Interviews by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
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.