Screenwriting 101: Michael Arndt

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On Tuesday, May 23, 2000, at 4:27 p.m., I sat down to write LMS [Little Miss Sunshine]. I wrote twelve pages the first day, thirty-seven pages the second, and — pulling an all-nighter — fifty-four pages on the third day. I finished the first draft at 9:56 a.m. on Friday, May 26. Then I spent a year rewriting it.

On July 29, 2001 — a Sunday — I heard from Tom Strickler.

On December 21, 2001 — the Friday before the holidays — the script was purchased by producer Marc Turtletaub.

Principal photography began on June 6, 2005, and ended — after thirty shooting days — on July 18.

The film had its world premiere on January 20, 2006, at Sundance, and was bought by Fox Searchlight the next day.

Little Miss Sunshine opened in theaters on July 26, 2006.

As of this writing (November 6, 2006), it has grossed $75 million worldwide.

So the film has “succeeded,” and I have (temporarily, at least) escaped from the jaws of failure.

In many ways, though, my life has remained much as it was in 2000. I still rent the same one-bedroom walk-up in Brooklyn, and I still spend my days sitting in a chair and staring at a computer (though the chair is more comfortable and the computer is nicer). The main difference is I don’t worry about having to get a day job. (Not yet, anyway).

A number of people who know my story have been quick to seize upon it as a rewards-of-virtue narrative — all that effort and persistence, they tell me, was bound to pay off. In this view of the world, character is destiny and success is the logical — almost inevitable — consequence of hard work, patience, and a shrewdly applied intelligence.

That is not how I see things.

From my perspective, the difference between success and failure was razor-thin and depended — to a terrifying degree — upon chance, serendipity, and all manner of things beyond my control. A thousand things could have gone wrong in the five years it took to turn Little Miss Sunshine into a movie, any one of which could have destroyed the project.

Yet at every turn the script was met with good fortune; every setback was revealed to be a blessing in disguise. I was lucky to stumble upon the right agents, who got it to the right producers, who chose the right directors, who cast (perfectly) the right actor and hired the right crew. A single misstep in this concatenation and the film would have been made badly or, more likely, not at all.

Which brings me — in a roundabout way — to Richard Hoover, Winning and Losing, and the underlying concerns of Little Miss Sunshine.

All of us lead two lives — our public lives, which are visible to others, and our private lives, which are not. Richard is obsessed with the values of public life — status, rank, “success.” His view of the world, divided into Winners and Losers, judges everyone — including himself — accordingly. These values have become seemingly inescapable — including himself — accordingly. These values have become seemingly inescapable in our media-saturated culture — from American Idol, to professional sports, to the weekend box office reports. Everything, it seems, has become a contest.

The problem with this worldview is that it neglects and devalues the realm of the private — family, friendship, romance, childhood, pleasure, imagination, and the concerns of the spirit. Our private lives — invisible to the outside world — tend to be far richer and more gratifying than the rewards of public life. We would do well, as poets and philosophers have long advised, to turn away from the bustle of the world and cultivate the gardens of our souls.

And yet — as I learned in July 2001 — it is extremely difficult to set aside the judgments of the world and march to your own drummer. To “do what you love and fuck the rest,” as Dwayne says. That is a hard path, and not often one that leads to happiness or fulfillment (see van Gogh’s letters). I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone.

What I would recommend — and this is the central hope of the movie — is that we make an effort to judge our lives and the lives of others according to our own criteria, distinct from the facile and shallow judgments of the marketplace.

James Joyce once said we should treat both success and failure as the impostors they are. I would humbly concur — the real substance of life is elsewhere.

— Michael Arndt, “Little Miss Sunshine: Screenplay and Notes by Michael Arndt,” PP. x-xii.

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