Jump to Main ContentJump to Primary Navigation

How to get into film directing


Director Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Ruby Sparks) recently joined us f0r an online masterclass, in which she revealed tips on how to get into the film industry, what it's like being a female director in Hollywood and secrets about working with some of the industry's hottest stars.

With decades of experience in the business working alongside her husband Jonathan Dayton, Valerie co-directed music videos for the likes of Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, and R.E.M. and the pair won six MTV Video Music Awards for the video "Tonight Tonight" by The Smashing Pumpkins. They expanded into movies in 2005, helming the multi-Oscar winning Little Miss Sunshine. Their latest flick, Ruby Sparks, stars indie hero Paul Dano, Antonio Banderas, Annette Bening and Steve Coogan.

See Valerie's tips on starting out in the film business, along with some other insights, below.

Valerie Faris and husband Jonathan Drayton at work, above

What in your mind is the biggest challenge about directing and how do you overcome that?

The biggest challenge in directing is picking the right project because you invest so much time in a film - it's two years of your life - and the project needs to be something that has enough depth that you stay interested and continue to discover new things about it.

On top of that after you find the material you love, the next challenge is trying to get it financed and getting all the right people involved so that you can make the best film possible.

How did you go about the process of deciding to direct Ruby Sparks?

Ruby Sparks was unique because it was brought to us by Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan and with the two of them attached to it to star in it - so when we went to read the script we were already inclined to like it, as we loved working with Paul on Little Miss Sunshine and we were really intrigued by the idea of working with the two of them on a film.

We were nervous to read the script because we wanted to like it - and luckily we loved it and loved Zoe's writing and we felt that the story explored a lot of interesting issues and had a lot of depth to it.

What do you look for in hiring a cast for a specific film - your films tend to use actors who aren't household names, is that a deliberate move?

I would say casting is about 75% of what the director does - it's one of the most important aspects of directing and we love to work with actors who are not as well known - I like the idea of introducing a new actor to the public and definitely one of the things we were very interested in with Ruby Sparks is that we could introduce Zoe as a writer and an actress to new audiences.

We really chose actors on really whether they're right for the part - not whether they're known or not known - it's really finding the right fit for the role.

A scene from Ruby Sparks, above

What was it like looking after bands like the Chilis? I bet you guys had loads of adventures!

I really miss directing music videos and the Chili Peppers were definitely one of our favourite bands to work with - I'd love to put them in a movie someday

Do you have any advice for wannabe directors and those of us keen to make a name for ourselves in the film industry without relevant contacts/financial backing?

I'm always wary to give advice, I'd rather just give encouragement because I think we need more women directors and I think the best thing for a wannabe director is just try to a film made in any way you can - making a film and having something to show for your work is what's important; make it on whatever budget you can. Beg, borrow and steal to get it made!

What do you and your husband enjoy watching on a night off?!

Actually, what we have been watching lately on our nights off is episodes of Luther - we're still on season one but I love the show and all the actors - it's really well done.

I'm a massive Oasis fan and love the vid you did for all around the world - will you be doing any more work in music?

We would love to do more music videos there are just not so many opportunities anymore - they don't get played on TV so much anymore - but music is really our first love.

What's been the best thing about working so closely with your husband all these years? I've just started working with my wife so some wise words would be gratefully received

I guess the best thing about working with my husband is that we're still together and it has kept us together - and that's great he's working with his wife because I think it does actually strengthen a relationship. My one word of wisdom is never go to sleep mad at each other!

Was it a gamble working with such a young writer like Zoe, what was it about Zoe that made you want to work with her?

We tend to like to work with first-time screenwriters or at least first screenplays... Little Miss Sunshine was Michael Arndt's first screenplay, so we're excited by young writers and Zoe I would say is uniquely gifted and an incredible collaborator and she was very good at taking our notes and developing the script with us and I'm excited for you to see her work.

I watch everything with Steve Coogan in - what was he like to direct?

We're big fans of Steve Coogan's and really I think directing him was the easy part and if you cast the right person in a role you really just get out of the way - especially with Steve. He had such a good lock on this character in Ruby Sparks that he made it very easy for us. The only sad thing was that were a lot of funny bits with Steve that we just didn't have time for in the film - he gave us more than we needed.

What was the best music video you have worked on?

I can't say best but I guess I have a lot of affection for the Smashing Pumpkin's Tonight Tonight video because it was based on the work of Georges Melies and it was a really fun one to shoot... we used a hand-cranked camera and it felt like we were travelling in time making it.

I need more Paul Dano films! What's he like in real life?

I'd say he's a lot naughtier than you think and he has a wicked, dry sense of humour...

Apart from your own, what's your favourite ever film?

I don't have a favourite film but I recently watched a really beautiful film Pola X by Leos Carax and really loved it and think it's worth checking out.

You said you'd like to see more women directors - have you ever encountered sexism in Hollywood?

I would say because I have a male partner I encounter a lot less sexism in the business but occasionally people will address just Jonathan thinking he's the director - sometimes with crew people, that happens when they don't know us so well - they tend to talk to Jonathan about technical things. So sometimes I have to assert myself to make myself heard. But it doesn't happen so much anymore - I encountered it more at the beginning of my career.

How do you keep big egos in place - especially on music videos?

I think for the most part if you keep the focus on the work, it's best way to get around big egos - and if you don't have one, it helps.

I read you shot it over 30 days? What was the most ardous to shoot? LMS or your newest film?

I would say Little Miss Sunshine was harder because so much of it we were travelling in a VW van in 100 degrees weather going at 50 miles an hour on the freeway with no air conditioning - so it was probably harder on the actors.

So, you've won loads of MTV awards and obv little miss was put up for an Oscar - what's the most fun - MTV Awards or the Academy Awards?

The Academy Awards because it was our first time and we got to see Alan Arkin win and it was a well-deserved award.