In Ruby Sparks, a young, neurotic, once-successful writer named Calvin (Paul Dano, There Will be Blood, Meek’s Cutoff) finally finds his way out of a paralyzing writer’s block by creating on the page his dream girl: an effervescent muse he names Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan).
All is well for the usually angst-ridden Calvin and the pages are flowing. Until, in a magic-realism twist straight out of the Pygmalion myth by way of Woody Allen, his fictional creation shows up in his kitchen. A real flesh and blood Ruby Sparks, just as Calvin wrote her.
A delightfully comic (and sometimes dark) literary romantic fantasy, Ruby Sparks was written by Kazan (yes, she’s Elia’s granddaughter, and yes, she’s Dano’s girlfriend of several years) and directed by the husband-wife team of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton–the pair who dazzled the indie movie scene (and the sleeper box office) six years ago with a mix of heart, humor, and pathos in Little Miss Sunshine and also gave Dano his break-out role. Ruby Sparks also stars Chris Messina, Eliot Gould, Steve Coogan, Annette Bening, and Antonio Banderas.
Ruby Sparks plays on multiple levels: It’s charming and funny, touching and sexy, and yet it delves deep into the writer’s ego and need for control, questions of identity and self, and the complicated nature of how we seek out and see one another in love and relationships.
Last week in Chicago, another writer and I sat down first with Kazan and Dano and then separately with Faris and Dayton to discuss all those layers and how their real-life work on the script, performances, and film often fed into Ruby Sparks‘ myriad creative themes.
Ruby Sparks (both the film and the character) is also an inventive deconstruction of the “manic pixie dream girl” cliche (currently see: Zooey Deschanel), though do not bring that up with Kazan. At a screening Q&A the night before our interview, the writer-actress, fed up with the MPDG question, strode into the audience to confront the poor, earnest guy who raised it. She did so comically with a smile… sort of… but with enough of an edge to her reaction that we were loathe to say the the words “manic pixie dream girl” the following morning.
Our interview with star and writer Zoe Kazan and star Paul Dano is up first, followed below by our chat with co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton.
Ruby Sparks opens today in theaters in select cities.
Writer and Star Zoe Kazan and Star Paul Dano
Zoe Kazan: I think it’s supposed to look uncreative, or infertile. If he was writing, it wouldn’t be clean. But because he is blocked, everything is super neat. I picture him getting up from his desk and vacuuming again. I think he’s a person who likes his environment to be just so, and so he’s trying to live in a way that is conducive to creativity by wiping the slate clean. It actually does the opposite.
Zoe, was Calvin’s “blank page” trauma at the start and his eventual inspiration in writing about Ruby drawn from your own writing experience?
Kazan: To be honest, it sounds kind of fruity, so airy fairy, but I do feel that the concept of the movie and the first 20 pages kind of downloaded to me. I feel like I got Calvin and Ruby in wide swaths. Then figuring out exactly how things unfolded and what happened, that required a lot of control and hard work.
But him being in a state of paralysis, and being sort of frozen as a writer was important for me. The intensity of his need for Ruby produces Ruby. Finding the reasons that the need was so extreme were part of that first step, first spurt of writing for me. I was just thinking about him as a person who couldn’t move forward in his life, and was sort of desperate for change and unable to find it.
Obviously there’s a larger metaphor for love in here, but Calvin would never fall in love with Ruby if he felt like he created her. So it’s his very feeling of needing her rather than creating her that allows him to feel she’s separate from him. He feels very visited, and for me that is always true when I’m in a very happy state of writing, that it’s not coming from me but through me.
That puts you in an interesting situation as an actor, Paul, because you’re playing a character written by your live-in girlfriend. So how much of your character’s back story did you come up with on your own?
Paul Dano: The first thing you do is look at exactly what the writer gives you. In this case, you have all of these really nice things to sink your teeth into. Calvin’s got some significant ex-girlfriend, his father’s passed away, he had big success ten years ago… Those are all really big, great things. Then you start to go from there and build it up. Why did that last relationship fail? Who was that girl? Did his father give him that typewriter, is that why he’s hanging on to it, or did he write his first book on it?
Paul, you’ve now played a writer twice this year–here and in Being Flynn. Do you yourself write?
