Little Miss Sunshine with Dayton and Faris

“Little Miss Sunshine” is a quintessentially American family road comedy. Satirical and yet human, the film introduces audiences to one endearingly fractured family: the Hoovers. Their trip to a pre-pubescent beauty pageant results not only in comic mayhem, but in death, transformation, and a moving look at the surprising rewards of being losers in a winning-crazed culture.

“Little Miss Sunshine” features the directorial debut of music video directors (and husband-and-wife team) Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who direct from a script by Michael Arndt. Five years in the making and an underdog that like the Hoovers was nearly passed over, the comedy ultimately prevailed through the passion of its producers, directors and stars. The project began when writer Michael Arndts screenplay came to producing partners Marc Turtletaub, David T. Friendly and Peter Saraf of Big Beach — and they instantly found themselves disarmed by the offbeat but distinctly American family at the heart of the comedy.

Searching for a director with a point of view as distinctive as the screenplays comic edge, the producers ultimately brought the film to the rare husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Already known as award-winning music video and commercial directors, Dayton and Faris had been searching for a feature film project. As soon as they read the screenplay, they knew this was it. They were instantly off and running with ideas about how to capture the wild emotional vicissitudes of the family road trip.

Better known as iconoclasts, Dayton and Faris didnt necessarily expect to make their debut with a family comedy but then they never expected to run into the anything-but-typical Hoover family.

We joked about the story being a thinking mans National Lampoon's Vacation, says Jonathan Dayton. A lot of people had come to us with style pieces, but we liked that “Little Miss Sunshine” felt very distant from that world. Sure, we wanted to do something with style, but we loved these characters and that was the most important thing. We wanted the experience to be drawn from what we love most in movies, one that celebrates human eccentricities.

Adds Valerie Faris: The story instantly struck a chord with us. We had always wanted to make a film that would ride a lot of tones; that would have a strong emotional life as well as lots of humor. We felt that “Little Miss Sunshine” was a story that shifts much in the same way that life shifts, moving from drama to farce to reflection and back to farce again.

But even all the combined fervor for the story, the project kept running into walls, especially because no one wanted to take a risk on a family movie with such a darkly tinged, sardonic wit–until Marc Turtletaub stepped forward to help finance the film out of his own pocket.

Without all the things we loved about it–the raunchy language, the outrageous behavior it would have been the perfect family comedy, laughs Faris. But we wanted to make a film not about family values, but about the value of family.


From the start, the key to the comedy clearly lay in finding a cast who could make the Hoovers and all their dysfunction funny yet at the same time devastatingly real. Dayton and Faris knew it could be a daunting challenge for first-time directors. We needed to find not only six exceptionally strong actors but six actors who would be able to share the screen, and really become a kind of close-knit family in spite of themselves, says Dayton. We needed the kind of actors who are as truthful as they are funny.

With script in hand, the filmmakers went knocking on the doors of their dream cast, and instantly found positive responses. We had our first choices for every role, notes producer Peter Saraf.

Greg Kinnear

The casting began with the patriarch of the Hoover family: Richard, who has found himself in the ironic position of being a failed motivational speaker who cant even seem to motivate anyone to hire him. Nevertheless, Richard is never without a gung-ho, pop-psychology aphorism for every situation, much to his familys constant chagrin. To bring Richards unusual mix of surface optimism and underlying anguish to life, there seemed to be no better person than Oscar nominee Greg Kinnear, who began his career as a comedian but has developed into one of Hollywoods most diverse talents with roles ranging from AS GOOD AS IT GETS to WE WERE SOLDIERS to the recent MATADOR. Greg is uniquely able to bring real likeability to even the most unlikable characters, explains Saraf, so he was perfect for Richard.

Alan Arkin

This was a really fun part to cast, says Dayton. Adds Faris: Weve loved Alan Arkin forever. For us, working with him was kind of like working with the Beatles.

One of most exciting elements of “Little Miss Sunshine” for Kinnear was getting the chance to work with Alan Arkin as his utterly opposite father. Alan is very funny and also a truly fantastic actor, he comments. Ours was an interesting relationship to explore because while Richards father is this eccentric, spontaneous, old guy who dabbles in heroin, Richard is this very uptight, self-help, self-responsibility guru, which maybe was his way of rebelling. The key was balancing the characters eccentricities while keeping them accessible.

As with his cast-mates, the draw for Arkin was Michael Arndts heartbreakingly comical script. I loved that it doesnt telegraph anything, he remarks. It leaves room for the audience to exert their own imaginations.

