Actress-screenwriter Zoe Kazan turned Pygmalion into a rom-com with dark edges in "Ruby Sparks"
With two screenwriters for parents (Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord) and a legendary theater and film director for a grandfather (Elia Kazan), it's hardly surprising that Zoe Kazan wasn't satisfied just being a stage and screen actress.
She began writing at Yale University, with her first play, "Absalom," debuting at the Humana Festival in 2009. And now she's followed with the screenplay to "Ruby Sparks," the Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris film in which Kazan also stars as a mysterious and malleable young woman who springs to life after being created on the page by a novelist played by her real-life partner, Paul Dano.
Inspired by Pygmalion (the Roman myth more than the George Bernard Shaw play), "Ruby Sparks" simultaneously examines the delusions that undermine relationships, the male creation of dream-girl archetypes and the down side of complete control – all in a romantic-comedy setting that at one point turns dark and harrowing.
The 28-year-old Kazan spoke to TheWrap on the day of her film's Los Angeles premiere.
Why write a screenplay?
I never wanted to be a professional writer. I always wanted to act. But when I started acting, there'd be these swaths of time when I didn't have anything to do, and my entire source of creativity was auditioning.
All auditioning is, really, is trying to get the job, and wondering, Do people like me? It was so antithetical to the way I had lived my life up to that point that I started to feel like I was going crazy. So I started writing as a way of throwing out a safety net, a life preserver.
Is the movie that was made close to what you imagined when you were writing it?
Sort of, and sort of not. The ways in which it is similar to what I imagined are the core elements — how it feels to watch the movie, and the kind of movie it is, the kind of budget we had. There are things where I think, Yes, that is exactly as I saw it. And then there are things that are so surprising to me.
Like when they cast Antonio [Banderas] — that was not the person I had in mind writing that part. The character's name is Mort, so I was not thinking of a handsome Spaniard. But when they cast him, I thought, that is so perfect. And in ways like that, I love that Jonathan and Valerie brought so much of their own creativity to it. It feels like a true collaboration.
You worked with them on 17 drafts of the screenplay.
I feel like this is going to be misunderstood, because people don't talk about this process a lot. And part of the reason they don't talk about it is that it doesn't happen a lot anymore. I think a lot of directors neglect script development, and I know that it has become almost verboten in the studio world.
This was not some sort of mastermind thing, them controlling me to control Calvin to control Ruby. It was very natural. This used to be a very normal part of the process. There are letters that are beautiful to read between my grandfather and Tennessee Williams, my grandfather and Arthur Miller, where they are crafting those plays — not together, but with his guidance. I think people need good collaborators to be the best version of themselves.
You're a woman writing the character of a man who writes the character of a woman, who you're also playing as an actress. Your directors are trying to follow up a hugely successful debut with a movie about a writer trying to follow up a hugely successful debut … Were you trying to create as many layers as possible with this thing?
Yes, you're right, it got very meta. [laughs] I don't really have anything to say about that. It got very strange, I try not to think about it. It's like the universe — you don't want to think about it too hard.
Your character has been described as the ultimate deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. As an actress, were you inspired to write it by the depictions of female characters that you were seeing in scripts and onscreen?
I was thinking more about characters that feel real to me. The best example I can think of is "Annie Hall." Woody Allen wrote this character that was obviously inspired by women he knew, or a woman he knew, but how much did he define Diane Keaton by writing "Annie Hall?" Or how much did she define him by being who she was, for him to have a muse? And what is the flip side of that? What is her experience?
And then I was thinking about something that feels less well-rounded. I don't want to use a movie example, so I'll take Britney Spears. Britney Spears was both the pop creation and a real person. When we were looking at the pop creation, we were looking at, like, two percent of what the real person was. And I started thinking about some movies where the character feels two-dimensional, or their musical taste stands in for their personality. If that's 2 percent of the iceberg, what does the rest of the iceberg look like? That kind of thinking started to get my brain moving in this direction.
But I was much more interested, frankly, in relationships, in how we define each other and conceive of each other and try to make each other into something that we deem lovable.
So is there much of your own relationship with Paul in the movie?
I hope not. You know, Paul is an incredibly private person. And I think that if I had written us, he would never have agreed to act in it. And also, we would make a really boring movie, to be totally frank. We're pretty straightforward, uncomplicated. There's no power play. The worst it ever gets is a fight about what we're going to have for dinner.
For quite a while, the tone of the film is fairly light and comic. But you know it has to get dark to be true to the setup, and it really does.
I'm glad you felt that way. That was absolutely important to me. I wrote the first 120 pages of it very quickly, in like five days in 2009. And I realized that I knew what the broad movie version, the comedy version was, and that wasn't what I was after. So I put it away for six or seven months so that I could do a little more back-burner thinking about it.
And when I came back, it was with the feeling that this has to go to go to a very hard emotional place. If you're making a movie about a man who has power and control over a woman, I would feel remiss if I didn't allow it to go to its logical emotional extreme.
It would be like letting the audience get away with something, to have them enjoy him manipulating her early in the movie and not make them feel the ramifications of it later.
Do you see yourself writing more scripts?
I do want to write more scripts. I have three or four things that I need to get back to, but this year has been very weird. I normally can juggle acting and writing without it feeling like juggling. Like, I'm in a play at night so I can write during the day. Or I finish a movie and I have two months before the next one starts, so I can take those two months to write. But this year, for some reason, I've had no time to write. If I want that to be a part of my life, I'm going to have to start prioritizing.
Just tell your agent, "No more acting jobs for a while."
Well, I keep doing that, but I'm such a workaholic and I love to work so much. And from having parents in the field, I have this mindset that you never know when the work is gonna come or when it's not gonna come. So part of me is like, you gotta seize it now.