Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are the husband-and-wife directing duo behind Little Miss Sunshine. Their next film, which they directed, Ruby Sparks, opens in theaters today, Wednesday, July 25th, and stars real-life couple, Zoe Kazan (Revolutionary Road, It’s Complicated) and Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Little Miss Sunshine) with Annette Bening (American Beauty, The Kids Are All Right) and Antonio Banderas (Desperado, The Skin I live In) in supporting roles.
The film focuses on a young author who creates a dream girl in his fiction and gets the surprise of his life when she turns out to be real. Celebrated novelist Calvin (played by Dano) used to be the darling of the literary scene; now he’s wondering if he’ll ever actually write another book. With his inspiration at an all-time low, Calvin creates a character named Ruby Sparks (played by Kazan who also wrote the screenplay). A week later, when Ruby shows up in Calvin’s apartment completely smitten, the lonely writer begins to fear he’s losing his mind.
I recently had a chance to speak with directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris about Ruby Sparks. The directors discuss their new film, why they continue to work with Paul Dano, what it’s like directing an actor who is responsible for the screenplay, who’s more controlling in their own relationship, and reminisce on Mr Show with Bob and David.
Here’s what the talented directors had to say:
Latino Review: After such a big success on your first feature film what was it about Zoe’s script that made you choose it for your next film?
Jonathan Dayton: It really had all the things that I love when I go to the movies. It was entertaining; it was about something.
Valerie Faris: There were scenes in it that we’ve never seen in a movie that felt very particular to this story but that were also challenging so it didn’t feel like an easy film to make.
Jonathan: It was different from anything I’ve seen. The idea of doing something with a fantasy element but could also be grounded.
Valerie: We had other films that we really loved too but this script felt finished. She really knew what the beginning, the middle, and the end of the movie were. Even though we did some work on it, it was all there.
Jonathan: We loved her voice. So there are a lot of things.
Valerie: There was just this feeling that we could make this little movie together. In our minds it was even smaller than it ended up being. When we first read it we were like hey, we could just get a camera and a couple crewmembers together. These things inevitably expand but it still was a nice simple movie to make.
Jonathan: Some of the films that we had started working that didn’t come to fruition were pretty big, epic, futuristic sets.
Valerie: Mainly two. And those two scripts were great scripts; we loved the writing. We never take anything on if we don’t like the writing. We are very writer driven. Big films are such a huge responsibility. You’re spending so much money. If it goes wrong then…if a little movie doesn’t work out you can move on. Big ones can turn into a story if it doesn’t work out. Our inclination is to stay small but on those bigger movies we really did love the concepts and the writing so it was worth taking that risk. When the elements aren’t all falling into place it’s not worth the risk. So we pulled out of them ultimately.
What specifically was this movie that you were working on that you pulled out from?
Jonathan: It was a film called “Used Guys” and it took place in a future run by women.
Valerie: All the men were cloned because men had gone extinct from all the performance-enhancing drugs. Over time men had gone extinct so women had figured out how to clone men and they were sold like models of cars. It was very comedic but had also some great themes as well and it was really fun depicting a world run by women and what would that world look like and what is left of the world we live in.
Jonathan: It had Ben Stiller and Reese Witherspoon.
Valerie: …but it was a big thing. It was with Fox and it could’ve been a great film and it still could. Sometimes it’s just the time isn’t right for a film. But with Ruby Sparks the partners were good, Fox Searchlight wanted to do it and we had a good relationship with them.
Jonathan: You can tell when things line up.
Valerie: You sort of feel it. Okay, this feels real.
Is that why there was a six-year gap between your first feature and this film?
Jonathan: We were always working. We always had one or two films always in the pipeline. To make a living we would always be doing commercials. It’s a real luxury though because we live in two different worlds we don’t have to do a film to pay our bills. We can let things develop. I think films sometimes get launched…
Valerie: …too early. When they’re not ready. We don’t like working that way; we like to feel that we know what we’re going after here. If we like what it is we’re going to try to take it to a higher level while we make it instead of ‘we’ve got to fix this thing’. There are too many bad films out there so we didn’t want to add to that. Ultimately we want people to love film. Our job is to also keep the public loving film and wanting to go see films because it’s such a great medium. I’m sad it’s starting to move toward that single viewing experience. We have to revive people’s love of film and their love of the theater going experience if we can.
Jonathan: There’s nothing like hearing other people in the theater laugh. You hear something and you might not laugh yourself but you say, ‘oh yah, that is funny’ because…
Valerie: …It cues you in to different aspects of the movie. It’s nice to feel that the audience is with you and…
Jonathan: …they’re going on the journey.
Zoe Kazan who stars in your film and plays Ruby is also the screenwriter. What was it like directing an actor who is also responsible for the screenplay? Was there ever conflict when she felt a scene was being directed differently than how she wrote it?
Jonathan: It’s really the same with all actors. They may hear it a certain way and you have to respect that and you have to let them have a moment to try something. Thankfully and for whatever reason the entire time we saw it the same way. I think there was only one time when Zoe mentioned that she heard it this way and we talked about it and explored it.
