Zoe Kazan makes her feature film screenwriting debut with Ruby Sparks, a love story that's absolutely not your typical romantic comedy - despite what you might assume from watching the trailer. Ruby Sparks, directed by the Little Miss Sunshine team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, finds Paul Dano playing a novelist struggling with writers block who suddenly finds himself in a relationship with a woman (played by Kazan) he created for his new book.
That synopsis doesn't do the story justice, and asked to help tell movie fans what to expect from Ruby Sparks, Kazan had this to offer: "I would say prepare to be surprised. I genuinely believe this movie is something you haven't seen before. It is unique, not that there is no other movie like this, but that it is unique the way a movie like Purple Rose of Cairo is unique. It's not easily put into a box, and I like that. When I go to the movies, I want to feel something and experience something that I haven't experienced before."
Zoe Kazan Exclusive Ruby Sparks Interview
I'm so impressed this isn't a romantic comedy that goes to that place every romantic comedy takes audiences. You kept it fresh.
"I also think it has so much to do with Jonathan and Valerie and what they bring to it. It was one of those things where I met with a bunch of producers, two of them - Ron [Yerxa] and Albert [Berger], they're a producing team - they got it better than anybody. There are people who I met with who were like, 'How do you want the fantasy sequences shot?' So I felt with them that we don't see the same movie. I met with Ron and Albert and they saw the same movie. And then part of them seeing the same movie was that they said, 'We think John and Val should really direct this.' And I had also said that to Paul [Dano], and Paul had independently thought the same thing. I think part of the reason we all thought it is that they're so able to juggle a balance of tones. Like, with Little Miss Sunshine someone dies during the middle of it and it's still a comedy. In this I felt like, you know, my favorite movies that are romantic feel like life - like Annie Hall or When Harry Met Sally or even something as farfetched as Groundhog Day. I think that's sort of what we were aiming for."
The story goes in a very dark direction. Were you worried at all that you might be going too far and that you might alienate your audience by taking it a little darker?
"Well, I think that's part of it in not being in some ways like a typical romantic comedy is that I feel like life is so full of so many different kinds of things, and especially love. Love is so risky and dangerous. I also feel like if I'm going to write a movie in which a man has that much power over a woman, I have to show the dark underbelly of it or I would be irresponsible. I feel like the people who don't want to go to that dark place, this movie probably isn't for you. But it's also so balanced with, I hope, so much love and humor, it's not like you're going to leave the theater feeling down."
What I thought was interesting is that there were so many times when I felt uncomfortable for Calvin and so many times when I was made uncomfortable watching Calvin. This is such an interesting mix. How did you pull that off?
"I don't know. I think part of it is that Paul is a really interesting actor. People who've seen him play some darker roles, the things that I think people will be surprised by in this are how empathic he is. He brings so much sweetness to the part, so much love. And, also, this wonderful humor and physical humor with his body. I think when you have an actor like that - and I knew that I was writing it for Paul - I can make Calvin more like a real person, like someone who has flaws and has things that you don't like about them, and that Paul would be able to weave all those things together into one real person on the screen."
How difficult was the path to getting this film greenlit?
"You know, in so many ways it's been charmed, actually. Part of it is that I think when you set something out into the world, you have to ask very strongly for what you need. And in this case, Paul and I went out with this, saying, 'We're attached. We're not going to sell this screenplay. This is not going to turn into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon and Adam Sandler,' - both actors I really like. We just felt like we had a very specific movie in mind. We saw how it could easily turn into a different kind of movie. S things like choosing those producers, choosing our directors, and then moving forward with them, we got really lucky. Fox Searchlight came to us and said, 'We want to make this.' It's the perfect place for this to be. I think really the hardest part is actually now trying to explain to people what kind of movie this is because it is genre-bending. It's not a typical romantic comedy."
"I think one way we get people into theaters is by making a trailer that looks really funny and light, but I also want people to know it has substance. It's not just one thing. For instance, when we tested it with test audiences, the people who liked it best in all the test audiences were men over 35. That was totally surprising to me. I really want people to know that they're going to be surprised by this movie. It's a unique roller coaster ride."
I think audiences are tired of being played down to when it comes to anything romantic on the screen.
"Exactly. Like, if you look at Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally, he's not the most handsome guy but he is so real. He seems like a real person."
"You know, there's something funny in the movie where I feel like Calvin's not a sociopath; he doesn't fall in love with Ruby because he can create her and control her, he falls in love with her because she feels so real to him. She's not a perfect girl. She's not an ideal girl. She's a real girl to him, and that's sort of how I feel about the film. Especially as a young girl watching a movie like Casablanca and seeing Humphrey Bogart in it and just falling in love with Rick."
Is there anything from the original script that didn't make its way into the shooting script just because you simply didn't know how to play the scene?
