A sharp, modern take on the Pygmalion myth, Ruby Sparks is the story of a novelist’s vision that inexplicably comes to life, only to prove far more complicated than even he could have imagined. Ruby (Zoe Kazan) starts out as an idea in Calvin’s (Paul Dano) mind, but he creates her with such a strong individualistic desire to be her own person that he is ultimately forced to grow in order to accommodate her strength and evolution. Directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris from a first screenplay by actress and playwright Kazan, the film constantly challenges the audience as it takes an unpredictable route into fantasy, identity and the ways we invent love and how love reinvents us.
At the press day for Ruby Sparks, we sat down at a roundtable interview with Kazan and Dano to talk about what happens when a writer tries to make a relationship from his imagination work in the real world. They told us what the experience was like bringing their characters to life on screen, how they approached the film’s most physically and emotionally challenging sequences, and why Dayton & Faris were the perfect duo to direct the film. They also revealed their next projects including Dano’s upcoming For Ellen, Looper and Twelve Years a Slave and Kazan’s The F-Word.
Zoe Kazan: Tell us, Paul.
Paul Dano: Well, I think there was more, as a reader, of Zoe in Ruby than when we actually went to do it. I think she found who Ruby was when going to act the part and I saw the separation occur. I don’t want to say specifically. I’m sure there are parts of her, but when I watch the film, I see the character which is really nice. I don’t see either of us and I don’t see us on the screen. That was actually one of the big sighs of relief when we first saw the film because that’s a scary and daunting thing. I feel really good about the fact that it’s two characters up there. Zoe is a lot flirtier and sassier than Ruby is, I think.
Sassier than Ruby?
How much of Paul is in Calvin or were you thinking of Paul when you were creating Calvin?
Kazan: I was thinking of Paul when I was writing it. I was trying not to have Paul in my head though. Paul is very private, and I knew that if I wrote a character too close to him, he wouldn’t want to play it and that he wouldn’t want to feel exposed in that way. Obviously, when he plays the part, he brings himself to it, so I see Paul’s sweetness and soulfulness in Calvin. Also, Paul’s really funny, and it’s not that Calvin’s funny, but I see Paul’s humor up there on screen in the playing of Calvin. But I tried to not have them be the same person. I know Paul never, never tries to make his characters the same as who he is.
The beauty of the wish fulfillment and the power to let your imagination manifest this perfect girl is wonderful and very romantic. How careful was the process to create that balance between all these different types of women that Ruby becomes in one film?
Kazan: I feel like Ruby becomes more complicated for me as the movie goes on. All those things that get drawn out of her by Calvin changing her are all just parts of her personality to start with. It’s just that when you put stress on one thing, other things disappear. I guess I was interested in what happens when people try to manipulate each other, that you destroy the thing you love by trying to change it. But, on the other hand, Ruby justifies to herself what’s going on with her. She says “I’ve been so up and down lately,” and I have said those very words to Paul. I think most of us do not have a cohesive experience of ourselves. We look back five years ago and we cannot believe what we were wearing or who we were dating or what we were doing. We look back at journal entries and we think “Oh God, if only I could tell that person this or that.” Even from day to day, you wake up feeling sad. You don’t know why. That’s how Ruby is justifying it to herself and I think there’s a way that you can see metaphorically what’s happening there.
Kazan: We don’t want to give away too much.
Dano: It’s really hard, but you know what, I think that’s the most fun we have too is when we get to really try and go somewhere in a scene that feels challenging. Can I do it? I think I can. But you don’t know until you get there. I remember really having no clue how that scene was going to go. I knew the words. I did not know because it’s such a hard thing to imagine, especially doing the Zoe/Ruby who Calvin cares about so much, so the scene was really complex. It’s so self-destructive for him. I think for Zoe, and all of us collectively, we didn’t figure that scene out until the day we were going to do it. Meaning she had written the scene, but not all of the actions, and everybody brought an action to the table. That scene was a total mystery, but as hard as it was, I think a total joy to get to go into something like that and come out at the end of a night shoot at 5 or 6 am feeling wow, I think we did it. For Zoe, there’s also the physical aspect. Calvin’s at the typewriter, and I think it’s just as emotionally hard with what both the characters are going through, but what Ruby is going through physically too is a whole other element. We did very long takes on the digital camera and it was a good night.
Kazan: Jon and Valerie definitely were trying to push me past my physical limits.
Kazan: It’s a funny thing because I think a lot of times when … I don’t want to generalize. I think there’s a perception when actors write scripts that they’re writing mainly to give themselves a good, juicy part to play. That just wasn’t the case with this. I started writing it feeling like the story and the people were suddenly crystal clear to me. It was about five pages and then I showed them to Paul and he said “Are you writing this for us?” As soon as he said it, I thought oh, that’s exactly what I’m doing. But then, I really put that out of my head completely while I was writing because I was so much more excited about what was happening inside my brain than trying to orchestrate some fantastic scene for us to play. I didn’t even really think about playing it until we were almost two weeks out and then we started talking more about it. I think the only thing that was conscious in some way… like I said before, Paul is so funny. Paul makes me laugh all the time and he’s so adept physically, and those are things that I don’t think people really know about him because he’s played all these very internal, darker characters. It’s true. I had in my mind this thought of how much fun it would be to see Paul do something that brings out these other colors.
