In the upcoming romantic comedy Ruby Sparks, the real life couple of actor Paul Dano and writer/actress Zoe Kazan team up with Dano’s Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for a love story designed for those who think the traditional Hollywood concept of love is a flawed one. While still easily accessible to everyone that watches it, Ruby Sparksmakes the bold move of asking whether a fictional, over idealized lover is a blessing or a nightmare.
Dano stars as wunderkind author Calvin Weir-Fields, a man who following a debilitating break-up hasn’t been able to create a new work of fiction since his enormously popular and influential debut. With the help of his therapist’s urging, Calvin begins to dream up and put to paper the story of Ruby Sparks (Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay), a woman made up of everything Calvin ever dreamed a companion could be. When she actually appears one day, however, things begin to get complicated as he can’t stop the world from changing Ruby and he’s forced into some fairly underhanded tactics to keep her the way he wants to remember her.
During a recent stop in Toronto, Dano and Kazan talked to Criticize This! on the roof of the Thompson Hotel (on easily the hottest day of the year) to talk about the complex emotions behind the film, finding genuine humour and sadness, and poking holes in rom-com clichés.
Criticize This: So you’re reuniting with a lot of people that you’ve worked with before. Did that just come together on its own or did you all talk about working together beforehand?
Paul Dano: Well, Zoe and I actually met five years ago doing an off-Broadway play and we started dating, so we’ve been together for almost five years now.
CT: I actually didn’t even know that until you brought it up. That’s how little I actually knew of your personal lives. (laughs)
PD: (Laughs) Yeah, and I mean that’s actually good, but it’s pretty clear now that everyone is going to know. So, Zoe just started writing this in our apartment and about 10 to 15 pages into her script I said we should send it to Jon and Val because we just knew that they would be the absolute best people for it. They’re ability to allow something to be funny, but to mine it for as much depth as possible and to allow it to be personal and bring their own heart to it, as well, was key. So we sent it to them first before anyone else and they signed onto it pretty much immediately, and we couldn’t believe it because it really was our dream for them to direct this film. Also, them being a couple, as well, turned out to be a great thing because they have such a great relationship and that’s just a great collaboration for Zoe and I to be working so intensely together with. That was nice to look up to. Plus, they were really great friends, so they’re like family at this point. We went through this thing together and it’s wonderful to finally get to share this with everyone.
CT: So if Zoe is writing this at home, how hard is it for you to not constantly sort of look over her shoulder and sort of treat her respectfully as a writer and not try to put your own spin on the story?
PD: You know what? Early on I think Zoe said that we should do this and that we should help shepherd it into the world so we get to make the film we want to make, and to keep as involved and as much control over it as possible so it doesn’t spin out into what could have been a more comedy/fantasy version of the film, which I think is not as rewarding in the end. This film really could have been that if you latch onto its fantastical elements like her not being real and her being controllable. That was not what we wanted to do. We couldn’t do just that. So we wanted to be really involved throughout.
I would actually come home from wherever I was and Zoe would actually tell me that she had written five pages and asked if I would read them. So, I was never once looking over her shoulder because she was always, everyday, when she would write ask me what I think, and for the most part I would try to be the good boyfriend and say “Baby, this is really good.” (laughs) But I was always there to ask questions or to be a good bounce board for her, but it was really exciting once she was getting close to the finish line and trying to figure out where the story was going to go. Just being there and seeing it every step of the way meant I learned a lot about everything beforehand, which was great.
CT: Your character is an interesting one to play because you’re playing a writer that isn’t creating this idealized feminine character for a greater audience, but who is selfishly creating one for himself. As an actor was that sort of overly idealized female character something you had run into in the past that you and Zoe always wanted to avoid?
PD: Sure! I mean, I think so. I think Zoe was absolutely trying to explore that as a writer and there’s a line in the film where my brother says to my character that I haven’t written a person, but that I’ve written a “girl.” So I think there’s something to be said about who we want our partners to be and what we want them to be and loving and accepting them and not trying to control the relationship. I think that also relates to how you see relationships in film. I think it was an organic reaction and she was thinking about it then, but once we got to set we just started focusing on the best Rudy and Calvin that we could be and then just be very emotionally present enough to tuck away the themes, because at that point it’s already in the writing. We’ve talked about it and the directors knew about it.
I’m glad that you picked up on that, because when the trailers first came out there was this sort of chatter that it was this “manic pixie dream girl” thing, which I didn’t even know what it was before this, and while I don’t like the term I do understand completely where it’s coming from. But based on the trailer it kind of looks like one of those movies, but ultimately that’s one of the biggest points we address in the film.
CT: It’s also different in that, as the film goes on, it becomes harder and harder to find Calvin to really be all that sympathetic because he doesn’t like confronting his own co-dependency issues and he becomes extremely manipulative as a result. Was it hard to sympathize with that as an actor?
PD: Yeah, It’s hard. I don’t really know, but I certainly tried my best. I think as an actor I just take the building blocks that have been given to me – Calvin’s dad has passed away, he just got out of a long relationship, he’s lonely, his only friend is his brother – and you sort of take those and wonder how those situations would make you feel and just start from there. I just have to process everything as it was given to me and hope that the moments where Calvin and Ruby are really in love feel alive and have that sort of magic and elation to it. Then we wanted the moments where a relationship doesn’t work to not be all that glossy or sugar coated even though the story has this magical element to it. I still think that if we had ignored the dark side this story could have, the film just wouldn’t have been real or truthful enough.
