Bring me Sunshine

When is a family road movie not a family road movie? TF quizzes the people behind Little Miss Sunshine…

We’ve got a task for you… A point to prove, if you will. When you leave the cinema having seen Little Miss Sunshine, don’t think of anything clever to say about it, don’t ponder ways to describe it, just head into work the next day and tell the someone about it – plain and simple.

The problem is, your description will come out something like this… ‘It’s about a family, this really screwed up family, right, and they go out on the road to a beauty contest. Then the van doesn’t work, so they push it and one of them is gay and the dad’s a motivational speaker…’ and before you know it, it sounds bad enough that even Robin Williams would turn it down.

This reaction was similar to that of the husband and wife team who ended up directing this complex and comedic tale of family dysfunction, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.

“When we heard about it, we just weren’t interested in the idea of a family comedy,” Dayton says. “We didn’t read it for a while, did we?” Faris asks her husband. “No, in fact, when we heard the words ‘beauty pageant’ we left it on the table,” Dayton laughs.

Little Miss Sunshine is the tale of an offbeat family who pile into a VW camper van in order to get their daughter to a beauty pageant in California. There’s the dad, a wannabe motivational speaker (Greg Kinnear), the wife who just wants everyone to be happy (Toni Collette), the teenage son who refuses to speak, the suicidal, gay uncle (Steve Carell), the beauty queen-obsessed daughter (Abigail Breslin) and the heroin-snorting, hedonistic grandpa (Alan Arkin). Quite a hefty cast for two first-time feature directors, more accustomed to TV ads or music videos.

“It felt like a whole new set of challenges,” Dayton says, with enthusiasm. “The idea that we could present family life in a fresh way and to get real emotional performances. Not be cool, not have a lot of style in the filmmaking but just be very reserved in the filmmaking approach but work to get lots of raw, emotional truth.”

The cast shared the enthusiasm for the project but when totalfilm.com catches up with Alan Arkin, he admits he had reservations about the couple helming team.

“Oh yeah, it concerned me a lot,” the Catch-22 star offers. “I had three red flags up and almost the entire cast felt the same way. Firstly, they’d never done a film before, secondly they were a team of directors and thirdly, they were married. We all had trepidations about it but we also felt that the script was so damn good that we had to be connected with it.”

The film has such a sense of reality that the absence of the usual pitfalls in a family comedy can actually throw the audience off balance, something Arkin felt when he flicked through the screenplay.

“I looked at the first twenty pages and thought ‘what the hell is this’? I didn’t know where it was going, I had no idea what the tone was, then on page twenty I started to laugh and didn’t stop. By the time I was through reading it, I knew I had to be in it and that was that.”

After phone conversations with the directors, Arkin was still anxious about how their relationship would affect the project but once he’d seen Dayton and Faris working together on set, he was sold.

“After around the second day of filming, it all became so comfortable and easy, it was a wonderful experience. Even though it was a low budget film, I never felt rushed, I never felt pushed. We had beautiful accommodation, the food was great – all the peripheral things which can end up making the difference between a happy crew or a disgruntled crew were there for us. They were very generous in the way everyone was treated. It was a model shoot - no screaming directors, no producers watching the clock - it was so well planned and it made an enormous difference.”

An ensemble in the truest sense, the dynamic of the family unit was something the directors were keen to build before the cameras started rolling.

“We spent a week together before we started shooting, not so much rehearsing but just doing stuff together,” Arkin tells TF. “We’d go out and have lunch and they’d leave us alone just so we’d get to know each other. We went bowling, took road trips, we did a lot of stuff just to get a sense of who we were and what our energies were like.”

It turns out that being able to tolerate each other was a bonus, the cast having to spend almost a third of the shoot locked inside the VW bus.

“It was tough, really tough,” Arkin says with a sigh.  “We were out in the desert. It was summer time, it was 95 degrees out and we didn’t have any air conditioning. We were locked in the car because the lights had to be right outside the windows, so we couldn’t open the doors. So there were six of us, stuck in there, for sometimes hours at a time. But I tell you, we were so into the script and the characters that I don’t think we even noticed half the time – nobody complained or talked about it. There was a feeling that we were onto something good and we didn’t want to mess with it.”

Arkin’s involvement in the movie was a major bonus for his co-stars and directors.
Faris and Dayton said that working with Arkin was like getting to work with The Beatles.

“It was just a complete joy. Oh and Steve Carell was so psyched about Alan being in it,” Dayton says. “It was like we’d brought Peter Sellers back from the grave or something. They come from the same background, so there was this incredible respect there.”

“That’s flattering, obviously,” Arkin says in his fabulous deadpan voice. “No, seriously, nobody has ever quoted that to me before, I’m touched by that.” TF is still not sure whether Arkin is being serious. “Of course, there were only four Beatles, there’s five of me, this is how I make so many films.” We’ll take that as a no then.

Months later, with the film in the can and promotion underway, there is still one tiny problem for the happily-spliced helmers. How to market such a unique movie?

“Hopefully it’ll be through word of mouth,” Faris says. “A friend just tells you to go and see it, without giving too much away, you know? It’s a tricky thing because it doesn’t sound like a character-driven movie when you describe it but that’s exactly what it is. It’s not a family movie. It’s not loud but it’s still colourful…”

Total Film suggests that it is a family movie - unplugged.

“Oh God, that’s it! That’s great!” Dayton laughs. “It’s like your favourite punk band, scaled down. Where were you when we were marketing?”

Little Miss Sunshine is released in UK cinemas on 8 September.