Interviews by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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Zoe Kazan: Writing And Inhabiting Ruby’s World

Taking a first look at the trailer for Ruby Sparks (in theaters today, via limited release), one could be liable to write it off as an attractive yet somewhat familiar-looking romantic comedy. But, in doing so, one would also be selling his or herself rather short. A constantly entertaining, thoroughly clever, and altogether unique blend of romantic realism and high-concept fantasy, Ruby Sparks is that rare breed of softie cinema, the kind that's a no-brainer choice for deep thinkers and Hallmark greeting card lovers alike. And to think, such an impressively daring, anti-convention film is the brainchild of a 28-year-old first-time screenwriter.

Her name is Zoe Kazan, and eagle-eyed movie connoisseurs should recognize her face, if not the name, as well. The daughter of veteran script writers Nicholas Kazan (Reversal of Fortune, Bicentennial Man, Fallen) and Robin Swicord (Memoirs of a Geisha, Little Women, Matilda), Kazan, 28, has played Leonardo DiCaprio naive jump-off in Revolutionary Road (2008) and Meryl Streep's daughter in the 2009 comedy It's Complicated. Outside of Hollywood, she's also a successful playwright and stage actress; it was in the theatre, in fact, that Kazan met her current boyfriend, fellow actor Paul Dano, with whom she co-starred in the 2007 Off Broadway play Things We Want, directed by Ethan Hawke.

It's the Yale graduate's off-screen relationship with Dano that helped turn her initial ideas for Ruby Sparks into a reality. In the film, directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, Dano (in a role written specifically for him by his significant other) plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a reclusive, former scribe prodigy who's struggling with writer's block and the fear that he'll never top his award-winning debut book. A session with his shrink (Elliot Gould) leads to an assignment where he has to write a fictional character who appreciates both he and his little dog; by following the doctor's orders, Calvin dreams up Ruby (Kazan, in a role she, similarly, wrote for herself), a free-spirited beauty who, without any explanation, shows up in his kitchen one day, in flesh-and-blood physical form. But Calvin can also dictate her behavior by simply changing her characteristics via his typewriter, thus presenting issues of control and the delicacy of, yes, love.

Through the film's unpredictable, vibrant, and frequently dark screenplay, Kazan establishes herself as a brave storyteller able to mesh together honesty, romance, and a bit of the supernatural; alternately, in her performance as the title character in Ruby Sparks, she demonstrates the type of charisma, energy, and dramatic skills that should lead bigger, and hopefully just as well-made, things. Remember the name.

Granted, it's only July, yet Ruby Sparks is already one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. Going into it, someone might be expecting a basic romantic comedy, but the film delivers so much more than that.
That’s awesome, thank you so much! That’s the best thing I could hear from anyone. I keep saying, “It’s not a romantic comedy.” I know that that’s part of what it is, but it’s definitely not all of it.

Why do you think that the rom-com label has been placed upon the movie so much then?
Well, it’s a love story, and it’s a story about what happens in relationships, but it’s not purely a romantic comedy, just like I would say that Annie Hall is not purely a romantic comedy, or Groundhog Day is not purely a romantic comedy. Most of the movies that I love that are romantic comedies are also other things.

Reading about the film’s origins, one thing that stood out is the fact that you first came up with the idea after seeing a mannequin’s head in a trash bin. Can you bring me back to that unique moment of clarity?
[Laughs.] Yeah, it was actually a full mannequin body, with the torso and everything, and it was sticking out of the trashcan. I thought of the sculpture Pygmalion in his studio, in the dark, and turning his head and thinking he saw a statue move; we’ve all had that experience, right, where you think you see something move? I thought, Oh, that must be how the Pygmalion myth started. And then I just started thinking, “Well, what would I do with that?

At the time, were you even looking for an idea to turn into your first screenplay?
No, not necessarily. I’m just always writing something—it’s my favorite thing to do in my free time, basically. So when I had the idea, I just started writing immediately. I wrote about 20 pages of it and then put it aside because I was in the middle of acting in a couple of movies, so I didn’t have the time to write it. About six months later, though, I sat down and really started working on it, and it all came very quickly. I had the first draft done in about two-and-a-half weeks. Once Jonathan and Valerie came on, I rewrote with them for another nine months.

