Though movie fans will instantly recognize Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris from their critically-acclaimed indie hit, Little Miss Sunshine, the married directors have had an impressive and lucractive career for much longer. Before their first feature, Dayton and Faris directed and produced music videos, documentaries, and commercials, and have worked with the likes of Oasis, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beastie Boys, and The Smashing Pumpkins.
Rumors of different follow-up projects have circulated the pair since Little Miss Sunshine, but they finally concluded their second feature, Ruby Sparks. Starring Paul Dano (also of Little Miss Sunshine fame) and screenwriter/actress Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks has just the right amount of dark humor and irrefutable sweetness for this talented tag-team. While promoting the film, Dayton and Faris reveal why they waited so long to pick another project, sing their actors' praises, and share their mutual love for the city of Los Angeles.
Q: It’s so good to see you two again after Little Miss Sunshine.
Valerie Faris: It’s good to be back. You guys are fun to talk to.
Q: It feels like it’s been forever since we’ve seen you. After the success of Little Miss Sunshine, what caused the gap in between projects, and why did you choose Ruby Sparks as your follow-up feature?
Jonathan Dayton: Well, we are parents and we love what we do.
VF: We have a relationship.
JD: And because we have a relationship, you have to love what you do deeply because you don’t escape it.
VF: It affects every aspect of your life.
JD: And it’s permanent.
VF: Maybe because there’s more at stake. Rather than picky it’s that we have a lot resting on what we do, our marriage and our family life. We want to make sure that we both going into it excited about the work that we have.
JD: There are certain ideas that I would love to see in a movie theater but I don’t need to work on for two years.
VF: We can just go to see the movie.
JD: What was so great about doing this is that the layers kept unfolding. Also, as a director, as a filmmaker the challenge of, what is the score for something like this? We knew that we didn’t want to do a conventional indie rock band, lyrics telling you what to feel, kind of score. There were so many challenges and the film goes to darker places that you don’t normally have in a romantic comedy. You know, this isn’t a romantic comedy.
VF: But we liked that. We liked the mix. I think for us, our favorite movies have comedy but they also have drama. You know, that mix of pain, suffering and humor is the way we experience life and like to see it in movies. This had that. It had plenty of very funny bits, but then it also went to a very interesting and challenging place that we hadn’t been as filmmakers. I think that every time you’re looking to do something you have never done before and maybe even something you’ve never seen before. The potential in this movie, the scene that is the climax of the movie scared us but we thought, well this is interesting.
JD: This is why we do it. We get to walk that tight rope.
Q: You have so many layers working together in this film. There’s the elaborate set design, especially with Calvin’s house and the multi-tiered architectural structuring. You also have the casual element of using Sue Croft’s gorgeous house for Annette Benning and Antonio Banderas’ characters. On top of all that, you have the core emotional element of Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano as a real-life couple; the two of you as a real-life couple and the two of them becoming an on-screen couple. How do you factor all of that in with your total design of this film?
JD: That’s why it takes us two years to make a movie. That’s why I love having nine months to edit. We worked with Zoe for nine months on the script just fine-tuning her original draft to just make it this very potent, economical movie.
VF: In that time it helps us get comfortable with each other so she knows what our vision for the film is and she can feel comfortable handing it off to us and trusting us with it. We feel like we’ve minded everything that’s in there that we saw in it.
JD: It becomes part of our DNA. It has incubated a long time and you don’, at least for us, we have to feel it in our bones.
VF: We really like working with writers. Even in the time, the six years where we weren’t making movies, we were working with great writers and fully believed that we would make those films. I think that’s a part of the process that nobody gives value to but it is the most important part – when the director and the writer are fusing their vision of what this is. I think if you don’t get that time together you’re missing out on a really important part of the creation of the movie.
Q: It also seems like you two used Los Angeles itself as its own character. It really felt like an LA love story, and that’s rare. Where did that decision stem from?
JD: Well, because we fell in love here. We would go to El Coyote and have drinks and so to be able to take these places that mean a lot to us is fun.
VF: We’ve been to the Hollywood Cemetery, Los Feliz, along Vermont Blvd. We spent a lot of time [there]. One of our close friend’s family used to owns Sarno’s and we have such a history in LA. I’ve lived here all my life and I love this city. I feel that it gets a bad wrap a lot of the time. Like it’s sort of this sprawling suburb and I actually think that the more you know LA the better it gets. The longer you’ve lived here the better it gets.
JD: We’re excited to work with Mattie, our DP, and use the Alexa, this new digital camera, to allow us to film in Calvin’s house and look out the window and see the city lights without any enhancement. There were certain scenes when he was sleeping at night and we would light him with an I-pad. We just had an I-pad hanging above his bed and ten all the city lights balanced just perfectly. We could capture the city in a more naturalistic way.
Q: It adds to the story, because first and foremost, you were working with a fairytale. Still, there was a lot of realism within Ruby Sparks. How did you manage to keep from the fantastical nature of the story distort the overall film?
VF: Well, we do a ton of prep. I think there’s certain things that come up during a day that it’s great when you’re really prepared because you can change your mind. But to have to solve problems or come up with ideas on the day is for us just not as fun. We love having a plan and going in and executing the plan and discovering new things as we go. I think that to manage the tone and to do that right you really have to have it in your head. You have to see the film in your mind.
JD: And then have to have everyone on the crew working towards that same goal. That really is our job. The production design, the color of her stockings, every item of furniture, every post-it note on the wall, what that post-it note says, which typewriter. We spent months looking for the right house. We finally found this one house that felt close but not exact.