"Wow, that's interesting. Well, there was one scene... The scene that's now by the pool where they're eating burgers when Ruby hasn't manifested yet in the house, that scene was a scene I wrote, we felt good about, and when we went to shoot it - and this is the only time I did this the whole movie - we shot three takes of it and I was like, 'John and Val, I need to talk to you.' I pulled them aside and I was like, 'This is not going to work. The scene doesn't work.' And they were like, 'Just try it.' We shot for like two hours and they were like, 'You're right, it doesn't work.' So I went back and I rewrote and we rescheduled the scene. We shot the version that you see."
How did you know it wasn't going to work? Was it just the tone or the way it felt at that time?
"Both. The most difficult part of writing for me was that first third of the movie where she thinks they're in one relationship and he knows something different. And when you have two characters on two different pages, it's very difficult to juggle. So, that's the launching off point right before she becomes real and I just felt like it didn't quite take off in the right way."
"If I was just an actor in that scene, you'd just make it work, you know? And most of the time, even on this and even with my writing, I felt, 'Okay, make it work Zoe.' But in this one case, I felt very strongly - and I can be willful."
How was the relationship between you, Valerie, and Jonathan?
"It was so great. [Laughing] Obviously, I have some issues with control or I wouldn't have written this movie, but I think that most people who are interested in control or do struggle with those kinds of issues are actually people who want desperately to be able to let go of control. And that's how I felt. The first conversation that we had on the phone where they had read the script and they wanted to talk to me about it before they signed on to do it, I talked to them and thought, 'Oh, they see the exact same movie that I see. Their version is different and we're going to work together to get there, but it's the same kind of movie.'"
"Just feeling that and then working with them and getting their notes... They gave me notes and I rewrote for about nine months before we started production. Their notes were always, even if I didn't agree with the note, it always spurred me to write something better. It felt like this wonderful loop of me feeding them, them feeding me. And because of that, by the time we went into production it really felt like, 'I can let go. They're going to make choices that I don't agree with, they're going to make choices that are exactly what I'd choose. They're going to make choices that surprise me and delight me, but whatever they choose is going to be right. I can just let go.'"
Was it more difficult to come up with the story initially or doing those rewrites?
"It was much easier at a writing level to write. Like, I think inspiration is easier than perspiration, you know? That first burst...I wrote the first draft in two and a half weeks. It really came out of me or through me. The rewriting process then took nine months, so obviously that was a more labor-intensive experience or process. But I enjoyed that far more. In that process it stopped being mine and it became ours, and in that process it stopped being a screenplay and it started being a movie. I've never had that experience where it felt like in total harmony and in unity moving forward with a collaboration."
Without giving away any spoilers, is the ending that we see in the movie what you first imagined when you were writing the film?
"It was not. It was not my absolute first impulse. There was something very similar to that. But, you know, I think Jonathan and Valerie have a finger on the pulse of the audience. They care about the audience experience. They are movie-lovers. They aren't auteurs wandering around being like, 'My vision is my vision.' It's not like they are pandering to an audience, but they want to take care of an audience. So, they said to me at a certain point, 'We have to make the highs higher and the lows lower, and the romance more romantic and the pathos deeper.' They encouraged me to go to more not extremes but the heights, and the ending reflects that."
Were you supportive of their ending?
"Yes. They sort of suggested to me that I look at the ending differently. I didn't know how it should end, and I sort of dreamt it. I woke up in the morning and I went, 'That's how it ends!'"
How did the idea for the story first come to you?
"Very strangely, actually. I was walking home from work - this was the summer of 2009 - I was walking home from work at night and I saw a mannequin discarded in a dumpster. I thought it was a person and it scared me. It was sticking straight up. I don't know why but it started me thinking about the Pygmalion myth about the sculptor whose statue comes to life because he loves it so much. Obviously that's what inspired My Fair Lady and the play Pygmalion, the George Bernard Shaw play. But I thought, 'What would I do with it? What would be my take on that?' I woke up the next morning having asked myself that question, the first pages were in my head. I wrote them down really quickly. I wrote about 20 pages and I was in the middle of shooting HappyThankYouMorePlease and I was about to start shooting another movie, so I knew I didn't have a good chunk of time to work on it so I waited until 2010. In the spring of 2010, I sat back down and that's when I took about two weeks to finish it."
"When I thought about those plays that are based on Pygmalion, I thought, 'That story has never been told by a female writer.' Then I started thinking, 'What do I have to say about that feeling?' I've had that feeling of feeling really defined by my partner's gaze; the way they look at me is the way that I have to be or should be in order to be loved. Then I started thinking about those things and I thought, 'Well, I'd probably write about a writer because I am a writer, my parents are writers, and I really understand that feeling of being visited.' Then I went to sleep and I woke up in the morning and came up with Ruby. She was in my head."
Was Ruby Sparks the name you always had in your head when thinking of the character?
"Yes! Absolutely. They actually both have weird names. His name is Calvin Weir-Fields. I don't know where that came from. I don't know any Calvins. I don't know a Ruby. My dad said this before that sometimes when you're writing, it almost feels like you're receiving it from somewhere else. 'Did I make that up? Where did that come from?' [Laughing] Then I'm Googling Calvin Weir-Fields to make sure it's not a real name that I read somewhere."