In playing the defiantly free-wheeling grandfather, Arkin enjoyed the freedom of being able to take his character beyond the usual limits for a character of a certain age. Its a great role, because the grandfather is unabashed about everything. Hes completely out there, completely out in the open, theres nothing hidden about him, and that was one of my favorite things about him, he observes. Hes a guy who always says what he feels but what he feels also changes from minute to minute.

Arkin continues: The whole family is very unusual and amazing. Yet somehow with all the adversity between them as individuals, there is also a real love that glues them together.

Toni Collette

Perhaps the films least eccentric character is the Hoovers one rock: Sheryl a divorcee desperately trying to make her second family work, in spite of their overwhelming oddities. The role went to Australian star Toni Collette, who garnered an Academy Award nomination for her work in THE SIXTH SENSE and has gone on to diverse but widely acclaimed roles in such films as THE HOURS, ABOUT A BOY and JAPANESE STORY, most recently appearing in the ensemble comedy IN HER SHOES. Faris and Dayton went to Collette because they knew she had a broad range of comic skills yet also the ability to bring real depth and honesty to an embattled Middle American mother such as Sheryl. Shes a world-class actress who has that remarkable ability to bring something special to everything she does, says David Friendly.

Like Kinnear, Collette was seduced by the Hoover family with all their inglorious attempts at achievement. I absolutely loved the script and also really loved this dysfunctional family who are just learning to get along for the first time, she says. I got completely involved with them. Their frustrations and their yearnings felt very real to me and also quite universal. I found myself laughing and crying at the same time even as I read it.

Steve Carell

Popular comedian Steve Carell brings a dash of irreverence to his portrait of despondency. Although Carell has since become one of Hollywoods hottest comic stars, at the time he was cast in the film, he was a virtual unknown. Steves intelligence as a performer is what sold us, says co-director Dayton of Carell. Hes hilarious but he also can do absolutely anything — hes kind of amazing that way. Adds producer Albert Berger: Whats amazing is that no one really knew who Steve was when we cast the role, but he not only turned out to be a big star he also turned out to be a brilliant choice.

Carell feels that the Hoovers for all their comical foibles and failings arent that different from most families. Theres an underlying current of love between these characters, he observes, that ultimately keeps them together and bonds them. In any family, I think there are times when you will detest another person but you can never get away from the fact that you are always connected by blood and will be pulled together when theres really a crisis, as the Hoovers are on their way to California.

Yet even as the family trip starts to rapidly go south, Frank only grudgingly starts to join in his familys exploits. I think Frank is initially full of crap, laughs Carell. Hes this self-proclaimed expert on Proust who thinks of himself as a great intellectual, yet when hes faced with real relationships, hes completely lacking.

It was Franks transformation from self-obsessed depressive to the beginnings of tentative connection that struck Carell as a fascinating challenge. He starts in a very dark place but what I love about the role is that over these few days, you see him gently lifted up, you see his dark layers being peeled away as he becomes more involved with the family, he says. You start to see the love shine through, but the film never gets sappy or sentimental. It always brings you back to the lightness and comedy of it all.

The prospect of working with such a talented group of actors was another added bonus for Carell. When I found out who the cast was going to be, I was a little intimidated and in awe, he recalls. I kept thinking what am I doing here How do I fit into this mix It was really exciting to just meet these people, let alone work with them.

Among the actors Carell was most thrilled to meet was Alan Arkin, the veteran star of stage, screen and television who really sunk his teeth into playing one of the most unusual grandfathers seen on the screen an outspoken, 70-something heroin addict and porn aficionado who nevertheless serves as an inspiration to his misfit granddaughter.

The children

With the adults cast, the films biggest crux became finding the two Hoover children both highly complex roles for young actors that had to be both funny and affecting. To play teenaged son Dwayne, the filmmakers needed to find that rare person who could make his character intriguing while never uttering a word; instead writing most of his lines on a small white notepad. They found what they were looking for in rising star Paul Dano. Having already established a reputation as a teen with exceptional versatility in roles ranging from HBOs The Sopranos to the urban drama L.I.E. to THE BALLAD OF JACK AND ROSE with Daniel Day Lewis, the filmmakers were impressed with Danos ability to express himself in the nuanced manner of a silent screen star.

Paul was really impressive because he goes way beyond the clichd angry teen, says Jonathan Dayton. There was never a false moment from him.