How quickly did it hit you that you’d want you and Paul to play the characters?
I had written about five pages, and he came home from work, I showed it to him, and he said, immediately, “Are you writing this for us?” At that point, I had just started writing, I had just gotten the idea, and I had only been thinking about the characters—I hadn’t started thinking at all about who would play them. But when he said that, I thought, Oh, of course, that’s what I’m writing! I looked at the description of his character, and it read, “Tall, skinny, glasses,” and I was like, “Oh, right.” [Laughs.] From that point on, I was writing with us in mind.

Is that a difficult thing to do, from a writer’s perspective, to write with specific people in mind? Especially when one of those people is you.
Well, I tried not to think too much about writing for myself, because I think that is difficult. I just didn’t want to put too much of myself into that character; I just wanted to let her be her own person. She was so clear to me from the start that I didn’t want to interfere.

The thing is, a lot of writers who I really admire have been writing for specific actors. For instance, Chekov was writing for a group of actors, and so was Shakespeare. There’s a long tradition of people doing that, and I think it’s helpful to know what the person’s strengths are, what their voice sounds like, what their body is like.

For me, I know that Paul is a really funny person, and that’s something that people don’t really know about him because he’s always played these serious parts. There were things like physical comedy, for instance, that I knew he could do, so I wanted to give the opportunity to do those things. That kind of stuff was fun to think about while I was writing.

Ruby Sparks has a very strong sense of magical-realism, where the line between reality and fantasy is blurred to the point of the supernatural looking and feeling wholly natural.
And this was my first attempt at something like that, so it was a challenge. I really enjoy that metaphorical deployment of fantasy, using a fantastical trope to get into a real situation or to be able to discuss something in-depth in a way that’s not totally head-on and completely literal. It’s also the kind of fiction that I really enjoy.

In the film’s reviews, a common problem that some critics have with Ruby Sparks is how there’s no explanation provided for how Ruby enters the real world. To me, though, it’s more interesting to not acknowledge that—it avoids a certain kind of hokey quality that could emerge from an awkward explanation, and also allows for the characters’ relationship to take center-stage in the film. How important was it for you to not explain that?
So important. What, having him buy the typewriter from a magical gypsy dealer, or having a shooting star go by while he’s sitting at his apartment window? I think that belittles, actually, the imaginative leap. I would rather say, “Take this chance with me.” It’s like what Calvin says to his therapist: “Take the imaginative leap.” Just do it, and that’s how I feel. If you’re going to get hung up on why this happens, then you’re not thinking about the emotional life of the story. It seemed really unimportant to me, and it still does.

The idea of the perfect dream girl coming to life has been done in the past, but in those earlier takes she’s this one-track-minded, overly obsessive person who smothers the guy who has wished her into his reality. In Ruby Sparks, however, she’s as normal as any other person in the movie, until Calvin changes her through his writing, at least.
That was so important to me, and it was really important to Jonathan and Valerie. We talked about that a lot, especially in the acting of it. We just wanted her to feel really real, a fully formed person. Because, to me, that’s how she feels to Calvin; that’s the reason that he falls in love with her, not because he’s inventing the perfect person.

I really enjoy that metaphorical deployment of fantasy, using a fantastical trope to get into a real situation, or to be able to discuss something in-depth in a way that’s not totally head-on and completely literal. - Zoe Kazan

He dreamed of a girl, and he wakes up, sees her, and she feels as real to him as he does to himself. I don’t think he would fall in love with her if she didn’t feel that real to him.

I really wanted the audience to feel the same way, so when he starts to tamper with her, it means something.

The film also balances the comedy and the heavy emotions quite well, particularly in its climactic scene. While you were writing the script, was there a conscious idea of how to meld those two styles together?
The movie does go to a really dark place, and that’s part of the reason why Jonathan and Valerie were our absolute first choice to direct this. Part of that reason was that I felt they showed that they were really capable, in Little Miss Sunshine, of balancing different elements, and maintaining a very delicate tone. I really believed in their ability to balance the comedy and the drama of this, and I trusted them to keep me in line as an actor, especially in the second half of the movie.

