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Little Miss Sunshine - Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris interview

Little Miss Sunshine

Interview by Rob Carnevale

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-and-wife directors of Little Miss Sunshine discuss making the leap from pop videos and commercials to movies and their joy at the critical acclaim surrounding the movie…

Q. Given how long it took to get made, how much of a relief is it to finally have it out there and receiving so much acclaim?
Valerie: It’s surreal.
Jonathan: It’s a total dream. I mean we are just so glad to have it out of our heads and actually on film. We were happy with the result, we like the film but the response it’s gotten is beyond anything we ever imagined.

Valerie: You can’t let yourself hope for such a great response otherwise you’d be disappointed. But we’ve just been completely surprised by it. Although in some ways not because I keep looking at the faces on the poster and think: “How can you not love those people?”
Jonathan: We have that cast which, yes, we chose but after that they took over. To have six great artists – and they really all are – made it fun. There were people like Paul Dano and Abigail Breslin who were not known but then you have someone like Alan Arkin who is an institution. But when they worked together, it’s like an all-star team where they come together and love playing off one another. There was not a weak link. I think they were also completely blown away by Abigail and Paul was such a solid actor.

What made the ensemble cast so special to work with?
Valerie: I think this group of actors loved each other even though the family in the film despises each other – or rather they despise and love each other. But that’s there in the movie as well, this love. I think we benefited from the people we had as actors – who they were comes through and the feelings they had for each other. We had a week of rehearsal and during that time we were very quickly able to create a sense of family. Then it just seemed like the movie was so organic.

Q. Did that help with some of the more gruelling aspects of the shoot itself? I gather it was a really hot summer in Arizona?
Jonathan: It was really hard but it was important to us to capture that feeling you have when you’re in the family car driving down the road and you feel a little bit trapped. We shot everything on location and it was gruelling. The actors had to do a lot. There are many scenes where Greg [Kinnear] is actually driving the van and doing his lines while manouevring through live traffic. Val and I were where grandpa’s body was [laughs] and giving direction.
Valerie: It was gruelling but I think it all helped to add to the sense of misery that we wanted!

Q. The VW van is as much a character in the film as any of the actors – how many did you use?
Valerie: We have five… Three that ran, two were automatic and two were just purely towed with sides that came off. It meant that we could quickly switch set-ups in a day and saved us a lot of money. The vans weren’t that expensive. We had a great transportation guy who said he could get us five vans and they made them all up to look exactly alike.

It’s funny, we realised what an important character the van was in editing really. In the script it was always funny and symbolic of the family. But it wasn’t until we really saw the movie and how much it plays into what happens to the family, how it brings them together and how much personality it had that we actually re-wrote the ending. The very end scene was a re-shoot because we never really loved the ending in the script. It didn’t use to involve the van. But then we realised we had to return to the van; audiences had to see it one more time. So we see the family pushing the van one more time and how they’re doing it much more gracefully. So it has become even more of a character.

We both had VW vans when growing up. The writer claims that everything that happens in the movie happened in his family. My car also broke down and we had to push it. But there is something about VW vans that are sort of life-like – more so than today’s cars which are sort of like robots. You can almost relate to those older cars because you can fix them yourself. They’re so of this planet.

Q. This is your first film so how did you find the changes between shooting this and music videos and advertisements. Was it as easy as you thought or more demanding?
Jonathan: It was much easier than we’d expected partly because we had so long to prepare. The film came to us almost six years ago and we had four years of trying to get it made, during which we always had to assume that it might happen right away. So we continued to explore the material for four years, so by the time we were able to shoot we really knew the film inside and out.

Valerie: One thing about doing commercials and videos is that you’re always in production. You get a lot of experience being on a set and knowing how you like to shoot things. You get so comfortable there and I think we benefited a lot from that. Some film directors only shoot a movie for something like 30 or 40 days and then they don’t necessarily do another movie for three years. So there’s something really great about getting that practise and keeping those muscles toned.

Jonathan: It was so great to dig into a piece of material that had such richness and to go so far beyond what you can do in a 30 second spot.

Valerie: And work with actors – commercial actors aren’t usually as gifted. So to work with this group of actors – I think that’s part of what we feared the most, the personalities and the egos. But luckily because nobody was here for the money, ego was not an issue. It was all about getting it done and making it the best we could make it. There was so much focus just purely on the work that it was really fun. I think we had the best time of our working life.

What have you taken away from the experience as a whole?
Valerie: The point of doing it for many of us was to do something we could be proud of. Luckily, we can make commercials and make a living so that we can just do movies that we want to make because we love the material. It’s nice to not have to make a living just doing movies…

Jonathan: But there was incredible pressure then, on us, because we felt we had to honour the gift of all these actors giving their time and working so hard. So really, one of the most rewarding things about the reception we had is that it reflects back to all the actors. Now they can see they’re work is being appreciated.

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