"Ruby Sparks" is a case study in what a rocky landscape Hollywood has become for small, character-driven films over the last few years.
The husband-and-wife directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris were coming off "Little Miss Sunshine," an $8 million comedy that grossed more than $100 million worldwide, won two Oscars and was nominated for Best Picture – and it still took the directors six years and a number of failed projects before they were able to make another movie.
Before going into production on "Ruby Sparks" with Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Annette Bening and Antonio Banderas, they'd secured actors like Ben Stiller, Reese Witherspoon, Zach Galifianakis and Paul Rudd for projects that stalled.
Also read: Zoe Kazan on Men, Women, Power, Control and 'Ruby Sparks'
But in the end, financial and creative troubles scuttled one project after another, and Dayton and Faris went back to directing commercials while hoping that they'd finally get another chance to make a movie.
"We had a lot of opportunities, and projects we loved," Faris told TheWrap. "But it's rare when all the pieces of the puzzle come together at the right time.
"Maybe it's because we had such a good experience the first time around, but we don't want to enter into something unless we have the right cast, the right amount of money, and all the players are aligned and seeing the film in the same way."
The years of false starts and near misses ended with "Ruby Sparks," a touching but tricky blend of comedy and drama that both embraces and subverts romantic-comedy clichés. The screenwriting debut of actress (and occasional playwright) Zoe Kazan, the film tells the story of a struggling writer, Calvin Weir-Fields (Dano), who finds that one of his characters, Ruby Sparks (Kazan), has come to life, but that complete control over another person is both irresistible and terrible to wield.
Thornier and eventually darker than "Little Miss Sunshine," the film has mostly won rave reviews, though a minority of critics (including TheWrap's Alonso Duralde) have resisted it.
"So far audiences have been appreciative, but there are some who are uncomfortable and even angry," said Dayton of the film's early screenings — scattered previews unlike the 2006 Sundance launch of "Little Miss Sunshine," which gave the veteran commercial and music-video directors' feature film career a memorable beginning.
"This feels very different from 'Little Miss Sunshine,'" said Faris. "Sundance was such a vote of confidence, such an overwhelmingly positive response that I felt a certain ease afterwards. This one, every time I watch it with an audience, I'm nervous for it."
Certainly, "Ruby Sparks" is a balancing act of sorts, and a film whose layers can be a bit dizzying at times. It's about creation and control and illusion — and, said Dayton and Faris, about a situation they could understand themselves.
"It wasn't lost on us that the Calvin character was facing his followup to a successful first book," said Faris. "If you think too much about it, following a success can be paralyzing."
"But we never had writer's block during the process," added Dayton. "We were always working on something."
In fact, the couple developed a number of films in the aftermath of "Little Miss Sunshine," while doing commercial work to pay the bills. "We're fortunate that we don't have to make movies for a living," said Dayton. "We do have this other career."
"But we never stopped working on movies," added Faris.
One was "The Abstinence Teacher," about a sex education teacher in a conservative small town, which Tom Perotta ("Election," "Little Children") adapted from his own novel.
Another was "Used Guys," a Stiller comedy set in a future world ruled by women; Witherspoon would have co-starred, and Dayton and Faris hired "Little Miss Sunshine" writer Michael Arndt to work on the script.
Yet another was "Will," written by comedian and actor Demitri Martin and slated to have starred Galifianakis and Paul Rudd.
A couple of the films, Faris said, got within three weeks of shooting before things fell apart, sometimes over creative differences and sometimes over financing. "On one movie, the budget just kept shrinking, to where we finally said, 'We can't do the movie that we think you want for that amount of money.'"
In most cases, Dayton and Faris said they themselves walked away from the projects. "If we don't love it and feel like something good can happen, it's devastating to our relationship," said Dayton. "And we ultimately feel like we're the gate-keepers, and people want us to make another good film. We take that very seriously."
He paused, then laughed. "I mean, there was a very high-level executive we met at a party who shall remain nameless. And he said, 'Don't take your time [after "Little Miss Sunshine"]. Go out and make movies. You can make three bad movies and you'll still be fine.' And we were like, 'Really?'"
"Easy for him to say," added Faris. "We're the ones who are trying to build a body of work."
Kazan's script for "Ruby Sparks," they said, came to them while they were working on an HBO pilot. Although they'd remained close with Dano, who had starred in "Little Miss Sunshine," and had gotten to know Kazan socially, the actor and actress-writer didn't want to approach them as friends — so they enlisted producers Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who'd also produced Dayton's and Faris's first movie.
"Before I even realized that I was writing it for me and Paul, I had thought of Jonathan and Valerie," said Kazan in a separate interview. "I loved that delicate balance they do in 'Little Miss Sunshine' — this movie is very different, but I loved their ability to balance different kinds of tone and different elements and make them feel like they're all in one movie."
Dayton and Faris said they both loved the script – and more to the point, they loved working with Kazan in a nine-month process that resulted in 17 drafts.
"The thing that struck us is that Zoe is not only a good writer, she was a great rewriter," said Dayton. "She could take our discussions and come back with really smart things."
Part of the focus in the rewriting process, they said, was to embrace the extremes – to have romantic fun with the idea of Dano's character creating his dream girl, but also to face the ugly truth that exercising complete control over another human being is going to have a very dark side.
"We wanted to stretch the concept to its lowest and highest moments, to find the corners of where this could go," said Dayton. "We had to go to the bottom, and not just make it frothy."
At the end of the script-development period, they sent the script to a few studios and got immediate interest from Fox Searchlight, which had also released "Little Miss Sunshine" (though they'd bought it after it was finished, not before it was made). The filmmakers were comfortable with the studio: "It was kind of a no-brainer," said Faris, adding that Searchlight took the rare step of giving the second-time directors final cut.
With Searchlight involved, Dayton and Faris committed to the same budget and the same shooting schedule as their debut film, along with a release date, July 25, that is one day shy of exactly six years after the limited release of "Little Miss Sunshine."
"I'm just happy that we've made another movie," said Dayton. "We don't just have a single film – now our sensibilities can be triangulated between two. There's a trajectory, and people can say, 'Oh, this is what they do … '"
But wouldn't people need three films to triangulate their sensibility?
"That's true," said Dayton, laughing. "We've created a straight line. Next we'll create a triangle."