Interview: Filmmakers Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris on ‘Ruby Sparks’ and How They Work with the Actors On-Set

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Welcome back Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. You’ve been missed.

The directing pair behind 2006’s wonderful Little Miss Sunshine are back with the equally wonderful, Ruby Sparks.

Starring Zoe Kazan (who also makes her screenwriting debut) and Paul Dano, the film is about a young novelist (Dano) who is suffering from writers block. When the enchanting Ruby Sparks (Kazan) comes to him in a dream, he frantically starts to write out his idea of a perfect woman, but gets the ultimate surprise when a week later, she turns out to be real. The film is smart and funny and at times, sad and dark which, for me, made me love it even more. It’s definitely not your typical romantic comedy and that is a good thing.

I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed talking with the pair. Luckily for them, I was only allowed 15 minutes but trust me, I could have chatted with them all day; they are both incredibly intelligent people and smart filmmakers. In the interview below, we talk about how they work with actors, the sometimes difficult process of casting and how they work-shopped – themselves – on one particularly hard scene in the film.

Ruby Sparks is in theaters now.

For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes

One thing I really liked about the film is the magic of her suddenly appearing. It’s offstage in the background.

Valerie Faris: Right.

And I think normally you’d be like, “Well, how’d she get there?” But you don’t care. Or at least I didn’t care.

Jonathan Dayton: Thank you. Thank you, that was a very deliberate decision that we all made to, you know…

Valerie Faris: Not waste time.

Jonathan Dayton: Because really, what would make it more real than, you know, there’s no like a comet flying over or pixie dust or… It’s not gonna really explain it. Oh! Well therefore! Oh now I get it! So we just like did it off camera and we liked that signs of her start popping up and then she’s there.

Valerie Faris: That was almost the first thing we spoke to Zoe about when we… after we read the script. We kind of all agreed and we knew that we were on the same page we said, you know, “We think that this should be treated just absolutely real. That once she appears in his life, she’s a real person. We don’t really question that.” His brother questions it. But, you know, it’s… we tried to deal with everything as you would in life if your character that you were writing just appeared in your kitchen, how would you deal with it? As opposed to how’d she get there? You know? You wouldn’t be going, “How’d she get here?”

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When you would say something like that to her, since she wrote the screenplay, is it something where she’s pretty easy and open to suggestions? How hard is it when you deal with the artist that actually has their vision?

Valerie Faris: You’ve gotta have a shared vision and I think that’s…

Jonathan Dayton: And you have to have people who the work is more important than their ego. The authorship. And so I think for Zoe, whose parents are both screenwriters and she’s watched them have to work with directors, we all were focusing on what’s best for this story and not like who came up with the idea.

Valerie Faris: You know, luckily she chose to work with us. So it wasn’t like we were being imposed on her. It was a… we were happy to be working together. And she is… she says she likes puzzles. So we would give her, you know, certain notes on the script and she’d kind of go off like treat it like a puzzle. Like, “How can I do… oh I see what they want. Ok, I’m gonna try this.” And, you know, she was just very open to… I think, you know, we felt like we wanted to kind of expand the range of the movie a little bit. Like, try to find…

Jonathan Dayton: Give it a bottom. You know, so that the scene that shall go unnamed where he writes her, that was… that really evolved in the rewrite process.

Valerie Faris: And all the way through.

Jonathan Dayton: All the way.

Valerie Faris: Like we talked about last night, it really was probably the scene that changed the most. It was just a discovery process throughout because it was hard to imagine exactly how the should play out.

Jonathan Dayton: Yeah, it was the least like anything in our world. And so it was one of the more exciting things for us to take on, but it was also the biggest mystery. So we went as far as hiring two other actors and we workshopped that scene so we could see it in advance and…

Valerie Faris: And not put Paul and Zoe through…

Jonathan Dayton: Not put Paul and Zoe through and not make them try different things. And then we acted out the scene ourselves to see what the feelings were.

Valerie Faris: We did as much as we could to anticipate what would be right, but then I think, you know, a lot happens as you’re… your understanding of a movie as you’re filming it. You know, changes and deepens and… so it helped that we did that scene at the end of the shoot.

But, you know, throughout… I mean, we tried to get the script to a place so that when we started shooting and when she was the actress in the movie she didn’t have to be thinking about the script. She could just entrust us with it and kind of let go of that… those duties. There are times where things came up and we had to do a little bit of rewriting during the production, but there’s very little actually I think compared to so many films scripts that we actually get where it’ll say, “Well, we’re still working on the script but we wanna shoot it in two months.” Or, you know, and you’re like… you know. It… you usually say no to those because I don’t think those are the best conditions to try to solve big problems.

That scene that you were talking about, what was that day like on set? Because, I mean, when you’re watching it it’s kind of brutal and sad….

Jonathan Dayton: It’s heartbreaking.

Valerie Faris: And it was the middle of the night. It was all shot at night.

Jonathan Dayton: We… I think we all worried about what it would be like to shoot that scene. So we put it at the end of the schedule and we shot it at about 4 in the morning. And each take was continuous.  We did all the scene, one bit after the other. And we did…

Valerie Faris: They were about 10 minute takes.

Jonathan Dayton: Yeah. And we did 8 takes. And it was challenging.

Valerie Faris: Both physically and emotionally, psychologically. You know, it was…

Jonathan Dayton: And the scene was really written in its final form the morning we shot it. We sat down and put together all the commands that were gonna happen.

