'Closet screenwriter' Arndt comes into light
Nov 17, 2006
The resulting movie, distributed by Fox Searchlight, has left the writer with a $58 million sleeper hit, an agent at Endeavor, a likely Oscar nomination for original screenplay and a staff job working for the company that creates the best comedy scripts in America: Pixar Animation Studios.
After 10 years in the film business toiling as an assistant and script reader, with $25,000 in savings, the New York University film school grad decided to take a stab at writing his first professional screenplay in 1999. He quit his job. He holed up in his cheap Brooklyn apartment and knocked out six stories. Six of them didn't sing. The seventh did. "It was the most simple story," Arndt says. "That's a mistake a lot of scripts make: Their plots are too complicated, so you don't have time for characters."
So he kept working on it, writing it over and over and over, 100 drafts, until it was as good as he could get it. "I said, 'Dammit, if I'm going to do something, do it right,' " Arndt says. "I had read enough mediocre scripts and was determined not to inflict another one on the world." At first, he got feedback from a trusted circle of friends, including his twin brother, David: "He's a depressed academic who teaches Proust," he says. "He read every script. Who else was going to do it?" Finally, Arndt joined Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Virtual Studio to get objective feedback from four fellow screenwriters. When one responded with "I laughed so hard I cried," Arndt was encouraged to go ahead and send out "Sunshine."
First, Arndt showed it to independent producers Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger ("Bee Season," "Cold Mountain"), who have made a career out of making smart movies that say something about America. He had admired their film "Election," which happened to star his former boss, actor Matthew Broderick. "We never knew that Michael was a closet screenwriter," Berger admits. The producing team championed "Sunshine" and pushed it along. "It was like a Ph.D. thesis on cultural emptiness in America," Yerxa says. "It was a trenchant critique of desperation and alienation in this country, done as a comedy."
"Sunshine" became one of those scripts that Hollywood insiders love but no one wants to make. Berger and Yerxa persuaded financier Marc Turtletaub and David Friendly's Deep River Prods. to buy it. Focus Features developed it for a while but let it go. When music video directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton read it, they finally latched onto something that had eluded them for years: a story that fired their imagination. They decided to make "Sunshine" their first feature.
But attaching rookie directors with no longform track record meant that the movie was riskier for distributors to buy sight unseen. Finally, after four years, Turtletaub raised the financing himself. They cast it just the way they wanted, with skilled character actors Greg Kinnear, Alan Arkin, Toni Collette and comedian Steve Carell. And they shot it as an R-rated family comedy. "They all helped to make it better," Arndt says. "I'm the luckiest screenwriter in the world."
By the time the $8 million movie brought down the house at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Carell's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" was a huge smash, and "Sunshine" scored a $10 million sale to Fox Searchlight, which nurtured it into a word-of-mouth hit in the summer.
Clearly, Arndt knew what he was doing. For one thing, his idea of a good time is reading scripts like Joel and Ethan Coen's "Barton Fink." "In terms of formal style, nobody beats the Coen brothers," says Arndt, an admitted comedy nerd. "They write visually, like filmmakers. There's something so satisfying, incredibly concentrated; it's such distilled fun."
Arndt grew up a U.S. State Department brat: He lived in India, Sri Lanka and the Virginia suburbs. "We had a VW bus growing up," he says. "Everything with the car (in the film) happened to my family. It was the perfect metaphor."
Studying directing at NYU, Arndt realized that the great directors he most admired -- Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Woody Allen -- started out as comedy screenwriters. "They learned how to write before they directed," he says. "There's an opportunity to do more purely cinematic work when writing an original than when adapting someone else's project. Comedy is harder to write, but it's the most writer-centric."
Arndt continued his film education by reading scripts for producer Deborah Schindler ("Waiting to Exhale") for 18 months. "It was a lesson in how you can work very hard in development and never make a movie," he recalls. Then he worked for Broderick. "I saw all the CAA scripts," he says. And then he worked, most painfully, as a freelance reader. "That was hell on earth," he says. "You have no idea what the odds are against any poor slob's spec script getting turned into a movie."
When Arndt finally set out to craft his first screenplay, he was determined not to repeat the same mistakes and cliches he had seen 1,000 times. "The craft of screenwriting comes down to being aware of playing with a set of audience expectations," he says. "There's a classical form of three-act storytelling that you ignore at your own risk. 'Little Miss Sunshine' is finally almost embarrassingly conservative."
For one thing, Arndt does not believe in starting off a comedy with jokes. "If you start too high with comedy, there's nowhere else to go," he says. "Three jokes to a page can be monotonous. 'Little Miss Sunshine' is subdued. By starting low you're able to add a bit of absurdity and meet the characters as real people, not trying to wring comedy out of them. You don't have to like them at first as long as you buy the reality they're in. It's OK to be boring for 20 minutes as long as you are laying the groundwork for things popping on page 21."
It bothered Arndt that the characters in so many scripts had "no grand passion or aspirations," he says. "They aspired to a comfortable life. That was really boring to me. They didn't have a distinct way of looking at the world. In their idiosyncratic ways, the characters in 'Little Miss Sunshine' are trying to make sense of the world. Dwayne wants to be fighter pilot and takes a vow of silence. Frank has soured on academia. If you establish their world views and put them in confined situations and set them on a goose chase, anything that happens is going to be funny."
Arndt believes strongly that even a comedy "should be about something, it should have values and take a stand," he says. "You shouldn't see the characters making easy choices. Everyone wants to win and have fun. But if it's a choice between winning the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant or having fun, these are harder choices."
It's all about endings, Arndt says. "You push characters to a specific point where they make a specific decision. Does Olive go on and dance when she knows she will not win? There are two value systems: Richard establishes that there's no point if you don't win, and Grandpa says, 'Live life for yourself, don't let others judge you.' 'Little Miss Sunshine' looks at this problem of American hyper-competitiveness. I see it in 'Dancing With the Stars' or 'American Idol.' We live in this winner-take-all society where if you're not on the cover of a magazine or on TV you're a loser. The stakes are jacked up as high as possible, but they're emotional and philosophical."
Finally, "Little Miss Sunshine" espouses a morality as old-fashioned as a Frank Capra movie -- and perhaps as timeless.