Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris don’t make your average summer comedies. In 2006 their surprise hit Little Miss Sunshine involved a deteriorating marriage, a druggy grandfather, a suicidal uncle, and, of course, a mute Paul Dano – all comedic trappings that hardly approach light fare. Their return after a six year theatrical release absence, Ruby Sparks, is no different.
Although the trailers and TV spots hint at a quirky and charming love story, Ruby Sparks is nothing of the sort. When your lead is a narcissistic, immature, unlikable, and slightly nihilistic writer whose manic pixie dream girl is his own boyish creation, you’re not exactly making How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days. Ruby Sparks, in the same vein as Dayton and Faris’ previous feature, is a story about failure, how to bounce back from it and, more importantly, how to also make it funny.
Here’s what Dayton and Faris had to say about Ruby Sparks not being a comedy, the creative importance of facing problems, and how their film represents the modern man-children of the world:
Like Little Miss Sunshine, your latest film is almost more depressing than it is funny. Would you call it a comedy?
JD: [Laughs] Yeah! We were actually nervous about calling it a comedy.
VF: We actually didn’t even call it a comedy. The studio keeps wanting to push it as that.
JD: I kind of understand that. You want to get people in the room promising laughs. What I love about this it’s so much more than a romantic comedy.
VF: And that’s what we loved about Little Miss Sunshine, too. We thought it was funny, but, to me, it wasn’t a pure comedy. It is nice to be in a theater hearing people laugh at the right places [Laughs].
JD: Were you at the screening last night?
Yeah. I think we laughed at the right places and, at other parts, we laughed because it can be uncomfortable.
VF: Yeah, yeah. For this one, it’s funny what parts get a laugh. There’s some parts you know which will get a laugh, but there are other parts people identify and laugh with, which maybe other people don’t find funny. It’s always interesting to see where the laughs start to stop, when it starts to descend into a darker film. There are still some laughs, but sometimes they come later than we expect. It is dark and uncomfortable, but there are still laughs.
JD: Which is good. Last night was good. It was our first time seeing it outside of an LA audience, and LA audiences are kind of jaded.
VF: It’s fun to travel with the film, and it’s a great part of releasing a film. With a big film, I guess, you just set it up on thousands of screens and hope for the best. It’s so nice to travel with your film and have a dialogue with people about it. These are the kind of films we love to make.
And it must be nice getting that immediate sense of what really works or doesn’t when getting to watch those audience screenings.
VF: Yeah. We tested the movie, and, for some reason, it seemed to do best with the men over 35 demographic.
JD: I think a lot of men were freaked out about it, because it sort of exposes or shines a lot of light on…
The modern, emasculated man? [Laughs]
JD: [Laughs] Yeah, yeah. They didn’t mind it.
VF: It didn’t piss them off [Laughs]. It’s always surprising what you get back.
[Laughs] It’s different now. I was just in Brooklyn, and when you look at all the hipsters or guys that look like Calvin, you just think, “What happened to the man’s man?”
VF: [Laughs] It’s so true. Even when you look at actors, how many Cary Grants and Humphrey Bogarts are there anymore? Maybe George Clooney and Russell Crowe, but there seems to be much more grownup boys than men now. It’s, like…someone recently mentioned how immature culture has become, and it’s like that. It’s, like, we’ve all regressed into this teen mentality, where there’s not a lot of mature men.
That’s almost a part of Calvin’s failure in the film, which both Ruby Sparks and Little Miss Sunshine are a lot about. Is that thematic focus intentional or is it one of those subconscious things?
VF: [Laughs] Failure is always on our minds.
JD: The fear of failure, sure. What attracted us to it, I think, is the idea of our desire to control a relationship. And I feel like the film is deeply about the creative process, with our desire to wrestle with something we’re creating, and how that isn’t a productive act.
VF: I think that’s rooted in a fear of failure, when you’re trying to control something. You can’t make something failure-proof. You just gotta make something the best you can. That fear of failing can stop you from doing anything.
JD: You have to know there’s something you’re going to have to let go of to move forward.
VF: There’s an element of giving in that’s essential to creation. All those issues are interesting to us, in terms of the work.
JD: Ultimately, what I think what was so great about the script was that it was a rich exploration on these things.
Obviously the film discusses how you shouldn’t love your characters too much. What’s your relationship with your characters, and the lines of loving them too much or torturing them too much?
VF: I think you can still love and torture your characters at the same time. I think we do that all the time. We talk about this all the time, but when we read a script we have to love the characters, no matter how flawed they are. You want to go through things with them, feeling what they’re feeling. We always talk about our characters like children, both in the script and stage and editing, where we say…
JD: You can fall in love with them, but no matter how great a moment with them is, if it doesn’t fit the narrative, you have to cut your children. I really like to watch people suffer. I know if someone’s good for a part if I enjoy watching them suffer, like Greg Kinnear and Steve Carell on Little Miss Sunshine.
VF: I don’t like to watch someone suffer I don’t care about. Michael Arndt– who wrote Little Miss Sunshine –had this very simple note: your character can make one bad decision. If they make two or more bad decisions, then you’re done. It’s okay if they’re making bad decisions you understand, but sometimes I don’t understand them in films. Maybe people go to movies for different reasons, but I’m frustrated if I don’t get interested in anyone. You have to get interested in a character if you’re going to spend two years with them, like in this case.
When you’re in a creative block situation like Calvin is, how do you usually get through it? Do you just continue and hope for the best?
JD: For us, there are many ways. In our work it’s a matter of asking the same questions over and over. You have to get used to the fact the answers sometimes aren’t there, but you have to hammer away at it. As we were saying earlier, films, by their nature, take a long time to do. You have to find a subject that can resonate with you and change as you change.
VF: So often we’ll be stuck on something and one of us will say something, and having that back and forth can sometimes get a problem dislodged. Sometimes you come up on something you can’t get around, and it’s good to recognize that. There were movies we worked on for over two years that didn’t happen, and there’s a point for those where you say, “I’m not sure I can do this right now,” so you put it off to the side.
JD: We would rather not make a movie, even if we invested so much time into it, if we know it’s not ready yet. That’s what was great about this: we really felt like this had all the elements for a good movie. We weren’t sure we’d get a good movie in the end, but we felt like we had a fighting chance, you know?
VF: It either comes together or it doesn’t. There are problems in the process of making a film that’ll get solved, but there are other kinds of problems which will never get solved. You have to able to distinguish between those problems. At the script level, for us, we like to solve the problems on the page. You don’t have to film something to know what’s wrong. There’s usually one or two things we’re not sure how will workout, like the confrontation scene towards the end. It was one of those things you just had to push up against the wall and do it. Too often studios say, “Just cast it, then those problems will work themselves out,” and it doesn’t work that way. We always tend to go towards the problems, trying to work it out and have the movie as much as possible in your head.
Ruby Sparks is now in limited release and expands this weekend.