Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris broke through as the creators and directors of the pioneering MTV show The Cutting Edge. Thereafter, they helmed videos for artists like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Weezer, Jane's Addiction, REM, The Smashing Pumpkins, Macy Gray, Janet Jackson, Oasis, and The Ramones. As the co-founders of Bob Industries, one of the country's leading commercial production companies, Dayton and Faris have directed high-profile TV spots for VW, Sony Playstation, Gap, Target, Ikea, Apple, and ESPN, among many others. Now, they make their long-anticipated feature debut with Little Miss Sunshine. I spoke to Dayton and Faris at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
Groucho: I hope you'll take this the right way, but I was struck by how skillfully manipulative Little Miss Sunshine is in the way movies haven't really managed in a long while, I think. It's exhilarating even if you're hyper-aware of it as movie critics are—you don't mind because the impact is genuine. Can you talk about maybe sort of having your cake and eating it too in terms of the balance of what could be considered mawkish moments with humor?
Valerie Faris: Well, I think, you know, for us it actually felt very true to life. And even though there are some pretty absurd situations that the family gets into and has to, you know, get through, I think that we actually felt that we related to these people. I mean, our lives are pretty absurd and just constantly shifting from, you know, something incredibly painful to something laughable. So I guess while we were making it, we really weren't thinking about manipulating so much as just to hopefully try to have compassion toward these characters—what they're going through, and play them that way for the actors.
G: The long dinner scene is a great hook at the start of the film. It's very patient in unfurling the character traits and setting up the premise. And I think we really get to know the family very well in that scene. Do you think that the family, the Hoovers, are a typical post-nuclear family?
Jonathan Dayton: I think so. I mean, you know, every family is different. And we hope that people can find some bit of themselves in all the characters and certainly relate to family life. But, you know, that was one of the things that attracted us to this—is that hearing the concept on the surface didn't seem that appealing. But it's really the way these characters are drawn that seems fresh and unusual to us.
VF: I don't know if there is anything—such a thing as a typical family. Especially in America, I think we're a pretty wild mix of characters in most families. But that was what was interesting to us was that they really have nothing in common other than the fact that they're blood related. And that, you know, it's a messy proposition—a family. It's just not a neat, orderly thing. And I think it's amazing how every family has to work out "Okay, how are we going to get along? How can we make this thing work?" It's just—there are no rules and there are no right ways to do it, really.
G: That dinner scene, again, struck me as almost symbolic of the family dynamic in America today because they always say families don't sit down for dinner anymore. And here's this family that does sit down for dinner except they're still all on their own trip, you know? It's a very fragmented, insular existence they each have.
JD: Well, you know, when we first got the script, everyone was very nervous about just how to do such a long dinner table scene. The inclination is to kind of have a quick little bout and then get out of there. But it was really attractive to us to take on such a long, drawn-out scene. And I think you get to know the characters in one sitting. And then just at the point where you realize "Oh my God, how can these people ever get along?", you shove them in a van and put them on the road.
G: Yeah, thrust together. Did you feel like winners when you were growing up?
VF: I was not the most athletic person, but I did like sports. I liked basketball and I played some—in terms of competition, I probably was a sort of competitive person, but I didn't really see the world that way. I think it's a funny way to look at the world, and it's unfortunately the way that our culture kind of divides things, you know, between success and failure, and on somebody else's terms it's a pretty ridiculous thing to try to live up to. So I think you have to define it for yourself but I don't know. I don't think I thought of myself, ever, as a winner or a loser. It was more of a try-er. How about you?
JD: Well, it's funny because I grew up in a small town, and I was beat up a lot. So I suppose on some level, I felt like a loser, but—.
VF: You were also high-school class president, right?
