In the new rom com Ruby Sparks, Zoe Kazan stars as an unlikely dream girl, conjured off of the page and into real life by a lonely novelist. After writing a bestseller, Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) suffers from writer’s block, undergoes psychoanalysis and despite his celebrity status, is a flop with chicks. Following his shrink’s (Elliott Gould) suggestion and inspired by recurring dreams featuring a red haired girl, Calvin finds his “Love Potion No. 9” while pounding the keys of his Olympia typewriter. Lo and behold, Ruby Sparks (Kazan) comes to life, summoned by Calvin’s wordsmithing, behaving and taking shape according to his literary dictates.
This is the first feature helmed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris since they co-directed 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, the outrageous comedy that followed a family of misfits on the road to a beauty pageant. It’s easy to see why this husband and wife team was drawn to Ruby Sparks, as it has a quirky indie sensibility similar to that of Sunshine, which won two Oscars and was nominated for two others, including for Best Picture.
At first, Calvin is mystified by Ruby’s mystical manifestation and doubts his own sanity. This quickly leads to a rapturous affair with a lover who does whatever Calvin types: Ruby enjoys performing oral sex, removes her panties while dancing at a club and is the lonesome-no-more writer’s constant companion. She meets and meshes with Calvin’s family, a cross generational cast that includes Annette Bening (1999’s American Beauty) as his hippie-like, Big Sur residing mother Gertrude and a bearded Antonio Banderas (2001’s Spy Kids) as her free spirited artsy live-in boyfriend Mort. Chris Messina (2009’s Julie & Julia, currently in HBO’s The Newsroom) plays Calvin’s older brother Harry, married to Susie (Toni Trucks, who appears in the next installment of the Twilight) franchise. The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi plays Calvin’s hectoring agent, while British actor Steve Coogan (Michael Winterbottom’s 2010 The Trip) portrays Calvin’s literary mentor Langdon Tharp.
Content to just let his girlfriend be herself, Calvin stops writing Ruby’s role — until she has an encounter with Tharp and, shall we say, complications ensue as the moody writer attempts to reassert himself. Ruby Sparks becomes a comic-tragic rumination on the war between the sexes, dealing with issues of control, feminism, free will, romance, and — dare we say — the nature of that crazy little thing called love.
Kazan’s title character is in stark contrast to other motion picture depictions of perfect women, such as Bo Derek’s statuesque busty blonde who obsessed Dudley Moore’s married songwriter in 1979’s 10. While Kazan is a reasonably attractive young woman with luminous crystal blue eyes, the lean, gangly 28 year old who died her blondish hair ruby red for the film does not have the classical beauty of, say, a Grace Kelly, nor the voluptuous physique of a Halle Berry.
So how did she score the lead in a movie about a fantasy girl made flesh? The old fashioned way: Kazan was born into Hollywood royalty, wrote the role for herself, executive produced the Fox Searchlight movie and co-starred with her offscreen love interest, Dano, who also shares executive producer credits for Ruby Sparks.
Zoe’s grandfather was the legendary Elia Kazan, who acted with the fabled Group Theatre during the 1930s and went on to direct a number of prominent pictures, including Marlon Brando’s breakthrough films, 1951’s A Streetcar Named Desire and 1954’s multi-Oscar winning On the Waterfront. During the Hollywood Blacklist era Kazan’s star was dimmed by not only testifying before the House Un-American Activities Committee, but by taking the extraordinary measure of publishing a piece in The New York Times that attempted to justify his informing on leftist talents who were prohibited from making movies because of their politics, while Kazan, an ex-Communist Party member, was allowed to continue doing so after his cooperative testimony. In Naming Names author Victor Navasky called Kazan “the quintessential informer,” and in 1999, when the Motion Picture Academy awarded Kazan a lifetime achievement Oscar, many in the audience sat on their hands, refusing to stand and applaud for the controversial director.
Both of Zoe’s parents are Oscar and Golden Globe nominated screenwriters: Nicholas Kazan, for 1990’s Reversal of Fortune and Robin Swicord, for 2008’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Kazan says “my parents are really cool,” in that they always encouraged their daughter’s creativity. She made the comments after a screening of Ruby Sparks at the L.A. Film School in Hollywood, where she was joined in the auditorium by co-star Dano and co-directors Dayton and Faris. Their conversation was moderated by Jeff Goldsmith of Unlikely Films, which regularly presents film screenings in L.A. followed by interviews with screenwriters and other talents. Goldsmith is also the host of The Q&A, which is podcast in iTunes.
Kazan is a big fan of Greek mythology, and the myth of Pygmalion — the Cypriot sculptor who falls in love with Galatea, a statue he sculpted out of ivory who comes to life due to Venus, goddess of love — influenced Ruby Sparks. But for Kazan, the instrument by which Ruby is animated is sort of what Alfred Hitchcock called a “MacGuffin,” a plot device for moving the story along. Being fixated on a magic typewriter “was never part of the process,” insists the first time screenwriter. “Big is for kids. For me, this is magical realism. A shooting star, gypsy or typewriter makes silly what’s important [in the film]. Children need explanations in fairy tales — adults don’t… It’s not important how the characters walk off the screen in Woody Allen’s 1985 The Purple Rose of Cairo.”
Wearing two hats as actress and screenwriter was often challenging for Kazan. “It was hard during the shoot as Ruby was not aware of what was going on, while I was as the writer. Like when Ruby and Calvin were out of sync” early on in their relationship, when the novelist first realizes his literary invention has stepped off of the pages and into reality. Kazan goes on to say, “I’m used to switching back and forth. On set, I have to drown out the other voices so I can hear Ruby.”
The daughter/granddaughter of writers describes her creative process for this film about a novelist and his literary method: “Normally, I outline. In this case I wanted to aim for set pieces and watched the timing. If it’s a comedy one should laugh while writing it.” There were up to 18 drafts of Ruby, although unlike Calvin, when it comes to writer’s block, “I have not had that problem. Partially because I have another job [acting]. Back story can become more important, make you veer off and can be dangerous. Actors are supposed to be detectives. I try to engage my body’s imagination. I see pictures in my mind. I have no idea what I do. I do stuff,” she muses.
About her onscreen and offscreen lover, Kazan says, “We met while acting in a play,” 2007’s off-Broadway Things We Want. In 2007’s There Will Be Blood Paul Dano played the young preacher Eli Sunday whom Daniel Day-Lewis’ fierce oilman tells: “I… drink… your… milkshake!” During the post-screening Q&A sparks flew as the Ruby Sparks couple good naturedly joked about their relationship. “We’re compatible in an aesthetic sense,” Kazan observes. “I don’t think we fight over creative things. But we fight over really ‘important’ things, like what radio station we listen to on the ride home and who drives.
Dano book’s ’em by countering how he wins arguments with his lover: “I tell Zoe I won’t have sex with her, and she caves right away.” He quickly adds, “That’s such a lie!”
Of course, if Dano was like his character Calvin, he could just type up a scene to put his real life girlfriend into a more cooperative mood.
Ruby Sparks opens on July 25 in select cities and goes wide Aug. 3.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian/critic, screenwriter and author of Progressive Hollywood, A People’s Film History of the United States. His interview with The Young Turks’ Cenk Uygur appears in the August issue of The Progressive Magazine.