The character who brings all the Hoovers unexpectedly together in her improbable dream to become Little Miss Sunshine is Olive. To find Olive, the filmmakers set out on a big national search for a seven year-old with the maturity and talent to drive much of the films comedy while still being very much an ordinary little girl. It seemed to be an exceedingly tough bill to fill until they came across Abigail Breslin who made an auspicious feature film debut as Mel Gibsons daughter in SIGNS.

We first saw Abigail in an audition tape and then we saw her on Jay Leno, recalls Valerie Faris. What really impressed us is that she was totally unaware of the audience. She had this really intense focus that we knew was perfect for Olive.

In conversations with Abigail it soon became clear that even at her young age, she already had a lot of insight into what makes the Hoovers tick. Theyre a family you dont really see all the time, says the seven year-old. Theyre not the perfect family that you usually see in movies and magazines. But I think on this trip they learn things about each other that they never thought they would. And what the movies about is that even though not every familys perfect, even the imperfect family can still love each other just as much.

Creating a family

Once the cast was assembled, Faris and Dayton began looking for ways to help them develop the ineffable affection, conflicts, quirks and complicated dynamics of a real family, setting aside a significant amount of time for rehearsals. We had a whole week together before we shot during which we did lots of improvising with each other, recalls Arkin. We really started to get a feel for how the characters felt about each other and who we were as a family.

Part of the bonding process, was an actual family field trip that gave the cast a taste of what was to come. We all got into a van, drove for awhile and then had lunch, staying in character the whole time, explains Steve Carell. Alan Arkin was sitting behind me and he just kept going ooohhh, uhhhhh, Ive gotta go to the bathroom. Just trying to stay in character was almost impossible because every five minutes youd hear, uuuuhhhh, ahhh, ohhh and it was killing us. I finally had to turn around and not look at him because it was just way too funny.

Directed by two

Once on the set, the cast not only had to get used to each other in character but also to the relatively uncommon situation of having two directors. I had some trepidation about it, initially, says Alan Arkin, I thought it would double up the amount of direction I was getting. But they were great. They seem to speak the same language and its almost like dealing with one person.

Due to their years of experience on the sets of commercials and music videos, Dayton and Faris have honed their partnership. The fact that there are two of us simply means we always need to have a clear idea of what we want, and be all the more prepared, says Dayton. Our work is the intersection of our two sensibilities, adds Faris.

But how does a marriage survive the intensity and five-alarm stress of a debut feature film shoot We tried not to think about the fact that we were together 23 hours a day, offers Dayton. We respect each other, comments Faris, and it hasnt gotten old, creatively or personally. Perhaps Dayton has the most important sentiment: I cant imagine going home to someone who had no idea what I was working on that day.

For producer Peter Saraf there was only one downside to there being two directors on-set: It was harder to see the monitor, he laughs.

The actual production was limited to an intense thirty days, spread across locations in southern California and the deserts of Arizona, in the hot summer of 2005. It was a grueling shoot, says Dayton. But we wanted the realism of being out on the road.

Film's look and feel

As the journey began, the filmmakers turned their attention to look and feel of the film. One of their primary goals was finding the right balance between the films often twisted sense of humor and the realism necessary to hold the story together. We knew the performances were the most important thing, says Jonathan Dayton, so we tried to ride a fine line between creating beautiful, interesting shots and never overshadowing the performances in the frame.

Dayton and Faris collaborated closely with cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt — who has previously captured such comedic worlds as the corporate life of OFFICE SPACE and the stylized fantasy of BILL AND TEDS EXCELLENT ADVENTURE on creating quirky, fresh visuals that allow the Hoovers personalities to take the spotlight. There were no rules, except to use whatever felt right for the moment, says Suhrstedt We used a mixture of everything, with some shots decided ahead of time and others decided right on the spot. To support this free-wheeling style of working, Suhrstedt decided to shoot the film on Super 35mm, as opposed to using anamorphic lenses. It lets you use lighter equipment and better depth of field, which fit the shooting schedule perfectly, he explains.

When it came to finding angles, the biggest challenge was shooting inside what becomes the Hoovers tightly-packed home for most of the story: their beaten-up, broken-down VW bus. In order to find interesting views from inside the vehicle, Suhrstedt first used a basic video camera to experiment with different shooting angles, ultimately compiling the shots that would work best.

Throughout the shooting, Suhrstedt also worked closely with production designer Kalina Ivanov, who also kept the focus on a familiar naturalism against which the chaos and catharsis of the trip plays out. We did not want to exaggerate, we did not want to push, we always wanted to keep the look subtle and realistic, explains Ivanov.

