While experiencing a pesky spell of writer’s block, inspiration strikes for author Calvin Weir-Fields when he begins to imagine a fictional woman, Ruby Sparks. Suddenly Calvin’s fingers can’t type fast enough as Ruby and her backstory come into focus. Ruby was raised in Dayton, Ohio, he tells his shrink because, ‘it sounds romantic.’ As Calvin continues to put Ruby’s story in ink however, he finds himself falling in love with his fictional character, which gets even more complicated when Ruby appears, seemingly out of thin air, in Calvin’s apartment.
Now that he has somehow brought his imaginary girlfriend to life, Calvin struggles with the control he has over Ruby. Every time he sits at his typewriter, he has the ability to change her. If he wants her to be happy, he writes that she’s happy; if he’s not feeling the love, he makes her clingy. But soon enough, Calvin is stuck with the dilemma of being both writer and boyfriend.
The idea for Ruby Sparks came to first-time screenwriter Zoe Kazan almost as suddenly as Ruby came to Calvin. Heading home from a film set one night, Kazan noticed a mannequin laying in a trash can, which triggered a creative spark. “I started wondering what might happen if a writer had a character come to life who could give him exactly what he thought he wanted romantically. But things get very complicated because when you really love someone you have to love all of the person, not just the parts you’ve idealized,” Kazan said.
It’s very possible Kazan inherited that creativity and curiosity. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because her grandfather is Elia Kazan, the Oscar®-winning director of Gentleman’s Agreement and On the Waterfront and a nominee for writing, directing and producing America, America. If that wasn’t enough, her father, Nicholas, is an Academy Award® nominee for his screenplay for Reversal of Fortune, and her mother, Robin Swicord, is a nominee (with Eric Roth) for adapting The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
If the pressure was there for the latest Kazan to deliver on her first screenplay, the 28-year-old says she didn’t feel it. ”There’s probably something wrong with my brain that it doesn’t feel like pressure, but I just never think about it,” she admitted to The Seven Sees. “It’s probably a testament to the way my parents raised me, [but] it just never seemed that important. I love watching the movies my parents have written or the ones my grandpa made, and I feel really proud of my heritage, but it just doesn’t sit on my shoulders in that way.”
So with pressure out the door and writing underway, Kazan shared the script with her boyfriend, actor Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood). Although she hadn’t set out to write a movie for the couple to star in, it wasn’t long before she began imagining herself and Dano as the author and his literary creation-turned-inspiration. When asked about possible reservations working with her partner, Kazan told The Seven Sees she wasn’t worried. “People said to us beforehand, ‘Oh, that’s the death knell to work together,’ but we had worked together before, we met doing a play together, and aesthetically we’re very in synch,” Kazan said. ”We love the same books and movies and music and we really have always been there for each other…even when we’re not working together as a bouncing board or a problem solver. It is really challenging, but in the end it was totally worth it.”
With the script written and Dano on board, Kazan set out to find someone to bring her story to the screen. But from the outset, it turned out to be a pair of directors she wanted all along. Married couple Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris had directed Dano in the Oscar®-nominated indie hit Little Miss Sunshine and were Kazan’s first choice to direct. “I’m interested in stories that show what’s both a little sad and funny about life,” said Kazan. “I think that’s what Jon and Val did so well in Little Miss Sunshine and that’s why we thought of them right away. They’re perfect for this script.”
Something not lost on Dayton and Faris was the uniqueness of a married couple directing a real-life couple, playing a couple on screen. ”It was wild having the four of us on set, but I think what made it work was that we were all so invested in this film. We wanted it to work,” Dayton told The Seven Sees. ”Paul and Zoe had lived with it while she was writing it and then it was two years of our life, so you’ve got to love something a lot to work this hard.”
As for the atmosphere on set, Faris told us that any relationship drama stayed at home. “You’re kind of on your best behavior when there’s so much at stake. We got to set and we were there to work, and it was actually very harmonious.”
Chris Messina, who plays Calvin’s brother Harry, grounds the fantastical elements of the movie in reality. His interactions with Calvin and the girlfriend he created are something the filmmakers had to get right in order for audiences to relate to the story. According to Messina, this was accomplished because of the directors’ unique approach to preparation. “John and Val have this really cool process where they rehearse, which is unique for film, but they don’t rehearse, they don’t block the scenes or work on the lines of the scenes. They have us take off our shoes and run around the room and play darts and eat food together,” says Messina. “They gave us journals and we wrote in these journals and we read out loud what we thought of each others’ character and so on and everybody did it, and by the end of that process you’re kind of, you’re brothers.”
Rounding out Calvin’s family, the filmmakers were able to secure Oscar®-nominated actress Annette Bening to play his mother, Antonio Banderas as Bening’s boyfriend. ”There are a lot of really good small parts in this film, and actors I think like to come in and just have fun in a movie and not have to carry it. Annette immediately responded to the script and we met with her and she told us right away, ‘I want to do your movie,’” says Dayton. ”I hate to say it was easy,” Faris adds, “because I don’t think it’s easy to get Annette Bening to do a movie, but it seemed like an appealing project for her, a good group of people and a script she liked.”
Supporting cast aside, the dynamic between Calvin and Ruby carries the movie. As their relationship continues to grow, Ruby’s independent, free-spirited nature (given to her by Calvin’s words) begins to show and Calvin sees himself losing control of the situation. Soon Calvin is met with a crisis of conscience: love Ruby for the person she is, or head back to the typewriter. “It’s a challenging part. I like the dynamics of Calvin’s journey; he starts out in sort of a lowly place and then goes to the extreme high and love of romance and magic, and then embarks on a real relationship which has its twists and turns,” Dano said. ”So balancing the tone of being able to be funny and physical and romantic but also that we need to ground this magical story in reality so people can relate to it and emotionally go with the characters and bring themselves to it, that was a challenge but that was also something that was a lot of fun.”
Dano admits it was also a lot of fun watching his girlfriend write the story, as he tells Jill Simonian in our interviews with the cast and filmmakers. Plus, Kazan reveals the thing that scared her the most about getting her first screenplay made, and Dayton and Faris share their fears in reading that screenplay.
Ruby Sparks is in select theaters Wednesday, July 25th, is rated R and runs 104 minutes.