Dano: Maybe I wish I could write. I think I probably just have empathy for any kind of creative person. So when I see someone sitting at a typewriter and can’t write, that sounds terrifying and paralyzing. To not have inspiration. And I like to read a lot, and I live with a writer.
There is a very powerful, intense scene in the third act that really is the emotional pivot point of the film. How was that to film?
Dano: That was one of the most mysterious scenes of the shoot. We filmed it at the end.
Kazan: You know you don’t want to look directly into the sun. We all knew that was the climactic scene in the movie and very important, but we just couldn’t bear to look at it. But when we staged it and choreographed it, it was much harder physically than I had anticipated. You always rely on your directors actually to push you because they’re the ones deciding to move on, and Jon and Val didn’t move on until we had something that they could hang our movie on. Filming it we would do like 10-minute, 16-minute takes of that scene, and they would push me past the point of sense into nonsense into exhaustion.
Kazan: I wanted the audience to feel safe. You always want them to feel taken care of, and that they are not going to be in dangerous hands. So the reference to Harvey is our way of saying, “We know, we know.” And Chris Messina’s character, Calvin’s brother Harry, is a proxy for the audience; he’s sort of a humorous non-believer. I tried to put in some things that kind of take the audience by the hand through what is an extreme concept.
Paul, you get to do a lot more comedy here than in most of your big past roles. Do you have any interest in doing a completely comedic film in the future?
Dano: I would like to do something really broad and silly. One of my favorite movies is Dumb and Dumber—honestly, I think what Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels do in that movie is totally brilliant. And probably my first two favorite actors were Jack Nicholson and Jim Carrey, when I was ten years old. So yeah, I would, but that’s sort of the hardest thing about being actor–there are things that you want to do, but you have to have patience and look through the material and wait for the right project.
Kazan: I just think that they are really unique in that they can make a movie with a lot of visual and aural style, and a lot of purpose behind their camera and music and casting choices, that also feel very real. That to me was the stylistic straddle that we were going to have to deal with in this movie. And emotionally in Little Miss Sunshine you can see they were capable of juggling a very delicate tone. Paul said, “Let’s bring this to Jon and Val.” And I said, I know that’s exactly what I was thinking. And our producers said the same thing. So when everyone is saying the same names you know it’s the right direction.
Co-Directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton
So it’s been six years since we’ve seen a movie from you two.
Jonathan Dayton: We laugh about it. We got incredible offers after Little Miss Sunshine. Big things that were very impressive to our parents, but not that we necessarily wanted to do. Big comedies. Big stars.
But for projects to actually come together in the way we’re going to be happy with, where you feel good things are going to happen is pretty rare. It’s hard to do that especially with this sized film. Financing is just harder these days. Casting is an issue where you might have to compromise, or often to us a script is not ready.
Dayton: I want to clarify it wasn’t that things never came together. We actually had to stop films from happening. We had to be the gatekeepers. Because so many times people want the film to happen and want to start production before everything was ready.
Faris: Because the stars were ready, not because the script was ready.
Dayton: That’s why there are so many bad movies out there.
Faris: And we didn’t want to contribute to that.
Faris: Sometimes it was also a result of the budget getting cut too, there are various reasons. But on this film everything did come together. That’s why this one happened.
What kind of project offers did you get after Little Miss Sunshine?
Faris: We were offered a lot of broad comedies. And just like Zoe hates “manic pixie dream girl,” I hate the word “quirky,” it just rubs me the wrong way. We got comedies that were a little off-center. Or we got road movies. Once you’ve had success like that, they also go to you thinking you could fix something. “We know it’s not all there, but do your magic.”
We have such a love of the written material; we love a good script, which is where we start. If a script isn’t there, we’re not really interested in getting into production and trying to fix it. But I think that’s how a lot of movies are made. “We’ll figure it out somehow; we can’t figure it out in a writing room…”
Dayton: “…but if there are a hundred people waiting around on a set for you to do your magic, then, oh yeah, that’s when things will come together.”
Dayton: It made us laugh that we shared Calvin’s dilemma, that he had a successful first effort and then had to follow it up.
Faris: The irony wasn’t lost on us. But I think most artists feel pressure whenever they go do any work. Even if their last one was a failure or a success, every time you venture out onto a new project, anything can happen. We related to that desire to want to control it, to feel like you’re gonna make “it” into that perfect thing.
