Academy Award nominees Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, the directing duo whose feature debut, Little Miss Sunshine, was a runaway hit, were excited to direct the first screenplay from actress and playwright Zoe Kazan. They loved the light touch and dash of magical realism of Ruby Sparks and how Kazan was able to write about a very complex subject in a very economical, spare and matter-of-fact way. The directors felt she had a gift for making things look easy, fun and not labored over, while at the same time, there was real depth in her work. Kazan, in turn, was convinced there could be no better match of sensibility to her story about a novelist (Calvin/Paul Dano) whose fantasy character inexplicably comes to life.
At the press day for Ruby Sparks, we sat down with Dayton & Faris at a roundtable interview to talk about directing a film that’s built around a fictional premise but illuminates so many truths about complex human relationships. They described their collaboration with Kazan, how they went about capturing the crazy, eclectic nature of Los Angeles in a romantic and naturalistic way, and the challenges of striking the right tonal balance in a film that’s a mix of pain and humor, is funny and fantastic, but also has depth and goes to dark places. The directors also discussed how the chemistry and romantic past of real-life couple Kazan and Dano brought believability to their characters on screen, and they revealed their next project, a pilot for HBO, written by comic book writer Dan Clowes.
Jonathan Dayton: We’re so happy to be here.
Valerie Faris: It’s nice to be back. You guys are fun to talk to.
And you come back with another glorious little gem.
Jonathan: Thank you.
Are you really, really picky?
Valerie: Probably. We don’t want to be known for that.
Jonathan: Well we’re parents and we love what we do and because we work together…
Valerie: And we have a relationship.
Jonathan: We talked a little bit about this. You have to love what you do deeply because you don’t escape it.
Valerie: It affects every aspect of your life.
Jonathan: And it’s permanent. It follows you.
Valerie: Maybe because there’s more at stake. Rather than picky, it’s just that we have a lot resting on what we do — our marriage, our family life — so we want to make sure that we’re both going into it excited about the work that we have.
Jonathan: And there are certain ideas that I would love to see in a movie theater but I don’t need to work on for two years.
Jonathan: What was great about doing this was that the layers just kept unfolding. And then, also, as a director, as a filmmaker, the challenge of what is the score for something like this. We knew we didn’t want to do a conventional ‘indie rock band lyrics telling you what to feel’ kind of score. There were so many challenges. The film goes to darker places that you don’t normally have in a romantic comedy. I don’t even want to call it that. This isn’t a romantic comedy.
Valerie: We liked the mix. I think, for us, our favorite movies have comedy, but they also have drama and that mix of pain, suffering and humor is just the way we experience life and like to see it in the movies. This had that. It had plenty of very funny bits, but then it also went to a very interesting and challenging place that we hadn’t been as filmmakers. I think every time you’re looking to do something you’ve never done before and maybe something you’ve never seen exactly before. I think the potential in this movie, the scene that’s kind of the climax of the movie, scared us, but we thought well this is interesting.
Jonathan: This is why we do it because we get to walk that tightrope.
Valerie: It’s a little bolder.
Can you talk about your collaboration with Zoe and finding the right tonal balance in a film with so many complex layers?
Jonathan: That’s why it takes two years to make a movie and that’s why I love having nine months to edit. We worked with Zoe for nine months on the script just fine tuning her original draft to make it this very potent economical…
Valerie: In that time, it helps us get comfortable with each other so she knows what our vision for the film is and she can feel comfortable handing it off to us and trusting us with it. And we feel like we’ve mined everything that’s in there that we saw in it.
Jonathan: So it becomes part of our DNA because it’s incubated a long time. At least for us, we have to feel it in our bones.
Valerie: She’s spent time with it. The time has been right. We really like working with writers. Even in the time during the six years where we weren’t making movies, we were working with great writers and fully believed we would make those films. I think that’s a part of the process that nobody really gives value to, but it is the most important part, where the director and the writer are fusing their vision for what this is. I think if you don’t get that time together, you’re missing out on a really important part of the creation of the movie.
I don’t think of L.A. as being very romantic and I was thrilled to see how you guys presented the city in such a romantic way. Can you tell us how and why you did that?