JD: Yeah, I was student body president. So that made be even more of a loser on some level, but I remember when I actually got elected, I thought, "Wow"—it wasn't so much that I was a winner or a loser, but I got something that I wanted 'cause I tried hard and a light went on there. And I think that has informed—you know, I think what's important in this film is, like Val said, these people are trying. They're putting themselves out and, I think, ultimately what we hope people see is that the goal is not to put yourself in a position where you are judged by other people. You know, to view life more as a dance than as a contest.
G: Mmm. So how is it you went from being in a dance troupe and a used-clothing store respectively—how do you go from there to a job offer from MTV to direct together?
VF: Yeah, there was a little bit of stuff that happened in between, but we knew the guys that ran this record company—IRS Records. And I think they said to a couple people they knew, "Hey, do you want to do a one-hour, once-a-month show on MTV?" And we had already been doing some, like, documentaries together. So they gave us this opportunity, and we just kind of said, "Okay, well here's what we would do" and we got the job. It was sort of surprising to us, and we really didn't know what we were doing, but MTV was still new enough that, you know, nothing was really figured out at that point. So it was actually a really great time to kind of learn, and we met all kinds of musicians and it was a really great place to start.
G: Do you recall the initial creative decision to work together as directors on those documentaries? How did that work out?
VF: I started by—I tried to get him to film my dances. I wanted to do dance films, and I was interested just in choreography really. But then he was doing these films—we started talking about these films he was doing, and I got interested in those. And there wasn't like the moment where "We should work together," you know? It didn't really happen that way.
JD: But I—early on, what I noticed was that I just really enjoyed talking with Valerie. That when we looked at different things, there was an exploration that I couldn't ever experience on my own. And the wild thing is that I feel that as much today as I did twenty-plus years ago. So I feel very lucky.
G: One might assume that an especially visual film would put your best feet forward in terms of your experience in commercials and music videos. But you seemed to have been determined to make a film for which the appeal wasn't visual. Why is that?
JD: Well, in videos we could explore a more purely visual style of filmmaking. And while we love doing that, we felt that when it came time to do a feature, the challenge was going to be in performance and in staging and in creating something that felt more real than what you can ever achieve in a thirty-second spot or three-minute videos. So we just set out for a new way to challenge ourselves, and it was very exciting. The script really felt like a truthful depiction of family life, and so the challenge was to take that from the page and really make it come alive on screen.
VF: I think I would get bored doing a purely visual film. It's fun for three minutes or thirty seconds, but it's just not, you know, it's not what make me want to go see a film. I think that—you know, our criteria for making this film—or a film, any feature film, I think—will always be like "Would we want to go see this movie?" And while it might be interesting to experiment with different things, I just don't want to make something that I would be bored making or watching. So it's a good test.
G: Right. Could you describe some of the directorial approaches you used to achieve dramatic effects that—you know, in a short medium, those effects are more transparent, but in a film like this, the behind-the-scenes techniques are more seamless. So how did you go about sort of preparing and laying out this project?
VF: We did have like three-and-a-half, four years to prepare to shoot this movie. So we spent a lot of that time breaking the scenes down and really sort of understanding the architecture of the scenes, and what were the feelings that were happening in the scene, and we really kind of did our homework. And that was a really—I think the most important thing, so that we went into shoot a scene, we knew exactly what we wanted from the scene: you know, what is the scene doing? How is it moving the story forward? What's happening to each of the characters? You know, when you really have put yourself through the scene and you have explored the material yourself, that was the frontier for us, I think, on this. Once you can understand that and really know what's happening in order to try to create it so that it feels like a real family and it's a real experience they're having, then the technical aspect of it becomes sort of secondary. If you can create the life in the room—.
G: Then it becomes almost like a documentary—to capture that.
VF: It did really. That was our goal—was to try to pretend, to trick ourselves into thinking we were shooting a documentary.
G: I wanted to ask as well: I know you had a rehearsal period, a brief rehearsal period, and there was some improvisation there to develop a family dynamic. Do you remember any gems that emerged from that period?
