The script was written by Michael Arndt and was originally about an East Coast road trip film from Maryland to Florida, but was shifted to a journey from New Mexico to California due to budget issues. Arndt started the script on May 23, 2000 and completed the first rough draft by May 26. He had initially planned on shooting the film himself by raising several thousand dollars and using a camcorder. Instead, he gave the screenplay to producers Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger who teamed up with Deep River Productions to find a potential director.
The producers met directors Dayton and Faris while producing Election and in turn gave the script to them to read in 2001. The directors commented later on the script stating: "This film really struck a chord. We felt like it was written for us." The script was purchased from first-time screenwriter Arndt for $250,000 by Marc Turtletaub, one of the film's producers, on December 21, 2001. Yerxa and Berger remained as producers as they were responsible for finding the directors and cinematographer, assisting in the ending re-shoot, and helping bring the film to the Sundance Film Festival.
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