Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan have been acting in incredible indie films, big and small, for years. Dano himself has earned awards and praise for performances seeped in strength and subtlety, from L.I.E. to There Will Be Blood. On the other hand, Kazan has tiptoed on the edge of stardom, showing promise in roles alongside some of film's finest in The Savages, happythankyoumoreplease, and Revolutionary Road.
After years on the stage and writing plays, Kazan has written her first screenplay - a sharp look at the reality and devestation of writing and relationships. Starring herself and Dano, Ruby Sparks is an imaginative film that defies any particular genre. The pair snagged directors Little Miss Sunshine Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris for their second feature. With Ruby Sparks' release just around the corner, Dano and Kazan open up about the film's genesis, working together, and the art of creation.
Q: Paul, we know that Zoe wrote Ruby Sparks - how much is Zoe like Ruby?
Zoe Kazan: Tell us, Paul.
Paul Dano: Well, I think there was more, as a reader, of Zoe in Ruby than when we actually went to do it. Then I think she found who Ruby was when going to act the part and I saw the separation occur. I don’t want to say specifically, I’m sure that there are parts of her, but when I watch the film I see the character, which is really nice. I don’t see either of us and I don’t see us on the screen. That was actually one of the big sighs of relief when we first saw the film, because that’s sort of a scary and daunting thing. You know, I feel really good about the two characters up there. So I don’t know… Zoe is a lot flirtier and sassier than Ruby is, I think.
Q: Sassier than Ruby?
ZK: [Quietly] Yes. [Laughs]
Q: And Zoe, how much of Paul is in Calvin? Were you actively thinking of him as you wrote the role?
ZK: I was thinking of Paul when I was writing it. I was trying not to have Paul in my head, though. Paul is very private and I knew that if I wrote a character too close to him he wouldn’t want to play it. That he wouldn’t want to feel exposed in that way. I think obviously when he plays the part, he brings himself to it, so I see Paul’s sweetness and soulfulness in Calvin. Also Paul is really funny - and it’s not that Calvin is funny, but I see Paul’s humor up there on the screen in the playing of Calvin. I try to have them not be the same person and I know Paul never, never tries to make his characters the same as who he is.
Q: The film centers around creating the perfect girlfriend. It must have been a tricky situation to write Ruby, because there’s the risk of her becoming too one-dimensional. How did you balance and integrate the many facets of Ruby’s personality in the film?
ZK: That's funny because for me, I feel like Ruby gets more complicated for me as the movie goes on. All those things that get drawn out her by Calvin changing her are all just parts of her personality to start with. It’s just that when you stress on one thing, other things disappear. I guess I was interested in what happens when people try to manipulate each other. You sort of destroy the thing you love by trying to change it.
But on the other hand, Ruby justifies to herself what’s going on with her, she says ‘I’ve been so up and down lately.” And I have said those very words to Paul. I thin k most of us do not have a cohesive experience of ourselves. We look back five years ago and we can’t cannot believe what we were wearing, who we were dating or what we were doing. You look back at journal entries and you think, oh God if only I could tell that person this or that. Or even from day to day you wake up feeling sad and you don’t know why. That’s how Ruby is justifying it to herself. I think there is a way that you can see it metaphorically, what is happening there.
Q: There’s one particular scene in the film where you two have a very intense stand-off. We also know that you had a very limited shooting schedule. How difficult or draining was it to film that sequence in such a short time?
ZK: We don’t want to give away too much.
PD: I think it’s really hard, but you know what? I think that’s the most fun we have, is when we get to really try and go somewhere in a scene that feels challenging. Can you do it? I think I can, but you sort of don’t know ‘til you get there. I remember really having no clue how that scene was going to go. I knew the words, and I did not know because it is such a hard thing to imagine, especially doing it to Zoe/Ruby who Calvin cares about so much. So the scene was really complex and so self-destructive for him, and I think for Zoe.
That scene, we, all of us, collectively did not figure it out until the day we shot it. Meaning she had written the scene but not all of the actions. Everybody brought an action to the table and that scene was a total mystery but, as hard as it was, I think a total joy to get to go into something like that and come out at the end of the night, of a night shoot at five or six am, feeling like wow, I think we did it.
For Zoe, I think also the physical aspect, Calvin is at the typewriter and I think it is just as emotionally hard with what all of the characters are going through. But what Ruby is going through physically too is a whole other element. We did very long takes on a digital camera and it was difficult.
ZK: John and Rob were definitely trying to push me past my physical limits.
Q: Zoe, with your script you had a lot of the power – much like Calvin does over Ruby. Did you write the script with scenes that you knew would push the two of you?
ZK: Yeah, you know, it’s a funny thing because I think, a lot of times… I don’t want to generalize. I think there’s a perception that when actors write scripts that they’re writing mainly to give themselves a good juicy part to play.