Ivanov began by making the road trip from Albuquerque to Redondo Beach herself while compiling a wall of photos and images found along the way to share with the cast and crew. Once in California, she also hunted for the Hoover family home, which she found in Burbank. It had just the right look we wanted, but we ended up building fake walls to close down the space and make it look more crowded, says Ivanov.

Ivanov collected four vintage VW buses the funky family-trip vehicle that became popular in the late 1970s. Though their interiors were remodeled to accommodate the needs of production, there was nothing quite like shooting scenes in a hot, crowded mini-bus in the middle of the desert. It was probably one of the most bonding experiences an actor could have had, laughs Toni Collete. Paul Dano is more direct: It was hell. It was incredibly hot and cramped. Summarizes young Abigail Breslin: Being in a small VW bus like that, you really get to know each other its kind of hard not to.

Eventually, the road trip culminates in the films climactic pageant scene, which balances a kind of shocking authenticity with the films overall comic style. The key was casting real participants from the very serious, and even cut-throat, world of childrens beauty contests. We went to great lengths to get real pageant kids and their parents for those scenes, says Valerie Faris. We didnt dress up or direct these little girls hardly at all.

Production designer Ivanov also researched typical kids beauty pageants to create a set so realistic that it received a strong reaction from the extras. The best compliment I got was that many of the pageant people had tears in their eyes at the sight of the set because the little girls were so excited about performing on it, says Ivanov.


After the production wrapped, the directors turned their attention to another vital element of the film the music which, given Faris and Daytons years of experience with music videos was seen as especially key. They forged a synergistic partnership between acclaimed composer Mychael Danna and the eclectic Denver-based band DeVotchka, fronted by songwriter and lead singer Nick Urata, whose sound and music inspired much of the score.

The exotic musical quartet whose adventurous work blends folk rhythms and melodies from all around the world was ready to move to a more traditional American mode for the Southwestern road trip of “Little Miss Sunshine.”

We heard them and thought they had the perfect tone, the perfect melodic quality. Theres a real emotion to what they do. Of the bands unusual instrumentation, including sousaphone, theremin and bouzouki, Faris says: We were looking for music that felt like this oddball collection of characters. Whats really hard is to bring out the humor, without the music itself being humorous and this seemed to really work.

To fully utilize DeVotchkas sound, Faris and Dayton not only asked the band to write songs for the film but also asked Mychael Danna to compose his under-score to reflect the bands unique combination of instruments. Mychael wrote beautiful melodies, says Dayton. He really got what we were going for creatively.

Also contributing two songs is Sufjan Stevens, the young American singer-songwriter who is being lauded as one of the most vital new voices in todays music scene. His ode to road trips, Chicago, and the emotional No Mans Land add the indie artists uniquely modern sense of lush melody and moving lyrics to the films mix.

From the photography to the sets, the music and the complex performances themselves, the entire production became all about capturing the Hoovers in all their absurdity, angst and affection. Sums up Steve Carell: I think what people respond to so deeply in the Hoovers is that theyre strained, theyre awkward, but theyre also just so real. This is how families are. Its not all puppy dogs and ice cream all the time. It can get ugly and it can get sad and it can get funny, and thats how life really is.


Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris make their feature film directorial debut with LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. However, the married team has already built an impressive body of innovative projects as directors and producers in a variety of mediums, collaborating together on over 75 projects in film, television, commercials and music videos.

Jonathan and Valerie began their careers creating and directing the pioneering MTV show, The Cutting Edge. They continued to work at the leading edge of music television, directing award-winning videos and documentaries for artists including REM, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Janes Addiction, The Smashing Pumpkins, Macy Gray, Janet Jackson, Oasis, Weezer and The Ramones. Their music productions ultimately earned them two Grammy Awards, nine MTV Music Video Awards and a Billboard Music Director of the Year Award.

In addition, Jonathan and Valerie have worked extensively in television, including directing episodes of the groundbreaking sketch comedy series Mr. Show with Bob and David for HBO. They also produced two feature films: the documentary THE DECLINE OF WESTERN CIVILIZATION PART II: THE METAL YEARS for New Line Cinema and Janes Addictions GIFT for Warner Bros. Music.

In 1998, Jonathan and Valerie co-founded Bob Industries, one of the countrys leading commercial production companies, where they have directed high profile television ads for VW, Sony Playstation, Gap, Target, Ikea, Apple and ESPN, among many others. In 2004, Boards Magazine placed Dayton and Faris among the top ten directors working in commercials today.


Michael Arndt lives in New York City. “Little Miss Sunshine” is his first produced screenplay.