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On the Road With “Little Miss Sunshine”

There are road movies and then there’s

Little Miss Sunshine

, the first feature film outing for Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Best known for their Grammy-winning music videos, their MTV show (

The Cutting Edge

) and their commercial production company, Bob Industries–which has created spots for VW, Gap, Sony PlayStation and ESPN–Dayton and Faris shot this “dysfunctional family stuck together” flick on the desert highways of Southern California using four antique VW vans.

“You can always tell when a scene that is supposedly inside a moving vehicle has been filmed on a soundstage,” explains Dayton. “That’s why we shot everything that is supposed to take place on the road on an actual highway–which meant sticking six characters inside an old van going down the road at 50 miles an hour and filming them as best we could.”

Plot Line

Despite its focus on the road,

Little Miss Sunshine


Route 66

,” says Jonathan Dayton. Instead, the story of a dysfunctional family taking their 7-year-old daughter to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant is a tale of some very weird characters moving through a bleak, backwater landscape. “We tried to make an unromanticized road movie,” Faris explains. “The characters stay in dumpy motels, moving through an interstate-franchised version of America.”

Among the characters are Richard Hoover (Greg Kinnear), a struggling motivational speaker trying to get his daughter, Olive (Abigail Breslin), to the pageant; his Nietzche-loving teenage nephew (Paul Dano) who has taken a vow of silence until he is old enough to be a fighter pilot; and a grandfather (Alan Arkin) who was kicked out of his retirement home for snorting heroin. Add stressed-out mom Sheryl (Toni Collette) and her brother/Proust scholar Frank (Steve Carell), home after a failed suicide attempt, and you’ve got a crowd of eccentrics guaranteed to provide a unique road trip experience. Despite their quirks, “they are actually very funny characters that you grow to love over the course of the film,” says Faris.

Not surprisingly, throwing such a dysfunctional crew together makes for some crazy comic moments, which is precisely why Dayton and Faris chose this script. “What we loved most was screenwriter Michael Arndt’s voice in the screenplay and his ability to create some very human characters,” Faris says. “

Little Miss Sunshine

is a truly funny, very touching story that really stood out among the piles of scripts we had waded through.”

“The film is a real mixture of comedy and drama,” notes Dayton. “The more real the characters’ pain and the greater their discomfort, the more funny the story actually becomes.”

Enter the VW

Fallout from “comedic claustrophobia” is at the heart of

Little Miss Sunshine

. “We wanted to convey what a real family feels and acts like when they’re thrown together, whether in a van or during the extremely long dinner scene that’s in the movie,” Dayton says. “This is why the VW van is such an important part of the story and why it was so important for us to film inside it on the road.”

Dayton and Faris chose a 1978 VW passenger van for

Little Miss Sunshine

‘s road action. Members of the Baby Boomer generation will remember this vehicle well; for those who don’t, the 1978 VW van is a two-toned, slightly streamlined box on wheels with windows all around its upper half. Compared to today’s SUVs, the 1978 VW van was not the picture of luxury. The interior was spartan with vinyl-covered bench seats, and perhaps a radio if you were lucky. As for air conditioning? You’ve got to be kidding! To provide the characters in

Little Miss Sunshine

with the right degree of misery, the Hoover’s VW van is suitably decrepit, noisy and uncomfortable.

Finding one such van in this condition was no real challenge for Dayton and Faris; finding four of them took a lot of leg work.

The reason they needed four VW vans was to allow filming from different angles. One of the vans was left “as is” for outdoor shots. The others had sections removed so that cameras could be attached in various locations. In the most extreme case, the actors worked inside a VW van with one side cut away and replaced by Plexiglas. This setup allowed a camera on an exterior-mounted platform to capture the action inside “without the occupants being whipped by the winds,” Faris says.

“We shot the movie with a Super 35mm film gate. Being that we were out on a desert highway, we wanted a true widescreen look to the movie without resorting to anamorphic 2.35 lenses,” Dayton says. “We used Super 35mm because it gives you such a large negative while letting you shoot with smaller, 35mm lenses.” This said, the final print of

Little Miss Sunshine

was optically squeezed to be projected in the 2.35 anamorphic format.

Lighting and Audio

As anyone who has seen the original

Texas Chainsaw Massacre

knows, shooting inside a vehicle in daylight can lead to “blown out” windows. Since Dayton and Faris were determined to rely on natural light as much as possible, the only solution was to equip the windows of the VW vans with removable tinted gels. “By using the gels, we were able to bring the interior and exterior lighting levels a little closer without compromising the natural look we were aiming for,” says Faris.

“We wanted to make sure that you can see the sky and what’s passing by outside the van,” Dayton says. “We also wanted you to see shadows and sunlight moving across the actors’ faces as they drive down the road. Granted, we did add some lights to ensure decent images, but, again, we tried to keep the look as natural as possible.” One bonus was the white ceiling of the 1978 VW van. “This helped with lighting,” he says.

In keeping with the “you are there” feel of

Little Miss Sunshine

, most of the dialogue was actually recorded inside the van during the shooting. “We wanted to minimize doing looping afterward in order to ensure a realistic audio track,” says Faris. “To this end, everyone in the van was individually mic’d, and extra mics were fixed throughout the van to provide ambient audio for easier mixing.”

Given that they were recording audio in a moving vehicle–an old, rattling VW van at that–

Little Miss Sunshine

‘s audio track is not pristine. “It’s a noisy soundtrack, but it’s what we wanted for this movie,” says Dayton. “People forget what an old car sounds like: the squeaks, the rattles and the hums. Of course, this often meant that our cast members had to speak louder in order to be heard, but that’s in keeping with the feel of the movie.”

Fun on the Road

All told,

Little Miss Sunshine

was a challenging shoot for cast and crew alike. But for Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, it was a heck of a lot of fun as well. “Because our background is in music videos and commercials, we’re accustomed to spending only a few days filming on each project,” Dayton says. “With

Little Miss Sunshine

, we spent five weeks shooting. It was so satisfying to have to the time to really bond with the cast and crew.”

As for the film’s four VW vans? They’ve been parked, and unless a sequel to

Little Miss Sunshine

is in the works, chances are they’ll stay that way.