Six years after “Little Miss Sunshine,” directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris finally have another film ready to show fans of their Oscar-winning debut. “Ruby Sparks,” which has the same light touch and oddball tone as “Sunshine,” was a surprise presented to a Los Angeles Film Festival audience Sunday night in the sneak screening slot.
The story of a lonely, blocked author who miraculously writes a girlfriend into existence, the film takes its indie high concept into cute and engaging places with some climactic touches of darkness that show the danger that comes with having the god-like power to “make tweaks” to someone. (Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas show up as Dano’s Big Sur-living, hippie artist parents for one short collection of scenes, and it’s amazing how much life and energy great, seasoned actors can bring to even a small amount of screen time.) Viewers appeared mostly to be in the film’s quirky thrall, an emotional connection surely helped along by the presence at a post-screening Q&A of the film’s stars and real-life couple, Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the screenplay.
Kazan, who now lives in New York with Dano, said that part of the motivation for writing the screenplay was because she was homesick for Los Angeles, where she grew up. “I wanted to write an L.A. love story,” she said. Drawing inspiration from both the Pygmalion story of Greek mythology and a scary night when she mistook a mannequin for a real person, Kazan went on “a 9-month date” of rewriting and shaping the script with the directors and Bona Fide Productions producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa, who was also at the screening.
Kazan told the crowd that Yerxa and Berger, who also produced “Sunshine,” were the only producers to commit to making the film with Kazan and Dano in the leads at any budget. “These fine people made my dreams come true,” Kazan said of Yerxa, Berger and the directors, who were seeing the film with an audience for the first time Sunday.
Several audience members in attendance asked Dano and Kazan, who have been together five years, about the complexities of writing and acting together in a story about such a complicated and problematic relationship. “Well, Zoe and I are lovers,” Dano said with deadpan seriousness. “So we had that to bring to the table.” But Dano claimed not to struggle with the film’s representation of them. “When I watch it, it doesn’t look like us to me,” he said, “which is a real blessing.”
“The only thing that was difficult was to have actors drop whole portions of things [I’d written] without it registering on my face,” Kazan added.
Kazan told Indiewire after the Q&A that deciding whether the story embraced the darker aspects of the premise was a dilemma she had to navigate early in the process. “What kind of movie am I writing?” she says she asked herself, since the story could have gone in a “Click” or “Bruce Almighty” direction of broad comedy. The ultimate result skews much more toward “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” or “Stranger Than Fiction,” idiosyncratic takes on the nature of desire, loneliness and creation.
Kazan said that her parents, Oscar-nominated screenwriters Nick Kazan (“Reversal of Fortune”) and Robin Swicord (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), have only seen an early cut. But they’ll get a chance, along with everyone else, to see the final product in theaters when Fox Searchlight releases “Ruby” July 25.
As for a follow-up, Kazan compared the process of making “Ruby Sparks” to having a baby. “I don’t know if I want a second baby,” she said. “But this one is beautiful.”