Music Video Veterans Just Needed the Right Story For Their Feature Debut
Making their feature film debut with the oddball comedy Little Miss Sunshine after directing numerous TV commercials and music videos (including the Georges Méliès-inspired video for the Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight"), husband-and-wife directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris weathered four years of development hell to release what became arguably the hottest item at Sundance this year. But getting there took a leap of faith, as the movie's premise sounds far too contrived at first glance: A dysfunctional family consisting of a wannabe motivational speaker dad (Greg Kinnear), an unhappy mother (Toni Collette), her suicidal gay Proust-scholar brother (Steve Carrell), a teenage son who despises his family so much that he's taken a vow of silence to avoid speaking to them (Paul Dano), and a heroin-addicted grandfather (Alan Arkin) embark on a road trip in a rattletrap VW bus to get 8-year-old daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) to the Little Miss Sunshine Beauty Pageant.
"We do these happy talk shows," begins Dayton, and Faris picks up the thread during a morning interview at Dallas' Crescent Hotel. "The first topic that always comes up is, `Tell us what the movie is about,'" she says. They've been making the publicity rounds to promote the movie before its release, arriving back at the hotel after an early morning interview at the local CBS studios. "Well, we'd really rather not," she continues, "because no one's going to want to see this movie if we tell them what it's about."
Dayton and Faris had been interested in directing a feature for some time, and studios were interested in them as directors as well, but the duo did not want to make a movie just for the sake of making a movie. Knowing they were looking for a unique story, they spent five years looking over various scripts before Little Miss Sunshine came their way.
"We really wanted to make certain kinds of stories," Dayton says. "When we read [the script] it was like, Oh my God, this is it. It's like when you meet the person you're going to marry."
Not immediately, though. Producer Marc Turtletaub had purchased the script for $250,000, and Focus Features had expressed interest in developing it when Dayton and Faris were approached with it. "It's funny, because our initial reaction became the challenge we faced ever since, which is that on paper it seems like a lot of other movies," Dayton says. "When we heard `dysfunctional family road trip to a beauty pageant' it was like, `No thank you.' We literally let it sit for a week before we finally picked it up."
But, they suggest, once you get beyond the screwball plot and the outrageous characters, there's a core that most of us can identify with. "I don't really believe in dysfunctional families," Faris says half-jokingly. "I think families by their nature are really just a group of people who have nothing in common aside from the fact they're related and they have to spend time together and get along, and that, by its nature, is problematic."
The ensemble nature made casting a difficult and drawn-out process. An ensemble show with six central roles and a miniscule paycheck for each, it was hard to get any big stars attached to the production. After Focus Features backed out over creative differences, Dayton and Faris worked to keep the project alive by researching the singular worlds of motivational speakers and kid beauty pageants. They didn't go out of their way to skewer their subjects, but didn't cover up the warts, either.
"If we really wanted to take a big dig at that subculture, we could've had mothers and daughters fighting and slapping each other and crying, but we didn't feel that served the story in any way," Faris says. "When you look at that world, that is what it is, and you can't make that stuff up."
Since Kinnear's character is a failed motivational speaker, Dayton and Faris wanted to have a clear grasp of successful motivational speakers so that the character could fall effectively short of it. Naturally, they attended a seminar by the rock star of motivational speaking, Tony Robbins.
"He has an inhuman energy level, and he's so big," Farris says. "He's kind of a freak of nature. He just has some kind of power that he puts out, a knack for getting people off their butts."
Turtletaub, the founder of the lending company the Money Store, bought the rights back from the Focus in 2005 and announced that his production company, Big Beach, would cover the $8 million budget. Around this time, the cast began to take shape.
"It actually worked in our favor ultimately, and they look smart now, but at the point we made the movie Steve Carrell wasn't a big star," Dayton says.
"And in a way, we had to convince [the producers] that he was more than just `that guy in Anchorman,'" Faris says. "He always brings something fresh to his roles. Even when they're silly movies, he brings intelligence and warmth into them. He doesn't feel the need to be funny all the time, and we were interested in actors who could not only play it for the comedy, but also play it very natural and real and truthful."
Fast-forward to Park City, Utah, last January, where Fox Searchlight bought the distribution rights for $10.5 million after some hugely successful public screenings, making the years-long gestation worthwhile. "We'd had screenings for friends and had very small previews, but no large screenings," Dayton says. "So to have the film finally finished and have 1,000 to 1,200 people there applauding was mind-blowing."
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