AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN DAYTON AND VALERIE FARIS, DIRECTORS OF RUBY SPARKS
Landmark Theatres: When you see Ruby Sparks with an audience, do you find reactions in different places? How does that change your perspective of the movie?
Jonathan Dayton: It’s such a great thing to go on the road from city to city to watch a little bit of the movie with an audience outside of Los Angeles. I would start by saying that the reason we love feature filmmaking is because we get the opportunity to see our work with an audience, and it makes all the difference in the world. There are definitely laughs sometimes where we don’t expect. There is this great thing that happens…
Valerie Faris: …the collective viewing experience. Somebody giggles, and then that starts a snowball effect that’s so great. When you watch something at home, you don’t always laugh out loud at a movie. There’s nothing better than hearing that whole theatre, that whole contagiousness for a comedy, particularly. This movie has comic elements, and dark elements.
Jonathan: It’s a bit of a roller coaster ride.
Valerie: It has some surprising turns. The first time we saw it with an audience was a test audience in Pasadena, and we both looked at each other at the exact same moment, when the laughs were going on longer than we ever thought they would—farther into the movie—and we thought, they have no idea what’s coming.
Jonathan: It’s a bit like a fun house, or a roller coaster that suddenly goes voom!...and drops.
Valerie: So we were nervous about that. And the theatre gets so quiet at (the more serious part). So it’s a very different experience for us than Little Miss Sunshine, which kind of had laughs throughout. It had some serious and painful moments, but the end of that movie was this raucous, cathartic experience, and this one is so different. There’s just nothing like seeing it with an audience. The movie is different every time you see it with a different audience.
I would love to do a campaign for getting people to go to the theatre. I know that’s what Landmark does, but the movie-going experience is essential, and it has to be protected. That’s why I love theatres like The Landmark. It makes something of the experience, it makes it fun to go to the movies. You can have a drink and eat there, and…
Jonathan: …it’s such a lively place. You feel like you’re there to be stimulated and have fun, and be with fellow movie lovers. We’re of a generation where we miss the palace theatres, but there was this time when the film experience was even more elevated. It was like going into a palace, you come in through the rotunda and the lobby, and you’re ushered in, you sit in a velvet seat, and watch this big image with other people.
Valerie: Filmmakers, when they make films, are really thinking about the theatre audience, not the person on their couch in the living room. Anything we can do to protect that part of the experience, we want to do, which starts with making a movie that hopefully people want to see.
LT: How did you find this particular script, and how did you come to work with screenwriter Zoe Kazan? Did you have any input into the development of the script?
Jonathan: Yes. We were approached by Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, and then the two producers from Little Miss Sunshine, Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger. We loved the draft that we read, and then we immediately began working with Zoe on a rewrite. We did a lot of work. I believe Zoe said it was seventeen drafts. So it was quite a process. We want to have the script completely buttoned down, but when your writer is also going to be one of your stars, you really want to have it ready.
Valerie: You want to be able to take the writer hat off, put it aside, and be the actress in the film, and she was able to do that. There were times when something would come up, and we would rework it, but for the most part, the whole movie was sketched out. It was like a contract—this is the movie we’re making—so that we feel the freedom to make our film. There is a point where the writer has to let go, and it becomes our film. In this case it was very easy. She was very collaborative, and not precious.
LT: The tone of this film is very specific. Any other director with this premise could have made a broad comedy, but this film takes you in a direction that you don’t expect. What choices did you make with the actors to bring out performances that didn’t go too far into the broad comedy spectrum?
Jonathan: Casting was everything. As with Little Miss Sunshine, we wanted people who had dramatic acting skills, but also understood comedy. It’s a very particular kind of actor that can do that. So we went to all our favorites. I mean—Elliot Gould—it’s a free pass to meet some of your heroes. Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas…
Valerie: … Steve Coogan—all these people who’ve done dramatic work, but they understand comedy, and play comedy in a very real way. The key for us is never to try to push the comedy, or chase after laughs. It’s not a jokey script. It’s more about putting yourself in that position, picking the right actors, and then keeping the performances really roped in and real.
Jonathan: On the set, we’re never laughing a lot. We know the laughs are there from the rewrite period. And then when we’re shooting, it’s just saying “is that a truthful moment?” And, if it is, we know the laughs will be there when it’s all put together.
Valerie: Chris Messina is really a key player in delivering the humor in the script, and also delivering the story. Once Ruby comes into Calvin’s life, we don’t make anything of it—we don’t explain how she got there. So Chris, the Harry character, comes in and questions her existence and says “Who is this girl? How did she get here? I need an explanation!” He doesn’t really get one, but he meets her, and then he’s convinced. I feel like that helps the audience buy into this premise.
Jonathan: He’s our advocate.
Valerie: He does it in a funny and believable way. I think that’s really how the tone works—if you believe the characters, if it’s possibly what you would do in the same situation.
Jonathan: You don’t want to be sitting in the movie thinking, “why is he behaving that way?” I credit the actors, and I credit Zoe for really delivering real reactions. When Chris says, “For men everywhere, you can’t let this go to waste,” he is voicing a very distinct point of view that you know is out in the world.
Valerie: And also (he’s saying) “There’s got to be a logical explanation.” He can’t buy it. He doesn’t understand it. How can this be? When you read it, you think—this is going to be a fun scene to do—when Chris is suddenly confronted with her speaking French, it just flips him out. We described it as being really high. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s all very weird, but it’s happening. He could deliver that in a way that makes me laugh.
LT: Can you talk about your directing process working as a team? Do you have moments where you both come at a scene from a different place, and that process produces a result that neither of you expected?
Valerie: I think that happens early in the writing process. We do a lot of prep. In order to get on the same page, we really try to do that before we get to set. So when we’re on set, we’re really chasing after the same thing. It’s hard to have two directors if they are expressing different views on set and with the crew. You really need to be of one mind at that point in the process. We make sure that we understand what the function of each scene is in the bigger story.
Jonathan: We treat each scene like a short film that has its own arc. And then, we act out the scene. That’s the beauty of having 2 people, we can…
Valerie: … put ourselves in it.
Jonathan: We’re very bad actors. It’s in private… but it does allow us to understand what we’re going to be asking our actors to do. And it does allow us to start feeling what the staging should be like… So you start to explore those things very early, so that when you arrive on set, you have an understanding.
Valerie: Film is a collaborative medium. Directors who work alone always have someone, or maybe more than one person, who they work with closely to tease out their angle on something. It might be their Director of Photography, it could be the screenwriter.
Jonathan: It could be their wife. Like this new movie about the making of Psycho. It’s all about how Hitchcock relied on his wife to help him through. She worked on the cut, the script…
Valerie: He almost had a nervous breakdown.
Jonathan: So one of our most celebrated auteurs had his secret… And one last thing—having both a male and a female presence in a story about male/female relationships was really helpful.
Valerie: The weird thing is our relationship is a very balanced relationship, unlike Calvin and Ruby’s. So we had to go further back into our past to relate to the issues. But in all relationships—not even just men and women—there is this challenge when you’re working with somebody. You want them to do what you want them to do, and there's the give and take of how much to control and how much to give in. It’s what we have to do throughout our lives.
Jonathan: I just like how, in this high concept premise, you’re actually exploring very real things that happen between people. That’s what drew us to this, and that’s what made the last eighteen months so much fun. We could delve into a subject that we’re all experts in.