Jan Chats with Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton About their new film ‘Little Miss Sunshine’

Jan Chats with Valerie Faris & Jonathan Dayton About their new film ‘Little Miss Sunshine’

(First Posted in 2006)

The ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ team walked out of the 2006 Sundance Film Festival with one of the largest distribution deals in indie history. Now in its ever-expanding general theatrical release, LMS is charming audiences all around the country. Jan had the chance to chat with the directors face-to-face when they came to Chicago in July for a round of “word of mouth screenings.”

Jan: Welcome to Chicago, Val & Jon! Speaking as the editor of a website called FILMS FOR TWO, what I obviously want to talk to you both about today is the nature of your collaborative relationship. You’ve said in other interviews that “you both do everything,” but I want to drill down: how did you learn to work together & what you think you each contribute from your different points of view (especially with respect to stereotypes about male film viewing and female film viewing, different skill sets, etc)?

Val: It’s funny because it isn’t something we’re used to talking about so much. You know that we probably haven’t done that “drilling down” all that much. I think when we first started working together we came from pretty different interests.

Jan: Which were?

Val: Well, I was interested in dance and dance films. I wanted to make dance films and do choreography, and Jonathan was strictly into documentaries.

Jon: Yeah, I was into documentary films; actually, the last thing that I really was interested in was narrative feature work.

Val: I wasn’t really that interested in films either in college.

Jan: Where did you go to school?

Val: UCLA.

Jon: So we knew each other because were both involved in programming the arts at UCLA. Val was on a funding board, and I was on a programming job booking talent. So I would go to her to get money for events, so we just knew each other.

Val: But it was really in the fine arts context.

Jan: Did you have a “meet cute,” or did you just sort of get to know each other?

Jon: Outside the café.

Val: We were standing outside this café, & I’m looking at him, & I have this premonition. It’s like a news report, like a ticker tape across the bottom of the screen saying: “I will probably marry this guy.”

Jan: Not just “I like him,” but I’ll probably…

Val: “I will probably marry this guy.” I remember thinking: “That’s funny. Why am I saying that?” Because it wasn’t like, “I’m in love with this guy.” It was more just like seeing into the future.

Jon: I’m doomed; we’re coming up on our 18th wedding anniversary!

Jan: We just had our 24th & we’re both still alive & we haven’t killed each other yet. Sometimes that’s a big enough accomplishment!

Val: Staying together isn’t… Well, it’s actually been thoroughly effortless. It takes work but…

Jan: But that’s part of the theme of your movie.

Jon: Exactly.

Val: We looked at the script for so long & worked on it so much, & it never got tired for us. I think that’s why we knew it was made for us & why we had to make it. There are many different themes running throughout it, so they all were things that we felt very much connected to.

Jan: Well, the married parents have a knockdown, drag-out, ugly fight that their poor son Dwayne is wishing he could flee from, so it clearly hasn’t been their first one, & yet they know…

Val: That’s what’s great, actually, about a good marriage & family: they go through your worst times with you. It’s great to be happy with someone, but it’s actually so much more valuable to have somebody that you can go through those harder times with, & I think that’s what this movie demonstrates. Everybody gets their dreams completely shattered, & who’s there but their family to keep them alive?

Jan: So is there any difference in the way you, Jon, look at all this a man, versus the way you, Val, look at it as a woman? Do you see any difference between men and women filmmakers?

Jon: Oh yeah. Oh God.

Jan: So tell me please, because I wrestle with this question every day myself as a film critic.

Val: It’s funny because I never really liked being called a “woman filmmaker.” I just like to be thought of as a filmmaker. And I think because we work so closely together, those things aren’t delineated. Jonathan’s an unusual man; we can talk about a lot of things that I would never have talked to my previous boyfriends about—and I’m probably not the most ultra feminine. I grew up with two brothers.

Jon: But having said that — even though we don’t wear our genders on our sleeves, you can’t deny that life experience as a man or a woman doesn’t inform the creative choices that you make.

Jan: And an example would be?

Jon: I think that Val was probably more sensitive to the issues of beauty and…

Val: Olive.

Jon: …and Olive. But, see, this is a good example where you think of Val not just as a woman, but as a dancer & someone who loves to dance.