JD: The rehearsal was really to build a history with everyone, so it wasn't—we were looking for moments. There were just silly things. There's a moment in the movie where Paul Dano blows the wrapper of a straw at his Dad when his Dad's been kind of an ass. And that was something Paul did when we took the family out—we took all the actors out to lunch and asked that they stay in character. And he did that. And we thought, "Oh, we gotta steal from that." But it was really just a chance to give the actors a sense of history, and that was really important.
VF: Like just having Abigail and Alan spend time together—they played checkers together, and he taught her some tricks. He came up with the popcorn idea. But he didn't actually show that to her until we were shooting it. But it really was just about developing that rapport. And we all loved the script, so we never felt like we needed to do a lot of improv. Like we didn't really want to change—it was a pretty tightly constructed script and it wasn't—I don't think, luckily, any of us thought, "Hey, let's improve this and make this scene even funnier." It was always like "Let's just be true to the script, and then let's bring as much as we can to it." So it was mostly just to kind of give them a truly—to experience emotionally and physically what it was like to be in this family.
G: Yeah, and to be around each other.
G: Did you constantly plug Alan Arkin for true Hollywood stories? Because I know I would have.
VF: We were off—usually on the truck, and they were all sitting in the car together, and I think they got way more stories than we did. But I do remember him talking about how he could never make Peter Falk laugh in The In-Laws. That he was just really serious I guess until the very end. But you know, you wish you could—I mean, now I feel we had more time with Alan since we made the movie. When we were making it, we had no time to sit around and talk—it was like "Okay, now we're going on to this." You know, thirty days to shoot.
JD: The great thing is that Alan has since said to us just what a special experience this was—how much he loves the movie and the experience of making the movie, and coming from him, that means a lot.
VF: He said his first experience during The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming was this incredible experience, and then it was downhill from there. And then there was another one. He said like every sixth or seventh movie was a good experience. But we're happy to be one of the good ones—a good experience for him.
G: Are there any sorts of decisions that you will reliably agree upon, working together, and reliably disagree upon?
VF: I think we tend to agree on story and character and performance, and sometimes we disagree on boring stuff like little technical things, like do we want to move the camera here, or what kind of lens? And it's really boring stuff that we disagree on. Usually. Right?
JD: Yeah, I mean the thing is that sometimes we'll take turns about "Okay, we're gonna go down the road that you're thinking." I mean it usually depends—whoever feels most strongly about something, we tend to defer. I mean, the beauty of working with someone is they will take you places you never thought would work. And they do work and that's good. And when they don't work, you rub it in as much as possible.
VF: Sour grapes.
G: There's obviously a pageant scene that is kind of climactic to this picture and they're authentic, real-deal contestants in there. How did you set out to capture that scene and was there any friction in terms of the material—were they aware that it would be sort of edgy?
VF: We explained to them—we had to kind of recruit people to be in that scene and we explained to all of them that this family was arriving here totally unprepared for what they were getting themselves into. And that was what was important. It wasn't so much that we were there to make fun of this. I mean, we're showing it for what it is. And it's a subculture. You know, it isn't the general public we're showing. So it's a very, to some people's minds, bizarre subculture. It hasn't gotten that much exposure. Unfortunately, the exposure—most people learned about it through the JonBenet Ramsey tragedy. So we just tried to keep it very—our take on it—very neutral, and it really was just a place where we could see this family's story play out in a pretty satisfying way. So I think they were all very aware of what was going on and actually enjoyed the whole—the craziness of being in a film and being themselves on camera. So I don't know how we would have done it any other way. I think we could have been a lot more brutal than we were, and we chose to just try to be very neutral.
JD: But what you see is what really exists, and it's always tricky when you are dealing with people who are essentially playing themselves. We really tried to clearly let them know what's going to happen in the story and the context in which they'll be seen. We'll see what happens. But I appreciate your keeping the end of the movie a mystery.
G: Yes, yes.
JD: Because it is—it goes places people hopefully won't expect.
