‘Little Miss Sunshine’ directors talk filmmaking from script to screen

by October 5th, 2012

From left: Instructor Lee Rosenbaum, Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton. Photo: Chuck Spangler

“Little Miss Sunshine” directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris spent Wednesday afternoon with Art Center College of Design students recounting their 30-year career, which spans directing the first round of music videos in the early 1980s to the 2012 feature film “Ruby Sparks.”

The husband-and-wife directing duo kicked off the conversation on the Hillside campus with advice for students getting their foot in the door.

“Right now you guys are really cheap to hire and that’s a great entry into the business,” said Dayton, wearing jeans, jacket and his signature fedora.

“Lie, cheat, steal, do whatever you can to get your movies made,” Faris added, quoting her former UCLA professor, renowned filmmaker Shirley Clarke.

The pair made their directorial debut with the R.E.M. music video “Wolves Lower” in 1982 when MTV was first launching.

“There was this new form of filmmaking, and there were no experts and no money,” said Faris, donning a blue button up paired with yellow sneakers.

The couple went on to direct videos for ’90s grunge darlings Jane’s Addiction, Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins.

Dayton and Faris shared cinematic secrets behind the 1996 Smashing Pumpkins video for “1979,” including putting cameras in unusual places: inside a Ziploc bag and tossed into a pool and strapped inside a rolling tractor tire.

“We wanted the special effects in camera as much as possible,” said Faris.

Unfortunately, the first round of footage was lost. “A PA left the tapes on top of the car and drove off,” Faris said, adding they searched for the film for five days. “We put up flyers all over the area in different languages,” she said. “We ended up having to reshoot the whole thing.”

After a decade making music videos, the pair started directing commercials including a spot for Sony PlayStation (which involved blowing up an air mortar in Valencia) and a spot with NBA greats speaking side by side and perfectly in sync, a concept later recreated on the cover of Time magazine.

“It’s your job to take a crazy but a great idea written by a copywriter and figure out how to make it happen — you pitch your approach,” said Dayton.

The pair parlayed their commercial success into feature film when they were selected out of more than a dozen directors to helm “Little Miss Sunshine.”

“We were the most passionate and probably the least experienced,” said Dayton.

The 2006 indie phenomenon went on to gross $100 million worldwide and win two Oscars. And six years later — after working on several scripts that never came to screen — the pair followed up the hit with the critically acclaimed “Ruby Sparks,” which follows a struggling writer whose muse comes to life.

As for making the leap from ads to movies, Dayton told the crowd, “The good news is if you create a short or a commercial, and it’s good, people will want to hire you to do features.

“In the cheap advice department, enthusiasm is everything,” he added. “If you genuinely feel it, that counts a lot, and it means they know they can pay you less.”

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