It was only a matter of time before Zoe Kazan penned her first screenplay. The actress, best known for her supporting turns in “Revolutionary Road” and “Meek’s Cutoff,” is the offspring of two Academy Award-nominated screenwriters, Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord; granddaughter to legendary director Elia Kazan; and has already seen a play of hers premiere off-Broadway.
With the high-concept romantic comedy “Ruby Sparks” (out today via Fox Searchlight), Kazan now joins the likes of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon — artists remarkably adept both behind and in front of the camera. Whether she goes on to net a little gold man for her efforts like the famous duo remains to be seen, but whatever the outcome, her screenwriting debut is a total winner.
“Ruby Sparks,” directed by “Little Miss Sunshine” dream team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, centers on Calvin (played by Kazan’s boyfriend Paul Dano), a revered young author who gets himself out of a writer’s block rut after dreaming up his latest protagonist, Ruby. Inspired by his new creation, Calvin begins penning a new novel, only to one morning wake up to the reality that Ruby (Kazan) actually exists.
Indiewire sat down with a bubbly, all-smiling Kazan in Manhattan to discuss her writing process, and her personal connection to Calvin and Ruby.
How long had you been cooking up this screenplay?
I had the original idea in the summer of 2009, and wrote about 20 pages and then put it away because I could see what the broad comedy of the story was. But I knew that’s not what I wanted to write. I wanted to let it sit around with me for a little longer before I really started to do it in earnest. Then I did “The Behanding of Spokane” on Broadway in the Spring of 2010 and I had time during the day, so I just tackled it. I wrote it in like three weeks and sent it off to producers. We were in pre-production by April 2012, so it was really fast.
Wait, no April 2011. I’m really bad at dates [laughs]!. Math…
What happened in that in-between stage during the writing process that gave you the confidence to delve into the more dramatic aspect of the work?
I think that this movie is not autobiographical at all, but it’s very personal. It draws on a lot of things that I’ve experienced in relationships where there’s been a power in balance, and where I’ve felt that the person I was with loved some idea of me, and not the actual person. That’s a hard thing to write about. The movie goes to a pretty dark emotional place. I just really wanted to be careful before I started writing that I knew exactly what I was trying to write, and that I was in control of the story. I didn’t make an outline for this movie. I really felt like they were speaking to me, so I wanted to be in the right shape to receive them. Sometimes when you clamp down, the muse doesn’t speak to you.
Sounds like a case of art imitating life, given how Ruby speaks to Calvin in the film, inspiring him to write.
I know! That’s part of what my original impulse was. My experience of writing has been so much that they feel totally real to me. Sometimes I feel that the people I’m writing are more real to me than the people around me. When you take that imaginative leap, you’re living so much in that world.
So what was it like actually inhabiting that world once you got on set? It must have been surreal.
It was surreal! What was really great about the time leading up was that Jonathan and Valerie gave me notes and I worked with them for nine months, rewriting the script. During that process the movie really became ours, not just mine. I think it was easier to give away because of that.Did you envision yourself and Paul in the leads when originally crafting the screenplay?
It really was like Calvin in the movie. I woke up one morning and these people were in my head. It was as clear as day. I wrote about five or six pages. Paul came home from work and I said, “You need to come here and read this.” He read it and said, “You’re writing it for us?” It hadn’t occured to me at all, because they had been so clear to me. And then I thought, “Oh, you’re totally right!” I definitely was writing us, but it just hadn’t occured to me. From that moment on I was very conscious that I wanted it to be Paul and I.
How did that change the writing process?
The only thing that changed was… it was still about being open to the story, but Paul’s a really funny guy. He’s gotten to play so many dark characters, that I don’t think people get to think of him as funny. So once I knew that it would be Paul, I started to make him do things that I enjoy. He’s really physically adept, so there’s a lot of physical comedy in there.
How much fun was it to write Ruby for you? You gave yourself so much to play with.
You know what? I really wasn’t thinking about it to be totally honest. I keep saying, “They took me by the hand.” I took a lot of time rewriting it, but my original bout of writing was all about trying to be true to the story and honor these people. I wasn’t thinking about acting at all. In fact I was so not thinking about the acting, that when we were a week and a half out of production, I was rewriting the scene where Ruby shows up at Calvin’s house for the first time. For the first time I read that scene through Ruby’s eyes, because Calvin’s the protagonist, so I had written it through his eyes. When I reversed it, I was like, “Oh my god, he is acting so weird.” I really didn’t engage that part of my brain until the final weeks.
What do you have in the works writing wise?
Writing wise, I like to have a lot of things on the burners at once, because when I hit a wall, I like to move on to the thing I haven’t hit a wall on. So I have a play and I have a couple of screenplays. I’m really looking forward to getting back to writing. I haven’t been able to in a long time.
Anything about the screenplays you’re willing to divulge?
Not yet. I have to let the muses talk to me.
What about directing?
I would like to. I know Paul and I both would like to keep producing and help make more films happen. I think down the line that’s something I’d be interested in. But not yet — it’s a huge commitment.