You mentioned earlier that you spent about nine months with Jonathan and Valerie to rewrite the script. In what ways did the script change once they got involved?
Well, they just have a really great sense of the audience’s experience. They’ve very attuned to storytelling, and they want to take care of their audience. I was much more thinking just about the characters and the story; I was interested in the audience, of course, but they know much more about what’s cinematic than I do. They helped me make the highs higher and the lows lower, and to be brave and go to scarier emotional places.

By the time we finished our work together, the nine months of rewriting, I really felt like this was our movie now, and that made it easier to act in it.

In the press notes, Jonathan talks about how he and Valerie used your personal history with Paul to help establish the chemistry on screen and make the relationship between Calvin and Ruby that much stronger. Was that a scary thing to do, to allow them to use a lot of your personal life for the movie?
The good thing is that there’s not a lot that’s autobiographical in the movie, especially how there’s not a lot from me and Paul’s life. I didn’t feel like we were in danger of treading on any toes or anything, and as actors you do normally use yourself to supply the emotional life of the characters. So I felt pretty comfortable about that.

They just did some improv with us, and journaling and rehearsals where we’d talk about when we first met. And the truth is, Paul and I had been together for almost four years when we shot this, so that first spark and butterflies and all that stuff that happens within the first six months to a year in a relationship, we really love each other but that first compulsion isn’t the substance of our relationship anymore, and they really needed us to tap into that. They would have talk about how we met, and the first time we kissed, and just talking about all of that stuff brought those feelings back up.

Paul Dano: Ruby’s Inadvertent Creator

As the young, self-defeating novelist Calvin Weir-Fields, Paul Dano leads Ruby Sparks with a commanding, against-type performance that's full of humor, anxiety, and raw emotion. Considering that the 28-year-old actor has made a 12-year-career out of playing dark characters in heavy dramas, the role of Calvin is quite revelatory, showing off the Connecticut native's range.

Not that any of his previous work has been one-dimensional, though; after first earning widespread critical love for his Independent Spirit Award-nominated turn in the 2001 indie flick L.I.E., Dano has proven to be one of the most talented and fearless actors of his generation, impressively going toe-to-toe against a monstrous Daniel Day-Lewis in writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson's sprawling 2007 masterpiece There Will Be Blood and besting a rejuvenated Robert De Niro in the drama Being Flynn, released earlier this year.

In Ruby Sparks, Dano has the luxury of playing a character written by the person who arguably knows him best: his girlfriend, and co-star, Zoe Kazan. With Kazan's attention to her beau's on-camera strengths, both those priorly utilized and largely underused up until now, working to his benefit, Dano's unexpected emergence as a comedic leading man helps to give Ruby Sparks the much-needed touch of an actor's actor operating within a comfort zone that critics probably weren't anticipating.

What’s really cool about Ruby Sparks is how different it is from your typical romantic comedy. Based on the trailer, one might expect it to be something more familiar, but it’s actually anything but.
And that is really, really nice to hear. Yeah, that is definitely what we were trying to do, to make a film that a lot of people can enjoy, but it also has some surprising qualities and something original about it. My favorite romantic comedies are also like that, something like Groundhog Day or Annie Hall—that’s my idea of a really great romantic comedy.

Are you typically interested in the romantic comedy genre?
It’s probably less about the genre for me, but I think as a film fan I’d like to get to do every film genre at some point. I want to try and do it in a way that has some excitement to it, whether it’s with the script or the filmmaker. I would like to explore everything, but it’s really more about the script at hand, and why we’re doing it.

When Zoe first discussed her idea for the script, did you connect with it immediately?
I can’t remember if she told me she had an idea, or if she just showed me the first few pages, but I definitely saw the first two to five pages, and I sort of said, “Oh, you’re writing this for us?” She said, “Yeah,” but I don’t think she was at that point; I think she just had an idea and had just written it down. Had I not said it, though, hopefully she would have thought of that as well—hopefully I did not throw myself on her. [Laughs.]