G: Right, right. Let me ask you about Steve Carell because obviously he's sort of exploded since he was cast. What, in his work, that you had seen at that point convinced you that he had the acting chops for this role?
VF: We met with him, and we had actually seen about two episodes of The Office before it started airing, and we thought he was amazing in that and different from anything else he'd done. And then we met him and we just—he was just such a down-to-earth guy and warm and loved what this movie could be. We talked about the kind of movies it was like—
G: What were your tonal inspirations?
VF: Hal Ashby is a big one. A little bit of Frank Capra. A little bit of Hal Ashby. You know, you can't help but talk a little bit about The Graduate because it's such a great comedy. And yet it's got so much emotion in it. You know, it's painful. Really painful at times. So it was—that sort of tone was what we were hoping to strike with this, and Steve totally was all for that. I guess he's a really smart guy, and we knew that he wasn't the kind of guy that needed to get a laugh every minute.
G: I also want to ask you about—going back in your resume—Mr. Show. The conventional wisdom is that sketch comedy shows are always really high-friction environments, and there's a lot of pressure because there's never enough time and there's studio interference and all that sort of thing. And yet the results are often greatest seemingly where there's the most pressure.
G: I wonder, what was that scene like? What was your experience directing a couple of those?
VF: (To Jonathan:) Your turn.
JD: Well, Mr. Show was actually a surprisingly—to call it harmonious isn't really right. It was nuts. But it wasn't, at least as far as we could see, one of those hostile environments. It was just full of really strong, eccentric writers and actors, and it was so much fun. It was so daunting, though, because essentially your cast has also written. You know, all the writers performed in all the pieces, and they had spent a long time working out all the details of each sketch, which is probably why I think they were so good is that they weren't just thrown together. And so, each time there was a lot of improvisation, but what usually made it into the final scenes were the original elements, and it was a very rare gathering of talent that I don't think will happen very often.
VF: But it's not exactly a director's medium. It's a writer's medium and a performer's medium more, I think. And it was just really great to work with people like—we had known Bob and David for a little while and—it's tough. I just think comedy is really, really hard. And they're just really good at it. But it made us—you know, I love that show...but in a film I wouldn't want to ever do a pure comedy. I just think they're too hard.
G: Now looking ahead here, you probably have some things in development or in mind. What are your intentions for building you career here as film directors?
VF: What's our master plan? I mean, I think that we'd like this tone—riding this line between comedy and—not drama—I don't really—it's not purely drama—.
G: Yeah, but serio-comic. Like you said, Hal Ashby.
VF: Yeah. It's just—his films always felt out there: there are always kind of wild premises. But then they're made incredibly human. You know? Like Harold and Maude: if you hear the story of Harold and Maude, you think, "Ughh. I don't want to watch that." And then it's just—you love those characters by the end. And I think he just had a lot of—yes, for us, we just have to love our characters. That's part of it. So finding people—characters that we want to spend three to five years with. Because you live with them. They become your family.
JD: Yeah, I just think films that connect you more to your own life. That just speak—that seem to have some element that you can recognize and that—. Yeah, you know, life strikes us as funny and tragic and curious, and to have all those qualities in one film—not a pure comedy, not a pure drama—that's fun.
G: You've mentioned that this film was roughly five years in the development process. I think people's perception of Focus Features is that that would be a very director-friendly environment and that they embrace offbeat material. So what was the problem there getting this project through?
VF: You might have to ask them. It's hard to know. I think it's just this wasn't an obvious great business proposition on paper. It wasn't like "Aah," guaranteed success, you know? We got this star, or that star, and it's ensemble, and you could say it's a story about a little girl. There are a lot of ways that it doesn't really add up to commercial hit. Or even indie hit. So I think it just was a really hard thing to sort of take that risk. It was a hard movie to take; it was a big risk to them. It wasn't a $2 million movie; it was somewhere between $6 million and $8 million. And that was just more than they'd ever—they're really great at acquisitions.
