Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan are actors who are in sharp contrast. She is a bubbly charmer excited about being on press tour and he is veteran of dealing with the media. Where she has trouble keeping her seat, moving and fidgeting as if no position in the chair is comfort, he drops down and almost melds into his chair. The two young performers are in town to promote their first major collaboration, Ruby Sparks.
The story is of a young writer Calvin (Paul Dano) who is having a dry spell. He has had much success with his first novel written when he was a teen, but the promising literary voice has been struggling to keep the embers flamed. On a suggestion from his psychiatrist, he begins to craft a character named Ruby Sparks. Before one can say literary convention, the actual Ruby (Zoe Kazan) appears in his world. The story is of how Calvin finds that the girl of his dreams that has come from his imagination.
The two young thespians have been a couple for five years, meeting in an off-Broadway play. So thrilled was Zoe about her maiden trip to Dallas, she wore a Texas belt for the interview. The two worked together in a few scenes in Meek’s Cutoff but this is the first time they have appeared as co-stars.
Zoe acted in Revolutionary Road and It’s Complicated, but this is her first major role in a feature. Paul Dano has been performing since he was a child. Some of his credits include Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood and Cowboys & Aliens.
Zoe Kazan wrote the story as a modern take on the Pygmalion myth. She said, “I have been thinking for awhile about relationships and how we define each other in a relationship. (That idea) of when you first meet someone that the first encounter is always your idea of the person – a lifetime of romantic ideas get projected on to that person. As you get to know them you have to reconcile that idea with who they actually are. It is a fascinating process to me.”
Then she said that while walking home one night she saw a mannequin in a clump that she thought it was a dead body. “It sort of sparked something in my mind because I woke up the next morning and I had the seeds of this in my head,” she noted.
Zoe comes from a family of famous writers and has been crafting different stories. “My experience of writing so often is of being visited” she explained, “and that is how Calvin feels about Ruby. When I woke up that morning I had the first fifteen pages in a chunk in my mind. I had a pretty good idea of where it was going. I can’t explain ‘why’ and I don’t know ‘how’. Sometimes things just land on your head.”
Even though she wrote and acted the part of Ruby, she did have a solid grip on the mind of Calvin, her writer creation. “I think that Calvin is sort of a nostalgist. He is like someone who is trying to hold on very tightly to his security blankets. I think he wrote his first book on that typewriter. I think a lot of writers employ magical thinking when it comes to their creativity – eating this thing or having this routine or wearing this thing will access the magic. I think for Calvin it is that typewriter. Also, a typewriter is such an isolated object. It is only there for writing. I really wanted to feel his loneliness, his isolation.”
For Paul, this is second time out playing a writer. A few months back he was in Being Flynn. It was the story of a young man having to deal with his writer father and their struggle to keep him off the streets. Paul said, “I was going to do Ruby Sparks when Being Flynn came around. The characters feel so different to me. I chose not to worry about it. I think that Calvin is defined by being a writer and I don’t think the Nick Flynn character I played totally knew he was a writer yet. It comes later in the film. I think he was defined by his family troubles and being an addict. I didn’t think about writing much during that project and this was defined by how sacred the writing routine is and what it is like not to have inspiration.”
He looked at the reports of J.D. Salinger and journals of John Steinbeck to get a window into the process. “There are a couple of modern authors who you could look at who had young success,” he said of the research, “just go look at their interviews in the media.”
He talked about how he crafts the character he plays on the screen. “I think it is in the words” he said, “and I do my best to interpret that. In the first ten or fifteen pages you get all these really nice building blocks for the character that I then go and fill out.”
Then he detailed the process of creating the character. On Calvin, he said, “It is not just the success of following (literary accomplishment) up. His father has passed away. His father probably gave him that typewriter and he wrote his first book on that typewriter. How has his ex-girlfriend and that relationship impacted his life and his writing? The fact is that he is so isolated in this house. He is hiding and is cautious, afraid. So that puts more pressure on his ability to work. His brother is his only friend and his dog isn’t helping him to meet chicks.”
Showing the world of a writer was something of a challenge for Paul. “Somebody has asked me before if writing is hard thing to dramatize because it is internal but a scene sitting at the typewriter with writer’s block felt dramatic to me because of what has come before it. What am I ever going to do with my next four hours if I can’t write? He’s not in the best point of his life and he has to do something,” explained Dano.
After Zoe had written the script, the next part of the process was to find both producers and directors who not only wanted the script but wanted them to play the leads. That path led them to Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris; the directing team behind the Oscar-nominated Little Miss Sunshine. Zoe explained, “We sent the script to Jonathan and Valerie in the Summer of 2010 and they came back to us with their interest in October of that year with their first set of notes. I could tell just from that first set of notes that we were on the same page. We talked on the phone about basic things like how they wanted to treat the fantasy elements of the movie as completely real. It was completely aligned with how I saw the movie. There were other producers who saw the movie very differently. I felt really comfortable with them right away. I felt like their notes were helping me make a better version of what I wanted to write. It was really easy to collaborate with them, to take their notes and take a chance, to write a scene that I wasn’t sure we needed.”