Dano: Whenever Zoe and I were talking about the film while she was writing, I’d say I think it’s more important to try and make a good film than give a good performance, and so we get to the acting when we get there. I think a great juicy part is not worth much. At least for me, as a viewer, most of the time, the story and the film need to take precedence, and hopefully, within that naturally, there are good parts.
What is it that made Jonathan and Valerie the perfect directors to direct this, and especially for you Paul, having worked with them before, what is it that you appreciate about working with them and their style?
Dano: Everybody who worked with them on Little Miss Sunshine would say that they wanted to work with them again. They’re wonderful people and they’re wonderful filmmakers and they really care about what they do. You feel the love in their films. I think they love what they do and they care about the characters and the story and the audience. We thought of them about ten pages into Zoe writing. I had no clue where the story was going, and it was clear for some reason that they would be the dream choice if we could have anybody. That was a good thing to identify, I think, just for us talking about it and dreaming about it, just to know what kind of film we ultimately wanted to make and the sensibility. We didn’t know if we could get them. They hadn’t made a film in so long and they had other projects that they were developing. It was just intuitively clear and there are reasons for it. The tone of having something be really funny and magical and fun but also have some depth and be grounded, to explore something and not be afraid to find a dark moment. That’s just hard to come by. I’d brought Zoe over to their house a few years ago saying “I’d like you to meet my new girlfriend. You guys will really like each other.” And that was just as friends, nothing to do with work. I still feel here today looking at the poster that we’re lucky we got to do it with them.
It was wonderful to hear dialogue that’s literate and smart and to have a story that gives the imagination center stage. Do you like to read? Are you enamored of the word?
Kazan: A big yes. I think the written word is my first love. I was just a very imagination-centered child and a big part of that imaginary life came from reading. I volunteered at the library in my teens. When I was in elementary school, I spent every lunch period in the library with the librarian. I don’t know. It sounds really dorky because it was. It’s funny. It’s sort of what happened to me in my twenties because I went to Yale and I read all these incredible books. I think, in a weird way, it beat pure reading out of me. I was reading a thousand pages a week for class and I got to this point where it felt like a job. And then, I met Paul. Paul had gone to college for a while but never finished, and so I think there’s sort of an autodidactic thing that he does where he’s a much more adventurous reader than I am. He’s always looking for new authors. I tend to re-read or read all of an author’s work, and so our bookshelf is a very interesting mélange. It’s fun for me to be with someone who loves reading as much as I do, because he’ll give me things to read that I wouldn’t normally seek out, and I think vice versa.
Dano: Like Fifty Shades of Grey.
Kazan: That was a big one. Yes, that was something I would have never looked at if you hadn’t given it to me.
Kazan: Oh, I didn’t read him.
I find him addicting.
Kazan: I know. That’s why we can’t. I am much too much of a junky to let that enter my bloodstream.
I’m fascinated because it’s the biggest selling book.
Kazan: I know. Of course, it’s fascinating.
This is such a creative story and you have such a unique and very singular voice, what has taken you so long to write a screenplay?
Kazan: I’m 28 years old.
But with a voice that’s this good, it’s like we’ve been waiting for this for so long.
Kazan: Oh that’s so nice. I don’t really think it’s that long. I love to act and that’s sort of my first love. That’s what I started out doing. I’ve written two plays that have both been produced so that was a lot of work and time. There are other screenplays that I’m in the middle of writing. I feel like everything comes in its own time. I don’t know. Thank you though.
You’re like the author that as soon as you finish the one book, you’re waiting for the next one to come out the following year.
Can each of you talk about what you have coming up next?
Dano: I have a small film called For Ellen coming out in September that’s by a woman named So Yong Kim who did a film called Treeless Mountain that I liked a lot and it’s a great part.
Kazan: She’s amazing.
Dano: And I have a small part in a film called Looper that I also like a lot. And its director, Rian Johnson, I think is really talented. I’m going to go shoot soon a part in Steve McQueen’s new film called Twelve Years a Slave. So that’s the next bit of acting I’m going to do.
Kazan: I shot three independent movies this year and I’m about to go do another one with Daniel Radcliffe in Toronto called The F-Word.
Kazan: I would love to. If the right situation came along, I really would want to, but I find stage work very, very difficult and time consuming and all-absorbing. It just feels like a really big commitment to me. The last thing I did was Angels in America and I feel like it burned me out, that seven hours and playing Harper. I think I walked away being like “only if I really need to again.” I was very, very drained by that.
Paul, I loved seeing you in a comedy. Befuddlement suits you.
Dano: That’s good. Thank you.
Kazan: You’re so funny!
And you got to play in Sid Krofft’s house.
Dano: (to Kazan) Behave!
Kazan: You behave!
Ruby Sparks is now playing.