Being the toast of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it would seem that the directors of Little Miss Sunshine would have nothing to worry about in the months between finding their film’s distributor and its release. But maintaining intense movie buzz can be more difficult than increasing it.
“I think we were a little concerned coming out of Sundance,” said co-director Valerie Faris. “There was so much talk about how much it sold for and that sort of overshadowed people’s response to the movie, which is more important to us.”
Sunshine never crossed that unhealthy line of too much hype. It opens in select cities this weekend and is met with glowing reviews.
The off-beat comedy of the Hoovers, a dysfunctional family on a road-trip to a child beauty pageant, was the most talked-about film at the Robert Redford-founded film festival and had dozens of big-time studios clamoring for ownership.
Fox Searchlight proved the lucky winner of the film starring Greg Kinnear, Steve Carell and Toni Collette. At the helm of the movie are acclaimed music video and television commercial directors Jonathan Dayton and Faris – a husband and wife team.
Shifting from music videos to film can be a jarring transition. But it was a career move that the couple were daring to take.
“I really wouldn’t want to do commercials my entire life,” said Faris. “I think it’s kind of nice to not have to be selling something. Even if it’s a band, it’s still a pretty creative form, but you are selling a song or a band. It was really nice to just be in service of a story, characters, and our own need for expressing ourselves.”
In the case of Dayton and Faris, career transitions aren’t as difficult when there’s a partner to fall back on.
“It’s really fun to have a collaborator, said Dayton. “Obviously, I will always have my own ideas and she has hers, but what’s fun is to be surprised by something and there’s much more chance of being surprised when you have a partner. And it has a female perspective and the perspective of another person.”
After five years of production for Sunshine, filming finally went underway in the summer of 2005. Dayton and Faris were given a grueling shoot schedule – 30 days.
This tight window caused many complications during filming. Dayton recalled the day in the desert where they filmed the family pushing their shoddy Volkswagen bus for the first time as the most stressful day of filming. Faris subtly agreed with an exasperated “Oh, God.”
“It was windy, 110 degrees; it was just incredibly hot,” said Dayton. “I just felt so dehydrated and so exhausted.”
Another complicating factor was Dayton and Faris’s choice to film scenes in long takes, sometimes upwards of five minutes. Shooting in the Volkswagen bus with no air conditioning and tight spaces, while driving on a freeway, proved to be greatly stressful. Dayton and Faris were often crouched in the trunk with walkie-talkies giving direction to the actors.
But this method also evoked better performances from the cast and enabled them to further connect with their characters. “We’d do these five minute takes all the time, said Dayton. “It was really fun for the actors to actually act – to get into a scene and just be lost in their characters and really interacting.”
While entering filming, the directors anticipated their production challenges would be with elevated egos of their actors and the usual conflicts that occur on films. “That was just not the case at any point on this film,” said Faris. “Everybody had a lot of respect for everybody else.”
“The whole cast came up to us in the end and said, ‘This was just amazing, this never happens,'” said Dayton. “They all said, ‘We want to work with you again right away.'”
“But not a sequel,” interjected Faris. “None of us do that.”
As for what the directing duo has learned about their craft from their experience with Sunshine, the key is to say less. “By choosing people who understood the characters and were great actors, we didn’t have to tell them everything that they needed to do,” said Dayton. “We feel more confident about saying less”
“If you’re undermining every single choice they make, it’s the worst thing you can do to an actor,” said Faris.
Now it’s time to see what being the big star at Sundance can do for a film at the box office. Little Miss Sunshine opens this weekend in select theaters. As for Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, they have more feature-length projects in the works, with no plans of working separately.
“Our goal is to never be too comfortable in what we’re doing,” said Faris. “I think because of that, it’s nice to have the security of our relationship. For now”
Dayton turned to her, surprised, and said, “For now?”
Jesse North can be reached at Jesse.firstname.lastname@example.org.