Val: Having been a little girl, though, I think there was a way into that character for me: I remembered dancing in my living room at six years old, running around in circles. We both tried to find what is it in this little girl, what is it about that age that’s so incredible? Why would she want this? Why would she want to be at a pageant?

And there’s that thing of when you see something that you’re doing that might be the most lame thing in appearance to somebody else, but you feel you’re doing something magnificent or amazing. I remember circling the living room thinking I was doing some incredible dance & we talked about our sons who loves basketball. They practice their moves & stuff, & in their heads they are moving like Michael Jordan. We’ve seen it so much. There’s something about that age. It’s in your head; it’s just an incredible thing.

Jan: Did you do Olive’s choreography, Val?

Val: Some of those moves we worked out with our choreographer. Olive’s got to do things that feel really good, not just for “the show” of it. We loved that little girl thing, like: “Oh this must be amazing. It feels so good to do.” Our choreographer was great.

Jon: Yeah, Marguerite Derricks. She was the one who suggested the striptease.

Val: That wasn’t in the script.

Jon: That wasn’t in the script, & we just said: “Oh my God, that’s it!”

Val: We said to Marguerite in the beginning: “This is a really fine line we have to draw here. It has to be something that still is fun for Olive. She has to be having a really good time of it.”

Jan: And she does it in complete innocence. In the bedroom scene, when Grandpa tells Olive how much he loves her & how much he believes in her, we see that joy in her.

Jon: We worked a lot to really make sure that those two actors [Alan Arkin as “Grandpa” & Abigail Breslin as “Olive”] really had a relationship. They were great.

Val: Did the growl come from Alan? Because I remember we put Alan & Abby in a little room together during rehearsal, & we asked him: “Are there any moves you can teach her?” We tried to let some of that happen organically. The day we were shooting, we were trying to figure out something they could do, & then we were shooting it, & he did that growl. It just totally cracked us up!

Jon: And then her ability to mimic it was just…

Val: They’re so cute together!

Jan: Arkin kind of rolls off some of the wonderful things he did in ‘Slums of Beverly Hills’. Abby’s much younger than his teenage daughter in that film [Natasha Lyonne], but there’s a similar kind of fatherly love.

Jon: Right. He’s just a great actor. We’re so lucky.

Jan: So is there any time that you can think of when you didn’t agree about something, or one of you had to talk the other one into his or her perspective?

Jon: There are certainly projects like that, because we’re getting approached all the time on things, & there are projects where I may think: “Oh wow, this could be really fun.” If she doesn’t like it I don’t really try to convince her, but in the context of ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, it didn’t happen.

Jan: It just flowed?

Val: Well, we had four years to work through it.

Jon: The point is that when we both like something, there’s this organic trail that sort of opens up for us …

Jan: So there was no point where one of you would say: “I think Dwayne should do XYZ.” And the other would say: “Oh, no!”

Jon: Well, that happens all the time, but then we debate it & we come to a resolution, & if there’s ever a deadlock…

Val: We kind of go through & stage everything with the two of us. We’ll walk through the whole thing & kind of act it out, & we’ve done a lot of that, & so there might’ve been conflicts in that process, just the two of us…

Jan: That’s exactly what I’m talking about. 

Val: I know what you mean, because there’s this thing about males needing to define things & label things much more than women do. They need to see the concrete.

Jon: Because we need to get things done!

Val: It’s funny; I think we don’t really fall into those more classic male/female roles, but I’m sure if somebody observed us…

Jan: Thanks so much, Val & Jon. I really hope we meet again in the future, so you can tell me more about how all this unfolds for you!

© Jan Lisa Huttner (7/13/06) 

FF2 Note:
Huge thanks to Chicago writer Gina Pantone who helped prep this interview & get everything ready for posting on FF2.

All photos by Eric Lee courtesy of Fox Searchlight films.

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Jan Lisa Huttner is a Brooklyn-based arts critic & feminist activist. She is the creative force behind the SWAN Movement—Support Women Artists Now—which has just begun its third phase as International SWANs® (aka iSWANs). In the Jewish world, Jan is best known as the author of two books on Fiddler on the Roof—Tevye’s Daughters and Diamond Fiddler—both of which flow from a strongly feminist POV. She also served as both story consultant and “talking head” on the award-winning documentary Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles.
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