In the newest film from Little Miss Sunshine directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, Paul Dano plays Calvin, a young writer with one masterpiece under his belt. With great pressure to produce a second book, he begins writing about a woman he sees in his dreams named Ruby (played by Kazan). To his 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 Dayton & Faris in a roundtable interview to discuss this film, the growth of Paul Dano, and why we haven't heard from them in six years.
Ruby Sparks opens in Chicago on Wednesday, July 25.
How do you feel about your break from the big screen? It has been six years since we've last seen a movie from you two.
Jonathan Dayton: We laugh about it. We got incredible offers after Little Miss Sunshine. Big things that would be very impressive to our parents, but not something we wanted to do. Big comedies.
Valerie Faris: We started working on a little project before Little Miss Sunshine was even released. But for projects to actually come together in the way you are going to be happy with, is pretty rare. Especially with this sized film. Financing is harder these days. Casting can be an issue, or a script may not be ready.
Dayton: I just want to clarify one thing. We had to stop films from happening. We had to be the gatekeepers. So many times people wanted to start production before a film was ready. So I just feel like we never felt like any of the films that we were working on were ready to shoot.
Faris: Sometimes it was a result of the budget getting cut too. But we described it for this as, "Everything did come together. That's why this one happened."
What kind of offers did you get?
Faris: We got a lot of broad comedies. I hate the word "quirky," it just rubs me the wrong way. Comedies that were a little off-center. Or, we got road movies. They also came to us thinking we could fix something. "We know it's not all there, but do your magic." We have such a love of the written material, we love a good script when we start. If a script isn't there, we're not into getting into production and trying to fix it. But I think that's how a lot of movies are made.
Dayton: If there are a hundred people waiting around for you to do your magic, then you come up with something.
One interesting thing about this movie is that Paul Dano plays a person who also has the pressure to return from his big debut. There's certainly a connection with that to your own film 'Little Miss Sunshine,' which was certainly considered successful, and was your first film.
Dayton: It made us laugh that we shared Calvin's dilemma of a follow-up.
Faris: But I think most artists feel pressure whenever they do any work. Even if their last one was a failure or a success, every time you venture out into a new project, anything can happen. We related to that desire to want to control it, that you were going to make "it" into that perfect thing. What was interesting to us was how parallel work and love are. You can try to make a perfect relationship, or a person into what you want them to be, and it's similar to your work - you really don't have complete control over it. Especially as directors, something will go wrong, and those are the things that end up helping you out. That idea that you have to be partially in control, and partially out of control, and find that balance, was interesting to us.
As duo directors who are also married, did this story also have personal significance?
Dayton: Yeah. We loved how in one film we could explore many subjects; subjects that were close to us.
Faris: We have to feel like the authors of the film, even though Zoe wrote the script. We have to feel like its something that we want to express. A lot of scripts are maybe well-written, but they don't have a lot of substance. We're always interested in what conversations will come from watching a film. We like so far the discussions that have been provoked by this movie.
There's also that theme that once he falls in love, he stops writing. A happy writer is an unproductive writer.
Faris: When we first got the script, the book he was working on was about his father. There was a whole father theme in the movie that we extracted. We made it that what Calvin was going through with Ruby was what he wrote about. He's not writing, he's doing the research.
How do you approach that balance with light and dark?
Faris: It was a huge challenge and worry of the studio. But we always start by casting the right people. If you get the right cast who have the ability to play something emotionally real, and be honest and truthful, then already you are starting from a point where you can go anywhere with it. They're not playing the comedy too broadly, or over-dramatizing. We always try to play everything the way it works in life. Life takes those turns all of the time.
Dayton: It was something that we had to continually fine tune, until the last moment. In Little Miss Sunshine, the pivotal scene is the dance scene at the end. And in Ruby Sparks, it's this big scene takes us into the third act.
What was your first impression of Zoe Kazan when you met her?
Dayton: We remained friends with Paul, and then one day he brought over Zoe. We could tell from his demeanor that something big was happening in his life.
Faris: Our first impression was that she couldn't sit still for more than a minute, and she was like a monkey. She was all over him, and the furniture.
Dayton: The "clingy" Ruby period, that is Zoe. It's sweet and they have a great relationship. But we had no idea that she was working on a script. When they brought the script to us, we were really excited. We didn't have a creative relationship, but we knew she was a big force.
Faris: Their relationship is very different from Calvin and Ruby's. And sometimes there were things that we had to edit out. At times it would creep in the way they relate to each other, and it felt too familiar, so there was some of that, that had to come out. But it was great that they also had that physical comfort with one another. They are both great physical actors. It is just fun to take advantage of that.
How would you say Paul Dano has grown since when you first worked with him on 'Little Miss Sunshine'?
Dayton: He has become more confident. But he has always been bold.
Faris: He loves a challenge.
Dayton: Because we shot this digitally, he felt a new-found freedom to just explore a role.
Faris: He'd say, "Can we do a series?"
Dayton: In certain scenes, we would be happy at take eight. And he would want to keep exploring, and we'd do twenty takes.
Faris: Not as often, normally we'd do seven takes. But I'd say in some ways that he is different. He didn't do that at all with Little Miss Sunshine, I think he's feeling a little more ... he worked with De Niro, and De Niro likes to do that. But he still is a great, instinctual, and natural actor.
Dayton: He is also a great physical comedian. We just felt like this was a great opportunity to show that a lot of his great films don't highlight. He is not normally cast as a leading man.
Faris: And not since The Girl Next Door or Little Miss Sunshine, he doesn't do comedies really. But I understand why. There aren't many great roles in comedy. But I love that we got to show his funny side, and his comedic side. He's a very dry guy. [PLOT SPOILER] How did you prepare a particularly big scene in 'Ruby Sparks' which takes us into the third act?
Dayton: We prepared. It was hard for [Zoe] emotionally, and maybe intimidating as a writer. But from the moment we got the script, we started exploring it. That was a scene that excited us about the film, because we had never seen anything like it.
Faris: It's probably the most different from what was on the page. Half of the scene was written, the part where he gives her commands. What really happens in the rest of the scene was changed. He used to say, "Google yourself." But it was much more intellectual instead of putting her through psychological and emotional drama. We explored a lot in our own rehearsals.
Dayton: We worked with other actors and had them act out the scene so we could explore it and see it without having [Paul and Zoe] going through it.
Faris: We did nothing but think about that scene. But it wasn't really clear to us until we shot it.
Dayton: After shooting it, it was clear that it had to end with "You're a genius."