LAFAYETTE -- Long before they met at UCLA in the late 1970s, filmmakers and music video directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris discovered the perfect power of moving pictures.

For Dayton, growing up in the East Bay and slipping out of English assignments Ygnacio Valley High School near the Concord/Walnut Creek border by instead shooting Super-8 movies, films were a dream come true.

"They allowed it, because it was the golden age of public schools, when teachers were engaged and class sizes were small," he recalls, in a phone interview from the couple's home in Southern California.

Faris detested public speaking, preferring the kinesthetic language of dance while attending high school in Los Angeles.

"It's ironic, because now, we do a lot of public speaking," she laughs.

In the 1990s the couple's MTV show "The Cutting Edge" introduced a generation of rock music listeners to bands like R.E.M and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their music videos turned Smashing Pumpkins into an audiovisual phenomenon. Bob Industries, their commercial production company with a caché clientele (Target, Apple, The Gap, Sony PlayStation and others), established them as a tiny cross-industry entity with a gigantic footprint.

Topping it off, their two feature films, "Little Miss Sunshine" (2006) and "Ruby Sparks" (2012), won awards, received critical acclaim and left a robust ticket-sale trail.

Which means talking to crowds is an activity Faris has had to master.


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On April 23, the married team will pair up in Lafayette with moderator Pete Crooks from Diablo Magazine to spin a yet-to-be defined story, courtesy of The Commonwealth Club.

"Whenever we speak, we try to tailor it to the audience," Dayton says. "When we get a sense of who the guests are, we'll shape it."

It's an unsurprising approach, because sensitivity, and respect for the truth, the written word and a good belly laugh unites their working styles more than any vow or certificate.

"I know that my roots are really in the suburban East Bay experience," Dayton admits. "It's not the sexiest lineage, but it's a life defined above humble beginnings."

Faris says, "If there is some common element, it's a sense of humor. And there's a hopefulness we look for under the darkness, which is an interesting mix. The films aren't cynical or ironical."

Dayton adds, "I don't need a film to take me on a downward spiral. I can let daily life do that!"

Faris says her background in dance is "huge" and influences not only the product, but the filmmaking process they follow.

"One of my criticisms of films is that characters stand there and are talking heads. It's not until a scene is blocked and staged that you know if it works. We do that even before we see the actors. It's different when you feel it in your own body."

Such feelings, she said, are key.

Increased access to films -- on iPads, smart phones and home computers -- both frightens and excites them. Smaller screens alter the film-watching experience dramatically and the loss of communal viewing is worrisome.

"The collective, in-the-theater experience -- the idea that that might die ... " Faris says, leaving the sentence dangling precariously.

"Especially with comedy, which is most effective when it's shared," Dayton says, picking up her thought-stream as they often do for one another. "When you hear someone laugh, it affects you."

Despite these changes -- and television binge-viewing, a subject that sets them groaning -- Dayton says they will continue working on small, personal-scale films. Of course, in the Dayton/Faris world, "small" means $8-15 million budgets, marquee actors and tight, scrupulous direction.

Even so, they say tragic vagaries of life can overwhelm a film's release, as they did when "Ruby Sparks" came out almost at the same time as the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting.

"That was tough," Faris says. "But now, it's come full circle on home video. One of the good things about the digital revolution is that films can wait to be discovered."

And then, as often happens in the busy, work-and-family-filled existence, they capture with remarkable clarity in their movies, life interrupts.

One of their twin 17-year-old boys needs directions. Faris is off the phone, mapping directions as Dayton's earlier words (used to describe the plot of "Little Miss Sunshine") echo as narrative: "It's the story of a little suburban family setting out on an adventure."

Filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
  • WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 23
  • WHERE: Lafayette Library, 3491 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette
  • COST: $22 standard, $12 members, $7 students (with valid ID)