I met up with directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine, 2006) in Locarno, Switzerland after the screening of their latest film at the Locarno Film Festival. 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 own relationship to control. 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.
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. But that was a $17 million 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: The film took metaphorically this idea of the perfect relationship by indirectly showing us that what Hollywood shows in their romantic-comedy films is in fact science fiction.
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 whose problems make them endearing are not real"!
VF: I think that is 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: Yet, these two characters' relationship starts to go through this fast fragmentation and re-fragmentation as the Calvin would editorialize his novel. As crazy as this was, 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. We don't really have that power but we have all had that desire at times to do a little tweak and then it snowballs into something he cannot sustain. Really the fun of this story is that it starts as a little thing but we got to take it to a place where he has to confront something that is ugly or painful.
Q: It is also about power, the power of a relationship, which is very difficult to confront -- what he can do and what he might do...
JD: And would you want it? And of course we don't think we would...ultimately.
VF: Calvin comes to realize it's a burden: he wants Ruby to be happy without making her happy. 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 his trying to fix it gets him 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: What is your opinion about art and the struggle for control, for this film seems to make parallels between art and love?
JD: That was an important theme within the film -- how an artists seek to control his or her 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. Instead of Calvin re-narrating his book, he could have gone to real human lengths such as not calling Ruby for 15 days...
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.