Valerie: But so minor. I was worried about that but I just kept marveling at how Zoe could be the actress and let herself be directed and not think about this is what she wrote or this is how she saw it. It was just not in her mind. She just gave it to us. I had just felt that so completely like this is our film, we’re making this now.
Jonathan: I wouldn’t be surprised if at some time she does direct but I think she’s really comfortable with this current leap.
Valerie: She loves being an actress. She’s great at it. She’s a great writer and she was happy to have us direct her film. I think she is capable of many things so it was great to have her eyes on the set. She was always contributing something. She would come over and say in a whisper, ‘what if he does it like this?’ That was great but she did it very respectfully. I was always waiting for that to come out and it just never did.
What was it about Paul Dano that made you want to work with him again, and this time in a lead role? Was he already attached because his real-life girlfriend, Zoe Kazan, had written the screenplay?
Jonathan: They came with the script so that was a given but that was also part of the draw. That was really exciting to us. We love Paul as a person, certainly as an actor. Paul can do anything but I don’t think he’s done a role like this and it was really exciting the idea that he could be a leading man, a romantic lead, and kust that all he brings to a story and…
Valerie: …his intelligence. With some actors there’s a lot going on when they’re doing nothing. That’s partly why we cast him in Little Miss Sunshine. Without saying anything you felt like there was a whole world going on in his head and I think that works in this film as well. You read his intelligence. He’s a very gifted natural actor. He doesn’t have to do too much. He’s also a really great physical actor. I love his physicality and I think in this movie you see a fair amount of it.
Jonathan: I’m embarrassed to make this parallel or comparison but in the same way that Dustin Hoffman was in The Graduate was an unusual choice there and yet really made the movie. I think that Paul is that kind of actor who brings a whole universe. They were originally going to cast Robert Redford for that movie or they considered him at least. So when you think about the typical young leading actors that could’ve been used in a film like this, Paul really shows there is so much to be found in a guy like him.
Valerie: I think both of them (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan) are not your typical romantic leads and I think that is part of the appeal of the film. We’ve seen enough beautiful people falling in love. I mean, they’re beautiful! I think they’re both great looking and it was really fun photographing them because we love them and we think they are really attractive. I hope that comes through in the movie.
Jonathan: But they are approachable. They aren’t superhuman. They are not models in love.
Valerie: There is a certain lack of vanity in it.
This movie deals a lot with the issue of control and control in a relationship. When you two are directing a film together do you ever butt heads at all, and who is the most controlling person in your relationship?
Jonathan: Valerie! Absolutely!
Valerie: I am! [laughs] I mean it’s a funny thing though. I definitely have control issues but Jonathan seems to get what he wants plenty. You [talking to Jonathan] have a way of silently manipulating things to get what you want and I’m probably more vocal about it and put up more of a fight or something. On set we’ve done so much prep work and we’ve argued about things so we’ve kind of already hammered out that stuff beforehand so on the set there’s so much else that you have to deal with that we hardly ever fight. We’re both just kind of chasing after what we’ve agreed upon. As new issues or problems come up we are pretty good at solving them together. We’ve made a life of solving problems together.
Jonathan: When you raise kids together you can do anything.
Valerie: These problems are so much easier than real life problems we’ve been dealt. I think for the most part we have a pretty good balance in our relationship of control. I don’t feel like we’re working out our issues in this movie so much but we were interested in how much control we have even just as human beings to feel like we are in control of this universe even though we are so not. That’s just a basic instinct we have to control. It enters into our work because we try to control something so that it will be successful and not fail so we’re going to control it to the point of killing it or making it flat and it goes the same for a relationship. So that was interesting to us how control works in both your creative life and your love life.
Jonathan: I do have to say it was fun rehearsing the film, Valerie and I would act out the scenes together ourselves and it was fun being able to, for a moment, control Val.
Lastly, you two directed some of my favorite Mr Show with Bob and David episodes. What was your favorite Mr. Show sketch?
Jonathan: We are still friends with Bob and we se David once in a while. The level of comedic chops in that room was daunting.
Valerie: [laughing] Now all the episodes are flooding into my head. Okay, I love the band…
Jonathan: The Wicked Scepter!
Valerie: …and they’re in the hot tub and the record company execs are showing them their “gay party tape” and they’re like what are you talking about we’re not gay and then they show them the tape and they’re like ‘oh yah, we’re just partying.’
Jonathan: Because that was the merging of our comedy experience and our music video experience.
Valerie: It was so fun shooting the party and the way that was shot was really fun. I also love the post-prison rehabilitation program for rapists. The guy walks out of his house with a sandwich board that says, ‘I’m a Rapist’.
Jonathan: And he has to announce to everyone that he’s a rapist.
Valerie: ‘Larry Kleist is my name and insurance is my game, well raping was another game of mine but…’ And do you remember the jazz singer. They’re just all so ridiculous and hilarious. I’d love to do something again with Bob. We’re hoping there might be a part for him in the pilot that we’re shooting but he’s been so happy. He says he loves doing Breaking Bad because he loves working and acting in someone else’s work. He’s great!
Jonathan: He’s actually a director at our commercial production company so if you go on our website there’s some stuff up there that he’s done.
Ruby Sparks opens in theaters today, Wednesday, July 25th!