Zoe Kazan's 'Mind-Eff' of an Indie Romance
The actress' first produced screenplay co-stars her real-life boyfriend Paul Dano in a twisted story that jumps from page to real life in more ways than one.
It's hard to make a movie, much less a good one, and in an age of billion dollar superhero franchises and Comic-Con blowouts, putting together a successful indie flick -- and actually have it get seen by an audience -- should be nearly impossible. But in what was one of the very many meta, self-actualizing aspects of the project, once Ruby Sparks was written, it seemed to magically spring to life.
The brainchild of actress and playwright Zoe Kazan, the film tells the story of a frustrated writer who is visited by a girl named Ruby in his dreams, begins to write a book about her, and, after falling in love with the character, finds her actually appear, alive in his own house. The pair become a real-life couple, but issues of free will and secrecy begin to plague the relationship: Is she an actual person? Can and should he play God, since he can control her life by continuing to write the story?
It sounds high concept, but Kazan reported little difficulty with the writing while speaking with The Hollywood Reporter at a special screening of the film hosted by Peggy Siegal in New York City on Wednesday.
"It was really easy," she said. "Once I figured out what kind of movie I was trying to write, it sort of wrote itself, we did it in two and a half weeks."
The "we" part, however, adds another seeming wrinkle into the film's backstory: while Kazan plays Ruby, Calvin, the writer who invents and falls for her, is played by the actress' real-life boyfriend, Paul Dano. He says that the film's story was theirs even before she did.
"I think she was inspired just by the story or characters, but I read the first few pages and was like, ‘Are you writing this for us?’" Dano told THR. "And she was like, ‘Yeahhhh.’ But I think subconsciously she was, she would have gotten there sooner or later."
Dano's inclusion makes for a dizzying overall synopsis: Kazan wrote a film about a guy, played by her boyfriend, who writes a book about a girl, played by Kazan, who becomes his real-life girlfriend.
Calling it a "complex onion," Dano said, "It definitely has got a mind-eff aspect, and meta and this and that, but to us that’s a fleeting thought of irony, and then we sort of go do it."
Getting a script done is one thing; making it into a movie is another. But that turned out to be easy, too. After shopping it around, Kazan got it into the hands of Little Miss Sunshine producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, who then took a chance and sent it to the dormant directing team that made Sunshine, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. They were sold immediately.
"It just happened because the script was there," Faris said. "I think that’s why it fell into place. Other things, if the script isn’t quite there yet, it just doesn’t happen. So this one did, and credit Zoe, because we worked on the script but she was so fast. Really, in a few months, we got it together and felt really good about it."
Ruby becomes their first film since Sunshine was released in 2006, but the pair aren't blaming studio interference or Hollywood business for stopping projects in their tracks; surprisingly, they take that blame.
"We’re more of the problem," Faris admitted. "I don’t feel studios are always the problem. I think, I don’t know, for us, it’s been we’re not ready, we don’t think it’s ready."
Added Dayton: "Since it’s our job to eventually deliver a good film, we feel like the gatekeepers, and until now, we haven’t felt like any of our projects were ready to make. Some of the things we’ll still work on and hopefully will be ready, but this was ready."
The final product is a whimsical dramedy in which Kazan plays a manic pixie dream girl, with a twist: she is actually the manifestation of a lonely writer who has dreamt of being saved by one too many manic pixie dream girls. Dano puts on a serious and frustrated writer's face, while Kazan makes the slow transition from dreamy troublemaker to troubled as the film takes on a more serious tone.
Chris Messina co-stars as Dano's more outgoing older brother, while Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas have extended cameos as his earthy mother and wood carving stepfather. Elliot Gould is his psychologist, while Steve Coogan is his sleazy friend and Aasif Mandvi his agent.
Kazan credits Faris and Dayton with handling her words with care, enabling her to focus on acting. That they sent between 17-25 drafts between them helped democratize the script, and it was an experience Kazan would try again -- on film, at least.
"You have less work to do when it’s work that you have written, because you have done your homework already, you’ve done your preparation already," she admitted. "It doesn’t feel that different though, I was shocked. I would never act in my own plays, I think that would be very different. Just because you’re on stage every night, doing the same thing, I feel like I get sick of my plays watching them, I would never want to do that, but for this it felt really seamless."