How Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton Have Learned to Collaborate Over 40 Years

People always want to know how Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the longtime collaborators responsible for hit indie films like the Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine, divvy up the work on the set. For instance, does Faris direct the actors while Dayton concentrates on the camera movements? But as in all other aspects of their life — their marriage, their role as parents — there’s no clear division, even when they’re talking about it.

“I always feel like this is a very unsatisfying answer,” Faris begins, “but we do really trade off roles all the time.”

As if on cue, Dayton chimes in: “It tends to be that it’s very organic. One of us will feel like, ‘Oh, I know how to do this.’ Or, ‘I feel very passionate about this — let me [handle it].’ ” He laughs. “It’s a numbers game — [with two people] we get double the chance to have the right answer.”

It’s no surprise that they practically finish each other’s sentences. Meeting at UCLA in 1979 and starting a professional relationship soon after, they were initially drawn to the idea of creating together. Sure, there had been brief flirtations with the idea of dating, but they focused on work — first on music videos, commercials and television, then finally movies. But, eventually, they couldn’t deny their feelings for one another, marrying in 1988.

“We worried that we would mess up our work relationship if we got together as a couple,” Dayton admits. “We were both in other relationships for years, and then finally, we were both single and just going out and doing things together. It was just fun, and it felt very easy and natural.”

Faris adds, with a chuckle, “I did have friends telling me, ‘It’s a bad idea for you guys to date.’ ”

Instead, their marriage and the family they’ve raised — they have three kids in their twenties, two of them twins — are all part of the artistic journey they’ve gone on together. “Because we work together, we’re sort of growing together,” she says. “That was a thing that really felt right to me about getting romantically involved. I thought, ‘I want to be able to constantly change throughout my life, and learn new things, and have new adventures.’ I felt like if I had a partner who was going to go through those adventures with me, that was just the right thing for me. I didn’t want to be leading a separate life from my partner, and I wanted somebody who was willing to grow and change over the years.”

You could make the argument that Faris and Dayton’s career has been an adventure through some of the most indelible trends in popular culture over the last 40 years. From directing the influential mid-1980s MTV program The Cutting Edge to helming videos for the biggest alt-rock bands of the Nineties (including R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins, and Red Hot Chili Peppers) — to say nothing of their memorable commercial campaigns for the likes of Volkswagen and the NBA (their 1999 commercial for the Volkswagen Cabrio, titled “Milky Way,” featured Nick Drake 1972 song “Pink Moon”, initiating a massive revival of interest in the late singer’s music). Even their time directing segments of the groundbreaking sketch series Mr. Show — they’ve consistently helped shape the look and feel of mainstream visual art.

Not that it was always easy, especially early on, to get people comfortable with the idea that they were a directing duo. “It does go against the auteur concept of one person steering the entire vision,” Faris says. “When we first started out, we were up against that a lot. We had an actor once [on a commercial] say to us, ‘Which one of you do I have to listen to?’ ”

When they made the leap to film in the early 2000s, after winning multiple Grammys and MTV Moonmen, it wasn’t something they’d necessarily plotted out. “There was a point at which you could tell that the film business was really tapping into music-video directors,” Dayton recalls, “and so the opportunities started presenting themselves. But it wasn’t until we found scripts that we really liked that it became clear: ‘Oh, yeah, this could be fun.’ ”

They had a smash right out of the gate with Little Miss Sunshine, a zeitgeist-y dysfunctional-family/road-trip saga, which was nominated for Best Picture at the 2007 Academy Awards and won Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay. Since then, they’ve continued to explore the intimacy of relationships in off-kilter romantic comedies (Ruby Sparks) and timely explorations of gender politics and sexual freedom (Battle of the Sexes). That intimacy extends to how they talk to actors on set, often inviting their feedback to work through questions Faris and Dayton have about how best to approach a scene. “Val and I don’t work in lockstep,” Dayton says. “We come with two different opinions. There are plenty of times where the person we’re working with becomes — not the tie-breaker, but it’s just a more richer creative discussion.”

