The Lost Projects of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Getting a movie through Hollywood’s grueling development gantlet is a difficult enough task, and after a process that can, in some cases, take decades, there’s no guarantee a movie will be well-received critically or commercially. It took husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris five years to get their first movie made, 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, which became a hit with critics and audiences alike. You’d think that having a major hit under their belts would make it so Dayton and Faris have an easier time getting their sophomore film to theaters, but it’s taken another five years for them to put together their second movie, the fantasy/comedy/drama Ruby Sparks, which stars Sunshine alum Paul Dano opens next week.
Prior to making Little Miss Sunshine, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris were best known as music video directors, most memorably helming vids for Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979” and Extreme’s “More than Words,” but they also became sought-after commercial directors and made some classic Mr. Show sketches. The 90s saw music video directors like Michael Bay, Spike Jonze, and David Fincher, amongst countless others, rise up and transition into feature filmmaking, and Hollywood came knocking at Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’s door too. They held out to make their cinematic debut with a movie they truly cared about, Little Miss Sunshine, which won multiple Oscars – a rare feat for a comedy, which put Dayton and Faris in the company of Woody Allen, Frank Capra, Jason Reitman, and Alexander Payne as the select few filmmakers who can attract Academy accolades by making comedies.
Let’s take a look now at some of the movie projects that Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have turned down, almost became involved with, and the ones they wanted to make but couldn’t, included a Jim Carrey/Ben Stiller futuristic comedy, a gig that Michael Bay ended up landing, and two project that would have seen them reteam with Steve Carell.
The Mod Squad (1999)
Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris told The New York Times they turned down an opportunity to direct the feature film adaptation of the 60s/70s series The Mod Squad, which starred Claire Danes, Omar Epps, and Giovanni Ribisi. Without Dayton and Faris, The Mod Squad bombed, and the duo soon became busy with the half-decade-long process that was getting Little Miss Sunshine made.
Bad Boys II (2002)
We have the first Bad Boys movie to blame for turning music director Michael Bay into a feature filmmaker, and for the sequel, the studio offered the job to Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, which would have made it their first film. The duo also turned down this offer, and Dayton had this to say years later:
“Over the years we got scripts for a lot of style-driven pieces. That said, while we were doing this [Little Miss Sunshine] no one said ‘We want more style from you.’ Actually, there is a style here. It’s just a restrained style. The visuals are still driven by the mood of the picture.”
The Abstinence Teacher (in development circa 2006-2010)
Right after Little Miss Sunshine hit, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris signed on to make The Abstinence Teacher their next film. Based on the book of the same name by Tom Perrotta (who also wrote Election and Little Children), The Abstinence Teacher follows Ruth Ramsey, a divorced sex ed teacher who comes into conflict with the conservative town in which she teaches. The movie’s distributor, Warner Independent Pictures, collapsed soon after the deal was made, but, in 2010, the project was resuscitated with Sandra Bullock and Steve Carell attached to star. Bullock would have played the title role, while Carell was set to play an ex-rocker who is now a born-again Christian. Dayton and Faris left the project to work on other films, and Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right) signed on to take over directing duties just a couple of months ago, and it’s not clear whether Bullock or Carell are still involved.
Used Guys (in development circa 2009)
One of the most flagrant examples of a movie being stuck in “development hell” in recent history, Used Guys was a sci-fi/comedy project that was supposed to star Jim Carrey and Ben Stiller as a pair of pleasure clones in a futuristic world ruled by women. The movie was supposed to film, with director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) at the helm, but the box office failure of a similar movie, Idiocracy, and Used Guys’ skyrocketing budget caused the studio to call it quits on this one. Roach has called the Used Guys script “the best unproduced comedy screenplay in Hollywood.”
Ben Stiller returned to the project in 2009 and Reese Witherspoon signed on to costar, with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris directing. This iteration of the movie didn’t happen either, with Jay Roach speculating, “I think they [Dayton and Faris] got bored of waiting for Fox to step up.”
Mail Order Groom (in development circa 2009)
Steve Carell and Tina Fey had so much fun making Date Night that they were both considering starring in another movie together right afterwards. The project was Mail Order Groom, which was co-written by Fey’s husband Jeff Richmond and would have starred Fey as a lonely woman who sends away for an Eastern European soldier (Carell) to be her husband. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris were considered for the directing job, along with Richard Linklater and Jay Roach, but Mail Order Groom never came together due to the busy schedules of everyone involved.
Will (in development circa 2010)
Hot off his breakthrough as a standup in 2006, Demetri Martin sold a movie pitch called Will to Steven Spielberg to be produced through his company DreamWorks. The film is set in a world where no one has free will and everyone’s destinies are dictated by angelic scribes, with the action following a guy named Will whose scribe Aimsley forgot to complete writing his life, giving Will free will. The movie switched studios in 2010 and went from being produced by Steven Spielberg to being produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay through their company Gary Sanchez Productions. Paul Rudd and Zach Galifianakis signed on to star, with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris directing, but development seems to have stalled on this one.
There’s been no update on Will in nearly two years, when Galifianakis said, “I don’t know if that is ever going to come together… It is a movie written by Demetri Martin and it’s one of the better scripts I’ve ever read. And I hope to get to make it. In this business there’s a lot of red tape and that red tape has not been made into pink yet. I know they’re trying to figure it out.”
Bradford Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles.