Six years in a long time. Back in 2006 when Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris‘ “Little Miss Sunshine” got huge buzz out of Sundance before hitting theaters, Steve Carell was just entering the third season of “The Office.” Paul Dano was probably still best known as that guy from “The Girl Next Door.” And when the little indie movie that could made its way into the Best Picture race, it was facing off against “The Departed,” “The Queen,” “Babel” and “Letters From Iwo Jima.” It seems a lifetime ago. And while the directors had various projects brewing that never quite came together since then, their sophomore effort “Ruby Sparks” has been worth the wait. Penned by Zoe Kazan, and starring the actress alongside her boyfriend Paul Dano, it’s a film that finds the directors once again flexing their comedic muscles, while also finding new notes and textures we haven’t seen from them before, all in a hugely enjoyable and entertaining film.
The film centers on Calvin, a struggling writer who discovers new inspiration in a character he’s created, Ruby Sparks. He writes page after page before he suddenly realizes he’s in love with this fictional, perfect woman he has created. And just as he’s trying to wrap his head around becoming emotionally invested in someone who isn’t real, she appears one morning in his kitchen. Once he gets over the intial shock, he begins a whirlwind relationship, one that takes him through the high and lows of an intense love. And when we spoke to the directors recently, it was this ambitious premise that attracted them to it. “I loved that in this high concept story, there were all these human truths in it. It was about relationships, it was about control, and also, a whole parallel track about the creative process and the desire to force something into existence as a creative person,” Dayton said.
When we chatted with Zoe Kazan about the film, she told us that she could’ve gone down the road of writing a much more broad comedy in the vein of “Click” or “Bruce Almighty,” but for Dayton and Faris it was the careful blend of reality and fantasy that intrigued them, along with the deeper exploration of how dynamics constantly shift and change in a relationship. “We’ve always loved magical realist films. For us the most potent version of this movie, was to play everything very real, very straight and not make much of the fantastic element. Just be very matter of fact about it. That felt more interesting, to make it really feel like in our lives that we all know and recognize magic can happen, and it happens quickly…”, Dayton said, as Faris finished his thought: “…and without fanfare and sparkles. We also liked that this story really does explore that blurry line between the way we imagine someone that we’re with. Part of them is our own fiction and part of them is real…sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the way we see the person we’re in love with [and if] that vision of them is completely real, or has a little bit of the imagination [in it].”
One of the most striking difference audiences will notice between “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Ruby Sparks” is in the look of the film, with the directorial pair enlisting Darren Aronofsky‘s regular cinematographer Matthew Libatique to lens the picture. An eager and creative collaborator, the decision to shoot digitally brought with it some interesting approaches on set, including the use of an Apple product to light a scene. “One of the things that attracted us to the Alexa was that we knew there were a lot of night scenes and we wanted to able to shoot in a room and see the city lights outside the window. And so we were able to shoot in virtually no light. We took an iPad — we wanted Calvin to be lit by his alarm clock numbers — [and] put [it] on a C-stand above his head, and that was the total illumination,” Dayton explained. Faris adds: “The gaffer and Matty were just so excited, because you could just change the color so easily on the iPad, ‘We don’t need gels anymore!’ “
And while digital allowed for some unique shooting experiences, the directors also shared their frustrations with format that, had they shot on celluloid, they might have avoided. “We really love film and we’re very sad that that’s becoming less of an option. It’s really about having an array of tools. There was certain things we found very frustrating [with the Alexa]. In bright sunlight we couldn’t get the range that we wanted, it tended to blow out. But it seems to be a juggernaut that’s unstoppable,” Dayton observed about the industry sea change. Faris continued: “We shot ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ on film and we color timed it, so this is a very different experience for us, finishing it digitally. I think there are many times where we were frustrated just how this technology doesn’t perform like film. We did fade outs throughout the film, where it fades to black, and a digital image fading just doesn’t perform the same way film does and we had to go through all kinds of effects and manipulating just to get it to look close to a film fade, which is the simplest effect you can imagine on film…you’re always just getting the digital to look like film.”
But not matter what they were using, it comes down to the people involved, and on “Ruby Sparks” they had a great experience. In addition to praise for Libatique, they also credited their leading cast members for their efforts, in an overall production that challenged them in new ways. “It was different in terms of working with a smaller cast. One of the things that was so unique about ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ was that it was an ensemble movie, so almost every scene had six people in it. And you get kind of used to that, there’s something so great about the way actors play off each other. But we did have that with Paul and Zoe. It was so much fun to see how they worked as Ruby and Calvin and fell into those roles,” Faris reflected.
As for where they’ll go next, nothing is confirmed just yet, but they assured us that we won’t be waiting another six years for them to get behind the camera. “We’re going to do a pilot next for HBO,” Dayton said, with Collider revealing it has been penned by comic writer Daniel Clowes, “and we have other film projects that we’ve been working that we’ll continue to pursue. Our kind of film, the budget range we work in, I think is sort of the harder film to get made. We don’t have the big selling point, it’s not a franchise or superhero movie…We’re kind of in that mid range that is the toughest film to get made.”
But hopefully, “Ruby Sparks” will be a reminder why this pair are worth the investment. The film opens in limited release today. Check out some clips below.