Jonathan: Well, because we fell in love here. We would go to El Coyote and have drinks, and so, to be able to take these places that meant a lot to us…
Valerie: There was the Hollywood Cemetery, Los Feliz, and along Vermont Avenue we spent a lot of time. One of our close friend’s families used to own Sarno’s. We just have such a history in L.A. I’ve lived here all my life and I love this city. I feel like it gets a bad rap a lot of the time because it’s this sort of sprawling suburb, and I actually think the more you know L.A. and the longer you’ve lived here, the better it gets.
Jonathan: We were excited to work with Matty (Matthew Libatique), the D.P., and use the Alexa, this new digital camera that would allow us to film in Calvin’s house and look out the window and see the city lights without any enhancement. There were certain scenes when he was sleeping at night where we would light him with an iPad. We just had an iPad hanging above his bed and then all the city lights balanced perfectly and we could capture the city in a more naturalistic way.
To a certain degree you are dealing with a fairy tale first and foremost, but there’s also a lot of reality to this. How did you manage to stay away from having the tone distort the overall film and how specific were those choices on the day?
Valerie: We do a ton of prep. There are certain things that come up on the day so it’s great when you’re really prepared because you can change your mind. But, for us to have to solve problems or to come up with ideas on the day is just not as fun. We love having a plan and going in and executing the plan and discovering new things as we go. To manage the tone and to do that right, you really have to have it in your head. You have to see the film.
Jonathan: And then, you have to have everyone on the crew working towards that same goal. That’s really our job — the production design, the color of her stockings, every item of furniture, every Post-it note on the wall, what that Post-it note says, which typewriter. We spent months looking for the right house and we finally found this one house that felt close but not exact.
Valerie: It had kind of an Escher look.
Jonathan: We said “Who’s the architect?” And so, we found every house that this architect built and ended up…
Valerie: It was a really fun tour of L.A. 80’s architecture.
Jonathan: It’s a great way to get inside a house. “Hi. I’d like to pay you thousands of dollars. Do you mind if I come inside?” We ultimately found the house that the architect built for himself and that’s Calvin’s house.
Valerie: His wife was at the screening last night. She saw the movie for the first time.
Jonathan: She was all tearful and it was so beautiful. Her husband passed away a few years ago. We love the eclectic, crazy nature of Los Angeles and so we wanted to get that. It’s in the film. There’s a long history of it so we were excited. Okay. What’s our version?
Valerie: There’s an amazing movie called Los Angeles Plays Itself.
Jonathan: It’s on YouTube.
Valerie: You can only see its fourteen parts on YouTube, but it’s a very interesting documentary on all the movies that have been made in Los Angeles and we watched that just to get a feel for how L.A. had been depicted on film.
Death, vice, betrayal, sex, silicone.
Jonathan: Yup. It’s all there.
There’s only one other film I can think of and that was 500 Days of Summer.
Valerie: L.A. downtown.
Jonathan: I thought Marc (director Marc Webb) did an incredible job of giving you a fresh take on an actual real subculture that lives downtown.
Valerie: It’s not what we think of typically as L.A. with palm trees.
Jonathan: But it does exist.
Was Calvin’s house in the Los Feliz area?
Valerie: Yes, the film centers around Los Feliz.
Jonathan: There’s an actual truth in the choices. All the places are places that you would go to if you lived in that house.
Valerie: All the cafes.
Jonathan: It was really out of necessity because we couldn’t travel far. When we would drive home every night after shooting at Calvin’s house, we’d go by this one arcade on Vermont that has this insane neon purple interior.
Valerie: And a mirrored ceiling. When you look in the double doors, you’d see these crazy bright colors and we thought what if we just shoot a quick sequence in there for that…
Jonathan: …for that one ‘falling in love’ moment. You’re always keeping an eye open for something like that.
Valerie: We actually got to know Vermont Avenue really well because we drove that every morning, and it was so interesting to see the life on that street at 6:00 AM and then sometimes 4:00 AM coming home.
What is it about Zoe’s voice that spoke to you and lured you into this project?
Valerie: I think she has a real gift for making things look very easy. They look simple on the surface but there’s a lot embedded in the story. There’s an economy to her writing that I love. It moves really quickly without just staying on the surface. That’s a really hard thing to do and she can write funny. That’s not easy. Comedy writing is the hardest and yet there’s so much that’s relatable in it.