VF: It had kind an Escher-like quality.
JD: We found out who the architect was and we found every house that this architect built.
VF: It was a really fun tour of LA ’80s architecture.
JD: It is a great way to get inside a house. “Hi, I would like to pay you thousands of dollars, do you mind if I come inside?” We ultimately found the house that the architect built for himself.
VF: And his wife. She was at the screening last night. She saw the movie for the first time.
JD: She was all tearful. It was so beautiful. Her husband passed away a few years ago. We love the eclectic crazy nature of Los Angeles. We wanted to get that. It’s in film. There is a long history of it. So we were excited, you know, what’s our version?
VF: Have you ever heard of LA Plays Itself? Has any one ever heard of that?
JD: It is on YouTube.
VF: It is fourteen parts on YouTube, but it’s a very interesting documentary on all the movies that have been made in Los Angeles. We watched that just to get a feel for how LA looked on film.
Q: Was Calvin’s house in Los Feliz?
VF: Yes, the film sort of centers around Loz Feliz.
JD: There is an actual truth in the choices. All of the places are places that you would go to if you lived in that house. It was really out of necessity because we couldn’t travel that far. When we would drive home every night after shooting at Calvin’s house, we’d go by this one arcade on Vermont that has this insane neon purple interior.
VF: And a mirrored ceiling. So when you look in the double doors you just see these crazy bright colors. We thought, what if we just shoot a quick sequence in there?
JD: For that falling in love moment. You’re always keeping an eye open for something.
VF: We actually got to know Vermont Boulevard really well because we drove that every morning. It was so interesting to see the life on that street at six am and sometimes four am coming home.
Q: What was it about Zoe’s particular voice that spoke to you and lured you into this project?
VF: I think she has a real gift for making things look very easy. They kind of look simple on the surface but there’s a lot embedded in the story. There is an economy to her writing that I love. It moves really quickly without staying just on the surface. That’s a really hard thing to do... and she can write funny. That is not easy. Comedy writing I think is the hardest. And yet, there’s so much that’s relatable in it.
JD: She is so damn smart. She is unbelievable. Have you met her yet? She is amazing.
VF: She just makes it all look easy and there’s something about it that’s not labored over. Some scripts you feel like everything is precious. She was so not precious with her work.
JD: That’s what also what was also so satisfying about this. When it came time for us to work with her on it, she was very open. It wasn’t like, ugh you’re ruining my baby. It was just like, let’s keep going. Let’s see where this can go.
VF: She loves a puzzle, so we would give her notes and say, this could go deeper. How does he bottom out, et cetera?
JD: We would get very specific but we would say, “I don’t know how you combine these things, but can you do this?” Then she would go away. There was a period where she was doing Angles in America and we would get on the phone and we’d talk about something and then we’d hang up and go, “Wait a minute. What time is it in New York?” She’s doing her play right now.
VF: She would be between acts.
JD: She would be in the dressing room, calling us, and then go, “Oh, okg got to go!” and then she’d go and do her play
Q: You both have covered the incredibly complex territory of human relationships. It’s not easy to do that with finesse, but you two managed to hit all the right notes with Little Miss Sunshine and now Ruby Sparks. Is it hard for you to turn that off in your own relationship?
VF: No. It’s kind of fun to have your focus on somebody else’s relationship.
JD: Our relationship I think stays healthy as long as we’re doing something we love. We love running these experiences through the prism of the two of us. We love being parents. I like the diversity of the projects we do. It’s always different. We always feel like we are starting over. That is scary.
VF: But in a healthy way.
JD: But I never feel like an expert. I feel like, Ok, what is this? That is why this was so fun because we’d never seen a script like this. One that was such a combination of elements and took you to so many places.
Q: What lead you to cast Antonio Banderas and Annette Benning? They were both delicious in this film.
VF: Casting is really, you cast something you see in the person. We met with Antonio and we realized he is Mort. He is this guy. He was clearly interested in this character. He kept saying what do you think, what if he had a tattoo? He had all of these ideas. You could tell that he really was eager to run with something that felt different for him.
JD: He is in a really interesting place. He just said, “I just want to do things and I love and believe in.” And it was not a big commitment. It was just a few days. He loved the idea of working with Annette and the chemistry was there, they were playful.
VF: We were hoping that they could do it. That was very, I don’t want to say easy, because she’s very picky, but I think she liked the material. She liked the people she was working with. It felt like a fun vacation. She loved the wig.
JD: She felt it transform. I just have to point out the other cast members which we don’t get to talk about - Deborah Wall. She was on set for one day.
VF: She dropped it and did it in one day.
JD: It was a heavy roll and she needed to clobber Calvin, and she was the person to do it. The whole crew was just in awe…
VF: We were drooling over her.
JD: Alia from Arrested Development, we love her.
VF: Chris Messina, you are going to talk to him?
JD: He is unbelievable.
VF: For us in some ways he makes the movie work.
JD: He is the jet fuel.
Q: Chris is in here next.
VF: So we set him up well.
Q: It seems that Chris is really a driving force in all of his supporting roles. What is it about him that makes him so grounded?
VF: He’s funny but he’s so real. He has such warmth. Even though they did not look anything alike, they felt like brothers to us.
JD: In rehearsal that we really worked on the relationship and there was a real love there between the two of them.
VF: Yeah, they love each other.
Q: It sounds like a fun movie to work on.
JD: It was really great. That is one reason why it takes so long.
VF: They’re hard to come by.
Fox Searchlight's 'Ruby Sparks' will open on limited release Wednesday July 25, 2012.