By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—Any writer will tell you a character sometimes will take over a story as it is being created. Actress and budding screenwriter Zoe Kazan takes that premise literally in her first produced screenplay “Ruby Sparks,” a quirky romantic comedy in which a novelist creates a character who comes to life. Kazan stars in and executive produced the project with her real life boyfriend Paul Dano, who plays Calvin, the enchanted scribe whose fictional protagonist shows up one morning at his house.
The 28-year-old, who is best known to movie audiences as the young co-worker Leonardo DiCaprio seduces in “Revolutionary Road,” says she was looking for a way explore a romantic relationship in screenplay in a metaphorical way. She wasn’t necessarily writing the script for her and Dano, and the thought did not cross her mind until he suggested it, she says.
The talented couple has been dating for five years, and previously co-starred in the Western drama “Meek’s Cutoff.”
Kazan, whose parents are also screenwriters and who is the granddaughter of the famous filmmaker Elia Kazan (“On the Waterfront”), worked closely with the co-directing husband and wife team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the filmmakers behind the critically acclaimed “Little Miss Sunshine,” on bringing her first script to the screen. She recently sat down alongside Dano, who starred in that 2008 comedy, to talk about their newest collaboration.
Front Row Features: Zoe, did you think about Paul when you were creating Calvin?
Kazan: No. Early on, I showed Paul some pages and he asked me if I was writing it for the two of us but it hadn’t occurred to me until he said it. When he said it, that’s when I realized that was what I was doing. Then I tried to put it out of my head because at that point the characters were speaking so clearly to me and the story was really unfolding. That was more interesting to me than trying to write good parts for us.
Front Row Features: Paul, how much did you contribute to the writing process?
Dano: I didn’t. I know Zoe’s writing and I knew she was onto something and I’d rather be surprised by something. I also don’t want to be aware when somebody’s writing to a strength or weakness of mine. I’d rather be challenged. Whenever we talked about the film, it usually wasn’t about Calvin. It was just about film, in general. It was not about us acting in it. That came later.
Front Row Features: Was it tough to write a story told from a man’s perspective?
Kazan: I think the movie moves perspectives. It starts out being very much his story and then it becomes more their story, as Ruby becomes more real. He’s the protagonist but at some point her free will starts to change his story. Even though he tries to get a handle on that and control what’s happening, he can’t. So I don’t think of the movie as being from his perspective, even though he’s the main character. I didn’t find it difficult to write Calvin’s perspective—he’s a person before he’s a dude. His gender is only one small facet of the larger picture of who he is.
Front Row Features: Did you think about keeping Ruby a figment of Paul’s imagination?
Kazan: No. That would be a very different story. I was after a metaphorical door as to what happens in relationships. If the conceit of the movie opens that door then hopefully what’s behind it is really based in reality. Part of what was interesting to me to write about, based on my experience of writing, is that it feels like these people are totally real. When I was writing this, Calvin and Ruby were doing things that I didn’t feel I was making them do. I’d ask them, “How are you behaving? What’s happening?” and they would reveal themselves to me. I know that sounds crazy but I assure you a lot of screenwriters feel this way. Ruby’s very real to Calvin from the very start and that was something Jonathan, Valerie and I talked about in terms of how they would shoot it. We just wanted her to feel as real to the audience as she does to Calvin.
Front Row Features: Do you see yourself more as a writer or an actress?
Kazan: The way that people think about actors really bothers me because most of the actors I know are really hardworking and don’t fit the stereotype at all. When I started acting people used to say to me, “oh, you’re such a rare breed. You’re nothing like the Lindsey Lohans of the world, dancing on tables…” and I would think, how many people like that are there? I don’t think there are that many. Every actor I know is busting their butt, and doing three auditions a day and going to their day jobs. So I think there’s this idea of actors that I don’t like because it propagates a myth that’s really untrue and unhealthful.
Front Row Features: How did you balance the realism and the magic of the story?
Kazan: It wasn’t difficult, but it took a lot of care. I wrote the script very quickly. It only took a matter of weeks. Jonathan and Valerie, when they came on, they started giving me notes and essentially passed my drafts back and forth for months, and in that process we honed in on that delicate tone.
Front Row Features: In writing this story, did you consider your own relationships—past or current?
Kazan: It’s not autobiographical. I’m not drawing from one particular thing. It’s more a feeling of so much of the time you realize after the fact why you did something. Those things weren’t at the conscious point while I was writing them.
Front Row Features: What statement are you making by having Calvin write on a typewriter rather than a computer?
Kazan: The typewriter was a character choice. It came from an idea I had that Calvin is a person who is romantic to a fault. It would be easier for him to write on a computer but he has endowed this typewriter with special meaning and he can’t give it up. Also, from a practical level, a man sitting in front of a computer is no longer a lonely man. (The computer) is a bridge to the outside world. When you’re sitting in front of a typewriter, the typewriter is asking only one thing of you: put words on the page. You can’t play online solitaire or look at porn. There’s just one thing it is made to do and he can’t make it do that.
Front Row Features: Paul, what did the typewriter symbolize to you?
Dano: I remember going to the house alone to be there by myself, and the sound of the typewriter in that big house and how lonely that was. There are a lot of great reasons for the typewriter and it was there within the first two pages when Zoe wrote it. It was just part of the character and we do have a reason for it. It did a lot for me. His dad gave it to him and he wrote his book on it. A writer who uses a typewriter has to be stronger with his choices. I just like that idea.
Front Row Features: So Zoe, did you write the script on a computer or typewriter?
Kazan: A computer. I’m a pragmatist.