Co-directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton are so smart, so dedicated, so creative, and so purely delightful that I found it hard to believe they are so good at showing us dysfunctional characters. Their new film, “Ruby Sparks,” written by and starring Zoe Kazan, also stars Paul Dano, who played the sworn-to-silence teenager in their first hit, “Little Miss Sunshine.” In this film, Dano plays a depressed author who has been unable to write following his very successful first book. Prompted by his therapist, he creates an effervescent female character so vivid that she literally comes to life. Faris and Dayton finish each other’s sentences, not interrupting each other, just a seamless flow of love, laughter, and ideas.
Dayton: We knew Paul and we met Paul was he was…what, 18?
Faris: First time we met him he was 18, an audition…
Dayton: And, we were trying to get “Little Miss Sunshine” off the ground and it took us so long to get that movie made and we were worried, oh my God, he’s going to be too old, and we knew he was such a great actor.
Faris: Such a special actor.
Dayton: We stayed friends and we met Zoe and Paul started dating her. And so when they came to us with a project with the two of them and it was the same producers as “Little Miss Sunshine.”
Faris: We almost accepted it on that alone. We didn’t have the movie sold at that point, but we love the idea of a movie that stars two great actors – especially Zoe was an unknown quantity and that’s really exciting to be able to introduce a new actor to the audience, so.
Dayton: But then with the script. We just flipped over because I like the idea of doing a romantic story but not your traditional romantic comedy, and to do a film…
Faris: It was funny and we like that. It also had a comedy elements without particularly…
Dayton: But it was really about something, you really feel like I’ve had a full meal. Here, you can walk out of a theater and feel like you’ve been on this journey.
Faris: For us anyway, that’s what it was for us. Just even making the movie means to have those elements to keep our interest for two years, I think that’s sort of the test we use, it’s interesting enough for us to spend two years, hopefully it will be interesting enough for the audience to spend an hour and a half.
The climax of the movie is a very intense scene as the writer tries to keep his creation under control. Was that difficult to film?
Dayton: Well, that was the scene that made us most excited about making this because we had never seen something like that in a movie and it was very intimidating and we didn’t know how to do it, but we knew that this was something we could sink our teeth into.
Faris: And it was also something that had to take place in the story, in this story you had to go there, you couldn’t get around it– but that didn’t mean we knew exactly what it was, it isn’t something that happens in real life, even though a lot of the other elements in the story are things that happen in real relationships, this isn’t is exactly what happens (although metaphorically it is) it was harder to sort of take the metaphor into reality, what would that be?
Dayton: As part of our regular process, we workshop films, scenes, so we workshopped that scene with other actors early on and then we acted out a lot ourselves.
Faris: Not all of that is on screen!
Dayton: Yeah, yeah, but a lot of it was – how dark does this go? We wanted it to be dark, but – I hate to even use the word dark because it is more than that; we wanted it to resonate.
Faris: Well, it’s painful, it’s going to a painful place – it’s dark, too, but I think it was more about the pain of him needing to let go of this thing that he created, and so we likened it to a binge drinker, just having to go to that point where you make yourself sick so you won’t do it again, so exploring that and trying to understand when he’s giving her these commands, does she resist him? Can she resist them? Or does she have to completely surrender? All those issues were a lot of what we did in rehearsal and it worked best to us if she had no control. And if he had complete control of her.
Dayton: And it was the one scene we couldn’t rehearse with Paul and Zoe in advance. They feared it, Zoe in particular, and so we, in the script, had very little detail, we had workshop to so that and had been thinking about it for probably…
Dayton: Months and months…
Faris: A year, but not that specific…
Dayton: So, it wasn’t until the morning before we shot
Faris: The morning of the day we shot…
Dayton: Yeah, that we sat down, we wrote out what he was going to make her do…
Faris: In our pajamas at the breakfast table…
Dayton: …and then we gave it to Zoe and Paul and they did it and it was good – it was tricky, because they’re a couple in real life, as you know, and so you don’t want Paul doing certain things that are tinged with any relevance to their relationships…so these had to come from us…
Faris: We had to give him those commands.
Dayton: It’s like when you have actors doing a sex scene; you always have to tell them exactly what you want to do, “Put your hand on their butt,” because you don’t want the actress thinking the guy is putting his hand…
Faris: That he’s doing it out of his own volition, you want it to be the character doing it…
Dayton: The thing that was amazing to us in terms of that, Zoe just threw herself into that, she didn’t want to think about it beforehand, but when she went to do it and perform it, she gave it her all – to the point of, we would give her these commands and she would have to repeat them and do them until we made a loud sound and she would switch into the next command, and so on the last take we really pushed her, because part of it was her exhaustion and he was pushing her to her limit, so we really pushed her, and I remember watching that scene and thinking, “I think we have a movie now.” It was the first time—you’re kind of adding the scenes up in your head—and watching her perform that, I just felt like she gave every bit that she had to give to it.
Faris: Which is ninety percent of that scene, is that one take where she just sort of went for it it—and we shot her side of it, first, so Paul got to see what he did, which really helped him on his side of it, but it was hard to watch her and not know what he was going to do with it, and then when we were shooting him, we really needed him to feel as much pain as she was…if he was doing it in a cold manner throughout the whole scene, it would—and you know, through editing, too, you pick all the moments where you feel his pain the most, so a lot of it was in the shoot and on the set and then in editing. It’s amazing how much you can change the scene in the and kind of calibrate how much pain you dole out and where you pull back and then the music is another element that really…
Tell us a bit about the music in the film.
