In a movie season where superheroes generally rule, it's not always easy to come out with a romantic dramedy to counter it. That is, unless you're talking something like the mystical romantic dramedy "Ruby Sparks," a film that gives a refreshingly unique take on how to conquer love -- something that even a character with superpowers would have a hard time doing.
Expanding into more theaters Friday, Paul Dano stars in "Ruby Sparks" as Calvin, a character who once had the power of imagination. An enigmatic writer whose mind has been helplessly blocked for 10 years after penning an iconic novel, Calvin has a breakthrough when he wills into existence out of thin air his dream girl, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the film) by making her the subject of his new book -- and the love of his life.
The problem is, while Calvin has the power to write out her every move, he discovers that even the love between them is something that he can completely control.
As a major creative force behind "Ruby Sparks," Zoe Kazan -- the granddaughter of late, legendary filmmaker Elia Kazan -- knows very well that to make a project happen in the competitive business of movie-making -- if not any business in any walk of life -- you have to have a passion for your work, and in a sense, will it into existence.
"Look, I'm not a person who uses 'The Secret,' but I really believe in the will to power. People have to dream big," Kazan said. "When talk about the magic in a screenplay, it's really true. I think to myself, 'How magical is it that I have a thought in my apartment, and here we are, two years later with a movie?' That to me feels like magic."
Kazan said the idea for "Ruby Sparks" happens in the same way Calvin has an epiphany in film -- a moment of awakening, really, where the inspiration came in a dream and she just had to get it down on paper when she woke up.
"I had been thinking for a while about the Pygmalion myth, where the sculptor falls in love with his statue and wills her to life, but obviously a lot of other people have taken than myth and turned it into something else," Kazan said. "So I had to figure out what would I do with that idea? What do I have to say? So I was walking home from work one night, and there was a mannequin discarded in a trash can, but I thought it was a person and it scared me. I went to sleep thinking about it and woke up in the morning with the first 10 or 15 pages of the script in my head."
The interesting aspect about Ruby and Calvin's relationship in "Ruby Sparks" is that in real life, Kazan and Dano have been a couple for almost five years.
Still, Kazan said, she wanted to keep their personal and professional lives separate while writing the screenplay. "Ruby Sparks," after all, isn't a chronicle of their relationship, nor is it a wish list of their desires of what they want.
"Zoe wrote a few pages and I asked if she was writing it for us as actors, and she said, 'Yeah.' I really don't think it was her intention, but it was certainly heading there. The characters were there first. The idea wasn't to write a film for us," Dano recalled for me in a separate interview. "The seed of it came first and then we thought we could do these parts. Had Zoe written it and I felt it was too close to me or there were scenes from our lives in it, I think that would have irked me. I like to be surprised and challenged as an actor. We didn't need to put our lives on the screen. "
Dano did admit, though, there are probably parts of him in the film that he doesn't realize. But that's OK.
"There are parts of me in Calvin, there are parts of Zoe in Calvin, and there are parts of Zoe's ex-boyfriends in Calvin," Dano added with a smile. "But as actors, we bring ourselves to it and try to get behind the character. The biggest relief I had after seeing the film for the first time was that I didn't think of Zoe and I while watching it."
While both Kazan and Dano knew they had to be the ones to act in it, they then next had to find the right filmmakers to tell the story properly. Luckily for Kazan, Dano had an in with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband and wife co-directors with whom he worked for on their critically acclaimed 2005 Best Picture Oscar-nominated dramedy "Little Miss Sunshine."
"They're the sort of people that I dreamt of making this, and soon as Paul started reading this, he said, 'The perfect people to make this would be Jon and Val,'" Kazan recalled. "I didn't dare hope that because they hadn't made a movie since 'Little Miss Sunshine' and they've been offered so many things since then, I didn't think that they'd want to do another little independent movie."
As it turned out, "Ruby Sparks" was exactly the sort of film that Dayton and Faris were both looking for, not only to direct, but to be inspired by as viewers.
"After making 'Little Miss Sunshine' we felt this responsibility to only come back when had something that we felt had all the things that we look for in a film -- something that we want as moviegoers," Dayton told me, along with Faris, in an interview.
Speaking almost in tandem with her longtime husband and professional collaborator, Faris said as a family first (they have three children), when they commit to a project, it has to have meaning for them to take the next big step.
"There's no other reason to do a film, unless you feel it has something to offer," Faris said. "We spend two years with a film when we make it, so for us it has to have some substance and the discourse has to keep our interest for a two-year period. After shooting the film, there's seven months of editing, so you really have to love it. For a film like this, you're not doing it for the money, you're doing it because you love it. So we get a lot pleasure from the work."
The interesting thing we learn in "Ruby Sparks" is that Calvin thinks if he stops writing the book about Ruby, their beautiful relationship will always remain the same. What he doesn't realize is that Ruby will become self-aware, revealing to him something he never expected: relationships are something you have to continually work at.
"There's also something pretty universal in the film, which is, when you first meet someone, you always start with the idea of them," Kazan said. "You never fall in love with the real person. From the way the look, smell and feel, plus your lifetime of desires and romantic history, curiosity and preferences, there's a process from moving from the idea to the real person, and figuring out, 'Is the real person I'm with the person I love?'"
Dano, who has been touring the country with Kazan, Dayton and Faris to promote the film at Q & A screenings, said he's thrilled that the film is striking that chord with preview audiences.
"People are bringing a part of themselves to it, and have been talking about whether they've been in a relationship where they've had the idea of somebody that doesn't really match the real thing, or somebody has had the idea of them and not seeing the real person," Dano said. "Some said they've been controlled or are being the controller. It seems to be resonating with people."
If There's A Will …
Since Dayton and Faris are virtually responsible for every aspect in the filming of "Ruby Sparks" by in giving direction to essentially every person on the film -- from the actors to the set decorators to the camera operators -- they effectively have to will the picture into existence.
And while they don't mystically will Ruby to appear out of thin air in "Ruby Sparks," Dayton and Faris said quite a bit goes into shaping her story for viewers.
"Even though Zoe wrote the script, we worked with her to find who Ruby was," Dayton explained. "We would say to her, 'No, no, no, that isn't Ruby, we want this Ruby.' We had to separate Zoe from Ruby and just find her. There was the Ruby of the script, but then there had to be the Ruby of the film. There's an evolution in the process. While there's a Ruby of the filming, there has to be a Ruby of the edit. You just have to constantly fine tune."
Ultimately, Dayton and Faris said, they're not much unlike Calvin, who tries to control Ruby. But like Calvin discovered, some things are simply out of your control -- which served as a nice reminder for the directors in between the times they called "action" and "cut."
"Control issues are big for directors," Faris said, laughing. "In some ways you're controlling what's happening on a film, but you're not doing any of it. We relate to the whole control issue, but you ultimately just can't. You have to step back and make things happen, and respect what each person brings to the process, just like the way each person brings something to a relationship in real life."