That was just wasn’t the case with this. I started writing it feeling very, the story suddenly was crystal clear to me and the people were crystal clear to me. I was about five pages in and I showed them to Paul, and he said, “Are you writing this for us?” As soon as he said it, I thought that is exactly what I am doing. But I really put that out of my head completely while I was writing because I was so much more excited about what was happening inside my brain than trying to orchestrate some fantastic scene for us to play.
I didn’t even really think about it until we were almost two weeks out and started talking more about it. The only thing that I think was conscious in some way was, like I said before, Paul is so funny. Paul makes me laugh all the time. He is so adaptive physically and those are things that I don’t think people really know about him because he’s played all of these very internal, sort of darker characters. [Paul makes a face] It’s true! I had this thought of how much fun it would be to see Paul bring out these other colors.
PD: I’ll say, whenever Zoe and I were talking about the film while she was writing, I think it’s more important to try to make a good film than give a good performance and so we get to the acting when we get there. I think a great, juicy part is not worth much, at least for me as a viewer most of the time. The story and the film needs to take precedence and hopefully within that naturally there’s good parts.
Q: Paul, you’ve worked with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris before on Little Miss Sunshine. What is it about their particular style that made them the perfect directors for this project?
PD: Everybody that worked with them on Little Miss Sunshine would say that they want to work with them again. They are wonderful people and I think that they are wonderful filmmakers and I think that they really care about what they do. I think you feel the love in their films. I think you feel that they love what they do. I think they care about the characters and the story. They care about the audience.
We thought of them about 10 pages into Zoe writing. I had no clue where the story was going. It was clear for some reason that they would be the dream choice if we could have anybody. And that was a good thing to identify for us talking about it and dreaming about it. Just to know what kind of film we ultimately wanted to make and a sensibility. We didn’t know if we could get them. They hadn’t made a film in so long and they had other projects that they were developing and it was intuitively clear.
There are reasons for it. The tone of having something be really funny, and magical and fun, but also have some depth and be grounded and explore something and not be afraid to find a dark moment. That’s just hard to come by. I brought Zoe over to their house a few years ago saying, “You’ve got to meet my new girlfriend, you guys will really like each other.” That was just as friends, nothing to do with work. So I still feel here today looking at the poster that we were lucky that we got to do it with them
Q: It’s such a rare treat these days to have a literary story with such smart dialogue. Zoe, it seems like you yourself are enamored of the written word. Are you an avid reader?
KZ: Big yes. I think that the written word is my first love. I was just a very imagination-centered child. A big part of that imaginary life came from reading, I volunteered at the library in my teens. When I was in elementary school I would spend every lunch period in the library with the librarian. I don’t know, it sounds really dorky – because it was.
Then I met Paul, and its funny, what happened to me in my twenties. I went to Yale and I read all of these incredible books and I think in a weird way, it beat pure reading out of me. I was reading a thousand pages a week for class. I got to this point where it felt like a job or something. I met Paul and Paul had gone to college for a while but never finished.
So I think there is this sort of autodidactic thing that he does where he’s a much more adventurous reader than I am. He is always looking for new authors. I tend to reread or read all of an author’s work. Our bookshelf is a very interesting mélange and it’s fun to me for someone who loves reading as much as I do. He’ll give me things to read that I would not normally seek out. I think vice versa too.
Q: You first got your start in the theater. Will you be going back on stage anytime soon?
ZK: I would love to, no. If the right situation came along I really would want to. But I find stage work very, very difficult and time consuming and all absorbing. It just feels like a really big commitment to me. The last thing I did was Angels in America and I feel like it burnt me out. That seven hours and playing Harper. I think walked away being like only if I really need to again. It was very draining.
Q: After Ruby Sparks, what else is coming up next for you two?
PD: I have a small film called For Ellen coming out in September. It is by a woman named So Yong Kim who did a film called Treeless Mountain that I liked a lot and it’s is a great part.
ZK: He’s amazing in it.
PD: I have a small part in a film called Looper that I also like a lot, and its director Rian Johnson I think is really talented. I’m going to go shoot soon a part in Steve McQueen’s new film called 12 Years a Slave.
KZ: I shot three independent movies this year. I am about to go do another one with Daniel Radcliff in Toronto called The F Word.
Q: Zoe, one last question. This film is such an important step for you, and you have such a unique and singular voice. What’s taken you so long to write a screenplay?
KZ: I’m twenty-eight-years-old!
Q: Somehow, it feels like we’ve been waiting for this.
KZ: Oh, that’s so nice. I do not really think it is that long! Like I said, I do not know. I love to act and that’s my first love and that’s is what I started out doing. I have written two plays that have been produced, so that was a lot of work and time. There are other screenplays that I’m in the middle of writing. I feel like everything comes in its own time. But thank you though!
Fox Searchlight's 'Ruby Sparks' will open on limited release Wednesday July 25, 2012.