So after that, she knew as she was writing it that we’d do it together. Also, her idea was so clear on the page very early on, about ten pages in, that I said, “We should send this to Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris when you’re done.” She sort of wrote it with them in her mind as the dream directors, and we got very lucky having that come true.

What was it about the concept, that of a writer falling in love with one of his characters come to life, that struck a chord with you?
Well, I read it disjointedly; meaning, sometimes I would come home and Zoe had written four pages, and I would check them out and try to be a good, supportive boyfriend but also be a good bounce-board and give good feedback. So I didn’t know where it was going. I was just excited to see where it was going to go; I wasn’t thinking that much about what the film was about or how it was different. I was just enjoying it as an audience member.

I think Calvin is a great part. There are so many great circumstances that are given for him, and I think it’s a rich character. The relationship with Ruby, and where the film takes that, is really exciting. What I like is that the film is exploring some ideas and not shying away from them, but I also think it’s exploring the highs and lows of love. It’s using fun and magic in a great way while also still being able to do something different and be about something.

Is it strange or surreal to have someone who knows you as well as Zoe does writing a character with you in mind? Usually, when screenwriters or directors write parts for specific actors, they’re using what they know the person as an actor, but Zoe was able to pull from both your personal and professional sides.
Yeah, normally if I’d heard that somebody was going to write something for me, I’d probably get nervous, because I don’t want them to write me and I don’t want them to write something that only uses your strengths and that might feel easy. It’s more fun to be surprised by a piece of material.

One thing that I heard [Zoe] say was, 'It was fun to think about Paul doing something funny because he does more dramas than comedies, and he can be funny.' - Paul Dano

Zoe knows me well enough that I knew she would write something challenging for me but I also knew she wouldn’t put my life up on the screen, because if she had I would have gotten pissed off. [Laughs.]

One thing that I heard her say was, “It was fun to think about Paul doing something funny because he does more dramas than comedies, and he can be funny.” So I think she had certain things in her mind, but they weren’t things that I actually wanted to know about. I would rather just be given the character, see what’s up, and hopefully be surprised and relate to it.

Since Little Miss Sunshine, which was released in 2006, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris hadn’t made a film until they signed on to do Ruby Sparks. On your end, was there a thought of, “Will they even want to do this?”
We probably thought they wouldn’t do it, yeah, but you have to aim high, and they were the number one choice. Had they said, “No,” I don’t know what we would have done or where the film would have gone. We just took the shot, and they liked the script a lot. I had worked with them on Little Miss Sunshine, of course, and they had met Zoe before; I brought her to their house probably a couple years before saying, “Hey, you’ve got to meet my new girlfriend. You guys would like each other.” It just worked out.

So you’ve kept in close contact with them since Little Miss Sunshine?
Yeah, I’ve kept in touch with them. I live in New York and they live in L.A., so whenever I go to L.A. I’ll give them a call or send them an email. We’ll grab a bite. They’re not just wonderful filmmakers, they’re wonderful people, so we’re good friends.

It’s an interesting dynamic to have a husband-and-wife pair of filmmakers directing a pair of actors who are boyfriend and girlfriend. How did that dynamic inform the chemistry between the four of you?
I think Jon and Val were able to bring something personal to the film themselves, being a man and a woman who have a romantic relationship; for Zoe and I, it was really nice to have a couple who work so well together there to look up to. Zoe and I have worked together before, but this project was definitely the most intensely and intimately that we have worked together.

So it felt like just a really intimate collaboration; it felt like we were all in it together. It was a real pleasure to get to go to work with each other everyday.

