Finding the Screen Gem: Interview with Ruby Sparks Directors Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris By Lisa Minzey
PHOENIX - As a filmmaker, when your first film knocks it out of the park with critical praise, Oscar nominations and a bunch of awards behind it, how do you follow up to that? It’s been about 6 years since the success of their first film; “Little Miss Sunshine” brought the directing duo Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the dream experience of first time feature directors. For their follow up feature, they took their time finding the right script.
For their sophomore effort, a script penned by a first time screenwriter, actress Zoe Kazan, “Ruby Sparks”, was just the film that they were looking for. Suffering from a gnarly case of writer’s block, novelist Calvin Wier-Fields dreams of his perfect woman. By suggestion of his therapist, Calvin writes of this dream girl and ends up falling for this fictionalized version of perfection. By some unexplained mystery, Calvin’s work of fiction, Ruby Sparks, appears in the flesh one morning in his home. Real life couple Paul Dano & Zoe Kazan star in the lead roles, Calvin and Ruby. The ensemble cast is round out by the talented Chris Messina, Annette Benning, Antonio Banderas, Elliot Gould, Aasif Mandvi, Steve Coogan and Alia Shawkat.
Phoenix Film Festival sat down with the husband and wife directing team to talk about the film, some of their filmmaking experiences on set and what 1st time filmmakers and writers should know before embarking on their first projects.
PFF: Now that you have your second film under your belt, what was easier and what was more challenging this time around?
Jonathan Daton: Oh, that’s a fresh question. We haven’t had this one this time around….Well it was exciting to have something new to say. We loved “Little Miss Sunshine”; we’re really proud of it, but we didn’t want that to be our legacy, you know at least alone. That was more about exploring families and [Ruby Sparks] is more about exploring what happens in romantic relationships; it felt really good to stretch into a new area and still have that mix of humor & emotion that we liked to explore in Sunshine. If there’s anything that’s similar is –
Valerie Faris: Pain & suffering is part of life; it’s both funny and painful. One of the things that was hard for us in going to do another movie was loving it as much as we love LMS. We has such a good time doing that movie; we loved the script & characters so much and we did feel that way with this movie but a lot of other stuff we were working on, getting it to that point, where you feel good about the whole thing, it doesn’t happen that often, ya know? It’s like falling in love; it’s not that easy to find someone you feel that way about. We need to fall in love with a project –
Jonathan Daton: It’s a high bar.
Valerie Faris: There were many things that were easier because we’ve done it before; you trust yourselves a little bit more – they’re all hard. Each one is its own set of challenges and problems; I kind of feel like each [film] was easy and hard.
Jonathan Daton: With LMS, it wasn’t a typical family comedy. I feel like “Ruby Sparks” is not a typical, not a really a “romantic comedy”; it’s more of a genre bender. That’s one thing we’re really eager for audiences to understand is –
Valerie Faris: It may be sold more as a romantic comedy.
Jonathan Daton: You may see the trailer and think “Ah! There’s a light little romantic comedy!”
Valerie Faris: I worry that people go in and not be prepared for what it is.
PFF: Do think that with this genre bending of romantic comedies; do think there may be a swing in the trend of how those genre films may be made?
Valerie Faris: (laughs) Dramedy? I guess we are interested in breaking genres; we’re more interested in where the story needs to go, not where does the genre make you go, or force you into a certain structure. It’s really letting the story and characters dictate the direction.
Jonathan Daton: Life doesn’t happen in genres. I move from a romantic comedy to a serious drama to -
Valerie Faris: Horror film at times… It’s more interesting for us... I would be interested in doing more genre films, because it’s a fun exploration –
Jonathan Daton: They are their own thing. It doesn’t mean it’s not valid-
Valerie Faris: And it doesn’t mean you can bend a genre too… With this story it felt like it needed to go to these places; the story need to reach a certain point and go to it’s logical extension, as opposed to keeping it light because that’s what romantic comedies do.
PFF: Zoe [Kazan] and Paul [Dano] gave such wonderful performances. Even with LMS, Abigail [Breslin] was fantastic. Is there any secrets working with the actors to draw out those performances, other than their obvious talent? Do you have any secrets or tips?
Jonathan Daton: There actually are a couple of secrets. It begins with good casting; then a simple rehearsal where you don’t wear them out. On both movies, we worked on creating back stories, where we had the actors write each other letters as their characters –
Valerie Faris: Active work, not like talking about their back story; write to their brother; we had the brothers write each other-
Jonathan Daton: We had Harry (Chirs Messina) give Calvin (Paul Dano) sex advice-
Valerie Faris: Have Calvin quiz him about his sex life –
Jonathan Daton: We had Annette talked to the boys about how much she loved having sex now and it was so upsetting and icky it was now for them to hear it… but it gave them a history so –
Valerie Faris: That deeping for the relationships during a rehearsal is important and the sense of their character... with Calvin and Ruby helped Paul and Zoe establish who their characters really were separate from their real life relationship. So we worked with them in finding those characters and that relationship. I also think it’s important that you have an idea in your head of how & who that character is in each scene; what you need to achieve, not that you have to stick with that, but just to know when you have it. I think it’s really hard for actors when they feel like they don’t know what a director wants.
