Zoe Kazan writes her own ticket in 'Ruby Sparks'

Interview • In "Ruby Sparks," actress Zoe Kazan writes firecracker roles for herself and her boyfriend, Paul Dano.
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Zoe Kazan wasn't trying to write a script that she and her boyfriend, Paul Dano, could make together. It just sort of happened.

"I was about five pages in. I showed Paul [Dano] what I had so far. He asked if I was writing it for the two of us," Kazan said in a recent phone interview. "As soon as he said it, I thought, 'Oh, that's totally what I'm doing.' "

Such accidents of writing are at the heart of "Ruby Sparks," the romantic comedy that Kazan wrote, starring her and Dano (who co-starred in the frontier drama "Meek's Cutoff"). ("Ruby Sparks" opens today at Salt Lake City's Broadway Centre Cinemas and the Century 16 in South Salt Lake, and Aug. 17 at the Megaplex 17 at The District, South Jordan.)

Dano plays Calvin, a novelist who tries to solve his writer's block by writing about the beautiful woman he saw in his dream. He creates a vivid character named Ruby Sparks — so vivid that Ruby (played by Kazan) appears in his kitchen, an instant girlfriend, created out of Calvin's imagination.

Even after realizing that she was writing for herself and Dano, Kazan said she tried not to think about that.

"It's hard to hear the characters' voices clearly if you're trying to impose something on them," she said. "I just tried to listen to Calvin and Ruby. To be honest, it was actually sort of easy to do, because the story and what they were telling me were much more exciting than imagining us doing it."

The flash of inspiration came when Kazan saw a mannequin in the trash. That got her thinking about the Greek myth of Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with his statue and wished it could become a real woman.

"I'd been thinking a lot about relationships and the way we define each other — how hard it is to actually love the person you're with and not some idea of that person," Kazan said.

Less important than the relationship, in Kazan's view, is how Ruby goes from the page to reality. "If I was writing a children's movie, I would feel like I needed some kind of excuse," she said. "Do we really need a shooting star or a Gypsy curse? I don't think so. Either you take the magic-realist leap or you don't. If you don't want to take that leap, then probably this movie isn't for you."

Many of the prospective directors Kazan met while developing "Ruby Sparks" got hung up on the fantasy element, said Valerie Faris, who co-directed the film with her husband, Jonathan Dayton.

"We treated the magic and the reality the same way," Faris said. "Ultimately, we didn't think the movie was about the magic."

Then what is it about? "It was ultimately about a lot of things," Dayton said. "About our need to control. It was also about the creative process. It's about a relationship, but it's also about how any artist creates something, and how their desire to control the work is as destructive in creativity as it is in the relationship."

The way Calvin deals with the girlfriend he created, but who then takes on a life of her own, is similar to the ups-and-downs of any relationship. "All relationships when they start, you have an idea of the person you're starting a relationship with," Faris said. "You have this image of who they are, and it has to be reconciled with what you learn about them, the more they become real as you get to know them."

Kazan's script, Faris said, is "also about the way men create women characters. That's what is fun about this. He creates her, and he ultimately has to deal with her as a real human being and one that has a will of her own."

"Ruby Sparks" is the first movie Dayton and Faris have directed since their 2006 debut, "Little Miss Sunshine," a surprise hit co-starring Dano that won Oscars for Michael Arndt's screenplay and Alan Arkin's supporting performance. The couple have worked on several projects since "Little Miss Sunshine," but were particular about what they would do next.

"It was really about protecting the filmmaking experience," Dayton said. "We are lucky we have a second career in commercials, so we never have to take a [movie] job to pay our bills. We really worked hard to only embark on something that really feels like a good film has a decent chance of happening."

Kazan comes from a moviemaking family — her parents are screenwriters, Nicholas Kazan ("Reversal of Fortune") and Robin Swicord ("The Jane Austen Book Club"), while her grandfather Elia Kazan directed classics such as "On the Waterfront" and "A Streetcar Named Desire."

"To hear her talk about it, she was dictating stories to her mother before she could even form words on a page," Dayton said.

One word Kazan doesn't use often is "quirky," though it's often used — she says misused — by writers describing independent films like "Ruby Sparks."

Dayton called the word "such a dismissive kind of lazy label that, unfortunately, our work has been hit with it at times."

"Paul had an interview once with someone who asked him why he did quirky movies like 'There Will Be Blood' and 'Little Miss Sunshine,' " Kazan said. "Any word that attempts to lump those two movies into the same category is not a very useful word. … It's rendered meaningless by its usage."

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Review • See Sean P. Means' review of "Ruby Sparks" on p. X.