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Capone concludes his RUBY SPARKS coverage with a lively chat with directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

As a child of the '80s, growing up in the era of MTV's creation, I remember a time when the music video channel used to include the names of the video directors along with the artist, song title, and album title, and I never stopped looking at the names of the directors making my favorite videos. Among those names in the late 1980s and 1990s were those of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, a married couple making gorgeous and memorable clips for the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M., Jane's Addiction, Oasis, Weezer, Smashing Pumpkins, The Offspring, The Ramones, and The Beastie Boys. If I'm not mistaken, one of their most popular achievements was Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" video. They even directed a couple of episodes of "Mr. Show."

In 2006, they were tapped to direct a scrappy little script by Michael Arndt and turn it into LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, a wildly popular indie hit that featured an early performance by Paul Dano. In the years since, Dayton and Faris tried to get a couple other projects off the ground unsuccessfully until their old friend Paul Dano contacted them about a screenplay his girlfriend, Zoe Kazan, was writing about a writer who creates a real woman just by typing a story about her on his typewriter. Dano and Kazan knew Faris and Dayton would be a perfect match for the material, and their instincts were correct. One of my first interviews for Ain't It Cool News was with the pair, and of course my then-antiquated tape recorder malfunctioned, and talk never recorded. But I remember them being so sweet and fun, and that hasn't changed. Please enjoy my talk with Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris…


Capone: Hello, again.

Jonathan Dayton: Hello there.

VF: Hi.

Capone: Good to see you.

VF: Good to see you. How are you?

Capone: Good.

VF: You weren’t up too late?

Capone: I was up too late, yes.

VF: Oh, you were.

Capone: Considering I had just flown back from Comic-Con.

VF: Right.

Capone: Right. Literally, three hours before the movie started, I was getting off the plane.

JD: Oh my God. Thank you for doing that.

Capone: I know you mentioned last night that once you got involved fairly early in the process that you began this rewrite. Can you talk about what you wanted to have changed, what you thought needed work, and was Zoe particularly protective of her work or was she open to the changes?

VF: No, she was open, that’s the amazing thing. She was very open.

JD: All the main ideas were in the film, but it had a real sub-story about Calvin’s father, and it had a very different ending.

VF: The ending was particularly different, so we took out a lot of stuff about the father because we felt there were two stories, and we wanted to focus just really more on the relationship.

JD: We liked the idea of folding the story back on itself.

VF: We actually wanted the title of the book to be the title of the movie, and we had a whole long process with the studio, which ended in RUBY SPARKS, but we couldn’t title the book Ruby Sparks because that’s her name.

Capone: I forget what the title of the book was.

VF: It’s called "The Girlfriend." We wanted the movie to be called THE GIRLFRIEND at one point, but Fox was like, “No, no one will remember the title,” and they’re right. RUBY SPARKS is a better title, but we just liked the idea that the book is the story that you saw. The movie is the adaptation of the book.

JD: Any time you read a script, you have to ask yourself, “Alright, this is really interesting, but what is the film that will emerge from this?” and that became our task. We simplified the story and looked to make it, perhaps, a little more romantic and more about their relationship than just a science-fiction premise.

VF: And his struggle as a writer. It’s in there, but there maybe more about that in relationship to the father. Part of it is streamlining it a little, thinking about, “OK, when we cut this movie together, do we really need this scene?” We try to do some of that before we shoot because we knew we’d only have a certain number of days to shoot, and you don’t want to shoot stuff that you know isn’t going to make it into the film. We’re pretty brutal with trying to get rid of stuff and economize. The other things that we worked on a little bit on was the ending. It was a big scene, the confrontation.

JD: We took it a little darker than it originally was.

Capone: And it's not just dark; it's scary. It really upset me to watch.

VF: Yes. That's the idea.

JD: But that was exciting to us, and in reading the original script, we really felt like this has the potential to really be a genre-bending experience. It’s not going to be a romantic comedy as you normally think of them.

Capone: And people love to seem calling it one. I’m like, “Did you see the same movie I did?”

JD: Yeah, yeah.

VF: It’s weird when people have seen it, and they almost put the darker element aside.

JD: .Just from your comments, I was curious, do you, how do you feel does the ending play for you? Do you feel there is hope for him?

Capone: The very ending?

JD: The very ending.

Capone: When it came up last night about whether was there ever an option where Calvin's chose to behave differently, I thought either way would have been satisfying, and either way could even be looked as a happy ending it could be viewed as him needing to move on.

VF: Right.

Capone: But Zoe strikes me as someone that would fight for that happy ending. A real happy ending. I loved the ending, but it would have been fine either way.