G: In hindsight, this project seems like "Well, how could you miss with this?"
JD: Yeah. I mean the people at Focus are really smart. And I think we suffered a little bit because there was somewhat of a regime change, and we never—you know, they're based on the East coast and we're West coast. We actually never got to sit with the guys who really run the studio and talk about the movie we wanted to make. We were always communicating through a whole chain of command. And a film like this is all about tone and the way it's approached. So it's just nice that the film is done, and what we intended is actually there on screen. And now we don't have to explain it. You know, it's there for people to see. And that's really nice.
G: And is it true that the film made a record-breaking deal? Is that right?
VF: I guess so. That's always like the, you know, like you want your film to make an impact. But the price tag is kinda like the thing you don't want boast about too much. But I guess it did. And I think it sold to a really good pla—you know, it's Fox Searchlight which is a really good place for this film. And they all seemed to really believe in it and like it. So that's—and the Sundance audiences were incredible. They're just such a receptive bunch of people. Everyone seemed so happy to be there and happy to be laughing at a movie. So I thought it was a great experience.
G: Now you have three kids right? So was directing Abigail Breslin the easiest part of your job?
VF: Yes, because she's incredibly gifted.
JD: It's much easier because she listens to us as opposed to our children. So the thing about kid actors is that you can't really make a child actor act well or naturally. They have to have that gift. And you have to, in a way, tell them less. Just let their intuitive skills take over.
VF: She has in spades. I mean she just does—she knows what to do. It's so great. I mean what we learned is don't tell her too much. Let her do it and take from what she did—we hardly—she was probably the actor we talked to the least. I mean she just was that girl on so many waves. She was such a pleasure to work with—I mean, they all were. But she was probably the biggest surprise that we didn't have to puppet her in any way.
G: Well, lastly, I'll ask for each of you to describe the other in terms of personality and style.
VF: Ooohhh! (To Jonathan:) You start. God, that's the first time we've had that—
G: Really? I'd have thought everybody would ask you that.
VF: No, that's a good one. In terms of style and personality?
VF: Well, Jonathan, I think is probably—he's more comfortable in the position of power, maybe, than I am. And I think he's umm, God—. (To Jonathan:) It's so weird to have to describe you. I mean, always comes up—I mean he still surprises me with his take on things. Which, I think I know him pretty well. And then he'll—I'm always—I think the thing I like the most is when he's really bothered by something. He won't let it go. And that always is interesting to me. The things that he has trouble with are always really interesting—
G: Because they're the most important.
VF: Yeah, they're the most important, and I don't—if I—I didn't see them. So it's a really—so I always like when he—I actually always am happy when—or interested when you're not content. Because he's definitely more of an optimist, too. He just has that attitude about life more than I do, so I think he brings that happy energy to what we do more than I do. Although I really enjoy our work. But I think that he approaches it with a better attitude than I do.
JD: And I would just say that, you know, Val is a really intuitive filmmaker. You know, she knows film history but she really comes at it from this place that really is beyond training. It's just this innate skill, and I think she's incredible judging performances. And she has an incredible sense of humor. And is just interested in the world. And to feel that magnetic pull—that desire to explore something, is just really fun to be around. And she also, you know, continues to surprise me. I mean that's—fortunately, we are two brains. And our work is about the intersection of our sensibilities. So as long as we're different, I think we'll keep working. You know, I think the time to stop is when we start thinking of the exact same thing.
VF: Answering too much in tandem. I think I'm always—Jonathan has an amazing visual sense and I'm always, just interested in—I think he has very high standards. And it's nice to feel like—I don't know. I think when we're both pleased with something, I feel like we're—it's a—I don't know. God, I don't know. It's just I can't—.
JD: (Laughs.) And Val doesn't like to talk.
G: Keep doing what you're doing. I loved the film and it's great to talk to you.
VF: Thank you so much. Good talking to you. Boy, you did your research!
[For Groucho's review of Little Miss Sunshine, click here.]