The husband-and-wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris made waves with their debut Little Miss Sunshine, including four Oscar nominations. And now they're back six years later, with the fantasy movie Ruby Sparks — about a creatively blocked writer (Paul Dano) who writes about her dream girl and somehow brings her to life. Why did Dayton and Faris go from the off-kilter realism of Sunshine to the dark fantasy of Ruby Sparks? And how does this film relate to the long tradition of magical romantic comedies?
We spoke to Dayton and Faris yesterday, along with Zoe Kazan, who wrote the screenplay and stars as Ruby. Here's what they told us.
In Ruby Sparks, Calvin (Dano) is a young author who's struggling to come up with a follow-up to his long-ago bestselling debut. At his therapist's urging, he writes about the perfect, beautiful girl he's been dreaming about — and then somehow, Ruby Sparks becomes real, and she's his girlfriend. For a while, their relationship is perfect, but when problems start appearing, Calvin is tempted to go back to his typewriter and write more stuff about Ruby — because anything he writes about her becomes true.
Dayton says that after they finished making this movie, he finally went and watched Weird Science for the first time — just to make sure there was no "glaring reference" or unintentional shout-out to Weird Science in their film. They were aware that people were going to be comparing the two films, and wanted to make sure that their film stood on its own. And in the end, the two films have almost nothing in common.
In fact, Ruby Sparks is deconstructing or examining the male fantasy of having the perfect girlfriend, who conforms to your wishes. There's a long tradition of romantic comedies where a man has a strange power, the classic example of What Women Want. Ruby Sparks "goes right to the heart of" that trope, says Dayton. "That was attractive to us."
The most important thing to the directors was telling the story well — not lecturing the audience, adds Faris. But they did like the fact that it's a dark story. "It's important to the story that she is his dream girl and things are going to go badly," she adds. "Just the story by its nature deconstructs that."
"We thought of it as a genre-bending film," says Dayton. "I like romantic comedies. Good ones are hard to find, but when they work it's a really pleasing form. But this clearly was something different, and we liked that it went to a darker place — and that it also explored very real things that happen between people, even though the concept was somewhat fantastic."
"There were certain traps we had to avoid falling into with the fantasy girl," adds Faris. "We always said that once she appears in his life, even though she came from a dream, she's absolutely real and he has to deal with that." Even when she's just appearing in his dreams, she's giving him a hard time and challenging him — and part of why she's his fantasy is the notion that she challenges him.
Whereas Little Miss Sunshine was a movie about family relationships, in Ruby Sparks, it's all about romantic love. Plus "we're exploring issues of control," says Faris.
The big struggle in the film involves Calvin wanting to love Ruby for being her own person, but also knowing that he secretly has control over her, if he chooses to exercise it. "We were interested in exploring control when it comes to the creative process," says Faris. Adds Dayton: "Certainly in film-making, if you control something too much, you kind of take the life out of the work."
As for how this movie connects to the long tradition of fantasy movies and stories in which magic is connected to creativity (through music or writing or whatever), Faris says: "We love the tradition of magical realism, in that life is full of magic and there isn't a clear line between what is real and what is imagined... We liked the way that this movie speaks about magic, and the way that magic is a part of life. You don't have to explain any of it. There's no stardust or lightning bolts, to explain any of it."
We also spoke to Zoe Kazan, who plays Ruby and wrote the movie's script. She explains the movie's genesis:
I had been thinking a lot about the Pygmalion myth, I guess, and I was walking home from work one night and I saw a mannequin ain a trash heap and I thought it was a person — and it scared me, and I sort of flashed to that myth, and that uncanny feeling of thinking something is real when it's not, and woke up the next morning with the seeds of this in my brain. So it's a lot of thought distilled into a moment of inspiration. I wrote about 20 pages. That was the summer of 2009. I put it away for several months. I had some time in the spring of 2010, and wrote it very quickly — like in less than a month — and then we sent it to producers, and then we sent it to Jonathan and Valerie. I worked with them for about nine months rewriting it. It was very fast, actually — that's pretty much as fast as something could be turned around. We were in production a year later.
When I was about five pages in, I showed it to Paul. He asked if I was writing it for the two of us. And it hadn't occurred to me, and as soon as he said it, it seemed like that's exctly what I was doing. And then I had to put it of my head, because I didn't want my own vanity to get in the way of hearing the characters.
You're always trying to get out of the way of inspiration. Later, when you're rewriting, then you have to take charge.
Kazan finds the comparison to Weird Science and similar stories really annoying — because the important distinction, for her, is that Calvin doesn't set out to create Ruby intentionally. He creates her because "his need for her is so great." And if he set out, on purpose, to create "somebody he could control completely," then "he would be a sociopath." Calvin only starts to control Ruby when he's afraid he's about to lose her forever — and we all do crazy things because of love.
"I keep thinking about how dangerous it is to love somebody and give them your heart," says Kazan. Most people, if they had the ability to control their partners, would inevitably give in to temptation sometimes.
She also doesn't really like people comparing Ruby Sparks to Stranger Than Fiction, which also has an author controlling a person's life. "I know people keep comparing this movie to that movie," says Kazan. "I really think there's so little in common, besides some superficial conceits." Stranger Than Fiction is about identity, with a main character who's living his life in an unconscious way, and learns to wake up and embrace his free will when it's in danger of being taken away forever. "That movie is about free will and identity, and ultimately it's about God," says Kazan.
Meanwhile, Ruby Sparks is "a metaphor for what we do in a relationship," says Kazan. Lots of creative people have experienced the notion of an idea or a character coming to you in a dream. "I, as a writer, have experienced that kind of inspiration where you feel like you're being visited." She adds:
It's not unlike going out into the world — you're going for a run and you run into someone, and you look at them, and you think, "Oh my God, you're already on the map. I know you already." And that feeling of compulsion in love is something I've experienced multiple times, and it's always shocking to me. And it does feel like, "Did I dream you up? Why do I feel this feeling of compulsion towards you?" And the thing we do to each other, where we try to box around the other person — because loving someone with a free will is terrifying. So we try to bring them down to size, so that they're digestible, and so they're not so frightening to us. And when we first meet someone, we come at them with every preconceived notion of love we've ever had. I find that fascinating, and that's really at the center of the metaphor of this film.
In the end, even though Calvin literally has control over Ruby through his typewriter, he really tries not to exercise it — and meanwhile, Ruby has huge power of him. "Her power over him causes him to react negatively." And Calvin is just as much a prisoner of other people's expectations as Ruby is shaped by Calvin's. Adds Kazan: "People exert control over the things they can, when they feel powerless in some ways, whether that be over their children and over their bodies." And yet, in order to be a creative person, you have to release control over the characters and ideas in your head.
Ruby's not Calvin's ideal woman — just an idealized version of a woman that he could love, sort of like Annie Hall for Woody Allen. "That male impulse to put a woman on the pedestal is interesting to me."
"He would never fall in love with her if he thought he was making her," Kazan says.
Ruby Sparks is in theaters tomorrow.