VF: We’ve had some people say he shouldn’t be rewarded for what he did.

Capone: That's totally true! I agree.

JD: But I don’t think he is rewarded. I feel he goes through a great deal of pain and remorse. It ends with him simply meeting a girl and talking to her. He has no power over her, and he’s going to have to make this one work on his own. There are no guarantees.

Capone: This is the real test.

JD: He now has what we all face.

VF: It is not a setup for a sequel.

[Everybody laughs]

Capone: Going back to the typewriter massacre, that scene is freaky because it’s basically him breaking up with her. It’s him going through a breakup in just five minutes.

JD: Right.

Capone: It’s him going through the whole awful experience in this concentrated burst.

VF: Right, right. It’s true. To see it concentrated is more painful.

JD: Yeah, yeah. We feared that scene. We were excited by it. It was hard to do. We rehearsed it with other actors prior to even coming on to the film.

VF: Just to start exploring what it was.

JD: We needed to understand what it was. We even acted it out ourselves, just so we could feel what it was like to be in that situation.

VF: In both positions: what it felt like for him, what it felt like for her, and...

JD: That’s the beauty of having a directing team is that you can actually act out scenes and get to know them.

VF: And we kept thinking we would rehearse it with them, but we did a lot of rehearsals, and there was just this hesitance to go there too early. It felt like something that once we had done the whole movie, we kind of understood where we had been with these two people. I think for them, they didn’t want to plan it too much in their heads. So we did a lot of prep, and I think it was just easier for them dive into it on the day and go for it. Having been through the whole film, they brought the right things to that scene.

Capone: You shot it toward the end?

VF: At the very end, it was like the last scene that we did.

Capone: It would have to be, I think.

VF: Yeah.

Capone: You have to earn that. I think it was Zoe that mentioned that the specific things that Calvin has her do were not in the script specifically. Is that something you two came up with?

JD: Yes.

Capone: And that you guys, Paul and her all kind of came up with actions and picked the best ones? Zoe didn’t remember who came up with her on her hands and knees barking like a dog.

VF: I know. That’s the one that really gets people. We had a few more in there, but it was the morning of the shoot, we were in our pajamas eating breakfast, and we just typed out, “OK, he’s going to say...”

JD: And we made cards, and then we put them in order. There was the self loathing one, “You’re a genius,” “Scotty was a player.”

VF: “Snapping your fingers,” and it being sort of out of our control. Speaking French was originally in the script, singing "Skidamarink" was something we just came up with because she did it in the kitchen. And the “You’re a genius,” we felt like that’s where it has to end.

JD: And that’s where we’re going to understand that this is him punishing himself as much as he’s doing it to her.

VF: We did “bark like a dog,” and there was another one, “bad Scotty” that was in there that we edited out. It was just a matter of “She’s going to do these actions. She’s going to roll along the wall and say, ‘I love you, I’ll never leave you.”

JD: Those were the results of our rehearsals that Val and I did.

VF: Yeah. It was choreographed by us. Not well, but it kind of just wrote itself. At that point, it was pretty clear where it had to go.

Capone: It is like this ugly modern dance piece.

JD: We laughed because both of our films have pivotal dance scenes.

VF: There’s a point where you’ve got to leave the dialogue and go to a more sort of emotional and less cerebral place. I think originally in the script it was a little more dialogue based, that whole scene.

Capone: You mentioned earlier about not wanting to film something you didn’t think was going to get used. Does coming out of music videos and commercials teach you to work fast and economical?

JD: It was essential.

VF: Yes!


Capone: Given these 30-day shoots [both LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and RUBY SPARKS were shot in 30 days].

VF: You just can’t get too indulgent. You have to kind of know what you’re going for and try to get it as quickly as you can. I think it keeps everybody on their toes. I like fast schedules because everyone has to come prepared, the actors have to know their lines. We get a scene up and running really quickly, we stage it, we usually do all the staging ourselves, we show it to the actors, they change it if they want. We’re not exploring stuff on the set.

JD: Right. It improves, but it’s not discovered entirely there.

VF: Yeah, we’re not “wing-it” directors.


Capone: When you have the writer there as an actor, does that change the dynamic at all?

JD: Well, it had the potential to. It’s great that you always have someone if you want to ask about her original intentions on something, but we really focused our scriptwork on the period prior to shooting, because we did not want Zoe to have to be the writer on the set. We wanted her to focus on her performance. So we spent nine months--I think she said 17 drafts—getting it to where we wanted it. Getting the mean, lean script that we could then shoot.

VF: She could just leave that behind her. We were concerned, is this going to be a problem when we’re doing a scene with her saying, “That’s not how I saw it or that’s not…,” and that never happened.

