“Ruby Sparks” is a love story, both on screen and off.
It’s a movie about a young and despondent novelist who, after a long professional and personal drought, begins to write a story about his perfect, fictional mate – only to find that she’scome to life in his kitchen.
It’s a dreamy tale of literary adoration and real-life commitment, one that’s almost as romantic as its back story.
“Ruby Sparks” was made by two real-life couples, directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the husband-and-wife team who directed “Little Miss Sunshine,” and actress-writer Zoe Kazan and her boyfriend, Paul Dano, who played the mostly silent brother in “Sunshine” and went on to appear in “Cowboys & Aliens,” “The Extra Man,” and “There Will be Blood.”
The project started in 2009 when the now 28-year-old Kazan – daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan (“At Close Range,” “Fallen”) and Robin Swicord (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”), and granddaughter of “On the Waterfront” and “East of Eden” director Elia Kazan — was driving home after dark and saw a mannequin in a trash heap at a nearby Macy’s. For a quick moment, she thought the mannequin was a real person. Understandably, she was disturbed by the image.
“It scared me,” Kazan said, eyes wide, during a recent stop in Boston to promote the film. “I sort of thought about that uncanny moment when the unreal seems real to us. I flashed on the Pygmalion myth and I thought, ‘What would I do with the myth?’ ”
Kazan is just the type of 20-something who sees a lifeless mannequin and begins to contemplate the Greek mythology. It’s part of her upbringing, growing up around screenwriters. “I feel like I have a romance with the movies. I’ve watched movies hundreds of times. I’ve watched movies with the sound off. I’m super down the rabbit hole as a film nerd.” She’ll admit that as a writer, she’s well-read, seasoned, and driven. She’s constantly writing, even during her acting jobs. (Kazan appeared with Dano in “Meek’s Cutoff,” and played Meryl Streep’s kid in “It’s Complicated.”)
Kazan almost immediately began drafting a screenplay about a troubled character named Calvin who writes a love story about a woman he perceives to be the perfect girlfriend, a quirky redhead named Ruby Sparks.
Sparks comes to life much like Pygmalion’s creation, dancing around his apartment and adoring him for no good reason. But as a real person, she begins to evolve, and a conflicted Calvin must decide whether to continue managing Ruby’s personality so that she remains his ideal mate, or whether he should grant her free will.
Kazan was compelled to show Dano her work after just a few pages.
“It’s probably a sign of our codependence,” Kazan said, laughing.
One of Dano’s first questions about the script was whether his girlfriend was writing the film so that they could star in it. She admitted that she probably was. Kazan kept writing, and Dano kept reading.
“One of the ways I think Paul and I are most compatible has to do with our work and our love of movies. He, for me, has always been a bouncing board. We talk about our work a lot,” Kazan said.
Dano enjoyed the journey, reading draft after draft. “She was just excited. I tried to be a good boyfriend and say, ‘Baby this is great.’ Luckily it was. It was really fun not to know where it was going.”
The second couple responsible for “Ruby Sparks” came on the scene in 2010 when Kazan finished her screenplay. Dano eagerly shipped it to his friends Faris and Dayton, who were still looking for their post-“Little Miss Sunshine” project.
The couple, who directed music videos for acts such as Oasis, Smashing Pumpkins, and the Beastie Boys before taking on the Oscar-nominated “Sunshine,” had been inundated with scripts after the success of their feel-good debut, but they had trouble finding a match.
“It’s two years of your life,” Dayton explained.
“At least,” added Faris, who finished Dayton’s sentences a few times during the interview.
“And then when you’re done,” Dayton continued, “it’s there like a tattoo. You better love it.”
The couple was thrilled to commit to the story of “Ruby Sparks,” a script that Faris described as “humorous, sad, and painful. It has all of those colors.” They were also eager for a project that would allow them to collaborate with friends.
As directors, they went back and forth with Kazan for nine months allowing their star and writer to be responsible for all of her own rewrites (a rare thing in the movie business). When the shoot began last year, the couples were able to share the project as a foursome, discussing character details, ideas for the set, and script changes. They made collaborative decisions about how low the characters should get when the audience would need laughs.
“She was never precious about stuff,” Faris said, explaining that “sometimes we’d talk to Paul about something, and sometimes we’d talk to Zoe, and then they would talk.”
Of course, both couples will tell you quickly that “Ruby Sparks” is not a story about Dano and Kazan. Despite Dano’s character in this film and his melancholy performance in “Little Miss Sunshine,” he is not a hermit writer type. In real life, he is social and talkative. And Kazan claims she is nobody’s perfect woman. “I don’t mean to say this to disparage myself, but If I wanted the perfect woman, I would have cast Angelina Jolie,” she joked.
Multi-tasker Kazan – who finished the script for “Ruby Sparks” in her dressing room while performing alongside Christopher Walken in “A Behanding in Spokane” on Broadway — does admit that she found herself writing some of the scenes for Dano, specifically the ones that feature him bounding about Calvin’s isolated apartment as he reacts to the magic of Ruby being brought to life.
“With Calvin, a little bit, there were little things that I know about Paul that the world doesn’t know about Paul. He’s a really funny person. He’s incredibly dry. I knew he could do all sorts of physical comedy that people didn’t know about. I did have some girlfriend-y joy, making him do these things.”
And some of the themes in the film — and maybe even some of Calvin’s issues with Ruby — do mirror real life. Kazan admits that she’s a flirty person. “I think Paul really liked that when he first met me.” Now she suspects that he might find her habit “bothersome.” “I go to a party and I run around and talk to people and I think he doesn’t like it so much. And I say, ‘You have to love that. You have to love that. Because it’s one of the things you liked about me first.’ ”
Kazan paused and asked, “How can you love the fullness of a person and not want to change them and not try to control them?”
It’s a complicated question, and it’s the heart of “Ruby Sparks.” Dayton and Faris suggest that in real life, Kazan and Dano might have some answers.
“He loves her a lot. And she loves him. I think,” Faris continued, laughing. “I don’t want to speak for them. They’re very loving toward each other.”
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