The Frankenstein Aspect: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris on Ruby Sparks

The moral quandary of their latest film, the difficulties in choosing a title and how to follow the massive success of Little Miss Sunshine.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris really do finish each other’s sentences. I didn’t want to edit that out of the interview so left it that way. The directors of Little Miss Sunshine took six years to release a second film, but it is a doozy. Ruby Sparks is about an author, Calvin (Paul Dano) who overcomes writer’s block when inspired by the vision of a girl. After writing her, Ruby Sparks (Zoe Kazan, who also wrote the script) appears in his real life, but his typewriter still has the power to write her as she lives. It’s not all fun and games though, because controlling another human being raises lots of moral questions as well as comedic situations.


CraveOnline: This movie made me really conflicted. Is that what you were going for?

Valerie Faris: How were you conflicted? In what way?


I get it, but did I enjoy that and is it good if I didn’t, that I’m still thinking about these things?

Valerie Faris: Well, I think we did want to leave people with something to think about and discuss. I don’t want to leave people confused necessarily.

Jonathan Dayton: And we didn’t want to pulverize people, but we wanted to take them on a journey to places maybe they don’t go to very often. Did you feel hopeful by the end? How did you feel in that final scene?


The final scene, yes. I’m talking about I don’t think I sympathized with Calvin.

Jonathan Dayton: No.


I don’t think I was supposed to.

Jonathan Dayton: Did you empathize? Did you…

Valerie Faris: …feel any of his pain?


I knew what was wrong with him and what he needed to work on and how this exercise wasn’t going to help him, but that’s because that’s where I’ve come in the past 10 years.

Jonathan Dayton: Right. We likened that [uncomfortable] scene to a little bit like a binge drinker who comes to terms with the fact that he can’t continue. He has an illness.

Valerie Faris: He has to bottom out in order to move on and to heel.


Would Hollywood play Calvin as some innocent loser with this wish fulfillment fantasy?

Jonathan Dayton: I think we were very lucky to make this film at Fox Searchlight where they’re not afraid to tell a complex story, and ask a lot of the audience.

Valerie Faris: And explore the darker aspects of if you could create someone and then if you could have that power over them, what would it actually lead to? We were more interested in where the story could go after the story we’ve already seen many times. I think once he crosses that line, once he says, “I’m just going to do a slight tweak to her. I’m going to just make her come home.” Once you cross that line, you kind of want to see really what would happen. Where does this lead? We’ve seen the playful version of that.

Jonathan Dayton: And we get some playful moments. It’s not like we don’t…

Valerie Faris: …have some fun with it but it’s also even in the funny stuff…

Jonathan Dayton: …there’s pain there. It’s painful.


Exactly. Is the French scene really the last time it’s fun?

Valerie Faris: It’s funny because when we’ve watched it, they have a good time right after Harry leaves. There’s a little moment where they’re happy together but that’s kind of where it starts to get real. She starts to get some agency. She wants to have some separation in the relationship. Especially actually after Big Sur, she starts to feel like, “I’ve been out in the world now and I like it. I want to have more of my own life” and that’s where he gets uncomfortable.


In the beginning of her conception, he’s placed a sexual interest in her and they joke about her giving blow jobs. Is there a word for that when a woman is compelled to do sexual things without any free will?

Jonathan Dayton: He never compels her to give her a blow job. His brother says, “For men everywhere, you can’t let this go to waste.” But Calvin pledges never to write her again. There’s never a suggestion that he’s making her do those things. But obviously that’s on the table.


He already had written her that way though.

Valerie Faris: I think he wrote her. I’m not sure he wrote in, “She loves giving blow jobs.”

Jonathan Dayton: I think the blast of creation is that he writes this girl that challenges him and is the perfect match for him.

Valerie Faris: And he didn’t actually set out to create her in real life. He just fell in love with his writing.

Jonathan Dayton: It’s very important. He didn’t say, “I’m going to write this girl and make her happen.” He writes about a girl that is strictly on the page and some force in the world puts her on the planet, but he didn’t set out to create that girl. Do you know what I’m saying?

Valerie Faris: There were no test tubes.

Jonathan Dayton: That’s a very important distinction. He doesn’t seek to create a robot. She appears.

Valerie Faris: And when she appears she is a fully formed human being.


Is there a Frankenstein aspect to the story though, that you’re responsible for your creation?

Jonathan Dayton: Yes.

Valerie Faris: Yeah, I think so but in the Frankenstein aspect, it does take on partially because he doesn’t resist that temptation, that’s where it gets even more like Frankenstein. When he starts to play and mess with his creation.


Did you construct it in a way that you don’t take the magic for granted, that it could be Calvin misperceiving reality?

Valerie Faris: I mean, that’s always there if that’s what you want to believe as a viewer but we just agreed that she was real when she appeared and we were going to just take that at face value, that she’s there and not explain how she got there.

Jonathan Dayton: There will be some who could conclude that it was all in his imagination. Really in our mind, the primary story is about these magical events that lead to what you see on screen.


I got there eventually, but you might find this interesting. At first I thought maybe Ruby was a girl he really met. Then he had a psychotic break and forgot that the inspiration for this story came from a real person when she shows up.

Valerie Faris: See, but I like that you can go there with it.

