‘Little Miss Sunshine’ Directors Talk about ‘Ruby Sparks’
by Jason Harris
It has been six years since husband and wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris came on the Hollywood scene with the hit independent movie Little Miss Sunshine. Now they’re back with Ruby Sparks, a movie about a novelist struggling with writer’s block who finds romance with a female character he wills into existence.
Recently, this directing couple sat down at a Boston hotel to talk about there first movie and everything that went on with their newest movie.
Instead of six years since their first hit, Dayton and Faris look at it differently.
“We’re saying it’s really only been three years for each of us,” Faris said.
Dayton and Faris found directing both movies to be different from each other.
“Every project is its own set of challenges and rewards,” Faris said. “I’m sure there were similarities, but we’re probably more focused on what’s new about it.”
The challenges and the rewards are “what make it fun,” Dayton said.
“We had to build a family in that one; our rehearsals were all about how to make these people feel,” Dayton said.
“It was a different process in the preparation and shooting, too,” Faris said. “There’s something about an ensemble cast, they get to a point where they are working together so well. It’s like a well oiled machine.”
With Ruby Sparks, the relationships were already there, since the stars, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, are in a relationship, Faris said. The challenge for them was to show how their relationship as the characters of Calvin and Zoe is different from the viewer’s relationship.
“It was pretty easy for them to distinguish between Calvin and Ruby and Paul and Zoe,” Faris said. “There were certain things in rehearsal we decided that part of Zoe, we didn’t want; it isn’t Ruby.”
She considers Dano “a very brave actor” who “likes to challenge himself.”
Dayton feels that Dano “goes for it” with his acting.
“The scene where he confronts her with the truth of her origin; that scene was really intimidating to all of us,” he said. “[The scene] was scary for him and Zoe. We spent a lot of time working on that. In the hands of another actor, it might have been hard. Paul is a very gifted physical comedian, but you really don’t get to see that in most of his roles.”
Faris considers him a physical actor who puts his entire body in to his work, which she loves. It’s what they liked about him in Little Miss Sunshine and in Ruby Sparks.
“He’s smart and his intelligence comes through in his presence, without having to do much that was really important when he wasn’t speaking at all.”
Dayton and Faris chose Kazan’s screenplay because of “her voice.”
“It felt very true and singular,” Dayton said.
The idea of a film dealing with men and women in relationships was also attractive, he said.
Faris mentioned that where the story goes and how it doesn’t fall into any genre were two appealing aspects of the film. She found the film exciting and hopes they can bring the audience with them on this ride.
Dayton did find it a challenge on how to sell the audience on the story without any “funny machines” to spit Ruby out or “a comet that flies across the sky and there she is.”
“I think that’s very true. We feel a tone in the script, but I think it’s still a big challenge to get that on screen and have it preserve that real tone.”
She mentioned that this happened with Little Miss Sunshine, where people “saw it as a broader comedy, like a kind of European Vacation.”
“I think a big part of the tone comes from casting.” Faris feels it is important to cast the right people to act in the role like a real person would.
“It’s hard to know, though, where it is,” Dayton said about the tone. “I feel it when I read it, but it may be our projection immediately on the material.”
They had no problems with Kazan as a screenwriter.
“The first conversation we had with her was a really good conversation,” Faris said. “We seemed to be on the same page. We worked for about nine months to shape it into the film we wanted.”
Faris said it was scary for them since Kazan was the actor and the writer. She was “a great collaborator” who trusted them with her screenplay. They wouldn’t have done the film if she couldn’t let go of her story.
“I had nightmares of her stopping in the middle of a scene and saying, ‘that’s not what I wrote,’” Dayton said.
This husband and wife directing team don’t have any arguments, but “discussions” about the projects they are working on, they said, when asked if any situations about directing certain scenes or the film’s direction ever came up.
“I say no; she says I don’t remember,” Dayton said.
Faris said, “I would call them discussions.”
“We constantly debate every aspect of the movie,” Dayton said. “The real secret for us is prep. Because there are two of us, we’re able to act out the scenes at home and sort of explore the material. We’re terrible actors, but we know what we’re asking our cast to do and we know the feelings.”
By acting out the material together, it allows them to raise any issues and work them out off the set, she said.
“We pretty much come to the material … from a similar angle. It’s not like I have one idea of the film and Jon has another.”
“We don’t take a film when those things happen,” Dayton added, because it could ruin their relationship.
They shot Ruby Sparks digitally even though they could have shot with film.
“We love film,” Dayton said. “We can’t ignore that digital media is here to stay. We worked really hard to try and get the most, let’s call it the ‘appropriate’ look. We had to undo certain things that digital tends to give you, and yet in certain situations digital was really incredible.”
Ruby Sparks was a labor of love for everyone involved in the production, he said.
“We knew that we wanted a film that was full of feeling and humor and hard work.”
People can see for themselves when the movie opens in theaters tomorrow.