Former Santa Cruzan Valerie Faris and husband Jonathan Dayton on the evolution of ‘Ruby Sparks’
In the summer of 2006, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris found themselves basking in the buzz of Little Miss Sunshine, the inventive film they co-directed, which was met with glowing reviews. Six years later, the creative couple, who have been married 22 years now, might have another hit to celebrate with Ruby Sparks (*** out of four), a quirky yet charming romp featuring another real-life couple in the lead roles—Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, Cowboys and Aliens, Being Flynn) and Zoe Kazan (TV’s Bored To Death).
Watch for Kazan to capture a great deal of the spotlight here—she’s also the screenwriter—in a film that finds Dano playing a young, heralded writer (Calvin), whose celebrity may be dimming. Befuddled and full of neuroses—think latter day Woody Allen—Calvin’s sudden, vivid dreams afford him enough inspiration to madly pen another novel, a dreamy romance featuring a passionate creature named Ruby. That’s quite a feat in and of itself. But imagine what Calvin thinks when, one morning, he awakens to find that his protagonist has suddenly materialized in the real world.
The concept was enough to lure in Dayton and Faris, who previously worked with Dano in Sunshine.
“We describe it as a cross between Annie Hall and Frankenstein,” Dayton quips.
“But we really liked the subject matter, the issues it was raising, and the way that it raised those issues,” admits Faris, who attended UC Santa Cruz in the late ’70s. “It’s kind of a deceptively simply told story, even though it has this high concept. Once Ruby enters Calvin’s life, it really becomes about his exploration of relationship and the balance of power in relationship—the difference between the way we sometimes view someone and who they actually are. All those issues are dealt with through this simple love story.”
The idea, Faris says, came to Kazan when she spotted a Macy’s mannequin in a dumpster. She initially thought it was a real body and later, went home and wrote about five pages.
“Paul read them,” Dayton explains, “and he said, ‘Are you writing this for us?’ And she said, ‘I guess I am,’ and away she went.”
“But in knowing Zoe, I know she wasn’t writing it and thinking, ‘Oh, this will be a great part for me to act,’” Faris adds. “I think she really focused on it as the writer. It came out in a very organic way.”
Chris Messina (Julie & Julia, TV’s Damages) delivers one of his strongest performances to date here. Annette Bening (as Calvin’s New Age mom) and Antonio Banderas (as the step-dad) come along for the ride.
Dayton and Faris have been collaborating on projects for many years and tend to only commit to those that hold their interest and surprise them for a period of time—in this case, two years.
“We also like the idea of doing a ‘small’ movie,” Faris says. “You just feel like you can make the movie you want to make and that there are not too many cooks in the kitchen. We also like taking things on that don’t feel like something we’ve seen a dozen times.”
Is there a trick to co-directing?
“Preparation,” Dayton says. “And cooperation. We work out the whole plan long before we arrive on the set, so that when we come to actually shoot, we have both agreed upon our plan. Then, it’s really about executing.”
Still, considering that the film is about “relationship” and is directed by a couple in a committed relationship and also has a real-life romantic duo as its leads—is seems fitting to ask what Dayton and Faris might have learned about coupledom over the years?
“How many hours do you have?” Faris laughs.
“I think the key is mutual respect,” Dayton says. “It’s especially important for us since we work together. Respect is the cornerstone of our lives.”
“Paul and Zoe love and respect each other, and they have an incredibly healthy work ethic, which we share,” Faris adds. “So, having comparable work ethics really helps. And we have a rule: We can never go to bed angry with each other—it has to be resolved before we go to sleep.”
“It’s worked pretty well,” Faris muses. “Sometimes …you end up staying up a little too late trying to get over whatever it is you are working out. It can be hard work, but there are rewards when you do work at it.”
She pauses before adding, “But we’re not writing a book on it.”