Dayton / Faris: From “Infinite Sadness” to a Little Sunshine
Celebrity scoop by Joel Fowler

You can either love ‘em or hate ‘em, but you have to admit that the mark that directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have made on America’s cultural landscape within such a miniscule amount of attention drawn to them and their work is simply immeasurable.
Directorial Team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

It’s easy to love this married couple for their bold artistic vision and an aggressively stylistic flair they brought to the field of music videos in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. While behind the camera, this pair helped visually shape some of the era’s most popular songs, from rockers such as The Red Hot Chili Peppers (‘Californication’, ‘By The Way’) to Korn (the multi-media mixed ‘Freak on a Leash’) to Soundgarden (‘Outshined’).

The duo’s short-form opus though would have to be the clip created for The Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Tonight, Tonight.’ An adventurous homage to the early days of silent motion pictures, ‘Tonight’ has been hailed by many critics of the genre as one of the best offerings ever, both in terms of its technical and thematic excellence. In total, their music productions have landed Dayton & Faris two Grammy Awards, nine MTV Music Video Awards, and a Billboard Magazine “Music Director of the Year” Award.

So, how could anyone hate this couple, you ask?

Dayton / Faris are also at the forefront of the advertising field, creating revolutionary marketing campaigns for such name brands as Volkswagen, Apple, and Target. Hearing those names, you can almost visualize their work in your head. That’s not to say you should hate their thirty seconds of genius collection, whether it’s having Lebron James magically sinking jumpers from full court or teenage PlayStation 2 gamers accidentally using their tractor beam to attract every piece of metal in a four block radius.

No, the only reason to disapprove of Dayton / Faris’ commercial work is that they’ve set the bar so high that all of Madison Avenue is scrambling to come up with sales pitches that are just as unique and entertaining as the ones this UCLA-alumni combo can whip up. Many times the knock-off artists offerings come with disastrous (if not outright creepy) results (think of the most recent Burger King or Altoids spots and you’ll know what I mean).

While heralded within the industry, the team of Dayton / Faris is relatively unknown to the American public, though that’s all about to change with the release of their first feature film, Little Miss Sunshine which hits limited screen on August 4th (before going nationwide on August 18th). While on what they call their ‘word-o-mouth tour du jour,’ it’s the public side of Hollywood that the couple is trying to adjust to.

“It’s weird,” states Jonathan, a jovial bearded man with bright eyes and a relax vibe emoting from under his vintage fedora. “We never got a chance to talk much about our video work before. That’s the beauty of film. You’re connecting with the audience and the press like you’ve never done before.”

“Yeah,” Valerie agrees, “we’re used to being in some studio in Los Angeles, and sending out the finished video or commercial, and then moving on to the next project. It’s different.”

“True, but there’s nothing like actually hearing an audience laugh at your movie in a theater.” Jonathan adds with a chuckle.

Laughter in theaters has been a common occurrence wherever Sunshine sheds its light. A hit at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this comedy follows an extended family, headed up by Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette and includes a self-imposed mute son (Paul Dano), a patriarchal geriatric heroine user (Alan Arkin), and a suicidal homosexual Proust scholar (Steve Carell), as they travel from New Mexico to California for their youngest daughter Olive’s shot at beauty pageant glory.

Though, both Jonathan and Valerie were nervous that a film festival audience was one that could be trusted.

“See, hard core film fans make that trek [to Sundance],” Jonathan explains. “Sure, they ‘get it’ but will others? So, now it’s nice to see the film on the road, in Miami or D.C. last night, and actually see [normal] audiences excited and have the similar [warm] reception to Sunshine.”

So, for a couple who have been in the land of movies for close to two decades, why did they choose this film, scripted by an unknown writer (Michael Arndt), to be their first?

“Well, it really just stuck out,” explains Valerie. “We had been reading scripts for like ten years, but never ran into anything we felt was ready to make. But, this script was so clear! The writing was so exact and knew what it wanted to say. Except for a few places that needed to be cut for time or simply tighten; the finished product is almost word-for-word of that thoughtful original script.”

“This script had such great characters, deep and complete, and they span all age categories. While it’s an overused expression, I really believe that Little Miss Sunshine is fun for the whole family,” Jonathan adds.

The most unexpected surprise concerning the film’s cast is the work turned in by normally funnyman Steve Carell, a fact that doesn’t escape this duo who certainly knows talent when they see it.

“We cast Steve not thinking he would turn into this big comedy star,” said Dayton of his movie’s main man. “We choose him because we thought he was a really great actor.”
Little Miss Sunshine team Dayton and Faris
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

“Which he is!” Valerie interjects.

“On a basic level, we just saw Steve as a great performer, and we loved the thought of him really being challenged and making this big leap [professionally]. His success was just fortuitous for us, since he’s probably brought all this added attention to our film.”

“This film just shows you that Steve Carell can do anything.” Valerie concludes. “There are just so many emotionally hard scenes for his [suicidal] character. When we were filming, Steve’s 18-month old son was very sick some nights, and it really prepared Steve for the trauma of those scenes. He would come in some mornings and I thought, ‘God Steve, you look horrible… Great! Roll film!’”

“Steve just exemplifies the entire cast in that he didn’t care if he had an awkward or unflattering moment on screen. He never felt the need to be funny. Steve said to us after the shoot was over that he never felt he was making a comedy, which was I thought a great compliment, meaning the laughs you see on screen are genuine, which is what we were going for,” Jonathan concludes.

So, was it difficult adjusting to professional actors who need less hand holding on set than say the athletes and musicians you’re used to working with?

“No way, it was great working with actors of that caliber, no doubt about it,” Jonathan said. “Valerie and I likened it to working with a great band in that each actor quickly found their role and figured out where they fit in. Like with the Chili Peppers, you don’t have to tell Anthony or Flea how to perform or how they should move; you just set up the situation for them and then you let them do what they do. In that way it’s very organic, and I hope that’s how this film feels to the audience, because that’s how it made us feel.”

“And the cast felt the same way.” Valerie adds. “After we wrapped, they all said how much fun it was just to be able to act and connect with each other. There were five- or six-page scenes that we would run through in one take, and let’s be honest, we’ve worked with some big named actors who you would be surprised couldn’t carry that off. But, the cast all said they enjoyed working in such big chunks and developing that rhythm that a normal family would have, say sharing a meal together or having a conversation while in a van going to California.”

So, how do Jonathan and Valerie work together as husband and wife on-set? Does their professional relationship ever interfere with their personal life?

“I think it helps that we worked together on a strictly professional level for close to six years doing this show on MTV called ‘The Cutting Edge,’” Faris explains. “Our private relationship sort of developed after we already had figured out how to work as a professional team.”

“I think the real key of us making this personal / profession thing work is that we both really love our work. It’s nice to be with someone who’s as passionate about the project you’re working on as you are,” Jonathan admits. “Oh, believe me, it’s not easy, especially having three kids and trying to shut off our ‘work side’ sometimes, but we make it happen and we couldn’t be happier with where we are in our life together.”

©2006 Thomas Huff and Joel Fowler,

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