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.

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