Two for the road
For these music video directors, 'Little Miss Sunshine' represents a real departure
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris look less like red-hot directors than amiable urban hipsters: Dayton in a porkpie hat and a blue-and-white, polka-dotted silk shirt, and Faris's delicate features and alabaster skin rendering her a dead ringer for the actress Catherine Keener. One could easily picture Dayton and Faris, who are married, pushing a stroller through the streets of Silver Lake or Park Slope. In conversation, they take turns speaking, rarely interrupting each other's sentences, but still somehow collaborating. Together they spin out the same thread of thought, diligently focused on transmitting their reasons for taking on the offbeat road-trip comedy ``Little Miss Sunshine," which opens Friday, as their debut film. ``We weren't looking for a style piece. We feel like we explored a lot of that in commercials and videos, and what we were looking for in a feature was just a great story and great characters and good writing." Such talk might sound surprising coming from the mouth of Dayton, who along with Faris has directed some of the most innovative, brilliant, and, yes, stylish music videos of the past decade.
But the facts bear him out: ``Little Miss Sunshine" is surprisingly low on MTV-inspired bombast. Instead, it is that rarest of Hollywood birds: a funny movie about regular people and their exceedingly average struggles, told with a respectful modesty and directorial deference toward their characters and their story. Their film was also the subject of a furious bidding war at this year's Sundance festival, with Fox Searchlight ultimately paying more than $10 million.
``Sunshine" stars Toni Collette, Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell, and Alan Arkin as a squabbling family intent on pulling together long enough to escort young Olive (Abigail Breslin) from New Mexico to the finals of the Little Miss Sunshine pageant in southern California. Over the course of their journey, each family member is forced to face his or her own failures : a thwarted romance with a student, and the loss of a university position, for Carell's gay Proust scholar; the inability of Kinnear's low-rent motivational speaker to interest anyone in his ideas; the drug habit and failing body of his father (Arkin) .
So what prompted this complete about-face from a pair whose eye-popping music videos treated the entire century of recorded images as an enormous warehouse, meant to be raided as necessary?
Beginning their careers on MTV's rock-video show ``The Cutting Edge," Dayton and Faris were among the most creative and ground-breaking music video directors of the 1990s, working with artists such as R.E.M., Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, and Weezer. Borrowing from sources as diverse as turn-of-the-century French filmmaker Georges Méliès, the animated classic ``Yellow Submarine," video games, and Nicolas Roeg's ``The Man Who Fell to Earth," Dayton and Faris crammed their videos full of judiciously rendered homages, clever appropriations, and inspired mash-ups, all held together by their desire to reveal the secret bleeding hearts of otherwise stolid bands.
In videos such as the Chili Peppers' s ``Californication" and Oasis' ``All Around the World," Dayton and Faris were brilliant pilferers, creating a final product that owed as much to their own tastes as to their source material.
Other music video directors have turned to feature film -- Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Jonathan Glazer. But their movies weren't the departure from their videos that ``Sunshine" is for Dayton and Faris. After so much success milking their idiosyncratic take, the two were simply ready to try their hand at another form and another style of filmmaking.
``It felt like a departure, and that was exciting," says Dayton. ``We're usually inspired by characters -- Perry Farrell, Billy Corgan, the Chili Peppers -- they're all interesting individuals. It's a lot about the people for us."
Dayton and Faris's sources of inspiration for ``Little Miss Sunshine" are less immediately noticeable than those for their videos. Dayton notes, ``I feel like we're drawing as much from our lives as much as films we love. One of the reasons we loved this script was that it reminded us of films that we loved. We felt like it had a certain Hal Ashby quality to it," referring to the director of 1970 s classics ``Shampoo" and ``The Last Detail."
For Dayton and Faris, the experience of making a feature-length film, while requiring more time and energy, bears notable similarities to shooting a music video.
Speaking of working with the cast, Faris notes: ``It was like a band. We liked the idea of letting them play the scene together, and letting them get their own rhythm together. . . . It was hard to cut the scenes sometimes, because we loved how the whole scene would play from one shot. I feel like we did think of the actors as different instruments in a band, and how each instrument contributes a different quality and tone to the whole. I think that's why rehearsing was really key. You know, it is like they're making music together, on some level."
The process of making music videos has always been an organic one for Dayton and Faris, dependent on collaborating with the right artist and working with the right song.
``We always heard about people that had files of ideas and thought, `God, that would be so great,' " says Faris. ``I'm envious that they have this backlog of ideas. We usually just play the song over and over. . . . I think the song is kind of like the script -- that's the thing that inspires you."
There have been a few exceptions, including a run-in with an overly vigorous Russian taxi driver in San Francisco that inspired the runaway cab in the Red Hot Chili Peppers' ``By the Way. " But for the most part, Dayton and Faris have stuck to this method of letting the song dictate the video, not bringing prefabricated material to a new project.
The same theory applied to ``Little Miss Sunshine," where Dayton and Faris deferred to Michael Arndt's script, which they admired for its delicacy and candor. Arndt's writing also helped to attract the film's cast. ``I just fell in love with the script, and the character," says Alan Arkin, who plays the cantankerous grandfather, speaking by telephone.
One aspect of the direction Dayton and Faris were positive about, though, was its intertwining of comedy and drama. Scenes often flower with unexpected emotional resonance or are punctuated with a closing joke.
Says Faris: ``We liked the fact that it wasn't clear that it was a comedy from the beginning. You're a little uneasy for the first part of the movie. `Am I supposed to be laughing that Steve Carell's so miserable?' And I think throughout the movie, what always thrilled us was this balance, this kind of vibration of being incredibly sad, and the absurdity of the situation is slapping you in the face."
Arkin stands firmly behind the film's mingling of genres as well: `` It's the way things should be. You're not doing a formula piece, you're not doing something that's a cookie stand. You're referring to the way real life is, and it was infinitely more interesting and pleasurable and richer than just doing your run-of-the-mill script."
With ``Little Miss Sunshine," the directors sought to avoid the deliberate artifice of most comedies. ``I think a laugh is so much more satisfying if it's born out of true circumstances than if you feel like they're just chasing a joke," says Dayton. When forced to select between fantasy and reality, these one time purveyors of MTV daydreams will always pick reality: ``We've always been more interested in people, and not movie heroes."