Your character, Calvin, is such an interesting guy, one who’s trapped in this stage of arrested development, and who confines himself to this sparse, isolated apartment. Even the littlest details play to that, too, like the fact that he still uses an old-school typewriter to try and write his next great novel. How important were those kinds of details for you to figure out Calvin’s world?
Super important. The typewriter was in the script, and I think there’s a great reason for it. For me, as an actor, you say, “OK, why is the typewriter there?” His dad, who has passed away, probably gave him that typewriter, and I think he probably his first book on that typewriter. He had this magical experience with his first book, and then this wild success, so the object has value to him, and I think Calvin is also a bit of a romantic in that sense.

Also, I, personally, like the feeling of the loud sound of that typewriter in that big, empty house. That just exacerbated his loneliness to me; you can’t take the typewriter anywhere, so it’s not portable, at least not without great effort. Again, that helps the isolation and loneliness, and that plays into the film really well. Those kind of details, I think, definitely contribute and are a big part of the film. That’s just good writing, that’s good production design—that’s how it should be. It’s really nice when you feel that.

I’m glad you mentioned the “arrested development” thing, too, though. That’s a really important part of the character. Being called a “genius” at the young age of 17 is actually really hard for people; it might sound like a high-class problem, but I do think, hopefully at the end of this film, if there is some hope, that Calvin is going to be a man and more open to the world, and not scared of it and not trying to control it.

Is that something you can relate to in your own life, since you started acting at such a young age and received acclaim very early on? That fear of failure seems like it’d be inherent to any kind of artist, but especially a young actor working in Hollywood.
Yeah, absolutely. I think so. I think I related to all aspects of Calvin’s creative process in the film. All the people in the outside world wanting things of Calvin, asking him to be something, and trying to determine what success is for him, I can relate to all of that. I can also relate to the idea of writer’s block, and I think that is totally terrifying, the idea that you can lose inspiration.

As an actor playing a writer, I think I definitely have a strong empathy and an entryway into playing an artist, in general.

What do you think makes Zoe such a strong writer?
I don’t know, really. It’s sort of ineffable. She has a strong imagination and a great talent for it. I think she ‘s a hard worker but also well learned. She knows a thing or two about playwriting and screenwriting, and I think she just has perspective; I think she writes with a purpose, rather than writing with the results in mind. She’s more interested in exploring something when she’s writing.


Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris: Bringing Ruby Sparks To Life

For real-world sweethearts Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, playing the complex love dynamic shared between Calvin and his literal dreamgirl come to life, respectively, required them to reach back and incorporate those first-date feelings of romantic discovery, which isn't the easiest thing to do when you've been dating for upwards of four years. Fortunately, the young Hollywood lovebirds had the guidance of husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who'd previously worked with Dano on their 2006, Academy Award-nominated feature film debut, Little Miss Sunshine.

Though Dayton and Faris hadn't made another movie post-Sunshine and prior to Dano and Kazan personally seeking them out to helm Ruby Sparks, the behind-the-lens tandem kept hard at work shooting various commercials; not to mention, their live-action portfolio also includes music videos for artists like Smashing Pumpkins (the MTV Video Music Award champion "Tonight, Tonight") and Red Hot Chili Peppers ("Californication").

Following the excellent Little Miss Sunshine, itself a wonderful marriage of intelligent comedy and emotional heft, Ruby Sparks signifies that Dayton and Faris are anything but one-hit moviemaking wonders. More importantly, though, the film makes it abundantly clear that cinematic love stories don't have to follow the Katherine Heigl/Jennifer Aniston conventions; sometimes, when overseen by gifted directors like Dayton and Faris, big-screen romances can challenge viewers while also delivering upon the promises of conveying heartwarming sentiments and birthing those inner butterflies.

I also mentioned this to Zoe and Paul, but what impressed me most about the film was how I went into it expecting a typical romantic comedy, a genre that I’m not the biggest fan of, but Ruby Sparks isn’t really a romantic comedy, and if it is it’s the best kind of one.
Jonathan Dayton: [Laughs.] Trust us, we really appreciate you saying that.

Valerie Faris: We were kind of nervous about the film’s trailer for that exact reason. We’ve entrusted the film’s marketing to Fox, and they’re definitely good at what they do, but it definitely scared us that, different from you, people were going to go in thinking, Oh, I love romantic comedies! And then leave thinking, Whoa, they didn’t warn me about this one. [Laughs.]