But, according to Zoe, the script was not ready for filming. The re-write process was a challenge for the young writer/actress. “I think there were times when they asked me to change things, like they would ask for a rewrite on a scene and I would feel like didn’t want to do what they were asking me to do. Most of the time their instinct to change something was sort of diagnostic. There was something that needed to be changed or there was a need for greater catharsis or more emotional depth. They didn’t always have the solution but putting a finger on it helped me see the problem. That was the most difference we had of opinion. By the time we got on set, we definitely were envisioning the same movie and it was really an easy, fun collaboration.”
The biggest challenge for Zoe as an actress was the final confrontation between Ruby and Calvin. The two tackle the emotional scene with an intensity seldom seen on film. According to Zoe, some of the takes were fifteen minutes long–to the point of exhaustion. Paul said that working together was great but “we were there for Calvin and Ruby”. Zoe finished by saying “we were working too hard to really concentrate on our own relationship.”
For the future, Paul Dano has two projects soon to be released. One is the independent drama For Ellen and the other is the giant sci-fi thriller Looper. Zoe Kazan has two up-coming projects, In your Eyes and The Pretty One. She hopes to find more time to be able to write, saying, “I need to get back in front of the computer.”
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have been on press tour before. The two directors were in town in 2006 to promote their last film Little Miss Sunshine. The Oscar-nominated duo have waited a few years before they settled on their next project. That film is Ruby Sparks.
Jonathan explained that the film is a different take on the Pygmalion myth. The story is of Calvin, a writer suffering from writer’s block and fame expectations. On the suggestion of his therapist, he begins to write a character Ruby Sparks. As he crafts the story, the actual woman appears in his life. The complications arise as Calvin tries to reconcile what is actual and want is wanted. Jonathan said, “We like that we could fold the story on to itself a couple of times and call into question what is real, for those people who refuse to accept magical realism.” He said that some in the press have called Ruby Sparks an ‘Annie Hall meets Frankenstein‘ and an emotional rollercoaster.
“When you read a script, you sort of imagine making the movie,” said Valerie. “When you read it, you think that you know what to do with this. When it is something I haven’t exactly seen before, that is always exciting. When a story is told in a simple, matter-of-fact and economic way but has a lot of complexity that is always appealing to us. We didn’t want to get into the explaining how she got there.”
It is unusual in Hollywood to have a husband and wife team work as co-directors. These two individuals are so in sync that they finish each others sentences. At times, they seem to be of one mind. “The good and the bad news is that we can always talk about work when we want to because we like to work,” said Jonathan. “It is very important to us that we never argue on set.” Then Valerie added, “If we haven’t figured something out or figured out some major problem that is not a good thing. We try to get through any concerns, do a lot of prep, months of it.”
By the time they get on the set, Jonathan and Valerie are ready to make the film. Valerie said of the process, “We put ourselves through the paces as much as we can before we are on set working with crew and actors. We are of one mind we go on the set.”
The film stars Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan who are boyfriend and girlfriend. Zoe was also the writer of the work. One of the biggest fears of the directors was working with two young actors who are also a couple. Valerie commented, “We were concerned that this is the first time they have worked together to this degree, carrying a movie together. They are very good with each other and they really respect each other. They are both very professional.”
Then Jonathan added, “I think it helps because we were all so invested and so eager for our partners to succeed.” Valerie finished the thought by saying, “We all knew what movie we wanted to make.”
Since some of the film runs an affecting tug-of-war, the directors did not want to wear out the two leads in blocking rehearsals. So, they hired other actors to work out some of the more expressive scenes of Ruby Sparks. They did it to try and see different approaches and what would work and what was overwhelming. Jonathan said of this process, “We wanted to go to the full extension of this concept but we didn’t want to destroy our audience with it.” Then Valerie said, “It was a delicate line to ride. It is really great to be able to try it on before you are shooting it.”
This film, in addition to being about love, was about creation and the creative process. “You can’t control it because if you do,” said Jonathan, “you will take all the life out of your creation. As a director, you have to learn how to keep life happening in front of the camera.”
The cast of Ruby Sparks features Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s parents and Elliott Gould as the therapist. Valerie said of her performers, “You are halfway there when you get the right cast. It was one of the aspects of this we love so much. You cast the person. It is nice to build on who somebody is.”
They had taken a long time to find the right project for their second major feature, but didn’t suffer the hounds of Hollywood success biting at their heels. Jonathan said of the process, “I don’t feel the pressure for it to be the success that Little Miss Sunshine was. I think our biggest concern was to make a movie we are proud of and enjoy taking out on these press tours. That was a very rewarding aspect of Little Miss Sunshine, to talk to the press and sit with the audience and watch the film. We have had that experience again.”
Valerie agreed then Jonathan added, “We all love movies and want to be a part of the positive experience. It is a lot to ask of someone to come out (and see the work).” She finished the interview by saying, “I feel like it is a responsibility as a filmmaker to make the best work that you can and to keep films vital. I think there is so much competition for films.”