It’s been six years since Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton released their first feature film, the sleeper hit Little Miss Sunshine. Now, after some false starts (they were at points attached to The Abstinence Teacher and Will), the husband-wife duo is back with Ruby Sparks. The movie stars Sunshine’s Paul Dano as a struggling novelist who types his dream girl (Zoe Kazan, who wrote the screenplay) into existence, then makes tweaks to her personality as the relationship starts to unravel. In other words, it’s a story about control issues — which Faris and Dayton admittedly know a bit about, at least insofar as their filmmaking careers are concerned. Just the right project, then? We spoke to the couple, who got their start directing music videos — including the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight Tonight” — at a hotel junket about how the film came together, why the others did not, and what they really think of MTV today.
Wow, it’s really hot in here.
Faris: We turned the thermostat up. [Dayton goes to lower it.] God, it’s so sensitive. It was at 67.
Anyway, how are you guys doing? You’re coming to the end of a long day.
Faris: This is happening in a string of many cities.
Dayton: It’s a different city every day. We’re in New York for two days. But it’s fine.
Faris: I’m not complaining.
Dayton: You know, it’s been six years since we’ve been in this situation.
Well, since you brought it up —
Faris: Oh no.
Why did you wait this long?
Faris: Well, you know, there are many ways to answer the question. But we just never found the right project where everything came together. We’ve worked on a lot of things over the six years, but this one came to us, it felt like a complete film, it felt like it had all the parts it needed, and we had two stars already attached who we loved. It’s funny how sometimes everything kind of falls into place, and it just didn’t on the other projects, even though we loved them.
Dayton: And we haven’t given up on them, but it’s just — we’re very fortunate that we can pay our bills with commercials.
Faris: So we don’t have to make a movie.
Dayton: Film is really our labor of love. It’s so much work that unless it feels like we really have a good chance to make something work, I’d rather not embark on it, you know?
People keep talking about how you haven’t made a film for six years, but you haven’t made a music video for that long either. Will you ever do that again?
Faris: It’s funny, both the film industry and the music industry have just kind of changed a lot over the last ten years. And I think we don’t do videos as much anymore because the bands that we used to do videos for don’t spend as much money on videos, and a lot of them don’t even really make videos. We would do them if the right thing came along. But it’s kind of something you just do because it’s fun; it’s not a living.
Has anyone approached you to make a video for them, though? Like, has Billy Corgan called you up?
Faris: [Laughs.] No.
Dayton: We haven’t talked to Billy in a while.
Faris [to Dayton]: We are going to Chicago. We should try to contact him, have him come see the film.
Faris: I don’t know where he is; he’s probably on tour. [Back to Vulture.] Yeah, but it was really a great time in our lives; it was so much fun to work with musicians. I think we always loved that collaborative process. We do it with actors, we do it with musicians, with each other. And I miss that, because I think music is in some ways our first love.
Dayton: Do you watch videos? I mean, much now? Online, but …
Yeah, exactly, online. So what do you think of MTV today, having done so many music videos and also Cutting Edge in the network’s early days.
Dayton: Oh my God, you’re really going back.
Faris: I don’t watch MTV. Our sons watch Jersey Shore sometimes. I walk through the room and I get disgusted and I leave and I give them a hard time about it. And they laugh. You know, they watch it because they know how bad and how raunchy it is, but it’s just … it does really make us sad that there is no music television anymore. I feel like it was a fun channel for a while and that it really was celebrating music and about music and it was a great place for bands to get seen.
Dayton: It reminded me of the early days of TV, when there were three networks and everyone watched the shows, so you could go to school the next day after seeing something and everyone would talk about it. That still happens, but with music videos it doesn’t happen.
Faris: Like TRL was kind of fun — Oh, there’s a new video!
Dayton: When we were doing videos, a video would come out and you would just feel everyone [reacting].
Faris: There’s also the curatorial aspect of MTV. Like, you can go on YouTube and see anything you want, but it’s nice to have somebody say, “Here’s some great alternative music,” to kind of curate those blocks of time and introduce you to stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily seek out on your own. So I still feel like there’s a place for it; I know they’re going through some changes and I hope maybe they’ll revive things.
Dayton: And some bands are doing amazing videos.
Like who do you think?
Faris: Arcade Fire.
Dayton: OK Go. There are good videos all the time. But we did them. So it’s not redundant, but —
Faris: It’s a great thing to do when you’re sort of learning, cutting your teeth. Commercials have kind of taken the place of that for us. They keep us vital and we get to be on a set a lot and practice what we do.
Okay, so back to the movie. Zoe said that she was scared to come to you guys with the screenplay. Was that justified? How did you react to it?
Faris: It came through [the producers]. I mean, Paul wrote us and Zoe wrote us. But obviously we really wanted to like it because we like them so much. And we were just so happy to read it and actually be blown away by it; that’s so rare when that happens. You want to like something, but then there’s some little thing that just isn’t quite right. So it was really — there was no convincing necessary.
Dayton: It had all the things you want when you go to the movies: It was entertaining; it was about something; it sparked a conversation; it invited a debate about classic issues of control.
Faris: It dealt also with issues of control in creative work as well as in relationships.
You’ve worked with Michael Arndt, a first-time screenwriter on Little Miss Sunshine, and this is Zoe’s first screenplay. Do you like working with first-time screenwriters or something?
Dayton: [Emphatically.] Absolutely.
Faris: Yeah. There’s something about somebody’s first screenplay, it’s like their whole life experience has kind of been bottled into it. They bring so much richness to it. And not that they won’t do that for their next script, but there is something about their first experience and the time that it’s been floating in their head. And there’s no pressure on it when they write it; there’s something beautiful and pure about them.
And does it give you more flexibility as directors?
Faris: Yeah [laughs]. I never thought of it that way. Probably.
Dayton: I mean, Zoe was certainly open to changes and she was really good at taking our notes and making them her own.
Faris: Both Michael and Zoe really let it be our film. They realized at a certain point that their job is done and now it’s yours and they trusted us with it. And that was a concern of ours [with Zoe] because she’s in the film and we were going to go through it every step of the way together. But she was just — it was never an issue with her. She just gave it away and wasn’t precious.
Dayton: She’s very mature in that way.
She has screenwriter parents, so maybe they gave her a tip about that.
Dayton: Right. I think that makes a big difference.
You mentioned that you’re not giving up on some of the other projects you had in the works before this one. What happened with Will, for example? It was supposed to star Zach Galifianakis and Paul Rudd, right?
Faris: Sore subject.
Dayton: You know, we love Demetri [Martin, the screenwriter]. So much.
Faris: We’re still very close to Demetri. He’s just such a brilliant guy. That was a … all the elements just didn’t line up.
It sounds safe to say you guys are — and I don’t mean this in a bad way — picky about things.
Do you think working as a team empowers you to be that way?
Dayton: It does.
Faris: I really think so.
Dayton: You know what? We don’t get along if we don’t like what we’re doing.
Faris: Our marriage has survived because we do things we love.
Dayton: And I’ve watched filmmakers start on things that they know are really —
Faris: I know, we’ve vicariously gone through a lot of suffering with our friends who have really difficult producers or financiers or studios. And you come out with something that isn’t what you want.
Dayton: So, fortunately, we love the new film. And we don’t expect it to have the same life as Little Miss Sunshine, but we don’t know.
Faris: And it doesn’t have to. It’s its own thing.