Dayton: That’s why we need people like you to elaborate.

Have you heard from a lot of people that they went into it expecting a more traditional rom-com?
Faris: A little bit, yeah. A couple I heard talking at one screening were saying that they were so happy that it did go to a darker, more intense, and painful place, but it didn’t go there just to go there. For us, that felt like it an essential part of this story that we couldn’tavoid. It would have felt wrong to keep it in that lighter place.

It’s been six years since Little Miss Sunshine, and Ruby Sparks is your first movie since then. When Zoe and Paul reached out to you about the project, were you actively looking for that next script to direct?
Faris: It did kind of just come to us. We’d been in touch with Paul, and we’d met Zoe in the past, but they didn’t tell us that they were working on this or even thinking about us for it. We didn’t know anything about it, and then they went to our producers, Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who produced Little Miss Sunshine, and then the four of them brought it to us.

We were working on other projects, but we read it immediately because the attraction of working with Paul and Zoe was really great. We just happened to love the story and the script. It did seem to happen more quickly, and everything fell into place much quicker than it had on any of the other films we had been working on.

Dayton: Since making Little Miss Sunshine, we’ve been working nonstop on other films, but for various reasons none of them happened. We’re very lucky because we can make our living doing commercials, so we can be very picky about what films we take on.

When you first read Zoe’s script, what surprised you the most about her as a writer?
Faris: She makes it look easy. The kind of writer she is, she can pull off something that’s actually not easy to do, but she does it in such a kind of organic way. The story is really complex, yet it’s told in a very economic way. It moves really well, and we were really impressed by that, all that she accomplishes without it getting labored or too self-conscious. Everything about it felt very unique; it feels simple on the surface, but there’s a lot to it.

Dayton: I loved how, in telling a story about two people and this sort of fantastic, almost fairy tale story, she could bring out so many very human feelings and explore really complex issues of control, love, and creativity. She packed a lot into a very simple story.

She was telling me how you two helped to make the script more audience-friendly, whereas she had a script that was more intimate.
Faris: That’s interesting that she said that. I think maybe she saw it as a smaller story.

Dayton: If a good film is a rollercoaster ride, we made the rollercoaster bigger and we made the curves scarier and the highs a little higher and more fun. We just made it a little more dynamic and just went further into some of the areas she was touching on—we wanted to push it even more. We took out some stuff so it moved faster, but it was all based on her original premise.

Faris: I think, for us, part of that nine months of working with her was our way of getting to know and absorb the movie. She was so great about really being open to our input. After the nine months of working together, it really felt like we had a shared vision for what the movie could be. We did a lot of work on it, but it was all for us to get on the same page.

In the past, the idea of a guy finding the perfect girl through magic of some kind presents the girl as this exaggerated, heightened person. In Ruby Sparks, there’s no explanation about how she came to be, and she’s just a normal person. Was that something that immediately appealed to you two about her script?
Dayton: Exactly, and that was definitely something that we loved and wanted to protect as we made it.

Faris: That was the first conversation we had with Zoe after reading the script. We said, “There shouldn’t be any magic in the movie. It should treat magic like it’s reality, and once she appears in his house, she’s absolutely real and we never question her existence.”

That’s why we love how Calvin’s brother [played by Chris Messina] comes in and he questions it; that really helps everyone buy into the story, because he questions it and we have to convince himthat she’s real. Once he’s convinced that she’s real, I feel like you drop the subject. It’s over, and from then you’re just looking at their relationship and what happens.

To help make that on-screen relationship as strong as possible, you two actually sat down with Paul and Zoe multiple times to tap into their real-life relationship’s origins and strengths. Why was that such an important step for you all to take before making the film?
Dayton: Well, it was a luxury to have two actors who knew each other and had a history, who were, in fact, in love with each other. They’ve been together for four years now.

Faris: And actually, in a way, that was a little bit of a concern of ours, the worry that they might be too comfortable with each other. Will you feel the newness of the relationship? Can we capture that?

