Zoe Kazan’s screenplay for Ruby Sparks combines fantasy and reality in a novel way, exploring complex relationship dynamics in a story about a blocked writer who manifests his dream girl out of thin air, only to discover that he’s not ready to accept that dream girls, too, must live in reality.
It’s a smart movie featuring Kazan in the title role, and perhaps more notably, her real-life partner, the inventive Paul Dano, as her puppeteer—a befuddled genius novelist who can control her every move from the keys of his typewriter. And he does, until he cannot.
Their onscreen dynamic proves both comfortable and winning—neither is the prototypical leading man or lady, yet both punch right through this sweet picture, which keeps surprising us not merely with plot twists, but also by our engagement. Much like Calvin, Dano’s frustrated scribe, I didn’t want to let Ruby go when the picture ended—she’s that endearing.
I caught up with Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano recently to chat about the film’s star-crossed couple, their work dynamic together and Ruby Sparks’ ingenious screenplay, a first for Kazan and one that deftly balances the fantastic with the real-world absolutes of love, and its many pitfalls.
Zoe, I know you love the idea of Pygmalion and that influenced Ruby Sparks. Let’s start there.
Zoe Kazan: Yeah, I really love Greek mythology. I think that those stories have been carried down for a reason. They are psychologically true or hold some universal truths about the way humans behave. Like Theseus and the Minotaur—a man lost in a maze with a beast in the dark. It has psychological resonance. And for me, the psychological resonance in Pygmalion is that for a woman to create a person is biological; it’s not a fantasy. Women give birth all the time. But for a man, this idea of creation and being able to create a person has a lot more to do with love; putting a woman on a pedestal and being able to bring the fantasy to life is a sort of male trope, and I was interested in exploring it. In Annie Hall, is she Woody Allen’s creation or is he just observing? It’s an interesting question to me.
It’s no secret that the two of you are involved in a relationship off screen and have been for a number of years. Working together on Ruby Sparks was…?
ZK: Challenging and really rewarding? (laughs)
Paul Dano: It was good. Zoe and I are pretty dedicated, so I think part of it is because of work. We were really there for Calvin and Ruby, maybe even more than for each other. We were there for the film that we were making together. Working fourteen hours a day and driving home together in Los Angeles traffic, we had our simple domestic challenges that in retrospect were all very small. Who gets to choose what to listen to on the radio feels bigger than that problem actually is. So we survived and now we have to survive this press tour!
Which has to be the best part of the moviemaking process, right?
ZK: It’s easy when you love the thing that you are talking about, and we really love this movie. So it’s been great to meet people and see what they think and share the movie with them. I think it’s harder when you don’t.
PD: Also, I think this part is easier with Zoe. It’s nice at the end of the day to say ‘Wow, what a crazy, surreal thing we are doing going around to these places.’ So there’s an alternate reality to it as well. It’s nice to finish it and go get a glass of wine with Zoe and let it melt away.
Zoe, I so enjoyed watching you play different ‘versions’ of Ruby. I actually missed them when they were gone. Which one were you most comfortable with, or was your favorite?
ZK: Clingy Ruby. I think she’s really funny. I think that part of the story has the most of me. And I like the comedy in that section.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film is that the premise requires a real leap of faith, but then works in all of these truisms that we know from being in relationships—romantic ideals, changing your partner, control.
ZK: Yeah. I think that when we meet someone, physical attraction is the first thing that happens. You meet someone and they smell right and even if you are thinking it is love at first sight, most of the time what is happening is that you feel really attracted to them. And that intense attraction opens the door through which all of your romantic ideals that you have been accumulating through your life can flow through and pile onto that person. So we always start with the idea of a person and once we get to know them, that idea fades and the real person emerges. I think the process of learning to love someone is largely the process of reconciling those two things—the idea that you first had and the actual person who is there. And loving the real person can be very hard to do.
And I guess 51% of people don’t do it, right? That’s what they say the divorce rate is today.
