10 Things I Learned About Screenwriting From the DVD Commentary for "Little Miss Sunshine"

Updated on October 5, 2019
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Adam is a writer/producer currently living in Marin County, CA.


Little Miss Sunshine (Fox Searchlight, 2006)

"In the end, you don't want Olive to win or lose. You want something else...For a happy ending to work, the audience member must feel like they can't see any way for things to work out."

1. How to Begin a Script

Arndt, who won the Academy Award for "Best Original Screenplay" for the work, says he likes to start a movie script with each character doing what is most important or essential to them (i.e. what they are striving for).

The first image in Little Miss Sunshine is of young Olive (Abigail Breslin) gazing with fascination at a beauty pageant on TV. Then it moves to her father, Richard (Greg Kinnear) giving a motivational speech to a mostly empty room. Then, we see Olive's brother, Dwayne (Paul Dano) lifting weights as he trains for a life in the military.

I like when characters are striving for things that seem to be way above them.

— Michael Arndt

2. Take Some Time Setting Up the Characters

Arndt warns about jumping into the plot right away. "Give yourself 20 minutes before beginning plot - that's enough time for the audience to get to know the characters."

The 'inciting incident' is the phone message saying that Olive got into the Little Miss Sunshine pageant. This occurs at approximately 18 minutes into the film.

3. Don't Be Afraid to Use Things From Your Own Life

When Arndt was a child, his family drove in a VW van from Maine to Virginia with no clutch. He used the idea in the film. (Their horn also malfunctioned on the road.)

4. Coincidences Are (Sometimes) Okay

In the first version of the script, Olive's Uncle Frank (Steve Carell) goes into the gas station convenience store then comes right out. Arndt was asked to "beef up" Frank's story a bit. The only thing he could think of was for Frank to meet his former lover there. He worried that this would be too much of a coincidence then decided to go for it.

My philosophy on coincidences in movies is, you can have one only if it happens in the first half of the script and only if it's bad for the character.

— Michael Arndt

5. Show, Don't Tell

The scene where Olive rehearses her growling in the motel room with her Grandpa (Alan Arkin, who won the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for the performance) was written the night before the scene was shot. Arndt explains, "We needed to show that Grandpa had in fact helped her come up with the routine for the payoff later."

In the scene, Grandpa also shows a softer side than we've seen to this point when he comforts Olive who is nervous about the upcoming competition.

6. Characters Must Change. Challenge Them.

Olive's Grandpa dies at the midpoint of the script which, Arndt admits, is an odd place for a main character to be killed off. He notes, "Richard had just failed (with Stan Grossman) and needed something to happen to him to force him to change. The Grandpa character was a dead-end anyway - he was not going to change so I felt this was a good time."

He remembers the playwright Tony Kushner saying "What will it take for a character to change?"

7. Don't Overexplain (Speed vs. Clarity)

The scene in the hospital was shorter than initially written. Arndt thought he had to explain more about why the family couldn't just leave Grandpa's body there. In the end, it wasn't necessary.

Arndt explains, "We decided to go for speed over clarity here. The rudeness of the hospital's bereavement counselor was enough to explain the family's desire to bolt."

8. The Answer to a Problem is Almost Always in Your Script

In the first version of the screenplay, Grandpa's body was dropped from a 3rd story window. Later, the State Trooper who pulled them over would see the mangled, bloody body in the back and pass out, allowing them to escape.

Instead, the Directors had the family carry the body out of a first-story window. Arndt needed to come up with a new ending for the State Trooper scene.

I struggled for four weeks with that one before coming up with the porn magazine joke. In the end, the answer to your problem is almost always in your script.

— Michael Arndt

9. Create Conflict That Makes Sense

The end of Act II is when the family arrives at the pageant registration. Arndt says, "I wanted to create conflict right off the bat."

The lady at the registration desk won't let them register because they are 5 minutes late. Arndt says it was important that she feel she is doing the right thing by following the rules—"Give your antagonist(s) their own worldview(s) that make sense to them."

10. Remember Your Theme

According to Arndt, The 'thematic climax' of the film is when Dwayne and Frank are standing on the pier talking. Dwayne says "Fuck beauty contests. Life is one fucking beauty contest after another...do what you love and fuck the rest."

The theme is to forget what others think about you and do what you want to do.

© 2017 Adam T Sasso


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