Zoe Kazan talks about writing and starring alongside Paul Dano in Ruby Sparks, now available on Blu-ray and DVD
Those who only pay attention to tentpole fare during the summer months can really miss out on a lot. This year, for instance, nestled between a rising Dark Knight and a neighborhood watch group was the charming Ruby Sparks. Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan (a real-life couple themselves) starred in this indie that takes the writer-character relationship to a whole new level. Paul Dano plays Calvin Weir-Fields, a novelist who had a breakthrough success at a very young age, although he has yet to complete his follow-up novel. As an exercise, he creates a character named Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan), who inexplicably comes to life before his very eyes. I recently had the chance to speak with Zoe Kazan, who wrote the screenplay as well, about this original comedy, currently available on Blu-ray and DVD. Here's what she had to say.
Can you start off by talking a bit about the writing process and where the idea came from? Were you throwing ideas off of Paul while you were in the process of writing?
Zoe Kazan: I guess so. I have a really nasty habit of needing a lot of attention, I guess (Laughs), and involving him when it's far too early to involve anyone in your writing process. I think I'm a sucker for feedback. I want that immediate charge of wanting to hear someone's opinion. It's probably not the greatest writing technique, but, as a result, Paul probably did see every iteration of this screenplay. Then, of course, when our directors Jonathan (Dayton) and Valerie (Faris) came on, I sort of cut him out of the process. He's smart, and he doesn't give me too much when I ask him for his opinion. In the early stages, he says, 'Yeah, it's good. Keep going.' If he laughs at something while he's reading it, I'll go, 'What are you laughing at?'
I realize this is very much a different story than Stranger Than Fiction, but it will inevitably draw those comparisons. Were you turned off at all by this story, because of those comparisons people might make?
Zoe Kazan: It wasn't really on my brain, to be totally frank. I had seen that movie and liked it, but the source of my idea was so much more about relationships, and what it feels like to be in a relationship with someone, when you don't know who you are, or when you are in flux as a person. How easy it is to lose track of who you are. For both Calvin and Ruby, I think that's true. They're both people who are not quite well formed yet, and, as a result, it's very easy for him to get lost in controlling her, and for her to get lost in him, quite literally. Because that was so much more of what I was thinking about, the whole Stranger Than Fiction comparison didn't really occur to me until we were pretty far into making the movie.
Since Paul is playing a writer, was he shadowing you at all, just to get certain mannerisms down? Did that come into play at all, or did he want to craft his own take on the character?
Zoe Kazan: Well, he has watched me while I have been writing. I get rather animated when writing, so I think he stole some of that, or he was going to, in the scenes when Calvin is actually writing. In terms of inspiration, he has a lot of friends who are novelists, and I think just knowing them and who they are, was much more important than watching me.
There is quite an amazing group of people around you in the cast. Can you talk a bit about that process? I know most writers don't write for specific people to be cast, but did you have any of these other actors in mind?
Zoe Kazan: I didn't have anybody in mind except for Paul. I knew that I was writing it for the two of us, but I tried to put myself out of my brain as much as possible, because I knew, especially since we would be acting in it together, I really didn't want it to feel like it was me and him up there. I think that would have felt too much like an invasion of our privacy. I did enjoy writing for Paul, because he is such a funny person. That's a thing a lot of people don't get to see, because of these weirdo characters that he's always playing. When Jonathan and Valerie came on, because of the success of Little Miss Sunshine, I think it was very easy for them to pull from a really talented group of people, including our cast, but also, on the production side, people like (cinematographer) Matthew Libatique, who shot our movie, our production designer Judy Becker, who did The Fighter, and our costume designer, Nancy Steiner. They were able to pull some really talented people.
So many of these writer tales are set in New York. It was very cool to see a different take on that in Los Angeles. Did you always envision this story being told there?
Zoe Kazan: It was always Los Angeles, for me. I know that it's unusual to put a novelist in Los Angeles, but I grew up in L.A. with writer parents, and the life that they lived was very far from a Hollywood lifestyle. I loved L.A. and growing up here. I just wanted to set a film in the L.A. that I knew growing up, which was a lot more low-key. Frankly, it's kind of a lonely place. There isn't a lot of room for random, human connection, in the same way that there is in New York. It was so important to me to really isolate Calvin. That's one of the reasons I gave him a typewriter. You know, a a guy at a computer is not a lonely guy anymore. If you have this machine sitting there, that's only function is to write, and you're not writing, how would that feel? That was my thinking for setting it in L.A., just trying to isolate him as much as humanly possible.
Can you talk a bit more about you collaboration with Jonathan and Valerie? Little Miss Sunshine was such a beloved movie, and deservedly so, but I was definitely waiting for their follow-up. I might have loved this movie just as much, if not more, than Little Miss Sunshine
Zoe Kazan: Oh, that's so nice. I'm sure they're going to make a lot more movies. Having Jonathan and Valerie come in was just a linchpin for us in making the movie. Not just because they are so well-liked, and having them come on made it easier to get the financing, they're just really incredibly people. They work unbelievably hard, they are sticklers for the script being 100% in good shape, and they're so smart about the story and the audience's emotional experience. For me, having them come on was absolutely transformative. The finished product is not too far off of the bones that I originally had, but they're so smart and so attuned to classical, narrative structure, and movie making and how to make things cinematic. They were unbelievably wonderful to work with, and to have as a bouncing board.
Is there anything you're currently writing now? Do you plan on starring in that one with Paul as well? Or are you going in a different direction?
Zoe Kazan: We really loved making this together, and we sort of want it to stand on its own. We're in no rush to jump back into that pool together, metaphorically and literally (Laughs). I have been writing, and it's hard for me to balance all the parts of my life at once, as an actor and carving out time to write. I just sort of finished the first draft of something, and hopefully I'll be able to polish in the months to come. I shot four independent movies over the course of this year, so I'm actually taking a little bit of a break, so I can get a bit of writing done.
Zoe Kazan: I think that the movie is really unexpected. I think if you saw the trailer, whether or not you liked the trailer has very little bearing on whether or not you'll like the movie. I think it's a very difficult movie to pin down, and I think there's something unexpected in it. I'm really excited for it to come out on Blu-ray and DVD, because I think there's an audience out there for it. Maybe they couldn't make it to see it then, but I'm really excited for it to reach a broader audience.
That's all I have. Thanks so much, Zoe. It was a real pleasure. I really enjoyed the movie.
Zoe Kazan: Thank you so much.