In the new romantic drama Ruby Sparks, a young writer named Calvin (Paul Dano) invents the perfect girlfriend for his new novel. Little does he know that the woman he created would one day jump off the page and into his kitchen. Zoe Kazan, who wrote the screenplay, stars as the title character who enters Calvin’s life and forces him to re-evaluate what he puts on the page.
Dano and Kazan, a romantic couple in real life, worked with directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (another real-life couple) in bringing these characters to the big screen. I recently had the chance to sit down with both couples in roundtable interviews . Here is what the real life stars of the film had to say about Ruby Sparks, the film’s “changed” ending and finding another Hollywood couple that they looked up to.
I began by asking Kazan about her writing process and if she knew that she would be playing the title character as she was writing the piece.
Kazan: Well, it wasn’t the title character when I wrote the script. That happened in retrospect…
Not unlike Calvin, I had a dream and I woke up in the morning and the scenes for this movie were in my head and I wrote it down as fast as I could so I wouldn’t lose it and then showed those five or ten pages to Paul and he said ‘you’re writing this for us, right?’ It really hadn’t occurred to me and then it was completely obvious to me that that’s what I was doing but I had been so taken by it by the—if you’ll excuse the expression- by the balls by it that I hadn’t even stopped to think so from that point on, I knew I was writing for myself … And then it wasn’t until later when I was actually having to do it that I was like, ‘oh God, what have I written?” For so long, I was just thinking about it as a writer that it wasn’t until the very last month of preparation that I even started thinking about acting it.
How did you think about the characters you would be playing?
Dano: You just sort of take the basic building blocks that the script gives you so in this case, [Calvin’s] gotten out of a long relationship. He does not have any friends. His brother, rather, is his only friend. He lives in a big house alone. Got a dog to try to help him meet people but that doesn’t seem to be working out. His father’s passed away. He’s had huge success but he cannot follow up and has writer’s block. And so those are all just great, great, great starting points to sort of then figure out ‘okay, how do you feel about those things’ cause each of those is a big thing and a big feeling and you can start to figure out what happened before that, especially with his book and how he got into writing and what his relationship with his father is like and with the ex-girlfriend. You just sort of build it up but you start with what’s on the page that’s given to you and then just fill in the blanks…You respond to it the way Calvin would.
How do you create a character that is so changeable ? (In the film, Calvin’s written words force Ruby to do whatever he puts down on the page.)
Kazan: The main thing that Jonathan and Valerie and I talked about in the writing and then the playing of her was that we wanted her to feel very real and we never wanted her to feel like a fantasy. Or like the idea of a person. We wanted her to feel like a person. Part of that was just obviously in the writing of it. Like doing my preparation. Who is Ruby and finding things out about her as I wrote. She’s a very forthright person and she’s sort of a person in charge of her own desires. She knows what she wants. She’s more straightforward than I am, I think, as a person and there was some surprise in that especially when we started playing it in rehearsal. Where she lived. Where her voice is. Where her energy is…
A part of it was just sort of moving away from the writer’s head, which was all about the story and how these people interact and then moving into my body and feeling who she was physically. That was a real moment of discovery for me which I wasn’t anticipating. I sort of thought when writing it I would know everything but I learned a lot just in the first week we were rehearsing. And then the important thing for me [were] the changes that happened to Ruby…He’s changing her. Bringing out a different side of her so those things were fun to play because they were an exaggerated quality. But we were always trying to keep it grounded in reality.
Did you have any particular actors in mind when writing the screenplay like Antonio Banderas and Annette Bening?
Kazan: We mostly just got extremely lucky with casting. Except for writing for Paul and myself, I didn’t have anybody else in mind while I was writing and then there were a lot of surprises along the way including Antonio. Paul, do you want to-
Dano: That was a call one day from Jon and Val saying we have this crazy idea. His [the character’s] name is Mort so we never were thinking of anyone like Antonio. Zoey and I would be home making up lists of who would be good to suggest or who would be great in this part. That was a really fun call to get cause that was something that if we were making the film alone, I don’t know if we would have gotten there. It turned out to be definitely an inspired choice.
Kazan: And I will say that Jonathan and Valerie [are] really decent people. They’re really good people. And kind and incredibly hardworking. They’re kind of like the best coaches of a little league baseball team. They’re really good at galvanizing a group and I think the quality of the cast speaks to that. People want to meet them and want to work with them. They have this ability to sort of make people want to do their best and be better than they are. Not just in the cast but in the photographers, the production designer, costume designer, hair and makeup. Everybody was sort of coming at it like a labor of love.
