Two Filmmakers Discuss Their New Movie, and the Meaning of “Independent”

[Published in The Huffington Post, 6 September, 2012]

I met up with directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, 2006) in Locarno, Switzerland after the screening of heir latest film.  Ruby Sparks (2012) portrays a young novelist, Clive (Paul Dano), whose writer’s block leads him to dreaming up the perfect girl, Ruby (Zoe Kazan), who becomes the inspiration for his new novel.  Clive not only begins to fall in love with his creation in his dreams, but Ruby materializes as Clive’s real-life girlfriend as he continues his novel.  To avoid spoiling this dream, Clive stops writing only to tweak at times in order to assure his happiness with Ruby.  However, Clive’s misguided efforts produce problems as he realizes that Ruby is not independent, forcing him to consider his brother Harry’s critique of Clive’s idealization of women: “Quirky, messy women whose problems make them endearing are not real… you haven’t written a person, you’ve written a girl.”  Here is my discussion with Dayton and Faris.


Q: This is a human story–a story about people, about love.  It is interesting that independent filmmaking has become about making human stories.

JD: It’s unfortunate that human stories aren’t interesting for studios because, for whatever reason, they can’t makes millions of dollars and they can’t sell action figures.

VF: What independent means to us is that we get to make the film the way we want to make it and that we have final cut.  There were other films which we were involved with in the past six years where we felt we weren’t going to have that control so we decided no to do them. Even though this was produced by Fox Searchlight, it was a studio film in a sense.  I still consider an independent film because we had the final say and there were no superheroes in it.  I think you could do an independent superhero movie I think, a human story with a superhero.

JD: We worked on this one movie with Ben Stiller and Reese Witherspoon that took place in the future.  It wasn’t a comic book movie, but it was a very high concept movie and we were trying to tell a story.

VF: It was a world ruled by women which was very cool…in the future [laughter]…

JD: But that was a 17 million dollar movie and it became very clear that we couldn’t do the same kind of personal storytelling that we wanted to do.

Q: Ruby Sparks is a human story, but also it is an inhuman story…

JD: That is what was interesting is that we could have our science fiction within a very human story.

Q: When you read Zoe Kazan’s script I imagine it appeared even more fantastical on the page than it does on the screen. How did you feel about this jump from the script to screen?

VF: I think what I found from the script was that she wrote it with the intention of it being more in the tradition of magical realism where the magic happens, you don’t explain it, it’s part of life and we just move on and get into the story.  It’s really about the human experience and not about the magic.  We also felt that we would want to treat it that way as well so that was important was not the fantasy aspect as much as how this is like all relationships or our experience and to try to ground it in what felt real and relatable to us.

Q: Well, the film took metaphorically this idea of the perfect relationship by indirectly showing us that what Hollywood shows us in their romantic-comedy films is in fact science fiction.  

VF:[laughing] Yes!

Q: It really pulled me in because this film shows the real of relationships with the brother telling the protagonist that the women he imagines are not…

VF: Real… That quirky, messy women are not real!

Q: Exactly.

VF: I think that is in some way a reaction to seeing cinema that is supposed to be real that doesn’t feel real to us. Here is what is supposed to happen in the realm of fantasy or his imagination but actually it feels more real to us or more true to life that so many relationships in movies.

Q: What I find interesting is how you treat these two characters when their relationship starts to go  through this fast fragmentation and re-fragmentation as the protagonist would editorialize his narrative, but as crazy as it was unreal, it was real.

JD: That was the interesting challenge for us was to have what were real responses to a fantastic situation.

VF: For us it always had to feel real.  This is what we do to each other and if we had that ability and we could make a little adjustment, it would be very hard to resist that urge. We don’t really have that power but we have all had that desire at times to do a little tweak and then for the protagonist it snowballs into something he cannot sustain. Really the fun of this story is that it starts as a little thing we have got to take it to a place where he has to confront ugly or painful.

Q: It is also about power, the power of a relationship, which is very difficult to confront–what he could do and what we might do.

JD: And would you want it? And of course we don’t think we would…ultimately.

VF: He comes to realize it’s a burden: he wants her to be happy without making her happy. So at a certain point, he is not enjoying that responsibility. What is funny is his brother thinks about the implications of what he could do with that power but Calvin doesn’t want to do that. It is just that in his trying to fix it, that is when he gets into trouble.

JD: And when he runs into his former girlfriend who pushes back and he feels that, he is reminded and realizes that is when he goes home and burns down the house.

Q: This is a moral film.  As you were saying earlier that people were asking you to explain the mystery behind the science fiction, but it wouldn’t have worked. It worked simply because we didn’t know.

JD: I appreciate that but some American critics do get upset and say, “You didn’t explain this scene.”

Q: What is your opinion about art and the struggle for control, for it seems it seems to make parallels between art and love?

JD: That was an important theme within the film–how an artists seek to control their work and how that urge can destroy your work. The challenge of the artist is to accept.  In seeking to control her Calvin destroys Ruby.  As directors you hope a film takes on a life of its own.

VF: What is most fun about creative work is when it starts to speak to you and you are no longer in control. It is not easy but that is the goal to get out of your head and work more intuitively. That is where Calvin is, thinking about his last book, the pressure and then he creates something and ends up destroying it because he still has that urge to control.

Q: But this happens as well in human relationships…[laughter] and instead of Calvin re-narrating his book, he could have gone to real human lengths such as his not calling her for fifteen days to bring her closer.

JD: What was fun for us was that in this very simple concept you could explore very real issues between people and in work and there are so many layers.  You spend two years of your life on a film..  It is like a tattoo, you better love it because it is with you forever.