Jonathan Dayton: But that’s a very legitimate [interpretation.]

Valerie Faris: What’s interesting to us was the way that sometimes your imagination is so powerful but it is hard to distinguish. You know how in memories sometimes you’ll think, “God, is that what happened or is that what I just remember? Did I kind of create that in my memory?” The line between what is real and what is imagined for all of us sometimes is a little blurry.


But then the typewriter makes her speak French so it really is magic.

Valerie Faris: Well, if you’re buying into the real magic, yeah.

Jonathan Dayton: If you’re buying into the premise but if you buy that that was all a story in his head, then I think your other interpretation is legit.


The title changed before release. Did you realize when you had a character in the movie named Ruby Sparks, that that should be the title?

Valerie Faris: Well, that was quite a long process. We always wanted the name of the book he writes to be the same as the title of the movie.

Jonathan Dayton: So the movie felt like an adaptation of his book.

Valerie Faris: But through a whole process with Fox and all of us, they really pushed for Ruby Sparks and we think it probably is just an easy to remember good name and it sort of focuses us on her.

Jonathan Dayton: So we like the title but the book is called “The Girlfriend” that he writes so in a way, the book and the title of the movie are about the same.


So where did the potential title He Loves Me come from?

Valerie Faris: That was sort of Zoe’s working title.

Jonathan Dayton: It was always meant as kind of a temporary thing.


Did you actually skywrite the title of the movie or did you have to rely on CGI?

Valerie Faris: [Laughs] I wish.

Jonathan Dayton: That was CG. I wanted to do promos where we would skywrite.

Valerie Faris: I know. No money for that.


Just having a few F-words in the movie excludes the possibility of PG-13, especially one MF. Was there ever a thought to skewing it PG-13?

Jonathan Dayton: We talked about it but we couldn’t get around the fact that it felt more honest to use the language we did and so we just gave into that.

Valerie Faris: Zoe tried a script with no F words but it felt somehow neutered.

Jonathan Dayton: And to their credit, Searchlight never fought it.


When your last movie became the phenomenon that Little Miss Sunshine was, how do you follow it?

Valerie Faris: Well, you just try to put your nose to the grindstone. You just get involved in another project which we did. For six years we worked on other movies.

Jonathan Dayton: We worked with a lot of great writers. Dave Eggers.

Valerie Faris: Tom Perotta.

Jonathan Dayton: John Hodgman. Michael Arndt.

Valerie Faris: Projects we loved and for one reason or another, they didn’t all magically happen. We weren’t able to make them magically.

Jonathan Dayton: We couldn’t conjure them but as you know, there are so many things that go into making a film really work. We were very protective of this process. We knew that it’s two years of our lives and if we don’t love what we’re doing we don’t get along. So we had a very high threshold.


Is that a more familiar story than we might imagine, that filmmakers with a successful first feature struggle with that process?

Valerie Faris: I think so.

Jonathan Dayton: Maybe, but you know, Alexander Payne.

Valerie Faris: He did have a very successful movie, Sideways.

Jonathan Dayton: It was but it was his third movie though. He had had many movies. Bennett Miller, Mark Romanek, there’s a lot of people making films…

Valerie Faris: …of this size. I mean, I think it’s just hard to get a movie made the way you want it made, as opposed to just too many compromises or too many things that going in you know are going to be problematic. We can’t have everything perfect but you really want to go in feeling like okay, I think I’ve got the goods to make the film we want to make.

Jonathan Dayton: We were given final cut on this. It was really the right size movie.

Valerie Faris: And the right players. Kind of got the right group, the right people giving you the financing, all of that coming together. It just doesn’t happen that often for us.


Were those other projects also with Searchlight?

Valerie Faris: No, I don't think any of them were.

Jonathan Dayton: No, no, they were at other studios. One at big Fox.

Valerie Faris: It’s funny because we ended up back at Searchlight.


I was wondering, wouldn’t they just be jumping for your next film?

Valerie Faris: They gave us a lot of scripts.

Jonathan Dayton: A lot of films that we worked on were attached to studios so one was at Warner Independent and one was at Paramount and another writer we worked with is Demetri Martin who we love.

Valerie Faris: I mean, we tried to work with Fox and they tried to work with us.

Jonathan Dayton: They gave us a lot of projects.

Valerie Faris: There wasn’t one that we thought, “This is the right movie for us.” I think we’re sort of picky. You’ve got to feel like ah, I see there’s a good movie in here for us.

Jonathan Dayton:It’s two years of your life and then you’re going to talk about it with people and you want something to talk about. You want to feel like…

Valerie Faris: …you’re not just throwing another thing onto the heap of all the other movies that are out there. You hope it cuts through.


How did it feel to be back on a set again?

Jonathan Dayton: Well, we’re on a set a lot with our commercials.

Valerie Faris: We do commercials to make a living.

Jonathan Dayton: But it feels really good to be back in a theater again. It felt really good. We’ve just been traveling around the country screening the movie. There’s nothing like that group experience.

Valerie Faris: It’s fun to be on a set for 30 days with the same people every day. We loved that process. You get really close to everybody and it’s a great feeling and then like Jonathan says, the ultimate reward in doing films is that you get to see an audience watch your film. We don’t perform so for us that’s the closest thing.