Michael Arndt, Little Mr. Sunshine

Michael Guillen February 23, 2007

Michael Arndt, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter for “Little Miss Sunshine,” made a recent Cody’s San Francisco bookstore appearance promoting the Newmarket Press publication of the film’s shooting script. With a foreword by the film’s directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and Arndt’s introduction, scene notes and wry afterword on how to write a Sundance hit in nine easy steps, the Newmarket shooting script is a welcome amplification of the Little Miss Sunshine experience. It’s also a shining example of artistic perseverance.

No less than five years ago, screenwriter Michael Arndt had no credits, no agents, and no publishing track record when he took a year off to write “a saleable script.” The rest is indie history. His script scored him an agent, a deal, and a runaway hit that’s been nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Screenplay and Best Picture. Sincerely flattered by his standing room only audience, and joking that screenwriters “are usually hidden from the rest of the world,” Arndt took time to answer a couple of my questions.

SF360: There’s a pervasive collaborative spirit in the ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ project that’s delightful to experience. Not only among the acting ensemble, but in the directing and the writing. It’s understandable why you’re being honored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences with multiple nominations in various categories. I had the opportunity to interview Jonathan and Valerie — and they spoke so well of you — but I am aware that at one point during the course of production there was friction concerning the script, and that you were going to be replaced, even after all the years that you had invested in writing the script. I’m interested in what the issues were that produced that friction and how they were (fortunately!) resolved?

Michael Arndt: [Chuckling guardedly.] I sold the script. The producers brought on Jonathan and Valerie and they set it up at a studio, Focus Films. Jonathan and Valerie were actually more protective of the script than I was. They really wanted to keep it the way it was. The project was at Focus for three years. To this day if you put a gun to my head and asked, ‘What did Focus want you to do with the script?’ I couldn’t tell you. I never got a clear sense of what they wanted other than the fact that they seemed to keep pushing to want to make the script Richard’s story. I’ve always said that the protagonist of this movie is the whole family. You start off with all these people living their separate lives and the climax of the movie is them all jumping up on stage together. The story is really about this family starting out separately and ending up together. I think just because financing in Hollywood is so tied to casting, Focus wanted to make Richard’s story deeper or bigger so that they could get Jim Carrey or Ben Stiller to play that role. My objection was Richard is a comic character. He’s not a very deep person and he’s sort of a blind obsessive. If you turn the story into his enlightenment or awakening at the end, you turn it into a drama and end up removing a lot of the comedy. So I resisted making those changes for a long time. Focus started saying, ‘Well, if Michael isn’t going to make these changes, we’ll fire him and get someone who will.’ Jon and Val then felt pressured to turn around to say to me, ‘Look, you better start changing the script. Otherwise, you’re going to get fired.’ I had to make a decision. I’d worked really hard to get the script to where I thought it worked — and the script that was shot was basically the script that I wrote, so I’ve been vindicated that it did work — but, at that time I had to decide, ‘Am I going to be the guy who fucks up my own script? Or am I going to let somebody else do it?’ I decided I’d much rather be fired and let somebody else do it. I didn’t want to be the guy who compromised the movie and then watched it up on the screen and felt like it wasn’t everything that it could have been. So I got fired off the project. They brought in another writer. He did a draft. He went in a very different direction. He did three or four weeks of writing and then left. In the meantime, the head of the studio left and somebody new came in and so I got rehired. There wasn’t really any friction between Jonathan and Valerie and I, but I did get kicked off the project briefly, which was a totally traumatic experience.

A good example of what went right in the development process was — at this last scene — in the original script it was basically this explosion of anarchic energy. As soon as Olive started dancing, people came out and tried to stop her and the family jumped up on stage and then it was three-and-a-half minutes of anarchy after that. And it was much more over the top than what [ended up in the movie]. The problem with that was that there wasn’t an arc to the scene. Jon and Val were very much proponents of creating an arc to the scene. You see it [in the final version]. What we decided was we were going to focus on the character of Richard. We put him through five stages. He starts off hopeful that she’s actually going to win. He’s really hoping that she’ll win. When she starts dancing, he’s in denial. Then he’s embarrassed for a while. Then he’s bewildered. Then he takes a cue from Uncle Frank and stands up and is supportive. To me, emotionally, the end of the scene is when the judge comes up and says, ‘What is your daughter doing?’ and he says, ‘She’s kicking ass.’ That’s when he realizes she’s not going to win. Finally, it’s him becoming protective, jumping up on stage in defiance on his part where he actually starts dancing and doesn’t care at all about winning. That’s a whole arc for the character and hopefully everyone [in the audience] is going to be riding on that character’s shoulders. Even the people who are lagging behind are going to be able to follow his arc and get to the end of that arc with him.

Not too much else changed. The one scene that got added was the scene where Richard leaves the family and goes and confronts Dan Grossman. That was a scene that wasn’t in the original script that got put in, in order to beef up Richard’s story. In terms of conflict between Jon, Val and I? I don’t think there was hardly any. They were heroic in trying to protect my script. The only conflict came from them trying to keep me on the project and me being so recalcitrant that I got fired.

SF360: Thank you for your candor and your perseverance. The presiding icon of Little Miss Sunshine is the broken-down Volkswagen van. How did you come up with that?

Arndt: People ask me if this story is autobiographical and I say nothing in the movie is autobiographical except the VW van. When I was a kid we had a VW bus in my family and everything that happened to the bus in the movie happened to us. The door fell off, the horn got stuck, the clutch broke so we had to push it for 600 miles, and actually — it wasn’t in the movie — but the wheels came off twice while we were driving! I remember thinking, ‘Well, it’s a road trip. Which vehicle are you going to put them in?’ A VW bus just seemed logical because you have these high ceilings and clean sightlines so you can put the camera in the front windshield looking back and see everybody. It seemed like an obvious decision, but then you get the benefit that VW buses have this great personality — and everyone has a VW bus story, either a nightmare story or an affection for VW buses. Our doors fell off so often we got to be pros at putting them back on again. That came from real life.

My final question for Michael Arndt was answered when I approached him after his talk to sign my copy of the book. ‘Are you a writer?’ he asked. ‘Does it show?’ I grinned. He wrote: ‘Michael, remember fun is better than winning! Happy writing!’ In gist, that is the overarching lesson of Little Miss Sunshine, isn’t it? How ironic that Arndt’s themes are being tested in real life as he sits in the Academy hot seat. One can only wish him a happy resolution by having fun winning.