Jonathan Daton: They don’t know where the pinpoint is…
Valerie Faris: And they try a million things. That what works for us. We usually look to each other and decide if that works for us or that scenes playing well in Take 1; the ending is working nicely in Take 3; you really need to know you’re getting what you need to work on film. That seems so obvious –
Jonathan Daton: Part of what we do, fortunately there’s two of us, is that we will act out scenes in our home in a private setting so no one else can see, so we get to know what those feelings are, because we are literally walking the walk, so you know what you’re going to ask Paul [Dano] to do. Paul will do it much better but you know how hard it is, you know how it will feel like to move or to sit in your chair or to jump up; you start to feel those things, so you’re not using your head. The governing secret is: Don’t think too much. Feel. Get to the feelings. Don’t stay in your head, because you can talk an actor to death.
Valerie Faris: A lot of people can get pulled into that and it wastes a lot of time. A good thing is when you’re doing a movie in 30 days is that you don’t have time for that. A lot of what we do in prep, make the shoot go so much faster and you get a quicker return.
PFF: If you had to bring one of the characters to life from the film, who would you choose?
Valerie Faris: I really enjoyed all of them, so it’s hard to answer that but I had a lot of fun with the Chris Messina character (Harry). I really enjoyed working with him, playing that character,. He’s a fun guy. I liked that he was honest, down-to-Earth guy, just great to be around.
Jonathan Daton: I wouldn’t necessarily bring her to life but I loved her so much, Alia Shawkat (Mable – Calvin’s groupie). I think Alia was so interesting in her portrayal... I would have like to use more of her; there were bits & pieces that were cut out. You do end up loving your characters and it’s painful to cut out scenes, but we ultimately believe that the film should move quickly and stay ahead of the audience, to not drag, so we have to throw out good stuff.
PFF: What’s the one piece of advice you would give to 1st time directors/writers that would have like to have known before embarking on their first project?
Jonathan Daton: The script is not finished. People always start shooting; start sharing a script; you know, you only get a one chance for a first read and you should never go into shooting looking to solve big problems. Just stay with the script – don’t show it to anyone or show it to a few select people. If it’s good, you’ll get it made. There are so few good script; that a finished script; a well done script will sell. InHollywood –
Valerie Faris: You can’t say no to a good script. A lot of scripts aren’t bad, they’re just not finished. They haven’t done the problem solving before hand. We always say, “Why would you want to be on set, with all these people standing around trying to solve a problem, when you could solve it sitting in a office at a computer?” That would probably be our biggest word of advice. We work a lot on the scripts. All of our projects, even the ones that didn’t happen, are the reason we didn’t proceed is that we didn’t feel that the scripts were quite there yet.
Jonathan Daton: The studios will say “You’ll fix it – Come On! Just go do it!” It’s like “No! I don’t want to have –
Valerie Faris: Maybe for some people that works. I don’t want to say that nobody should work that way but, I think some people like chaos; they like to figure things out as they go and they like that sort of surprise. It’s [for us] partially because, the budgets we get to work with don’t allow us to sit around and let us solve a problem for a whole day on a set. We have to move-
Jonathan Daton: Paul [Dano] was saying to us and is really right. Most scripts are about 75% there…
Valerie Faris: Yeah, and it’s hard for actors to sign on to something that they feel is not really ready. The director might say” Don’t worry – it will be fine; we’re working on that”. There’s so much trust that has to happen; we feel that if a script – if you can a really good sense of what the film will be like from the script, it’s much easier for everyone to buy into it; you’re all making the same film. Instead of one person thinks it’s a dark comedy and someone else thinks it’s a horror film –you have to get everyone making the same film. The script is the starting point.
Valerie Faris: We were really lucky that we got final cut on this movie; Fox Searchlight gave us final cut, so we were able to make our own mistakes. It’s your movie and I think it’s hard for some directors, who they have to put a good film out there but some of the decisions were pushed on them. So, it’s nice to come out with a movie where you feel like, “This is the movie we wanted to make.” Like it or not, this is what we wanted to do. We’re happy with it. It must be really hard to go out and sell a movie if you feel like “I really don’t like the ending – I really didn’t want to do that ending”. But it happens. That’s where it comes back to the script – get it right in the script. If the studios then signs on; it’s in the script, you can go back and say “Look this is the movie we said we were going to make and this is what we’re making – it’s like your contract.” We’re stickler for script; a good script. It’s funny; we get scripts all the time. People are willing to put up a lot of money; there’s just so much to be solved. It’s kind of frustrating as a director to come in and feel like “Why hasn’t everyone else done their job? Why hasn’t the writer solved this problem? It’s a major problem in the story… good films are hard to make. It’s hard to get financed especially today. Studios are making fewer films every year.
Now that you have two movies under your belt, what’s next?
Jonathan Daton: Thank you. We’re starting a pilot for HBO with Daniel Clowes (comic artist ofGhostWorld & ArtSchool Confidential). He’s written a few things that are in the works. Alexander Payne is going to do one of his movies,Wilson.
Valerie Faris: He’s very, very funny. It’s almost Honeymooner’s like. It’s about this guy who’s very disgruntled & disenfranchised; it’s funny –
Jonathan Daton: He’s managing an apartment –
Valerie Faris: So it’s about the landlord. We’re always going to be working on movies but we don’t have anything ready to talk about. The Landlord will be the next project; we’re excited to try out a series. HBO seems like a really great place to do TV right now, so it’s a great challenge.
Ruby Sparks opens as a limited release August 3rd in Phoenix and is Rated R. Check out our review.