If Zoe Kazan’s last name sounds familiar, it’s because she’s come from great Hollywood stock. Her grandfather, Elia Kazan, directed one hell of a resume: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, all films that bare the Kazan name. With her parents Nicholas and Robin prolific Hollywood writers, it’s no surprise she’s crafted a work as engaging and charming as Ruby Sparks.
A labor of love, Kazan engineered the project from the ground up – incorporating boyfriend Paul Dano and directors Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton to come along. What I discovered in my roundtable with Kazan was a firm belief in the messages of her film and an assertive collectedness that emanates from her words. This is a talent that believed in her work, and the final product might just speak for itself:
Interviewer: You’ve probably heard the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” referred to quite a bit. And what I enjoyed about your movie is it kind of seemed like the answer to the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” The idea of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” is the creation by often-male writers that can never live up to something that exists in the real world. This quirky girl that exists to…
Zoe Kazan: … Girls whose problems make them more endearing or not real, period?
Interviewer: Exactly! Or they’re only there to aid the male character’s development.
ZK: [laughs] But that’s from my movie?
Interviewer: Yeah, yeah.
ZK: [friendly but assertive] I wasn’t saying that.
Interviewer: But did you make this movie to kind of answer the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl?”
ZK: I don’t like that term. Rather, what I mean is that I think when Nathan Rabin (The A.V. Club) coined that it was a very useful critical tool examining the two-dimensionality of some female characters in movies. But I think it’s turned into this unstoppable monster where people use it to describe things that don’t really fall under that rubric.
I’ve heard it referenced to Annie Hall and Katherine Hepburn’s character in Bringing Up Baby. It’s interesting to me that men have this impulse to idealize or sort of bronze a woman. To make precious or make into art something that is living. But I think that that term erases all difference, all individuality. It just bothers me when people use it, especially in reference to characters or women that I don’t see that way. So I think it was definitely on my mind. I wasn’t writing this in response to that but, like I said, that sort of male impulse is interesting to me.
I look at a movie like Annie Hall for instance and I think “How much did Woody Allen create Diane Keaton, and how much did Diane Keaton inspire Woody Allen?” It’s just an interesting question and I think it was part of my jumping off point.
I hope that our movie doesn’t fall under that rubric though…
Interviewer: That’s part of the reason why I enjoyed it so much, because I’ve definitely grown tired of the monster that had been created.
Interviewer: To roll of that a little bit, you said in an interview with LA Times that you think that a lot of romantic comedies are written by men for women. What perspective do you think you bring to this film as a female writer?
ZK: That quote was in some way taken out of context. I was talking about, in a larger way, how there are so many movies that I love so much that are written by men that feel very gender balanced or truthful. A movie like Tootsie or a movie like Hannah & Her Sisters. Where I look at it and I go “I know those women and I understand them.” But I think sometimes I think the main people who go to see romantic comedies are women.
And when I see some of these movies that have been written by men that have an idealized female character whose sort of music tastes stands in for her personality or the way she dresses stands in, it bothers me because I feel like it’s a failure of imagination on their part. And I don’t think that’s a gender thing, I don’t think men are the only ones whose imaginations fail them creating female characters or characters in general. But when it is a man doing it, it kind of irks me. It makes me feel like I’m being fed something that I don’t want to eat.
So I don’t think I bring something special as a female writer, but I am interested in writing something that feels [truthful]. An example for me that feels really truthful is When Harry Met Sally, Billy Crystal’s character feels like a guy I know. I feel like I’ve gone out with that guy. I would rather see real people fall in love than these stylized creations. That’s my aesthetic preference, not my political preference! [laughs]
Tim Kelly: In the creative phase, were there difficulties in trying to get the concept or idea of Ruby Sparks across? You never find out the how or why of Ruby’s existence. There’re no magical wishing well coins like you’d see in most modern romantic comedies. Did anyone ever question you on that?
ZK: I think that that stuff is fun, like in a movie like Big for instance. But Groundhog Day is one of my favorite movies, you never mind out why he goes into this wormhole. I think and explanation, like the shooting star in Ted, it’s kind of silly. It doesn’t actually explain anything. It just gives the audience one tiny thing to hold on to. And for me, the movie should work metaphorically. It’s about relationships ultimately. That’s what magic realism is supposed to do, right? A sort of left door entry into a real life subject.
But the truth is that I didn’t have to pitch this to anyone. I wrote the script on spec and brought it to producers and they read and either responded to it or they didn’t. And then the first people we brought into it after producers were Jonathan and Valerie, who I think got what I was trying to do and helped me come to do it better over the next nine months.
But I don’t know… did you want there to be a magic well? [everyone laughs]
TK: No, no! I appreciated that were wasn’t an explanation. I think you see that so much now, and for something like Big it wasn’t cliché at the time.
ZK: But also it’s (Big) a children’s story! I kind of think, do adults really need a sort of spoon-fed thing. I hope not!
Interviewer: Can you talk a little bit about the contrast between your character and his (Calvin’s, Paul Dano) previous character? Because I thought that was one of the most interesting juxtapositions. There’s this moment of cold water, this moment of clarity and I thought it was a really well-written scene.
ZK: Thank you. I get nervous about that scene because it’s so out of left field. I really wanted to feel… it seemed really important to me in the movie to understand more about how Calvin had behaved in previous relationships.
Interviewer: Because at that point, you almost don’t believe he could have possible been in one.
ZK: Yeah, sort of. I think hearing her, you had heard him talk about her as this bitch all the way throughout the movie. When we were casting that part I asked Jonathan, “Please find somebody who doesn’t look like a bitch.” [room laughs]
Because there’s that “romantic comedy ex-girlfriend” that Bridget Wilson-Sampras used to play. Do you remember her, she was blonde and she’d play like this ice queen?
TK: She was in Billy Madison, Shopgirl…
ZK: She always played that character. I wanted the audience to be challenged in what they had been told about this girl the whole time. Just hearing her voice. It’s an important thing too, because he’s (Calvin) somebody who’s really trying to control his environtment and his life and not be upset and not be rattled. It’s a surprise to him that she shows up in the movie and kicks off his emotional meltdown.
Interviewer: From an acting perspective, how do you approach a character that doesn’t have one specific personality? That’s going to be changing throughout? Is there any difference to your process?
ZK: Yeah, that’s really interesting. No, I don’t think so. I find my own self, my own personality, to be very changeable. I don’t feel the same way all the time. And I think that thing where Ruby says “Don’t quote me to myself,” I’ve said that in arguments! Because I feel like it’s very hard to be held to, especially when you’re young… I feel like there’s so much changeability.
I think I have a lot of emotion, so I’ll wake up some days and I feel so sad and I don’t know why. She justifies it for herself; she says “I’ve been so up and down lately.” I think it’s just a matter of; her changes are a little more extreme. Especially for comedy, it’s a little broader than just playing her straight up.
That was fun to take it to sort of emotional or logical extremes.
I very much enjoyed Ruby Sparks. I think it’s an honest film with a lot of heart that explores some pretty heavy territory relationship-wise. I’ll have a review up shortly. In the meantime, I would like to extend my personal gratitude to Ms. Kazan and everyone who took the time to speak with us about the movie.
Ruby Sparks is currently in limited release.