Six years ago, music video superstars Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris took a break from making clips for Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M. to direct their first feature film. That indie dramedy, titled Little Miss Sunshine, went on to gross more than $100 million at the box office and locked down four Academy Award nominations.
After a good long rest, the husband-and-wife duo have returned with a follow-up film, the magical-realist romance Ruby Sparks. This increasingly dark comedy relates the story of a burned-out young novelist named Calvin (Paul Dano) who types up a story about the perfect girlfriend (Zoe Kazan, Revolutionary Road)—only to find her coming to life in the flesh. The Pygmalion-esque script by Ms. Kazan (who happens to be Dano’s real-life partner) mixes the existential melancholy of a Charlie Kaufman movie (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Being John Malkovich, Adaptation.) with the free-spirited romance of a Zooey Deschanel comedy.
The Alibi chatted with Dayton and Faris about the long road from MTV’s “The Cutting Edge” to their second feature film.
You two worked with Paul Dano on Little Miss Sunshine, but he didn’t really get to speak in that film since his character had taken a vow of silence. Did you feel you owed him another movie because of that?
JD: [Laughs.] That’s exactly it.
VF: [Laughs.] We have a certain quota of words.
JD: Yeah. We paid for all these words that we didn’t get to use. ... No. We loved working with everyone on that film, and we’ve been eager to work with them since. We’ve talked to Steve Carell about a couple of projects over the years. When this came to us, and Paul and Zoe were attached to the script, we were really excited to work with him again.
Did they send the script to you and ask if you wanted to get involved?
JD: Yeah. They were working with two of the producers from Little Miss Sunshine. And so they came to us with this package.
A little hard to turn down at that point?
VF: It was nice because it was actually a lot of people that we knew well, and it felt like a very good situation. And then, of course, Fox Searchlight [distributors of Little Miss Sunshine] got involved, which made it even more homey. It’s nice to work with people you know and who trust you. Fox Searchlight gave us final cut on the film, which is a fairly rare thing.
A lot of the actors in Little Miss Sunshine went on to do big stuff. Almost immediately after, Paul Dano co-starred in There Will Be Blood. Did you see him grow as an actor because of those intermediate experiences?
JD: Yeah. I mean, Paul was an amazing actor when we first worked with him. He’s more mature [now], I think. As you say, on this, he was able to talk. He’s a very good physical actor and a good comedic actor. He’s just a natural.
VF: But he’s also not afraid. Maybe this is, in one way, how he’s different—although [2001’s] L.I.E. was a very tough role—he likes a challenge. He likes to take a character to the far reaches. He’s really into exploring and experimenting.
You knew Paul, obviously, but did you know Zoe?
JD: We had met Zoe. He brought her over to our house, and we were very intrigued by her. We had seen her in a few things, but this was obviously a much bigger role than she had ever done.
VF: Especially as writer and actress.
JD: But it felt like the right thing, and we liked the idea that we would have these two actors that you don’t normally expect to star in a romantic comedy. It felt like a fresh place to start.
Zoe wrote the script herself. But in a lot of ways, her title character is a hard role to cast, because she’s supposed to be the perfect fictional woman. How did you make sure that would come across in the film?
JD: Well, what we liked was that she was Calvin’s dream girl, not the dream girl for every man in the world. He chose a very particular kind of person who would challenge him. You know, when they first meet in the park, she’s not interested in writing. She doesn’t even know who F. Scott Fitzgerald is. So he, by design, makes someone who is gonna give him a hard time. Which, in a way, made me like Calvin more.
VF: She’s not just this plaything that’s gonna worship him.
JD: But Zoe, as a writer, really focussed, as we all did, on the needs of the story. It wasn’t really about her creating a vehicle or writing scenes that she wanted to act out. I think we all really agreed we were going to tell the story and take it to places that felt right to us and were challenging.
I think this may be the first time in the history of movies in which a real-life couple has ended up directing another real-life couple.
JD: It was a very meta moment. But it brought certain benefits. Certainly all of us cared a lot and were all very invested in the movie, and came to the set every day very eager to give our best. I think it also freed the actors—it freed all of us—to really push it. The film goes to places you don’t normally see in movies. It has its darker moments. It was a very supportive, trusting set. Having two actors that we knew well and who wanted to go for it allowed us to really explore those scenes.
VF: They respect each other and trust each other. In fact, I would say, between the four of us, there’s a level of trust that makes all those explorations just more possible.
It was six years ago that you had your huge success with Little Miss Sunshine. Do you think the environment has gotten tougher for independent film since then?
JD: Sadly, yes. We got so many offers over the years after Little Miss Sunshine. There were films that we liked and were eager to make, but for various reasons they didn’t happen. This film came together very quickly and we were very lucky to get Searchlight to stand behind it. But it was the same budget range as Little Miss Sunshine, the same shooting schedule. So, despite the success of that movie, we’re back with a movie that costs the same amount.
VF: The other thing that, I think, has really taken a toll on the independent film business is DVD sales, the lost revenue from DVD sales. Because that’s really how you could finance films like this. So it’s harder. Without the guarantee of a franchise or a best-selling book behind it, it’s just harder to get original films made. But we’re gonna keep trying.