JD: That never happened.

VF: She was very willing to hand it over to us and leave that state of mind. She wanted to just become Ruby. The only thing that happened for her a little bit, she talked about, is that she really wrote this from Calvin’s perspective. So, when she went to play Ruby, there were times where she realized, “Oh, this is weird,” and we realized it when we were shooting the scene when he discovers her in the house. She didn’t have anything of her responding to his odd behavior. She just went about, “You want some cereal?” We realized, he’s flipping out in front of her. So she’s got to at least say, “Are you mad at me? What’s going on?” That was a rewrite that happened on the day because it was very clear to us that she was acting not like a human would act, so there are those little things.


Capone: You talked about what you did in terms of writing and rewriting and what you’ve done in terms of the performances, can you talk just a little bit about the visual tone of the film? Were there visual cues that you wanted to get across?

JD: Well, the visual language of a film is always something that we enjoy exploring, but it’s essential to us that the visuals never overwhelm the story and don’t seduce you to the point where you leave the story and get into kind of this aesthetic world.

VF: Coming from music videos, I feel like in someways our films are distinctly lacking in style. There is definitely a lot of thought that goes into it, but we’re always very concerned about the style getting in the way.

JD: Yeah. So we wanted to reinforce the themes, not kind of be decorations.


Capone: You may have failed in those Big Sur scenes, which I think are supposed to be overwhelming.

JD: Oh yeah. Well, no, no. In the Big Sur scenes, you do want to be overwhelmed. You want to experience what Calvin does.

VF: In contrast to his house. That was so fun. The locations were probably one of the first, most important parts of the visual language for us because we felt like each house should sort of express the characters that lived in them. They should be extensions of the characters that lived in them, and Calvin’s house we always thought of as, like we talked about last night, it was like the inside of his head. Like this sort of multi-level labyrinth-like structure.

JD: We gave our production designer these M.C. Escher drawings where you have a world that’s sort of upside down and lots of stairs, a maze.

VF: Multi-faceted, all these different shades of white, and the whiteness was important in mirroring the blank page. There’s a lack of colour in Calvin’s life before Ruby comes into it.

JD: In a budget range like this, you can’t build sets. You don’t have money, so you, just as you cast the actors, you cast the sets, and you find places that introduce opportunities for staging. To have this multi-leveled house with all these interesting architectural details that he could hide behind and peek over...

VF: Staging is really part of, for us, the visual language, and we like to sit on shots longer if we can. There’s a scene where he’s trying to escape the house before she sees him. She’s at the top of the stairs, and we always loved how he’s kind of being framed at the beginning, and then they switch roles, and he’s down at the door kind of stuck, and she’s big in the frame. It’s just when you have a location that’s great like that, it just invites really fun staging opportunities. I think that’s really how, we don’t necessarily work from storyboards. A lot of directors coming from music videos and commercials really board out their movies, and...

JD: We pre-shoot them.

VF: We go to the locations, and we stage them, and we shoot them for still photography. We know that it’s really the space that we’re working in. We love architecture, and it’s part of the way we work is to find spaces that we are excited by and place the drama in those spaces. Maddie [Matthew Libatique] was incredible just in working with us. For a DP, he is very story oriented, and he’s worked with Darren [Aranofsky] forever. He works so closely with the director; it’s not like he’s just the camera guy. He’s very invested in the performances too, very sensitive. I would consider that part of the style of it, is that sensitive camera. The camera is kind of alive and connected to the performances, as opposed to being locked off. It’s not super calculated; it feels a little more alive to us, and that’s what we wanted, a little more responsive to what’s going on in the scene.

JD: I’ve got a question for you, just a quick...

Capone: Yes.

JD: As someone just having come from Comic-Con, I wondered, this film because of it’s somewhat fantastic premise, if it would have been valuable to play a film like this at Comic-Com, or is it just too outside the sci-fi, comic book world?

Capone: I think, yes, it probably would have been for a panel. But I bet a lot of people would have turned up for a screening if you'd brought yourselves, Paul and Zoe.

JD: Right.

VF: I don’t think of this as sci-fi. It isn’t realist. It’s just so crazy how many movies go to Comic-Con now.

JD: Do they get, is there a point where it’s just endless chatter. Do certain films just disappear in that?

Capone: If they’re not good, yeah. I’ve been there when footage has just bombed.

JD: Oh, yeah?

Capone: Okay, great. Great seeing you again.

JD: Thanks so much for everything.

VF: So much fun seeing you again.

-- Steve Prokopy
"Capone"

capone@aintitcool.com
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