Family Values

Michael Arndt
Screenwriter Michael Arndt.

For a screenwriter, there’s no greater risk than throwing in the towel of a life of secure employment and handing yourself over to the writing trade. And there’s no greater payoff than writing a hit movie the first time out. But for screenwriter Michael Arndt, it’s all in the statistics. “I figured I’d probably write 50 scripts in my life,” he says. “Out of those 50, I figured maybe five would be produced, and that maybe one or two would be successful.”

Still, nothing could prepare this newcomer for the reaction that he would receive—both positive and negative—to his script for Little Miss Sunshine, a movie that takes the “family road trip” movie to new highs and is garnering award nominations left and right. As the awards season kicks off, MM chatted with Arndt about risking it all for Hollywood.

Jennifer Wood (MM): The awards season is just getting underway, and already you’re finding a lot of success. Did you ever imagine—as you sat in your apartment, toiling away on this script so many years ago—that you’d be in this position?

Michael Arndt (MA): I think every writer harbors—secretly or not-so-secretly—delusions of grandeur. Still, when you’re starting out, it’s hard to imagine how you’ll ever “succeed,” just as it’s almost impossible to imagine that you’re ever going to “fail.” On the other hand, I’d pretty much decided I was going to make a lifetime commitment to writing and, based on that, I figured I’d probably write 50 scripts in my life. Out of those 50, I figured maybe five would be produced, and that maybe one or two would be successful. So I always kind of expected I’d write at least one successful film in my life. Still, I feel very, very lucky that my first produced script was blessed with such talented directors and actors. The way it all came together was kind of like Murphy’s Law in reverse—I don’t expect that kind of experience again any time soon.

MM: Though it all sounds like that sort of magical overnight success story—a first-time screenwriter who hits it big—you’ve been working at this a long time. When did you first begin working on the script for Little Miss Sunshine? How long did it take you to complete it—and how long from then did it take to get the film into production?

MA: I started thinking about the idea for Little Miss Sunshine in 1997 or 1998; it was one of those story ideas that just sits in the back of your mind for a long time. I resisted writing it because I thought the story was too small—there just didn’t seem to be enough at stake to justify a full feature film. Then, in the spring of 2000, I saw a Japanese animated film called My Neighbors The Yamadas, by Isao Takahata, at a Studio Ghibli retrospective at the MoMA in New York. It was a completely episodic story about a typical Japanese family, but it was entertaining enough to convince me that just about any family has a great story in them if you are honest enough and treat them with respect.

In May of 2000, I wrote the first draft of Little Miss Sunshine very quickly—in three days—and then spent a year rewriting it. The script was read by the Endeavor Agency in July 2001, and was sold in December 2001. The directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, became attached to the project fairly quickly, and we worked together on the script for a little over three years—until June of 2005, when it finally went into production.

MM: At what point in the process did you know that you had something with this film? That it was time to risk it all—lay everything on the line—and just go for it?

MA: In late 1999 I quit my job and, living off my hard-earned savings, gave myself a year off to write full-time. That was a huge risk for me—like jumping off a cliff and trying to build an airplane on the way down. Little Miss Sunshine was one of several scripts I wrote in that period. Once I started, though, I pretty much knew right away that Little Miss Sunshine was working as a script—the voices of the characters came to me very clearly and their interactions were just so darn funny. At the same time, I was afraid the story was just too small and “indie” to get any real attention from Hollywood. My plan was to direct it myself as a no-budget, DV feature.

MM: Rumor has it that you actually wrote 100 drafts of the script. Is that true? What were the most drastic changes you made from draft one to 100?

MA: Let me clarify: I have a little more than 100 drafts of the script in my computer. That’s not to say that I did 100 page-one rewrites. However, every time I did a set of revisions and turned them in for feedback, I saved that particular draft. Since it took five years for the film to get made, that roughly breaks down to 20 sets of revisions every year, or two every month. Needless to say, some months were more intensive than others. I was re-writing throughout the production and even in post-production. The final scene of the movie—where they push the bus out of the parking lot—was written and shot about eight weeks before Sundance.

The script actually changed very little between drafts one and 100. The biggest change was the addition of the sequence in which Richard goes off on his own to confront Stan Grossman. That wasn’t in the original script. Also, the final dance scene was initially a lot more explosive and anarchic—Jonathan and Valerie were smart enough to tone down to be more realistic and less over-the-top.

MM: With large character stories like this one—where there are so many different characters, each with their own back stories and current crises—I’m always curious as to how you write that as a screenwriter. I know that it’s different for everyone, but how did you do it? Was each story written separately and then sort of tied together, or did it come about in a much more organic way?

MA: A good character always has a crisis lurking inside them like a ticking time bomb. Once I’d decided who the characters would be in Little Miss Sunshine, it was just a matter of figuring out when those crises would happen. You also want those crises to happen in ascending order of importance. It all fell together pretty easily in the outlining process. The only really noteworthy choice I made, I’d say, was to kill off Grandpa at the midpoint, rather than hold off until the end of the second act. I hate seeing characters die in the late second act or early third act—it’s just such a clichéd time for a character to die. There’s a lot more shock value in a midpoint death, because audiences aren’t used to losing a major character that early in a movie.

MM: What has surprised you most about the success of the film? And your part in it?

MA: I always thought the characters were a little extreme in their idiosyncrasies, and what they go through in the course of the story (failure, death, disillusionment) was a bit harsh, so I’m kind of surprised by how warmly it’s been embraced by the mainstream audiences. Little old ladies come up and tell me how much they love the movie; that was something I didn’t expect. I was also bracing myself to be attacked by the puritans of the right—the guardians of family values—only to find people like Michael Medved embracing the movie. That was unexpected. Instead—after the big deal at Sundance—we got attacked by the puritans of the left: The film snobs, The Village Voice, etc. I’m a film snob myself—these are my people! I felt like Leon Trotsky getting the old ice pick to the head in Mexico City. Ouch!

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