In her new film, Ruby Sparks, Zoe Kazan plays a young woman who is written into existence by a frustrated writer. Kazan spoke to Time Out about the challenges of writing the screenplay and acting opposite her boyfriend, Paul Dano, who also stars in the film.
You wrote the screenplay for your new film, Ruby Sparks. What inspired it?
I was walking home from work one day, past a Macy’s, and there was a discarded mannequin in the trash, and I thought it was a person. It made me think of the Pygmalion myth about the sculptor who falls in love with his statue and wills it into life. It just sort of planted a seed.
Calvin writes your character, Ruby, into existence, but he soon finds that he can’t control the person she becomes. Were you trying to explore that aspect of relationships?
Yeah, that people change, that people are mysterious. And that really loving someone means loving the mystery, and not loving the concrete idea of a person or of romance itself, and being able to accept change. I think it’s very difficult to do that, and I was moved by [the idea of] a character grappling with that.
As she’s initially written by Calvin, Ruby shares characteristics with the trope of the manic pixie dream girl. Was she meant to be a comment on that type of character?
If you want to read it as a comment, I’m okay with that. I feel very strongly that [type of] person is not real. I think it’s a way that people read female characters that flattens them out and makes them seem less real. There are characters like that, but the people writing about those characters are as responsible for inventing that trope.
It’s a way of reducing interesting, complicated women down to a manageable idea, and that’s part of what the movie’s about – the danger of doing that. I think of Ruby as being completely herself from the start. It takes a while to get to know her in the movie, but it’s not until Calvin starts to change her that she becomes less real.
Did you write the script with you and your boyfriend in mind for the lead roles?
I definitely did. I was about five pages in, and I gave it to Paul to look at, and he said, “You’re writing this for us, right?” As soon as he said it, I was like, Oh, that’s absolutely right.
Was it challenging to work together?
It’s both a blessing and something that is difficult. It’s not difficult at work, but the movie took priority for us while we were making it. Afterwards, we really needed to get to know each other again and put that working relationship behind us. But it’s very easy and helpful to have a scene partner that knows you so well. He’s seen me be sick all over the floor and at my worst emotional moments already, so there’s sort of no limit to what I can do when he’s watching.
You’ve written plays before, but Ruby Sparks is the first screenplay you’ve had produced. How is the process different?
I find playwriting really painful. I love it, or I wouldn’t do it, but I don’t love the theatre as much as I love movies. I love bad movies, whereas going to the theater for me is a painful experience. I think it’s really hard to sit and watch actors do something live and have it not go well. It’s a totally different collaborative process when you’re trying to create a live event on a deadline.
[With Ruby Sparks,] all of the work on the writing side was done basically before we started shooting. There’s so much else that goes into creating the movie – from the editors, cinematographers, the costume designers, doing production design on the houses, casting – so much of that is [up to] the director. In a play, obviously there are set designers and light designers, and those people are really important for making the experience [work] as a play, but it’s your words that get [the actors] on and off stage.
In the film, Calvin is going through a difficult bout of writer’s block. Is that something you’ve struggled with?
No. You know, I feel really lucky, because I have this whole other life where I’m an actor, so I don’t have to write if I don’t want to. I have something else that I really love, so it makes it easier. Anytime that I’ve felt uninspired, I don’t force myself to sit down and write. I only do it when I feel the impulse.
It’s really silly, but a night in for us – being able to rent a video at our local store and cook food at home – seems really exotic, because we never get to do that. I love to walk around New York. Honestly, that’s like the best thing, to walk over to Park Slope and go visit my friend Betty and take her dog out in the park or go walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. I really dig being outside and getting to see everybody in the street.