Can you compare working with the directors on Little Miss Sunshine to this?
Dano: This was certainly- not only because I’m older and have had more experience and more of an adult– but this was a much more intimate working relationship. Probably about ten pages into Zoey writing, we knew we wanted Jon and Val to direct the film…
They’re really caring and you just feel like you can trust them and give them everything. Give them all of you. Every actor on Little Miss Sunshine loved working with them. Every actor on this film did so I feel very lucky to have gotten to work with them again. I would say just the biggest difference was spending a lot more time together.
It’s unusual to one couple working behind the scenes on a film and one in front of the camera. What was that like?
Kazan: They’re freaks. (laughing) No, they’ve been working together and living together and raising their children together and married together since their early 20’s. They just have this incredible symbiotic relationship that I can’t really describe. Like it happened today. We were walking out of an interview and one of them started to tell a story to me and then I walked to catch up with the other one and the other one started telling me the same story. Like their brains are on the same wave length totally and it’s a beautiful thing to watch but it also makes it very easy. I said to Paul after the movie, “How does one person do that job because it seems so perfectly divided between the two of them.’ It’s like a tag team or something. They both deal with different things. There’s no clear division of labor.
Dano: It was nice to have a couple to look up to as well in working together in this capacity. And it felt like a collaboration too in a way where we had this shared thing and Jon and Val came to it romantically as a couple and we can bring ourselves to that as well and I think they brought a lot out in us just through their experience of love and how the material affected them even though we both knew the material really well before they got it…
Can you talk a little bit about the ending? There’s a rumor out there that the ending was changed from what you originally wrote.
Kazan: I think this is a little of a misnomer because the whole reason this got out there in the first place is that someone asked me ‘was there anything significantly changed’ and that was just the first thing that came to mind was that there had been a slightly different ending… I rewrote the script for nine months for Jonathan and Valerie and a lot of that rewriting had to do with making the highs higher and the lows lower like just going deeper into what I’d already written and also tailoring it to what they wanted to do with the camera and a romantic moment that they wanted to infuse so by the time I finished that process, it really felt like our movie and not my movie anymore in a great way…
What happened was very early. I think it was the first note that they gave me. They said ‘we think that the ending feels like a different movie than this movie’ and I agreed and we talked about it and very similarly to having the idea in the first place I woke up one morning and the ending was in my head and then I knew it was the right ending. Sometimes I feel like in writing there are things that are placeholders. Like you know something has to go here. I’m gonna write this scene for now and then something else will take its place. The right thing will take its place eventually and that was one example of that where it felt like ‘oh, that was the ending from the very start’ and we just had to find it. It’s one of the wonderful things about true collaboration is that you feel like you push each other to the best.
How do you choose your different roles? Is there something you look for in a script?
Dano: I don’t really know. You just look for something to light you up in some way… It’s so much more fun and so much easier if you just feel naturally inspired by the words or by some facet of the character. And sometimes you’re thinking consciously ‘okay I just did a romantic comedy. Maybe I wanna go do a drama.’ As actors, sometimes we’re subject to what’s out there so think about that kind of thing too much is only so helpful. Really, you know a good script when you read it and then the filmmaker involved is probably the biggest thing for me. I know that’s incredibly vague but I have no clue. I like being surprised by something.
As an actress, was part of making this movie showing some of your frustration in not seeing the roles that you want to play?
Kazan: In this case, I felt like- I really did experience a feeling of these characters coming to me and then just feeling ‘okay, Paul and I should play them.’ It wasn’t so much a feeling of wanting to write myself a great role or something. But me writing in general does come out of that feeling of frustration which has to do with feeling bored essentially. Like being in a play or a movie and not feeling fulfilled by the work I was doing and feeling like there was this whole other creative part of me that was unanswered. And that’s why I started writing my plays and this movie and the other screenplays I’ve written so I’m definitely doing it out of frustration. It’s just not quite the frustration that you named.
Paul, knowing that a character was being written for you, did you want to be influential in the creation of that character?
Dano: No, I’d probably rather not be influential. Just because then Zoey would know anyways better what would be challenging for me or interesting for me. I like that element of surprise. It was very fun to see pages as they came…
Ruby Sparks arrives in theaters nationwide today.