That’s we focused on during rehearsals. They told us the story of how they met and how things transpired, and the story was so great. The movie moves pretty quickly through their relationship, so it was really more so for the first time they meet and fall in love on screen. After the first few scenes of them together, it pretty quickly advances, and the relationship quickly progresses.

Dayton: It was interesting working with them and discovering what qualities belong to Calvin and Ruby and what should remain with Paul and Zoe. Zoe is a very flirtatious person, and at first she was playing Ruby that way, and it just didn’t feel right. We asked her to turn that down, and immediately it was like Ruby appeared in the room.

Faris: What she was saying was really interesting to us. She really wrote this from Calvin’s point-of-view; she really sought the most about Calvin’s character, so when she actually went to play the part of Ruby, she said that some of the writing just felt completely wrong to her. [Laughs.] There were times when we’d be working on a scene and she’s say, “Guys, guys! I have to change this. This isn’t working!”

For the most part, she became Ruby and stopped being the writer, but there were a few moments where the writer came back. It was really great. We were just so blown away by her ability to switch roles.

There’s a big scene near the end of the film where Calvin keeps writing new things for Ruby to do, and she does them while also conveying this strong sense of pain and helplessness. It’s an excellent moment, with Zoe making you laugh at times but also never abandoning the scene’s dramatic weight. That scene’s balance of comedy and powerful emotion encapsulates the entire movie. Was it tricky to find that kind of balance?
Dayton: That was the scary and exciting part of doing this, that it was a tightrope walk. That scene you’re talking about was the scene that, in a way, excited us the most, because we felt like we’d never seen something like that in a film.

A lot of movies play it cool. I’m kind of tired of that; I like to be taken somewhere surprising, and I think audiences do, too. That’s what people crave. - Valerie Faris

Faris: But it also felt like it was so unique and particular to this story and this film. A film like this is tricky, in terms of managing the tone, and we’ve watched the film with audiences a number of times, and Jonathan and I are always looking at each other at the place where it’s the last laugh before it starts to spiral down into this more challenging material. It’s always interesting to us to ask each other, “Are they ready to go there?” [Laughs.] “Because this audience seems to be enjoying themselves.”

There’s this sense of, “Oh, god, they don’t know what’s coming,” and we kind of love that. Our rule, or the way we usually approach it, is to just try to make every moment real, whether it’s funny or it’s painful or sad and emotional. We never really chase after the comedy, and we try not to play up the melodrama either. Life does take those turns, so we feel like the more lifelike it can be, the easier it is to keep the tone as real as possible.

Why do you think that the raw emotion of this film is something that most audiences aren’t used to? Shouldn’t that be the norm?
Faris: I agree, and you probably have a better answer for that than we do. [Laughs.] When we were shooting this, the studio saw the footage and they were very worried. So I can imagine that sometimes this kind of stuff doesn’t happen when people are making movies because people get scared and think that the audience won’t be able to handle it. We did have to kind of push back and say, “No, you can’t do the movie without this scene. It has to go there.”

And they recognized it, finally. People are just so afraid, and a lot of movies play it cool. I’m kind of tired of that; I like to be taken somewhere surprising, and I think audiences do, too. That’s what people crave.

Dayton: I agree with everything you both are saying. That’s one of the things that we loved about Little Miss Sunshine: There was a range of emotion within the film. These films are very different, but if there’s any similarity it’s in that mix of laughter and real, raw emotion.

Faris: We liked that this movie wasn’t in one particular genre; it crossed genres, and I liked that about it. I think audiences are fine with that, ultimately. Really, what we always strive for is to give the audience an experience. You may achieve it with some people and not with others, but that’s the goal.

Ruby Sparks reminded me a lot of the experience I had with Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris last year. I went into that film with a similar aloofness to what was really going on, and the way it told a very genuine story in an unexpectedly fantastic and original way really was really impressive. That’s the kind of film that many people try to seek out, and it’s great whenever you actually find one.
Dayton: Well, that’s high praise. I love that movie, too, and it’s that same thing: That’s what you go to movies for, and it’s rare when you get all of those qualities.