Valerie: She’s annoyingly smart.
Jonathan: She’s amazing.
Valerie: She just makes it all look easy and there’s something about that. It’s not labored over. Some scripts you feel like everything is precious. She was so not precious with her work.
Jonathan: That’s what was also so satisfying about this. When it came time for us to work with her on it, she was very open. It wasn’t like “Oh! You’re ruining my baby!” It was just like “Let’s keep going. Let’s see where this can go.”
Valerie: She was saying she loves a puzzle, so we would give her notes and say “We just think this could go deeper. How does he bottom out?”
Jonathan: We’d get very specific. But we would say “I don’t know how you combine these things, but can you do this?”
Valerie: “We think it needs to hit this, this and this.”
Jonathan: And then, she would go away.
Valerie: “Whoa! Puzzle!”
Jonathan: There was a period where she was doing Angels in America and we would get on the phone and we’d talk about something, and then, we’d hang up and go “Wait a minute. What time is it? She’s in New York. She’s doing her play right now.”
Valerie: She was between acts.
You both have mined this incredibly complex territory of human relationships and you do it with such finesse. Is it hard to turn that off when it comes to your own relationship?
Valerie: No. I mean, it’s kind of fun to have to focus on somebody else’s relationship.
Jonathan: Our relationship stays healthy as long as we’re doing something we love. We love running these experiences through the prism of the two of us. We love being parents, and I like the diversity of the projects we do. It’s always different. We always feel like we’re starting over. That’s scary, but I never feel like an expert.
Valerie: I think that keeps us in a healthy [place].
Jonathan: I feel like okay, what is this? And that’s why this was so fun because we’d never seen a script like this – one that was such a combination of elements and took you to so many places.
Valerie: You cast something you see in the person, and we met with Antonio and we realized he is Mort. He is this guy. And he was clearly interested in this character. He kept saying “What do you think? What if he had a tattoo?” He had all these ideas for the character. It was like “Oh, okay, I don’t know about that but…” You could tell he was really eager to run with something that felt different for him.
Jonathan: He’s in a really interesting place. He said “I just want to do things I love and I believe in.” It was not a big commitment. It was just a few days. He loved the idea of working with Annette and the chemistry was immediate.
Valerie: They had never worked together and they were excited.
Jonathan: They were playful.
Valerie: We were hoping they could do it. Annette was very…I don’t want to say easy because I think she’s very picky, but I think she liked the material. She liked the group of people she was going to be working with and it felt like a fun little vacation. “Okay. I’ll try it. It’ll be fun to try it.” She loved the wig. She was so excited about the wig.
Jonathan: She just felt that it transformed her. I just want to point out the other cast members that we don’t get to talk about like Deborah Ann Woll who was on set for one day.
Valerie: She dropped in and did that.
Jonathan: It was a heavy role, and she needed to just clobber Calvin, and she was the person to do it. The whole crew was in awe.
Valerie: They were all drooling over her.
Jonathan: And Alia Shawkat from Arrested Development, we love her.
Valerie: And Chris Messina.
Jonathan: He’s unbelievable.
Valerie: For us, he really in some ways makes the movie work.
Jonathan: He’s the jet fuel.
In all of his supporting roles, he is the grounding factor which is really hard to do.
Jonathan: No, it really is hard to do.
Valerie: He’s funny, but he’s so real and he’s got such warmth. I just felt that even though they didn’t look anything alike, they felt like brothers to us.
Jonathan: And he found…in rehearsal we really worked on the relationship and there was a real love there between the two of them.
Valerie: They love each other. They’re very compatible.
It sounds like it was a fun movie to work on.
Jonathan: It was really fun. It was great.
It feels like a home movie actually.
Valerie: That’s kind of what you want if you set it up right.
Jonathan: That’s one of the reasons why it takes so long and they’re hard to put together.
Valerie: They’re hard to come by.
So don’t take so long next time.
Valerie: We’re going to try.
Jonathan: We’re going to try. Thank you.
What are you working on next?
Valerie: We’re going to do a pilot for HBO that’s written by Dan Clowes who’s a really funny comic book writer. He wrote Ghost World. It’s a very biting kind of social commentary, but it’s funny. It just cracked us up. It’s different for us, but I think it’ll be good.
Ruby Sparks opens on July 25th.