But the toughest decisions come when it’s just Faris and Dayton choosing what project they want to tackle next. “I would say that’s why we’ve done so few movies,” she says.

“Yeah, that’s exactly it,” Dayton agrees. “It is a really elusive thing to find something that we both feel like spending two or three years of our lives doing. There have been plenty of projects where one of us would love to do it, but we know from the few times where we would conceive and start something that we didn’t equally love that it’s the worst.”

But if disagreeing on potential films has contributed to them being less prolific — as well as a mutual decision not to sign up for anything longterm that shot outside of their home base of Los Angeles while they were raising their kids — being parents has helped give them perspective. “It’s about priorities,” Faris says. “We have a great family — it rewards us all the time for not doing things that we would have been miserable doing.”

Their children are grown now, but it must have been hard to be young parents while simultaneously trying to launch a video-making career. The long, exhausting shoots drained them, but they were lucky. “We had an incredible live-in nanny,” Faris says. “She was already 59 when we hired her — she’s from Mexico City, and she lived with us for 18 years. We were actually around a lot, but she just provided this kind of support and was incredible. It was really one of those secret weapons that we had.” Jumping in, Dayton says, “Whenever we got a music-video award, it was always our children and our live-in nanny [that we thanked].”

One reason Faris and Dayton didn’t want to differentiate tasks on a project was that they never wanted to feel like any area of a production was his or hers. For them, problem-solving, whether as parents or directors, is something that’s best done as a unit. And often, their different worlds bleed into one another.

“The thing that happens all the time [at home] is we’ll start a sentence and we won’t know what the other is referring to,” Dayton says, as they laugh. “Are we starting to talk about a project we’re in the middle of production on, something to do with one of our kids, or are we talking about something we want to do to the house? It’s all the same language.”

Of course, as close as they are, they acknowledge that the constant barrage of work/life responsibilities can be overwhelming. As Faris puts it, “You’ll be like, ‘If you want to look at that cut, you can, but can you put headphones on?’ There are times where one of us needs a break from work. Finding time to ourselves is definitely one of the biggest challenges, especially during Covid. I bet more couples probably understand what life has been like for us for the past many decades.”

They chuckle, as she adds, “Covid for 30 years — it’s kind of like that [for us].”

As they do often during the conversation, this close inspection of their relationship makes them laugh — it’s the warm sound of two people engaged in a life project that they treasure.

“We always have people say, ‘I don’t know how you guys do it. I could never work with my spouse,’ ” Faris says. “It’s such a funny thing to us because, no matter what, you have to work together whether you’re raising a family or building a house or just navigating your careers together. I feel like it’s such an advantage to have been in the business problem-solving and creating together when we have to face other challenges.”

Maybe it’s because they started out directing music videos, but speaking with Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, it’s hard not to think of them as a band, the sum mightier than the individual players. But, still, band members do solo projects. Have they ever been tempted?

“It wouldn’t be as fun,” he says. “I cannot tell you how many times I find myself on the set or working on something, and I realize, ‘Oh my god, this is so much more fun [with her].’ Or better yet, [during] a really difficult situation, [I think], ‘This would be impossible if I didn’t have this person next to me that I really like and gives me strength to endure something.’ ”

All these years later, it’s obvious Faris was wise to ignore her friends who warned her about dating her creative partner. If anything, they find their art its own kind of aphrodisiac. “I feel like it’s inherently kind of a romantic process,” Dayton says. And that love translates into their work. “If you’re working alone, you always have to renew your love of what you do,” Faris says. “Because we are creative partners, there’s this sense of renewal all the time. On a new project, we get excited about the subject that we’re exploring. That keeps the relationship alive.”

For their next project, the couple reveals that they’re working on a new documentary series that explores the world of sexuality, relationships, and the erotic imagination — and that will certainly be fascinating to witness, as they maneuver through that potential minefield.

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