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Interview: “Ruby Sparks”

Modern Pygmalion

Above: Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris flanked by actor Paul Dano and writer-actress Zoe Kazan on the set of "Ruby Sparks."

"Ruby Sparks" (opening August 3 throughout San Diego) asks audiences to take a leap of faith and believe that a writer could conceive of a character that could walk off the page and into his life.

Zoe Kazan wrote "Ruby Sparks" and plays the title character. The film takes the Pygmalion myth (about a sculptor who falls in love with his statue and it comes to life) and then throws in a little of the recent "Stranger Than Fiction" with maybe a little Charlie Kaufman and "Purple Rose of Cairo" thrown in for added spice, and delivers a romantic comedy with fantasy overtones.

Calvin (Paul Dano) had a bestseller when he was young and has been struggling ever since to write a second book. He's also shy and introverted and has been struggling to find a girl to have a relationship with. But then one day, after writing about a girl on his typewriter, the girl of his dreams walks into his life. Her name is Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan) and she is perfect for him. He can't believe his luck but then he suspects something's not quite right. He experiments by writing new things about her. He writes that she speaks French, and suddenly she does. At first he tries to refrain from using her to fulfill his fantasies but then the urge to exercise control kicks in.

The film is a mostly fun, occasionally dark exploration of not only modern relationships but the creative process as well.

Kazan, along with co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (who made "Little Miss Sunshine") came to KPBS last month to talk about their film.

The idea of a living, breathing person emerging from the written page is an interesting idea. Where did the inspiration for this come from?

ZOE KAZAN: One of the things that the movie shows is that inspiration can come from funny places. I had been doing a lot of thinking about men and women and relationships and about the Pygmalion myth about the sculptor whose statue comes to life because he loves it so much, and I was walking home from work one day and saw a mannequin discarded in a pile of trash outside our house. I thought it was a person and it scared me. I thought of the Pygmalion myth and the sculptor in his dark studio sort of turning his head and thinking he sees his statue move and I started thinking, what would I do with that. Then I woke up the next morning with the start of this in my head.

Did growing up in a creative family [she is the granddaughter of Oscar-winning director Elia Kazan and daughter of filmmaker Nicholas Kazan] influence you in any way? Did you grew up with people who were very creative and treated some of those creations as real? Did that influence you?

ZK: Definitely, I think that that's absolutely present in both the inspiration and the way it plays out. Growing up, my parents would be talking about the people in their screenplays as if they were real and I think for me my inner life my fantasy life was always as or more real than what was actually happening around me. I think having creative parents, growing up with creative parents, was a boon in that they would let me have this fantasy life and not try to push me to do like soccer or karate or something.

Bringing this story to the screen, what was the approach that you wanted to take in terms of showing the interaction between the artist and his creation?

JONATHAN DAYTON: I think one of the things that we liked about this material was that even though it was based on this fantastic premise, there were a lot of real human emotions and behavior that we could explore that it was something that anyone who's in any relationship can completely relate to. So we wanted to keep it very real even though it’s based on a fantasy.

VALERIE FARIS: And I think you know from the first time we talked to Zoe, one of the things we all agreed on was that we weren’t really going to make anything of the magic, not really distinguish between the magic and what was you know magic and what was real because it felt like once she appeared in his house she’s absolutely real and what’s important is what happens between the two of them.

Paul Dano as an author terrified by what he's created in "Ruby Sparks."

Fox Searchlight

Above: Paul Dano as an author terrified by what he's created in "Ruby Sparks."

One of the things I liked is that you don’t waste any time like trying to explain why this happens. Was that something you knew from the beginning you were going to do and did you face any opposition to that like from the studio?

ZK: It was something really important to me. Valerie and Jonathan were just saying about the way that we looked at the fantasy parts as being absolutely real and wanting to project them as real. I think explanation in this circumstance means nothing. It's a magical leap. So to put a gypsy fortune teller or a shooting star, it just makes it seem silly. We look at movies like "Purple Rose of Cairo" or "Groundhog Day," and they just take that leap and we love that because it allows you to sort of get down to what you’re really talking about faster.

How do the two of you divvy up chores on the film as co-directors?

JD: It overlaps, it's a blurry line. I mean we both do everything which is probably less efficient but more interesting for us.

VF: The fun of it really is going through and making decisions together and problem-solving together. We’ve done it for so long, it's very organic and I think people who come into it have no problem with it as soon as they’ve been around it for a day.

JD: When you raise children -- and we have three kids -- that’s a much more difficult collaboration.

VF: And you get used to that kind of juggling.

JD: Crews do what you say, children don’t.

On the set of "Ruby Sparks."

Fox Searchlight

Above: On the set of "Ruby Sparks."

I was just wondering if you tended to find that you had complementary skills as opposed to overlapping ones -- do one of you work with the actors and the other with the cinematographer?

JD: I think we do have complementary skills but it doesn't break down necessarily along those lines.

VF: I find that we tend to worry about different things. We trade off that way. Like if he's worried about one thing, it kind of relieves me from not having to worry about it.

The film starts and it's light and humorous but there are points where it starts to go dark, where you’re questioning what he’s doing and how far he’s going. How dark did you want to go?

ZK: I think Paul and I both thought of Jonathan and Valerie very early in my writing process, and I think that that was in large part because of their sensitivity to tone and that they are able to balance a lot of disparate elements and make them to feel like they belong all together. I think that love is a roller coaster experience. I think we tried to represent that in the movie. Additionally, writing a movie in which a man has complete power over a woman, if we didn’t show the darker underbelly of that I think I would feel irresponsible.

JD: You know, life doesn’t stick to the rules of romantic comedy and one of the things that attracted us to this was that it did go to places you don’t normally see in a movie like this and you know despite its darker moments I think it ends with a glimmer of hope and promise. It's a good movie to share with someone you love and hopefully when you walk out of theatre there’s something to talk about at dinner. I hope people will see it in a movie theatre too. That’s the other thing that I felt after making "Little Miss Sunshine" is that there’s nothing like being in a room with people you don't know all sharing the experience of a movie. It's an experience that people don’t value as much as they should. Especially a movie like this where it takes you on this journey and it’s good to have people around you as you go through this experience.

Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan in "Ruby Sparks."

Fox Searchlight

Above: Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan in "Ruby Sparks."

I want to return to the question about tone in the film. When you have a film that does shift like that, do you feel conscious of the fact that this scene has a different tone from another scene or do you just kind of tackle each scene as they come?

VF: I never really think about tone so much when we’re working. I think we're always just looking for does this feel real? Is it authentic and plausible? Is the moment feeling real? Because I think if you believe it then I think your tone is always sort of your compass and we're not chasing after the joke. So I guess that's our guide, is the moment playing truthfully?

ZK: I also think that you guys set a tone as directors. I think you lead by example. Your seriousness of purpose, your enthusiasm, helps actors deliver more quickly what they can do. I’ve always admired or I have come to really admire how little you guys micro-manage, that you really delegate and trust an actor to do their job. Trust the director of photography to do their job. Obviously you step in where you need to, but I haven’t been on that many sets where I've felt like, “ Oh, I’m just doing my work here and you’re doing your work there," and that I was somehow being trusted to be responsible for myself.

VF: I don’t want to do anybody else's job for them. That’s why we hire people who we totally trust. I think casting is a make or break part of our job.

JD: Well, one of the things I love about the story is that it's about relationships but its equally about the creative process and how in seeking to control a work you can stifle it. So on the set you know I’d much rather be surprised and have people building on our vision than just being a puppeteer.

VF: Being a puppet or a puppeteer really isn't very fun.

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