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Love's Labors Won

By Anne Burke

Published Jul 21, 2006 5:37 PM

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton


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Little Miss Sunshine, the first film from Bruin husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (both '80), is still shining at the box office, garnering a total take of $50 million-plus to date.

Little Miss Sunshine, which hit theaters July 26, is a testament to the power of love. Not between co-directors Dayton and Faris, though there is that. Dayton and Faris, who met as undergraduates at UCLA, have been married for 18 years. But love for a script that they read and refused to abandon, even as it took them on a harrowing trip through the Hollywood meat grinder.

"We were very stubborn and it was very frustrating and many times, we just figured we would never make the film," said Faris. "But we loved it so much, we really never gave up."

Written by Michael Arndt, Little Miss Sunshine is a dark comedy about a family of quarrelsome misfits who set out in a falling-apart VW bus from Albuquerque to California so that 7-year-old Olive can compete in a preteen beauty pageant.

"I just loved that this was a family that was as different from each other as you could imagine and they didn't like each other, but there was love," said Faris, 48.

At 49, Dayton is boyishly handsome and fond of wearing urban-hipster hats that make him look like he doesn't take himself too seriously. Faris has curly, auburn hair and translucent skin. She comes from Hollywood stock — her father edited cartoons at MGM and her grandfather was an electrician on Chaplin and Hitchcock films.

Faris didn't set out to pursue the family business. At UCLA, she studied dance and choreography; Dayton studied film. The two were both involved in a student arts committee, and a mutual admiration society quickly ensued. "I really loved Val's dance work," Dayton recalled. Faris saw Dayton's senior project, a documentary called Make Me a Movie. "I just thought it was so great and interesting." Their first collaboration came when Pebbles Wadsworth, who then ran the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts, commissioned the pair to make a film about performing arts on campus. After several years, the professional partnership blossomed into love.

In the 1980s, a nascent MTV tapped Dayton and Faris to film a show called The Cutting Edge, which introduced TV audiences to bands like REM and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. After that, the pair became successful directors of music videos (Oasis, Smashing Pumpkins, etc.) and commercials (VW, PlayStation, etc.). They juggled film work with raising a family: daughter Augusta is 13; twins James and Everett, 10.

Dayton and Faris had been looking for a good script for their first feature film at the time that Arndt's small gem came their way in 2000. When they first heard about the plot, however, it sounded like another dumb road-trip movie, Dayton said. "But when we read the script, we realized that it was just this incredibly well-drawn, smart story of a bunch of individuals who we could completely relate to," he added. "We clearly just felt like, this is the film that we should make if we're going to make a film."

"We then had to fight to get the job," he continued. "So we met with the producers and told them our take on it, and I think we just loved it more than anyone and got the job."

That was in 2002. The next three years took the couple on a trip of their own through the assorted tiers of Hollywood hell. Focus Features bought Little Miss Sunshine but the studio executives and directors clashed over casting and budget. Focus wanted bankable stars. Dayton and Faris wanted actors who could find truth in the characters, not fall into comedic schtick. "I was so sick of seeing these clich├ęd characters and dysfunctional families in films," Faris said.

Focus sent the script out for a rewrite, which Dayton and Faris thought was insane because Arndt's original work was brilliant. Then the studio wanted to shoot in Canada to save money. The directors thought that was also insane, as about half the movie is a road trip through the American Southwest, culminating in a very American little girl's beauty pageant.

Dayton and Faris despaired that the picture would ever get made, but continued working on the project nevertheless. In between commercials and video work, the couple staged scenes with various actors. "The more we worked with it, the more we loved it," Faris said.

Focus finally let go of the project. "I just don't think they got the film and it wasn't the right time," added Faris, who seems to not want to cause hard feelings. In the end, Focus' departure wasn't a bad thing at all. Marc Turtletaub, a business tycoon and early producer on the project, bought back Little Miss Sunshine and put up the entire $8 million production cost.

The cast fell into place. The filmmakers got Steve Carell (after he had made The 40-year-old Virgin but before the film's release) as the suicidal brother and Greg Kinnear as the dad, an annoyingly upbeat motivational speaker. Toni Collette signed on as the frayed-at-the-edges mom; young Abigail Breslin, who carried a fluffy, live dog to the Los Angeles Film Festival premiere at the Wadsworth Theatre in July, is Olive, the pageant hopeful. "Alan Arkin was the final one to join the group, which was beyond anything we expected," Faris said. Shooting took place over 27 days, mostly in Los Angeles.

At last winter's Sundance Film Festival, Little Miss Sunshine was a surprise hit. When the crowd at the Eccles theater broke into applause not half an hour into the film, Dayton and Faris were elated. Following an all-night bidding war, Little Miss Sunshine sold to Fox Searchlight for $10.5 million, setting a Sundance record for a single-picture deal.

The buzz for Little Miss Sunshine is about as good as it gets. "There is no more satisfying American comedy this year," wrote Newsweek's David Ansen. Film writer John Horn of the Los Angeles Times called it the rare Sundance hit that actually lives up to its hype.

Still, Dayton and Faris aren't sure whether they have a hit on their hands. They'll be thrilled if they do, but if not, that's OK. Making a commercial hit "wasn't necessarily something we set out to do," Faris said. Added Dayton: the best part is that "we now have a finished film that we're really proud of and look forward to showing people."