On set, in regards to actors, how do you guys deal with them? Are you of one mind in sort of the performance that you’re looking for?

Jonathan Dayton: We do a lot of prep. So as we were talking about in that one scene, we act out a lot of the scenes at home and do a whole breakdown of every scene as if they’re short films in their own right. What’s the inciting incident, what’s the climax, how it all works. So we have it heavily broken down in our notes. And then we go in to shoot and we don’t necessarily share everything that we thought of…

Valerie Faris: Prepped.

Jonathan Dayton: …but we’re ready. So that if anything comes up, we kind of have a…

Valerie Faris: Usually if something isn’t working, you kind of go back to what you’re thinking and it… sometimes it’s a simple adjustment. But because you’ve thought about it and you know the feeling you’re going for, you have a way of, you know, kind of a new angle to try. But we have to be the… a lot of the prep too is just for us to get on the same page so that on the day we’re not arguing about, “I don’t think he’s, you know, he’s overdoing it.” Or, you know, it just helps us look at it and pretty much we’re always saying we agree. Like, that take was a good one. Didn’t like the last one as much. You know?

Jonathan Dayton: Yeah, but we try and only give… only have one of us give notes to an actor. It changes, but if one of us feels something…

Valerie Faris: On a certain scene you’re kind of working…

Jonathan Dayton: …we will go talk to the actor and then we’ll kind of stay with that actor for the rest of the scene so there’s no crosstalk.

Valerie Faris: But by the… usually… like, certainly with this where we were working with Paul and Zoe so closely, either one of us can really, you know, talk…

Jonathan Dayton: And we whisper in their ears so they never… you don’t wanna announce to everyone a correction or, you know, to shame them or also just to… you want the other actors to be surprised about what they’re gonna do.

Valerie Faris: But then, you know, I think that the big thing is hire the right actors and then talk as little as possible.

Well you guys have a fantastic cast.

Valerie Faris: Aw, I know. They’re incredible. Like Chris Messina, we really were so happy to get him in this film. Because that role was really key. He’s so good. We love him.

Jonathan Dayton: And, you know, it was really fun because when we had our LA premiere last week, a bunch of his friends came. A lot of actor friends.

Valerie Faris: And he had never seen it with an audience.

Jonathan Dayton: And they all came to us, you know, “You finally got the Chris that we knew was there.”

Valerie Faris: And it’s a bigger role. I mean, he’s played a lot of great roles, you know, great little roles like in Julie and Julia and…

Jonathan Dayton: Away We Go.

Valerie Faris: Vicky Cristina Barcelona. He’s always popping up in these films but he’s in these little parts and he’s just, I think, he does TV too. But he’s just… we fought for him even though, you know, the studio was like, “He doesn’t look anything like Paul.”

Jonathan Dayton: And we go, “We know.” But we actually added a shot in the film where we see in a scrapbook a picture of Calvin’s dad and we said, “Just get us someone who looks like Chris.”

Valerie Faris: Tall and dark.

Jonathan Dayton: And we’ll put him in. And Calvin will look like his mom, and Chris will look like the dad, and we’ll be done with it.

Valerie Faris: Everyone will be fine.

That’s weird. You’d think studios would just say, “Oh you’ve got Elliott Gould and Annette Bening and you can do whatever you want for the rest of the cast.”

Valerie Faris: Wouldn’t you?

Jonathan Dayton: Yeah, I know. I know.

Valerie Faris: You would. I mean, that’s how we felt. But…

Jonathan Dayton: But, you know, we had final cut, which really meant we could cast whoever we wanted. They agreed… they funded the film with Paul and Zoe, that was really…

Valerie Faris: Yeah, they didn’t… it wasn’t casting dependent which was really… but, you know, they still just fight you. Like, they just want, you know, but when you’re passionate enough. Like with Chris we were just… there was… we felt like there was nobody else to play that part. We just…

You know, I initially was wondering how you guys can be married and work together and how you wouldn’t fight. But then I’m listening to you guys talk, I can see how that would totally enhance the marriage. You guys could go out to dinner going like, “What was he thinking on that take?” You know? And just having fun.

Jonathan Dayton: [laughing] Exactly. Oh no, and, you know, this job is so hard and so taxing at times that to be able to download and process and go, you know, “Am I crazy or was that a stupid meeting?” Or, “Do they know what they’re talking about?” Or, you know, or I really blew it.

Valerie Faris: Just even, yeah, I mean, it’s great to share the good times and it’s really great to share the hard times. And, you know, not be alone. So…

Jonathan Dayton: We’ve never said, “Honey, how was your day?”

Valerie Faris: Yeah.

Jonathan Dayton: Because we know. We know.

In meetings are one of you ever good cop, bad cop if needs to be?

Valerie Faris: Well, there are times where one of us can play the more stubborn part and then the other one can be listening a little more. And then we can always say, “Well, let us go talk about it.” You know? That’s another great thing is like, “Can I go think about it in the other room?” It helps that we have this, you know, this process where everyone understands. Well, they need to figure out what they want to do before they come back to us. So it just, I don’t know, I think there are such advantages to being in a partnership and, you know, I’m happy that there are more… I was so happy to see the Cohen brothers win because it just was like an acknowledgement that collaborative teams, brother sister, whatever it is. It’s nice for the Academy and the people to acknowledge that partnerships are part of making films and collaboration is part of filmmaking.

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