect comedic ensemble including Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette, Steve Carell and Alan Arkin. Fox Searchlight snapped up the rights and seems poised for another sleeper success, one with even broader appeal than its youth-oriented 2005 Sundance pickup, Napoleon Dynamite.

Opening in select markets on July 26, Little Miss Sunshine is the feature debut of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, a rare married directing team who are among the top names in the world of music-videos and commercials. Even though the screenplay is by another first-timer, New York-based Michael Arndt, "it felt like the most complete script we had ever read, and it spoke to us," recalls Faris. "It's not a matter of good or bad-it's finding the script that really speaks to you. There was no question for both for us. When we went to meet with the producers, we loved it so much I think that's how we got the job. We had no feature experience, and they took that leap of faith with us because we were so crazy about it."

Arndt's script offers up a wacky but believable collection of individuals who all happen to be members of the same Albuquerque family: Richard Hoover (Kinnear) is a relentlessly hopeful motivational speaker who's having trouble finding converts to his nine-step plan for success. Brother-in-law Frank (Carell) is a gay Proust scholar who recently attempted suicide after seeing a rival academic win a MacArthur "genius" grant and being dumped by his lover. Richard's father (Arkin) is a bawdy old hedonist whose heroin habit has gotten him ejected from the retirement home. Angry teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano) has taken a vow of silence until he gets accepted into the Air Force Academy. Seven-year-old Olive (Abigail Breslin), despite her glasses and weight problem, is obsessed with winning the annual "Little Miss Sunshine" pageant in Redondo Beach, California. And straining to keep the peace is Richard's remarkably patient wife Sheryl (Collette), a woman with personal challenges of her own. When Olive receives word that she's qualified for the pageant, this contentious sextet piles into the family's rundown Volkswagen bus for the trip to California, a journey filled with detours and breakdowns (both physical and emotional).

"What appealed to us from the first time we read the script," Faris notes, "was that while they felt like the most oddball bunch of characters, there was love in the family. It wasn't just a bunch of people who hate each other-there was something underneath all their differences. It felt much more truthful."

"It was really important that every character be given dignity and never be simplified," says Dayton. "That informed the kind of actors that we looked for. We were so lucky because we did get such an incredible cast."

First aboard the bus was Greg Kinnear, the onetime "Talk Soup" host turned Oscar-nominated actor. "He really worked hard to understand Richard," Faris reveals. "He wasn't willing to reduce his character to a cliché. He wanted to be able to empathize with him and put his heart into that part. It would be easy to play that part as a fool, and he kept him very real."

The filmmakers say they themselves, during the four years it took to get Little Miss Sunshine made, could relate to Richard's hapless quest for a motivational career. Recalls Dayton, "We had this script that we believed in, and yet people weren't seeing what we saw in it. And we now have a film that happily represents where we wanted it to go. So we hope Richard can ultimately write his book and people will respond to it: 'Oh, that's what you were thinking! Why didn't you say so?'"

Dayton admits that Collette's Sheryl is "probably the most underwritten character, but she brings such richness, it brought the character completely into focus." Carell, meanwhile, was cast before his movie breakout as The 40 Year Old Virgin. "He's got a heart," says Faris of his surprisingly subtle and vulnerable performance. "Anybody that's really got a heart and is willing to open themselves up and relate to other actors, that's what it takes-and he has that so completely.

And any actor that's willing to wax their chest you know is going to take risks!"

As for the veteran Arkin, Faris says, "The first time we talked to him on the phone, we just felt like he got the character. He wasn't going to make him too sweet or cute. He was exactly that guy."

Young Abigail Breslin, whose first big role was as Mel Gibson's daughter in Signs, first auditioned for the part at the age of six, some two years before the movie went into production. "Her audition was great, but they didn't even show it to us at the time because they thought she was too young," recalls Faris.

"But by the time we were ready to shoot," Dayton says, "she had arrived at the perfect age. We'd looked in every English-speaking country in the world-we looked everywhere."

"Abigail is the only girl who could have done this," Faris contends. "She was right in every way."

The movie filmed on location in the summer desert, in temperatures that never fell below 90 degrees. Says Dayton, "When we did the actual driving shots where we're looking at the car across the landscape, that was with doubles. We shot in Phoenix, and it was 124 degrees."

Adds Faris, "They had to sit on Hefty bags full of ice. The worst and most grueling stuff was second-unit. But the actors had it pretty bad inside the van, because we had the windows rolled up for a lot of it."

"But the great thing is it was such an interesting group of actors," notes Dayton, "and in between takes they could sit around in the car and chat with each other and they really got along well. At least it was a stimulating environment."

Dayton and Faris have directed stylish videos for artists like The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Korn (the groundbreaking "Freak on a Leash"), Smashing Pumpkins (the award-winning Georges Méliès tribute "Tonight, Tonight"), R.E.M., Weezer, Oasis, Jane's Addiction, Janet Jackson and The Ramones, and commercials for clients like Gap, Ikea, Sony Playstation, Apple, ESPN and VW (including the lovely VW commercial set to Nick Drake's "Pink Moon"). For Little Miss Sunshine, they've adopted an unadorned but artful visual style.

"I don't think this movie called for anything more elaborate visually," Faris declares. "I really love the way this film looks-it just feels right for the material."

"Rather than focus on visual fireworks, we wanted to work on staging," Dayton adds.

Faris continues, "With six actors, the challenge was to keep them all alive and in the frame and interacting in a way that felt real. Our goal was to try to let the scenes play as much in real time as we could and shoot it that way, and not do everything line by line, actor by actor. We did shoot pretty quickly."

Says Dayton, "We had 30 days to make it, so we had to really move, but the actors thankfully always knew their lines and always were ready to do really long takes, so they could just get deeper into the scene. I've heard horror stories of commercial directors interrupting actors in the middle of a scene and saying, 'Do that again! Say it like this!' It was important for us to support the actors and allow them to do what they do and stay out of their way, and not get caught up in visuals."

So how does this longtime couple co-direct? "Alan Arkin was particularly concerned about: What do I do with two directors?" Dayton recalls. "But after the first day of rehearsal, he saw how we work together."

"I guess a lot of teams do things divided," Faris reflects, "but we are pretty much a ping-pong directing team. Both do everything. On this film, we had so many years to prep it in our heads that we were totally unified in how we saw the film. It's great to have two people to deal with all the issues you have to deal with, and we trusted each other's choices if we had to split up."

Dayton and Faris met while students at UCLA and began their careers as creators and directors of the MTV show "The Cutting Edge." (They've also directed episodes of the cult HBO comedy series "Mr. Show with Bob and David.") Of their durable personal and professional relationship, Faris jokes, "We're waiting for the moment that we really can't stand each other anymore. We have three children together, so that cements the bond a little bit."

"We love what we do," Dayton offers, "but it's very hard and challenging. And it's fun to have someone there with you to go through the ups and downs."

Dayton calls the couple's Sundance experience "hallucinogenic. It was the first time we'd seen the finished film with an audience. The deals and all that, that was great, but what was so satisfying was sitting in a theatre and hearing people roaring with laughter. Having come from commercials and videos where you never sit in a room with people watching your work, to get that kind of feedback on that scale was incredible. We have no idea what will happen when the film comes out. I hope it will be one of those sleeper films that slowly but steadily gains an audience-you just don't know. But we'll always have Sundance!"