Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
By Gary Murray
Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris have been on press tour before. The two directors were in town in 2006 to promote their last film Little Miss Sunshine. The Oscar nominated duo have waited a few years before they settled on their next project. That film is Ruby Sparks.
Jonathan explained that the film is a different take on the Pygmalion myth. The story is of Calvin, a writer suffering from writer’s block and fame expectations. On the suggestion of his therapist, he begins to write a character Ruby Sparks. As he crafts the story, the actual woman appears in his life. The complications arise as Calvin tries to reconcile what is actual and want is wanted. Jonathan said, “We like that we could fold the story on to itself a couple of times and call into question what is real, for those people who refuse to accept magical realism.” He said that some in the press have called Ruby Sparks—Annie Hall meets Frankenstein and an emotional rollercoaster.
“When you read a script, you sort of imagine making the movie,” said Valerie. “When you read it, you think that you know what to do with this. When it is something I haven’t exactly seen before, that is always exciting. When a story is told in a simple, matter-of-fact and economic way but has a lot of complexity that is always appealing to us. We didn’t want to get into the explaining how she got there.”
It is unusual in Hollywood to have a husband and wife team work as co-directors. These two individuals are so in sync that they finish each others sentences. At times, they seem to be of one mind. “The good and the bad news is that we can always talk about work when we want to because we like to work,” said Jonathan. “It is very important to us that we never argue on set.” Then Valerie added, “If we haven’t figured something out or figured out some major problem that is not a good thing. We try to get through any concerns, do a lot of prep, months of it.”
By the time they get on the set, Jonathan and Valerie are ready to make the film. Valerie said of the process, “We put ourselves through the paces as much as we can before we are on set working with crew and actors. We are of one mind we go on the set.”
The film stars Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan who are boyfriend and girlfriend. Zoe was also the writer of the work. One of the biggest fears of the directors was working with two young actors who are also a couple. Valerie commented, “We were concerned that this is the first time they have worked together to this degree, carrying a movie together. They are very good with each other and they really respect each other. They are both very professional.”
Then Jonathan added, “I think it helps because we were all so invested and so eager for our partners to succeed.” Valerie finished the thought by saying, “We all knew what movie we wanted to make.”
Since some of the film runs an affecting tug-of-war, the directors did not want to wear out the two leads in blocking rehearsals. So, they hired other actors to work out some of the more expressive scenes of Ruby Sparks. They did it to try and see different approaches and what would work and what was overwhelming. Jonathan said of this process, “We wanted to go to the full extension of this concept but we didn’t want to destroy our audience with it.” Then Valerie said, “It was a delicate line to ride. It is really great to be able to try it on before you are shooting it.”
This film, in addition to being about love, was about creation and the creative process. “You can’t control it because if you do,” said Jonathan, “you will take all the life out of your creation. As a director, you have to learn how to keep life happening in front of the camera.”
The cast of Ruby Sparks features Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas as Calvin’s parents and Elliott Gould as the therapist. Valerie said of her performers, “You are halfway there when you get the right cast. It was one of the aspects of this we love so much. You cast the person. It is nice to build on who somebody is.”
They had taken a long time to find the right project for their second major feature, but didn’t suffer the hounds of Hollywood success biting at their heels. Jonathan said of the process, “I don’t feel the pressure for it to be the success that Little Miss Sunshine was. I think our biggest concern was to make a movie we are proud of and enjoy taking out on these press tours. That was a very rewarding aspect of Little Miss Sunshine, to talk to the press and sit with the audience and watch the film. We have had that experience again.”
Valerie agreed then Jonathan added, “We all love movies and want to be a part of the positive experience. It is a lot to ask of someone to come out (and see the work).” She finished the interview by saying, “I feel like it is a responsibility as a filmmaker to make the best work that you can and to keep films vital. I think there is so much competition for films.”