ZK: Yes, I know! I think that is really interesting, and I was curious about exploring what happens after that first rush. The urge to control the person you are with and command them to be the person that you want them to be is, I think, very normal. Some have said that they think it makes Calvin less sympathetic because he has the desire to control his girlfriend. For me, it feels really human.
Paul, can you give me some thoughts on Calvin’s arc in the film? He goes through quite a process before learning some things about letting go. And then there is the notion that you can start over again.
PD: Yes. The biggest thing for Calvin is a fear of life and failure. I think some of the things that you are given about him at the beginning of the film spoke to me—trying to follow up success, his father has passed away, some sort of significant ex-girlfriend and you find out his mother has changed and gone away. So I feel like he has lost things. He has lost his inspiration. He has writer’s block. He doesn’t really go outside of his big, monastic house. When we are afraid, we want to control things. And I don’t think that Calvin is open to change. He is not living on the edge. The biggest lesson is that hopefully at the end of the film, Calvin is going to be more open to life and to what the person across from him his giving him. Hopefully he is also more of a man. There is an arrested development thing that goes on when someone is called a genius at seventeen or eighteen-years-old. So hopefully he has become more of himself.
If you could pick up a typewriter right now and make Zoe do whatever you wanted, what would it be?
PD: Just a little kiss (laughs and leans toward Kazan, gesturing to his cheek).
Do you need a typewriter for that?
Zoe, I enjoyed the scenes with Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas, which were quite funny. I know that you were born and raised in L.A. and have an affinity for the milieu of California in the 70s. Could you talk a bit about gently lampooning that here?
ZK: Oh, I don’t know! For me, I just was trying to think of- because Calvin is sort of a romantic person, he must have had a romantic ideal of his parents too. And after his father died and his mother changed her life, I think that was another example of him feeling that something was outside his control, and not being able to understand that, and feeling abandoned. I also think there is some sort of affinity between his mother and Ruby—a sort of free-spiritedness or openness, and I like that he had put some of his mother into this woman that he imagined for himself. I wasn’t really trying to lampoon anything, I just wanted to figure out what would make Calvin feel uncomfortable, and give his mother and Mort (Banderas) some of those traits. Obviously the casting of Antonio brought even more. Antonio is so masculine and comfortable in his body and sensual, and those things were all wonderful for making Calvin feel more alienated from his mother and uncomfortable.
It’s bittersweet when the ‘first’ Ruby is discarded and then returns somewhat changed. Things seemed to be going along quite well with Calvin and Ruby and after that departure, she never quite comes back the same way. But I do think the movie is hopeful and believes that they could get back to that place once again.
ZK: Without giving away too much, everybody deserves a second chance. I don’t mean literally in a relationship. I believe that people are capable of change, and that is the hope of the movie—that he is in a place at the end of the movie where he might be ready, as Paul said earlier, to look at the person across from him and be curious about whom they are instead of wanting to determine it.
PD: That’s well said, yes. I also wanted there to be a sense of hope at the end. One thing I do like about the film is that there is room for personal reaction based on your life and relationship experience, and if you have been controlled or been the controller. It has been fun to talk to people about it.
I’d be remiss not to mention the “big” scene that really knocked me out. It’s powerful.
ZK: Again, I don’t want to give away too much (laughs). I feel like the last third of our movie, the less said the better. But one thing that Paul has been saying is that the first time Calvin sits down at the typewriter—the one that you just talked about—and he is willing to just change her a tiny bit, you can’t dip a only a toe into a pool of infinite power. If you get the toe in, you are all the way in. Once I realized that I was writing a film with these themes, I knew that we would have to bring it to an emotional extreme, otherwise I think it would be irresponsible emotionally and let the audience off the hook.
PD: I think that is where the film had to go for Calvin to learn his lesson and also so that Ruby would not want to reciprocate love to him. That is part of him setting her free, I think. And I mean obviously the scene can be painful and uncomfortable, but we did not want to be afraid of giving people a real high and a real low. It’s as human as it could be. If we did not go to that place then some of the ideas in the film about control we would be sort of excusing, and using the magical element of the film in sort of a haphazard way. By going there in that scene we explore what control is like to its fullest extent.