A clear favourite for my film of 2012 Ruby Sparks is perhaps the biggest surprise of the year and it sees directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris achieve new heights with Zoe Kazan’s intriguing script about a writer who finds the line of reality and fantasy blurring while looking for love and inspiration for his next book.
As Ruby Sparks herself Kazan’s script is a fine romantic comedy who Pygmalion roots are emboldened with a darkness as well as a wonderfully light comic touch. Kazan’s real-life partner Paul Dano leads the film as the increasingly secluded author Calvin, whose debut novel was a zeitgeist creating phenomenon, and who at the start of the film is sitting uninspired at a typewriter, a place he has been for a long time.
I recently sat down with Dano to talk about the project’s creation, the conventions of the indie rom-com, his career and Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave.
There are spoilers, clearly marked, and I’d highly recommend you check the film out as soon as you can. We don’t get to see enough films like this, so if you’re curious sate yourself with one of the best films of the year.
As a producer on the film Dano had an early insight into the creation of Ruby Sparks and before he and Kazan picked out the lead roles for themselves there was a sinister beginning for the project.
“Zoe walking home one night and saw a mannequin in a trash can. She thought it was a person and it scared her and it immediately reminded her of Pygmalion, the sculptor who thinks he sees the statue moving, and like Calvin she woke up the next morning and had the first idea for the story and the characters. She was approaching it as a writer and though we knew we’d play the parts I didn’t know where it was going, I got to read pages as it was written. But I didn’t think about it as an actor until it was done. A good performance is worth much more if the film’s good. Zoe was writing it, showed me the first five pages and I thought that no-one would do this better than her. I was reading Calvin and I didn’t know where it was going but I suggested we do it together. I had read her plays and knew she was a good writer…
One of the key moments in the film has Paul Dano’s character wake up to find this girl in his kitchen. He has no idea who she is and no words, fittingly, for how to deal with her. Hiding in his own house, inching down the stairs as to avoid her discovering him is a moment of great physical comedy.
“That was really fun to do. The script was funny and there’s a few modern comedy Zoe and I like but also a lot of old ones and for Calvin I was thinking, perhaps not slapstick, but something old school and that staircase moment wasn’t in the script, it was on the day. I put that toy dog and it was like a Jacques Tati moment. It was fun to mess around there, I don’t get to do that often and it’s something I’d like to do more.”
In reuniting with the Little Miss Sunshine directors Dano’s career continues to avoid the obvious and roles in Rian Johnson’s Looper, Meek’s Cutoff and P. T. Anderson’s There Will be Blood have established him as one of the leading actors on his generation. Slight spoilers follow.
“I only know my own tastes, and definitely part of the impetus for me wanting to take on a role is if I don’t one hundred percent know what it is. There has to be some sort of challenge, some interesting conflict or struggle. You have to believe in the script and you have to know that the story works and though you know you can play the character but it’s HOW you play the character. That’s a really good feeling. Even though Zoe wrote this with me in mind when you get to the part where Calvin’s controlling her… that’s the part where I said to myself ‘Fuck, I don’t know if this is really funny or really dark or how emotional this is going to be’.
One of the first impressions was the dynamics of this character, you start in a tough spot, ex-girlfriend, father dies, his brother’s is his only friend, writer’s block, success – those are all nice things. Then he’s in love, and he’s going crazy and the inspiration and romance which goes into a real relationship. That felt like an interesting journey. I liked being in a romantic comedy and there are some great comedy moments, slapstick you know, then there’s a really dramatic side to it with dark edges so as an actor you’re a part of balancing those things. That’s why we wanted Jonathan and Valerie.”
The directing team handle the jarring tonal shifts very well and while the film purports the benefits of a perfect muse it ends with a terrifying scene. It’s the natural conclusion of the journey but I wondered how far the filmmakers were going to take it. Dano agrees, and in the end when Calvin has lost everything he begins to destroy his own creation.
“It was incredibly hard, challenging and draining, emotionally. But then I look back on it and that’s sort of the most fun part. When we’re able to do something like that. That was the scene we all knew was there, but we didn’t know what was going to happen when you actually do it. But that scene evolved. It was in the script, but not as detailed. We all came up with things for Ruby to do, we’d act it out and then they’d cut it. Add the typewriter, add the music and it all came together. That’s my favourite thing. To see people laughing a lot and then, for that scene, dead silence.”
The film plays with conventions, not least the indie film clichés of the drifter and the girl who inspires him. Ruby sparks is very dreamlike at times, but Kazan’s success is in bringing that fantasy into reality.
“That was part of the tone too. Hopefully there is reality as well as the fantastic. I don’t know if it’s a conscious response to [the indie clichés and the Manic Pixie Dream Girls] but Zoe’s going to write fully dimensional characters who serve the story. I do think there are a lot of films made whose female characters are there to serve a purpose, they’re not their own person. That’s what the film is about – that we have this idea of somebody and impose that on them and it reduces them.”
Finally as I was leaving I asked him about working with Steve McQueen on Twelve Years a Slave, a very different film to the beautifully dark Ruby Sparks.
I loved him, he can be an intense guy. But I found him very inspiring and excitable. He’s wonderful to actors. It’s an intense subject matter, it’s a powerful story and we were in the brutal heat of Louisana in July and August, in a period piece. I’m excited to seeing what he does with it.
Ruby Sparks is out now. Do go and see it. You’ll love it, trust me.