I really think and hope that people will like and relate to the film because of that. And I’m mean, you as a writer can appreciate this, but Jon, Val, Zoe, and I always talked about what the film has to say about the creative process, as well. Even for them, this film has the theme of following up a great success, and Jon and Val’s first movie was Little Miss Sunshine and it sort of parallel the amount of time between Calvin’s book and him working on something new. That was something that I really loved because the idea of writer’s block is something so terrifying to creative types. Also, the love story aspect of it is something that I think that anyone who has been in enough relationships that have succeeded and failed will hopefully see that we’re trying to hit that success and failure in a way that will move people.
CT: The screenplay for this movie is really something special, and I know that you had done some writing prior to this outside of feature length screenwriting. What was it that finally made you realise it was the right time to make this movie?
Zoe Kazan: You know, when I started writing it, to be totally honest, I thought it was a really commercial movie. (laughs) I had written other screenplays before that had felt really small. Like, I loved Cassavettes and I thought that they were the kind of films that were in that vein where only ten people who really wanted to see it would. But on this one I felt that I really wanted a lot of people to see this and that it was a bigger movie that would appeal to a bigger audience. Of course, bigger for me means that about an extra ten people would see it. (laughs) But, I’m normally into really DIY, microbudget kind of moviemaking, but I felt like I wanted to make this in a more accessible way, which was why I thought that Jon and Val would be the perfect people to direct it. It happened really quickly and organically, which was the most exciting part of this process for me, because I finished the script in spring of 2010 and by spring of 2011 we were a month away from shooting. That was really surprising since movies like this just never get made that fast. It’s not like I thought it was the right time, it just felt like it was. Sometimes things just need to happen that way.
CT: The film feels almost reactionary in a way towards this idealized form of romantic comedies that we tend to get. As someone who works as an actress, was that something you were pulling very heavily from and were you really trying to show that this romanticized dream woman in films is almost an entirely male driven construct?
ZK: Yeah! I think I was definitely trying to say something along those lines. It’s funny, because it’s not that I don’t think men can’t write really complicated, funny, or truthful roles for women. I think that people like Woody Allen in something like Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters can populate their films with a lot of real female characters. I just think that romantic comedies are so much better when they’re actually about real people. Things like When Harry Met Sally or Say Anything… those might be fluffier movies than this is, but they’re about real people and they’re so compelling and those are really the stories that endure. Those are the things I respond to more than two really pretty people going through fake problems. I think I was definitely writing in response to some of those kinds of movies, and I think the idea of the “manic pixie dream girl” is so stupid. It’s just a way of reducing women to an idea of something. A huge part of the movie is the dangers of reducing a person to an idea. I think that there’s no label like that for men in these kinds of movies. It’s a special kind of diminutive label that eliminates any sense of individuality. I think I was definitely writing in response to all of that with the intent of kind of exploding the entire construct from the inside.
CT: Even as a writer, you’re making the writer in your own film as someone who’s completely manipulative and co-dependent, and it’s a male writer. Were you ever surprised by some of the things you were coming up with?
ZK: Yeah, I was surprised because when I first got the idea it came to me so completely and especially with regards to Calvin. It was like I had somehow downloaded this huge chunk of the universe and I didn’t know where it was going or why I was writing it. Then I sort of put it away for a while, and later it became clear what I was writing about. I never wrote an outline for it and one of the things that Paul kept saying to me was how surprised he was by that. I didn’t put any limits on it kind of knowing that I could always go back and change it later, but I wanted it to keep surprising me. I really didn’t know at any time what was going to happen and when certain things came to me I didn’t even realize I was planting the seeds for some of Calvin’s actions 20 pages ago. You can play these creative tricks on yourself where you allow your brain to go somewhere, but you were never sure if you allowed it to go there in the first place, if that makes any sense.
CT: You’ve actually surrounded yourself with some phenomenal writing talent in a lot of the films you acted in prior to this. Did you ever pick anything up from anyone along the way?
ZK: I definitely did, but I’m such a huge cinephile and such a huge fan of the movies in general that it’s my go to thing to do. Sitting in a dark theatre is pretty much paradise for me. I even like watching bad movies! So one of the joys as an actor is getting to read a lot of scripts that are both good and bad. I think that you pick up a lot that way, and both of my parents are screenwriters and I’ve read a lot of their work over the years, so I definitely learned a lot from osmosis.
CT: I know that you wrote the film, but your character of Ruby in the film seems a bit harder to play because she’s is this hyper-realized ideal and I can see the temptation as an actor to go really big with the emotions. Were there ever any times where you really had to pull back?
ZK: You know, I think because I spent about nine months going over the screenplay with Jon and Valerie that it gave me a great idea of what they wanted to do tonally when they started shooting. I had already put so much time into it that I felt like I had such a strong idea of who Ruby was, but there was a moment in rehearsal where we were doing the scene where Ruby and Calvin first meet in his dream in a park, and I was being really flirtatious with him, and we had done it about seven or eight times and I said to Jonathan and Valerie that I could do it without flirting, and they told me to show them what that would be. When I did that very bald-faced and straightforward they said “That’s Rudy. That’s the character. Right there.” Sometimes as an actor you think lowering your voice or just changing on thing can allow you to access a whole different part of yourself and that was a surprising thing for me, because I think that Ruby had been such a separate thing for me while writing that I still didn’t know just then where she lived inside of myself. Then in that moment she became very clear and that moment became sort of a touchstone for me to just say that if I eliminated the flirtation that she would be there again.
Ruby Sparks opens in Toronto and Vancouver on August 3. Check out the trailer below.
Top image: Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan in a scene from Ruby Sparks. Courtesy Fox Searchlight.