In the newest film from Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young author with one masterpiece under his belt. With great pressure to produce a second book, he begins writing about a woman he sees only in his dreams named Ruby (played by Kazan). To his complete shock, she appears in his kitchen one morning as a real person. Written by Kazan, this marks the first film from Dayton & Faris since Little Miss Sunshine, and a reuniting of casting with Dano working with the duo again. For those keeping track, Dano and Kazan are publicly romantically involved, and co-directors Dayton & Faris are husband and wife.
I sat down with Dano and Kazan in a roundtable interview to discuss Kazan's script for the film, Dano's interest in doing broad comedy, and more.
Ruby Sparks opens in Chicago on Wednesday, July 25.
Are you a scrawler when you write?
Zoe Kazan: No, I'm very precise.
Calvin has a very clean writing space. His whole apartment is very clean.
Kazan: I think it's supposed to look uncreative, or infertile. If he was writing, it wouldn't be clean. But because he is blocked, everything is super neat. I just imagine him getting up from his desk and vacuuming again. I think he's a person who likes his environment to be just so, and that he's trying to live in a way that is conducive to creativity, by wiping the slate clean. It actually does the opposite.
How much of your character backstory did you work on, Paul?
Paul Dano: The first thing you do is look at exactly hat the writer gives you. In this case, you ahve all of these nice things to sink your teeth into. Then you start to go from there and build it up. Why did his last relationship fail? What happened to his father? Why is he hanging onto that typewriter? I probably would talk to Zoe, or Jon and Val, or just make a fast history myself.
This gets into the nature of the film, which is characters and writers. Was there anytime Zoe in which the character was getting away from you?
Kazan: No, I was really happy to delegate on this one. I was doing so many jobs. We would be in casting, and then I would have to run to a fitting, and then do re-writes with Jon and Val at their house. Anything that Paul wanted to do or did on his own made me very happy.
Dano: Except for when I tried to make Calvin African American.
There's this great air of playfulness in this movie. How important was it to you to let the audience know you were self-aware, and thinking the same things they were?
Kazan: I wanted the audience to feel safe. You want them to feel taken care of, and that they are not going to be in dangerous hands. The Harvey reference is our way of being like, "We know, we know." Chris Messina's character is like a proxy for the audience, he's a non-believer. I tried to put in some things that kind of take the audience by the hand.
How did you keep Calvin sympathetic and not pathetic, or psychotic?
Dano: I don't know. I think he is a human, and I think he is completely sincere, when he says "I'll never change her again, she's perfect." He experiences that ultimate high of love. Sometimes you have to have that over the edge experience to recover and reboot or regrow as a person. I think Jon and Val tried to make sure that there was enough balance there. I probably just played the scenes as to how they spoke to me.
Have you written anything yourself, Paul? There have been two movies recently where you've been reading from your character's work in book stores.
Dano: Maybe I wish I could write. I think it's coming from empathy for any kind of creative person. When I see someone sitting at a typewriter and cant' write, that sounds paralyzing. I like to read a lot, and I live with a writer.
Zoe, was the "blank page" trauma something that kicked off the project, or was it something that came in later?
Kazan: To be honest, I do feel that the concept of the movie and the first twenty pages kind of downloaded to me. The first inspiration for me often is in pictures. There's a lot of information in it. I feel like I got Calvin and Ruby in wide swaths. Figuring out what happened required a lot of control and hard work. But him being in a state of paralysis, and frozen was important for me. His need for Ruby produces Ruby. Finding the reasons that the need was so extreme was part of that first spurt of writing for me. I was just thinking of Calvin as a person who couldn't move forward in his life, and was desperate for change. He couldn't find it. Do you have any interest in doing comedy?
Dano: I would like to do something really broad, and silly.
In what kind of vein?
Dano: One of my favorite movie is Dumb and Dumber, and I think what Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels do in that movie is totally brilliant. And my first two favorite actors when I was ten were Jack Nicholson and Jim Carrey.
Would you like to do something directed by the Farrelly Brothers?
Dano: I can't just pick up a script. That's sort of the hardest thing about being actor, is that there are things that you want to do, but you have to have patience.
Zoe, what is it that made you want to pursue this story with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris?
Kazan: I just think that they are really unique. They can make a movie with a lot of visual and aural style, and their choices can also feel very real. THat to me was the stylistic straddle that we were going to have to deal with. In their first film, they were capable of juggling a very delicate tone. The stakes for that family felt so real. There was incredible humor with the pathos. They seemed like the perfect people. Paul said, "Let's bring this to Jonathan and Valerie."
One of the biggest scenes in the film is the one that ultimately takes us into the third act. How many takes did you do that with, and was it one of the most exhausting parts of the movie?
Dano: Yes. And it was one of the most mysterious scenes of the shoot. We shot it at the end of the shoot. The actions that Calvin and Ruby do were not decided until the day of filming. No one really knew how it was going to go until we did it.
Kazan: I wanted to feel really controlled, so I asked whether I could not come up with those actions, and if we could come up with them as a group project. We all came up with a list of things. We all knew that scene was climactic, but we just couldn't bare to look at it. But when we staged it and choreographed it, it was much harder physically than I had anticipated. You always rely on your directors to push you, and they didn't move on until we had something to hang our movie on.
When you wrote it, what was your ideal with how it would turn out?
Kazan: I wanted it to be emotionally intense, and specific to their relationship. We would do like ten-minute, sixteen-minute takes of that scene, and they would push me past the point of sense into nonsense into exhaustion. Paul was right there with me.