- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2006

‘There was no master plan,” Valerie Faris admits, recalling the steps that have led her and her husband, Jonathan Dayton, to the verge of a possibly large-scale success with their first theatrical feature, the eccentric and R-rated comedy “Little Miss Sunshine,” which opens locally this weekend.

A handful of engagements last weekend resulted in a stunning gross-per-theater average of better than $50,000, outpacing every other movie in circulation. The total numbers left “Miss Sunshine” deceptively back in the pack at No. 17 or so, no immediate threat to the drawing power of “Miami Vice” or “Pirates of the Caribbean:Dead Man’s Chest.”For a sleeper still in limited release, however, that was an impressive getaway.

Advance indications of the family-centric movie’s appeal have been accumulating since the Sundance Film Festival in January. “Little Miss Sunshine” became the Cinderella entry after a rousing debut screening led to an overnight bidding war between specialty distribution companies. Fox Searchlight made the winning offer “at around 8 a.m. the morning after,” Miss Faris recalls during a recent phone conversation.

Natives of Southern California and graduates of the University of California at Los Angeles, the Daytons have enjoyed success as a producing-directing team for more than 20 years. Shortly after graduation in the early 1980s, they were on the ground floor of the MTV programming surge as founding producers of the series “The Cutting Edge,” which showcased aspiring and/or emerging rock bands. A decade later, they began systematically directing TV commercials, winning particular acclaim for a Volkswagen Cabrio spot matched to the Nick Drake song “Pink Moon.”

Along the way, they produced the pop-music documentary “The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years” and directed episodes for the HBO comedy series “Mr. Show With Bob and David.” Several years into a professional partnership, their relationship ripened into a romantic match and then a marital one. Three children, the oldest a 13-year-old daughter, have enhanced the private side of their ongoing compatibility.

Though the Daytons weren’t desperate for a mainstream feature project, they had accumulated scores of credits and had heard pitches for scores of screenplays. The first thing that seemed at once distinctive and irresistible was a problematic item: a frequently ornery and aggressively wacky original screenplay by an unknown named Michael Arndt, who spent a portion of his youth in McLean.

This was “Little Miss Sunshine,” which draws on several influences but perhaps is easiest to peg as an update of “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” It depicts the misadventures of six members of a conspicuously dysfunctional middle-class family from Albuquerque, N.M., the Hoovers, who set out for Redondo Beach, Calif., on short notice to attend a beauty pageant for little girls. The youngest Hoover, 10-year-old Olive, has been accepted as a contestant at the last moment and needs to get on the road pronto. The Hoovers lack a road-worthy vehicle, but they persevere in a cranky antique Volkswagen bus.

About five years transpired between the day when the Daytons fell in love with the screenplay and the season of its national release. They recall nearly three years of rewrites with the reclusive Mr. Arndt, now based in Brooklyn. According to Mr. Dayton, the property had drifted around the film industry for several years before they embraced it.

“At one time, Michael probably intended to shoot it himself, as inexpensively as possible, in 16 millimeter,” says Mr. Dayton, who joins the conversation via speakerphone. “There were always problems about profanity and suitability; they led to recurrent suggestions that the material be toned down to guarantee a PG or at worst a PG-13 rating. We wanted to retain the offbeat and outrageous stuff, but we thought everything depended on casting it properly, that the script would work only if the right ensemble could be recruited. Once that fell into place, I think something miraculous happened: the script ended up playing much stronger than most people could envision while reading it.”

Mr. Dayton and Miss Faris got every principal they wanted: Greg Kinnear and Toni Collette as the parents of lovable Olive (Abigail Breslin) and her surly teenage brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano); Alan Arkin as an irascible, obscene grandpa; Steve Carell as Miss Collette’s traumatized brother, who joins the odyssey a day after a botched suicide attempt. Sticklers for preparation, the filmmakers didn’t flinch at a tight, sweltering shooting schedule of 30 days this time last summer at strategically placed locations between Los Angeles and Albuquerque.

Production designer Kalina Ivanov had scouted the route and customized a quartet of minivans to provide the cast and cinematographer Tim Suhrstedt with optimum maneuvering room during the driving sequences. A week of rehearsal included daily motoring excursions by cast and camera crew. The actors remained in character to and from picnic sites, and the filmmakers began to feel comfortable with the vantage points available to them while confined to the family van.

Mr. Dayton and Miss Faris shared film-crew experience in college, where he was enrolled in the film school and she was a dance major in the fine arts department. “I always thought more in terms of filming dance movement,” Miss Faris explains. “I wasn’t a dance prodigy or promising performer. The doors that opened for us in music videos and commercials were always the right ones. We’ve worked together so often that there’s no longer anything awkward about shared authority on the set. If anything, there can be strength in numbers. As long as you speak with one voice.”

Adds Mr. Dayton: “We may be new to features, but not to film sets or locations. Don’t forget that we had four or five years to prepare for this. We directed every scene in our minds and [in] discussions several times before the shooting finally started. It was gratifying to discover that what we’d imagined really did come to life on the screen.”

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