What was interesting to us was how parallel work and love are. You can try to make a perfect relationship, or make that person into what you want them to be, and it’s similar with your work – you really don’t have complete control over it, no matter how much you think you do. Especially as directors, you think you have control over the elements but something will go wrong, and often those are the things that actually end up helping you out. That idea that you have to be partially in control, and partially out of control, and find that balance, that was interesting to us. The way those two aspects of work and love relate to each other.
Dayton: Yeah. We loved how in one film we could explore so many subjects and subjects that were very close to us.
Faris: For us, we have to feel like the authors of the film, even though Zoe wrote the script. We still have to feel like this is something we want to express. That’s another hard part looking for a script. A lot of scripts are maybe well-written, but they don’t have a lot of substance. We’re always interested in what conversations will come from watching a film. So far we like the discussions that have been provoked by this movie.
Ruby Sparks is a romantic comedy, but it also deals with heavier issues about writers and creativity and of course about emotional control and manipulation. How do you approach that balance between the light comedy and the darker themes?
Faris: It was a huge challenge and worry of the studio. But we always start by casting the right people. If you get the right cast who both have the ability to play something emotionally real and be honest and truthful, then already you are starting from a point where you can kind of go anywhere with it because they’re not playing the comedy too broadly or over-dramatizing the drama. We always try to play everything the way it works in life. Life takes those turns all of the time.
Dayton: Even with something as fantastic as the premise of this film. But it was something that we had to continually fine tune until the last moment.
Dayton: We prepared it, she didn’t. [laughs]
Faris: She didn’t want to think about it too much.
Dayton: I think it was hard for her emotionally, and maybe intimidating as a writer. But from the moment we got the script, we started exploring that scene. That was the scene that excited us about the film, because we had never seen anything like it.
Faris: It’s probably the most different from what was on the page. Half of the scene was written, but it was much more intellectual as opposed to this psychological and emotional drama. It was something we explored a lot in our own rehearsals.
Dayton: We worked with other actors and had them act out the scene so we could explore it and see it without having Paul and Zoe going through it yet.
Faris: We did nothing but think about that scene and wonder what it would be. But it wasn’t really clear to us until how it would work until we shot it.
Dayton: We had remained friends with Paul after Little Miss Sunshine, and then one day he brought over Zoe. We could tell even from his demeanor that something big was happening in his life.
Faris: Our first impression was that she can’t sit still for more than a minute, and she was like a monkey. She was all over him and the furniture.
Dayton: You know the “clingy Ruby” period in the film? That is Zoe. It’s really sweet, and they have a great relationship. But we had no idea that she was working on a script. When they brought the script to us we were so excited. We didn’t have a creative relationship with her at that point, but we knew she was a real force.
Faris: Their relationship is very different from Calvin and Ruby’s. And there were certain things that we had to edit out of the takes. At times on set it would creep in the way they relate to each other, that didn’t feel right, it felt too familiar, like “Paul and Zoe” not “Calvin and Ruby,” so that had to come out. But it was great that they also had that kind of physical comfort with each other. They are both great physical actors. It’s just fun to take advantage of that.
How would you say Paul Dano has grown since when you first worked with him on Little Miss Sunshine?
Dayton: He’s really grown as an actor and become more confident. But he has always been bold.
Faris: He loves a challenge.
Dayton: Because we shot this digitally, he felt a new-found freedom to just explore a role. In certain scenes, we would be happy at take eight. And he would want to keep exploring, and we’d do twenty takes.
Faris: I’d say in some ways he’s different. He didn’t do that at all with Little Miss Sunshine. But since then he’s worked with De Niro, and De Niro likes to do that. So they pick up different habits. He still is a great, instinctual, and natural actor, but he likes to try more things now.
Dayton: He is also a great physical comedian. We just felt like this was a great opportunity to show things that a lot of his other films don’t highlight. He is not normally cast as a leading man.
Faris: And not since The Girl Next Door or Little Miss Sunshine, he doesn’t do comedies really. I understand why, because there aren’t many great roles in comedy, especially for a 28-year-old guy. But I love that we got to show his comedic side. He’s a very dry guy.