Interview: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris (Ruby Sparks)


When husband and wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris release Little Miss Sunshine they were instantly catapulted to directorial fame. Since then the couple, who wear about as many different hats as anyone can, have been working on a plethora of other projects. Tomorrow, however, their second feature film, Ruby Sparks, releases in theaters and Flixist got a chance to sit down with the two of them and talk about the upcoming film.

The movie, which has the same quirky, independent charm of Little Miss Sunshine, but is far less of a romantic indie that it’s advertised as, stars Paul Dano as Calvin. Calvin is a lonely writer who one day discovers that the girl he has been writing, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), has come to life as his girlfriend. The screenplay, which was written by Kazan, is a sort of combination of romantic comedy and drama that turns down some pretty serious roads. We got to talk to Dayton and Faris about going down those roads and how they fell in love with the film.

What made you love this movie?

Valerie Faris: You mean the script? When we read the script. You know, there are so many things. You always know when you read a script and you read it in one sitting and you finish it and feel like you have what you want from a movie. That’s part of it. It’s just liking the issues that this movie raises and the characters. Of course we knew it came with Zoe (Kazan) and Paul (Dano) and the idea of working with them was very appealing. It was also a small movie and we liked that idea. We thought we could do it with a crew of six people and really easily. Plus, it was in L.A. and we shot so much in L.A., but trying to make it look like somewhere else so we were very excited to do a movie that actually took place there.

Jonathan Dayton: You know, I grew up on romantic comedies and the idea of doing something that was a little bit like a romantic comedy, but not truly a standard issue story was really exciting. I loved the feeling that I hoped you would have walking out of the theater. That feeling that you’ve been on this roller coaster ride.

Valerie Faris: That definitely related to some of it. I think for us it was exploring issues of control in relationships as well as your relationship to your work and how in both cases if you try to control it too much you actually end up destroying. There was just a lot of really great aspects to the story that were dealt with in a way that didn’t feel like it was preachy or giving a lesson, but…

Jonathan Dayton: It was still about something. A good date movie. Go out for dinner and then have something to talk about.

Two films jumped out while watching Ruby Sparks. One was Eternal Sunshine on the Spotless Mind and the second was an episode of the Twilight Zone. [Referring to “A World of His Own”]

Valerie Faris: Oh, yes.

You fused both of those into the film and updated for modern audiences. Did you have that feeling when you were putting it together?

Valerie Faris: We don’t usually think about it being like other films. We like to think how it’s different from other films, but of course we did rewatch Eternal Sunshine and watch that Twilight episode, which is amazing. I think when you’re working on a movie you really think about how you make that story come to life. How do you make these particular characters work both in the script itself — we worked nine months with Zoe on the script to make sure it was as economical and powerful as it could be. You sort of dive in and stop thinking about all the other films that are like it.

Jonathan Dayton: There’s a lot of talk about how it’s like Stranger Than Fiction. People see the trailer and it sort of suggests something. The film is much more than the trailer suggest, it’s sort of a tease. Hopefully people will ultimately just embrace it for what it is. But I’m very flattered by the associations.

Valerie Faris: It’s funny because I believe that the movie may feel in appearance like a comedy and when you have “Directors of Little Miss Sunshine” everywhere it sends a message. That was a concern of ours for people going in expecting it to be a fun romantic comedy, and while it has elements of that we like that it doesn’t stay completely true to that. It veers off into another more challenging place. That’s what was appealing to us and we felt like there were scenes in this movie that you hadn’t seen in any other story. That’s always exciting as a director when you imagine certain scenes and think that you’ve never seen them before.

One of the difference between Little Miss Sunshine and this film is that that film dealt with an ensemble cast and this had a intimate focus on two leads. How much different was that?

Jonathan Dayton: That was definitely one of the biggest differences from doing Little Miss Sunshine to this. In Little Miss Sunshine we got the team moving and they just took the script and would just run with it. We’d do takes where it was just fun to watch them play off each other.

Valerie Faris: They were like a dance troupe. They worked together so well and after a week of shooting the had created a family and it was all just set in motion.

Jonathan Dayton: This was different because — well, there are similarities because Paul and Zoe knew each other and so there was an intimacy and a chemistry, but part of this was separating Paul and Zoe from Calvin and Ruby. Helping them create a relationship that was separate from what they shared in real life.

Valerie Faris: It is very different with most of your scenes having only two characters. It is different having people come in for one day here or two days there. I really loved working with an ensemble, and I know there are directors who do ensemble things one after another, and I totally understand that and think it’s really fun. This was very different, but in some ways there are similarities because we had two actors working on every scene in the movie so you develop a report. It does take on a kind of life of its own. You can sit back and watch them work. It did fell kind of lonely at first. Can’t we bring in a suicidal uncle or something? (laughs)

The casting of the film was fantastic how did you go about that, and what was the atmosphere on the set because the final scene gets very dark. [Note: General spoilers follow]

Valerie Faris: In terms of casting I think that’s probably one of the most important things we do as directors. This one came with Paul and Zoe so we didn’t have to do those parts. Casting the brother, Chris Messina, was probably the toughest part because he’s so important to the movie. He’s sort of the person that represents the audience’s view. He comes in and doesn’t believe what’s going so he has to be sold on it being real like the audience. Once Chris came in he nailed it for us and we couldn’t see anyone else in the role.

Jonathan Dayton: Antonio (Banderas) and Anette (Benning) (who play Calvin’s mother and step-father) were incredible. They’re just such gifted actors. It’s like a masked musician. You watch them just play and they’re so free and comfortable. Antonio said he just wants to have fun and you could feel that. He was happy doing it and those scenes were filmed in the wee hours of the morning.

Valerie Faris: They were really fun together and that was just three days. That was the hard part. That was our little revisit to ensemble work.

Jonathan Dayton: And then just that final scene that you were talking about. That was the scene we knew would be the toughest thing. We did a lot of rehearsal on it. We actually worked with other actors and Val and I did it ourselves making the other do whatever we said. You try to understand the feelings. That scene was the scene that we were most interested in. It was the scene we’d never seen before.

Valerie Faris: It’s sort of taking the scene to its logical conclusion. We knew that once he doesn’t resist the urge to control her it basically has to get to a point where he can’t sustain it. It’s sort of hard to figure out what happens there exactly and whether he’s doing it to himself more than he’s doing it to her. There’s a lot to work with there and answer those questions was hard until we were actually there.

Jonathan Dayton: We’re trying to talk about it as a place that you don’t normally experience in a movie. I don’t even want to call it dark because it’s sad and it’s heartbreaking, but there’s a lot of stuff happening in it.

That scene was incredibly emotionally engaging. Would you say it was the most engaging for you as directors? [Note: General spoilers follow]

Jonathan Dayton: This is really embarrassing, but I still cry when I see that scene. It just breaks my heart.

Valerie Faris: As much as he’s going through as what she’s putting her through. It was important to us that she is his creation so he’s having to destroy the thing he loves. He’s doing that in order to let her go. All that complexity was really exciting to us in terms of film making.

Jonathan Dayton: The score there was really important. The score for this entire movie was way more important than most films. A lot of times we’re seeing Calvin do things and to really understand fully what he’s experiencing you need the score to give you those feelings.

Valerie Faris: We decided to make the score big because the movie treats all the higher-concept elements very matter-of-factly so we wanted the music to be more fantastic. We let the music get big and we liked that an independent movie would have a big movie score.

Matthew Razak
Matthew Razak is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Flixist. He has worked as a critic for more than a decade, reviewing and talking about movies, TV shows, and videogames. He will talk your ear off about James Bond movies, Doctor Who, Zelda, and Star Trek.