Dayton: The soundtrack is really such an important part of the movie, and we worked really hard. It was the same composers we had on Little Miss Sunshine, but it’s an entirely different kind of score…
Faris: You know, it’s funny because small movies have ‘smaller sounding scores, indie-kind of sounding scores, and we decided we really wanted to go for a big sounding score.
Dayton: So we had like a 60 piece orchestra, and it was so much fun.
I can’t remember seeing a residence in a recent movie that did such a good job of telling us who this character was, So, tell me a little bit about the production design and the costume design.
Dayton: Well, those were things we thought a lot about, and we were really excited to shoot in Los Angeles because it’s our home, and the story takes place in LA so we could really just show LA instead of try to hide it.
Faris: Hide the palm trees!
Dayton: So we searched all over town for the right combination of qualities for Calvin’s house, and we wanted it to be kind of a blank page, that he’s having this writer’s block and he’s a bachelor in this empty house. We looked at Escher paintings and drawings…
Faris: Because Calvin lives in his head so much, so we like this idea of this split-level, brain-like interior…
Dayton: And yeah, with the stairs…
Faris: And a little bit of a labyrinth. That felt right to us. And we were looking a lot at—for some reason there were a lot of 80s references in this movie, he drives a BMW from the 80s and there were a lot of houses in the 80’s in LA that were these kind of vertical, hillside homes that are like this, they’re white boxes that…so we went to pretty much every house…
Dayton: Once we found a house we like, we’d say, “What else has he built?” And then we found this one guy who was the man, and then we found his house that he built for himself, and so it’s his kind of masterwork.
Faris: He passed away about five or six years ago and his wife still lives in the house, and she was so happy…
Dayton: She was really moved that this was going to be immortalized…
Faris: We really appreciated it, actually, as a great house – we loved being in it and we really appreciated his aesthetic, but it also fit the character so well, there was a kind of nostalgia that he has in his character, he typed on a typewriter, he’s a little cut off from the modern world, particularly at the beginning of the story, so that felt a little bit like his castle on the hill, here, he’s removed.
Dayton: The costumes, Nancy Steiner, who did “Little Miss Sunshine” and all of our music videos and things did the costumes. Ruby’s legs were a big thing, these colored stockings, we had certain music that was influential in the creation of the film, not necessarily to be in the finished film, but “She’s a Rainbow,” the Rolling Stones song.
Faris: Actually, the whole period of the Rolling Stones, the Brian and Jones. Of the Rolling Stones in the 60s, all that music, it’s kind of got a baroque quality to it that was very big inspiration for us, we kind of thought of her as this rainbow that comes into the house and painted with color and she’s the color. He was very bland in his wardrobe and also nostalgia, he’s wearing the old man’s wingtip shoes, he’s really not a very adventurous guy and he’s stuck in his head, so his clothing is a little tight that way, and not very expressive.
Dayton: And when she comes into his life, his colors expand a bit.
Faris: And Annette Bening was very fun to find clothes for, she loved wearing those caftans.
Dayton: You put those on her and her arms started flying through the air.
Faris: And then Nancy kind of came up with the idea of he bandanna for Antonio Banderas. With the rolled up pants and the overalls and the bandana it was just so perfect, and his beard!
Could you talk more about the collaboration in terms of what it was like working with your lead actress being the screenwriter and co-producer?
Dayton: We made a real effort to try and do as much work on the script in advance to really separate her roles so that she wasn’t going to have to write and act. She had to do a little bit of that, ultimately, but the nine months we spent working on the script with her were so precious and fruitful…
Faris: And there was no deadline on that, we didn’t have the film set up anywhere, so it was really purely just to get the script to a point where we felt like it was ready to make.
Dayton Her parents are both writers, so she’s grown up watching writing and she’s been writing since she was a child. It just comes naturally to her, but one of her gifts is the ability to rewrite. A lot of times writers can do something kind of amazing, at first, but they cannot revisit, it’s kind of like – “this is what it is, I can’t do anything else.”
Faris: Can’t see it any other way. To have a writer to kind of give them notes and then had the notes come back surprising you, and then better than what you imagined…
Dayton: It’s like Rumpelstiltskin – you give them straw and they come back and it’s gold.
Faris: Yes, that is a skill and Zoe was so quick with stuff.
Dayton: She would write while she was doing a play, so she’d be in the play, she’d come back stage in her dressing room, she’d have 20 minutes before she had to go back on stage.
Faris: So we’d talk to her on the phone, she’d go, “Oh, I’m going to have to go back on stage in 5 minutes, but call you when I’m off.” Fine, made us feel like slouches. Well, we’re just sitting here…she’s just so multi-talented and not precious with what she does. Same with performing, both of them are very comfortable. In addition to just being great, it was so nice to just work with an actress that has written the material, because she knows it so well. She started at such a high level, and she was so willing, she was just so trusting and that’s an incredible thing – and talented.
Dayton: Zoe has this uncanny skill to be able to open herself to new ideas and we talked about certain things that we thought could happen and then she would take these suggestions and then make them her own and come up with the most thrilling answers, like the final scene in the park, where they meet each other, that was entirely new from the original script and it was such an elegant, beautiful moment.