Pygmalion was muse behind ‘Ruby Sparks’

A hippie circus returned to the hills of Laurel Canyon about this time last year as the cast and crew of the surrealist romantic comedy “Ruby Sparks” gathered at Sid Krofft’s infamous retreat. Constructed with bricks salvaged from a Catholic schoolhouse and wood from Amish farms in Mexico, the house bursts with flora and fauna and is one of the most unique in Los Angeles.

Krofft, who with his brother Marty created “Land of the Lost"and “H.R. Pufnstuf” in the 1970s, rarely allows filming on the property. But the vibe of “Ruby Sparks” — the second movie from the directors of the 2006 breakout “Little Miss Sunshine” — spoke to the octogenarian’s penchant for the offbeat and sweetly psychedelic. And so amid the controlled chaos of the location, looniness reigned as the camera rolled on a family get-together scene.

A trim and tan Antonio Banderas, playing the man of the (quirky) house, prepared to cannonball off the roof into the pool, while Annette Bening in a Lauren Hutton-style wig and a paisley printed shirt, cooed over a baby, her purported grandchild. Chris Messina, playing Bening’s character’s loyal son, shot water guns in the pool, as Paul Dano, playing the film’s protagonist, sulked in the guesthouse — a rickety structure perched in an adjacent tree.


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Sunbathing in a orange-and-white-striped bikini on the brick patio was Dano’s co-star, real-life girlfriend and unlikely puppetmaster of the zaniness: 28-year-old Zoe Kazan. The diminutive writer-actress not only plays the antagonist in “Ruby Sparks,” she also penned the film, which Fox Searchlight is bringing to theaters July 25. The movie, centering on a novelist frustrated personally and professionally, is a meditation on love and control — and the lengths one will go to in the quest for an ideal(ized) mate.

“I was a big Greek myth nerd as a kid, and I always liked the story of Pygmalion and Galatea,” Kazan, wrapped in a bathrobe and tucked into a nook behind Krofft’s staircase, said later of her inspiration for the script. “I also feel like there are a lot of romantic comedies written by men for women:'Annie Hall,"(500) Days of Summer.’ I was interested in exploring that romance impulse men have to idealize women.”

Modern-day Pygmalion

Kazan had been ruminating on the idea for “Ruby Sparks” for years, but she didn’t start writing this contemporary Pygmalion story until February 2010, when she was on Broadway, playing opposite Christopher Walken in “A Behanding in Spokane.” Huddled backstage in her first official dressing room, Kazan banged out the first draft in a speedy two months. Instead of a sculptor carving a statue, her modern-day myth revolves around a tall, skinny, bespectacled novelist named Calvin (who looked an awful lot like Dano, the tall, skinny, bespectacled actor she had been sharing her life with for several years).

Calvin’s debut novel turned him into a cultural superstar, but afterward he was stricken with a severe case of writer’s block. Depressed and in therapy, he suddenly starts dreaming about a fantasy woman, Ruby, who inspires him to write again. One day, she shows up in his living room, and he discovers he can control her every move, every aspect of her personality.

It’s a concept that could have been turned into a variety of films, everything from a micro-budget mumblecore piece to a big-budget, Adam Sandler studio laugher. Yet Kazan and Dano wanted to make a nuanced indie with themselves as the leads.

“We wanted it to be a cinematic experience,” said Dano, who dutifully read Kazan’s pages nightly before the cohabitating Brooklyn couple turned out the lights. “It has a magical realist element to it, and love is a super big thing. We wanted it to feel big.”

To walk that tonal tightrope, Kazan and Dano — who served as executive producers on “Ruby Sparks” — turned to directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. Dano knew the married duo from “Little Miss Sunshine,” a dysfunctional family comedy that they turned, improbably, into an Oscar-winning hit.

Themes of control and creativity in “Ruby Sparks” resonated strongly with the couple, who had spent the five years after “Little Miss Sunshine” developing many other film projects but were unable to get one off the ground. “I felt like this was the film for us. This was the story for us to tell,” said Dayton. “There was an organic connection to the material,” added Faris.

That four-way collaboration created a romantic comedy that seems sure to provoke conversation between the sexes.

The idea of being able to control one’s romantic partner appears to hold strong appeal for men, said Faris and Dayton, recounting an electric male response to the fantasy during the one test screening they attended. “Every man is hesitant to admit it, but it is a very intriguing prospect,” said Dayton. “Calvin, at first, completely rejects it and says, ‘I will never write her again.’ He’s a noble guy. Then he gives into it. That’s a very human journey.”

Kazan said she was surprised to find men responding positively. “The movie is a little hard on men, and I wasn’t expecting them to like it.”

Hollywood roots

Kazan is the daughter of screenwriters Nicholas Kazan (“Reversal of Fortune”) and Robin Swicord (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and the grandchild of famed director Elia Kazan. Yet her childhood with younger sister Maya, now 25, was traditional: nightly family dinners, strict limits on television and summers in Washington state. where Kazan would spend hours dreaming up stories and characters.

“I was playing Barbies when I was 14,” said Kazan, a bit bashfully. “I’m not playing Barbies because I think it’s cool. I needed a narrative outlet, and I would play, by myself, these epic games where I was basically creating characters and constructing narrative. And nobody told me I wasn’t allowed to do that.”

That storytelling instinct coupled with a burning passion to act on stage led Kazan to a drama major at Yale University. After graduation she performed in plays, indie films, and a few bigger-budget movie projects like Nancy Meyers’ “It’s Complicated.” All the while she was writing, both scripts and stage plays, including “We Live Here,” which debuted at the Manhattan Theatre Club last October.

She met Dano, 28, when the two acted together in the 2007 off-Broadway production of Jonathan Mark Sherman’s “Things We Want.” “At the beginning we joked that it was a shomance,” said Kazan. “But we made it this far. It’s definitely a real relationship.”

Dayton and Faris began working with Kazan on her script in October 2010, the same week the actress started performing in the revival of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” on Broadway. “She would be writing in between scenes backstage in her dressing room,” said Dayton. “We would get these emails: I have to go back onstage right now, but I’ll call you as soon as I’m out,” added Faris. “She can switch on a dime from one role to another.”

It was during those nine months of rewriting that Fox Searchlight came aboard, giving the filmmakers the $8 million necessary to turn Kazan’s unique romantic comedy into reality.

As the film took shape, Dayton and Faris served as professional role models of a sort for Kazan and Dano, who found the long workdays took a temporary toll on their relationship. Though neither is a parent, the two equated their time on “Ruby Sparks” to the demands of caring for a newborn, with lack of sleep leading to irritability and short tempers.

Kazan, who had acted alongside Dano on Kelly Reichardt’s 2010 film"Meek’s Cutoff,"initially believed that “Ruby Sparks” would be an easy endeavor — and it was, while the two were on set. But as the couple slogged through traffic daily, commuting from Santa Monica into the east side of L.A., the romantic sheen wore off.

Dano, the more pessimistic partner, was concerned about the four-year relationship outlasting the 30-day production.

“Zoe is really a free spirit. She can have her attention somewhere else and then focus quickly. I’m more of a slow learner and have to stay focused,” said Dano. “So I was worried how it was going to be. In the end, I felt that it was easier than I thought. She wasn’t worried at all, and it was much harder than she thought.”

The two would like to work together again, either acting or producing, but perhaps not at the same time. Dano is about to begin shooting Steve McQueen’s “Twelve Years a Slave” with Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender and hopes to direct one of his own soon. Kazan acted in three indie films this year and is looking forward to getting back to Brooklyn and her writing — she has three scripts in various stages of completion — once “Ruby” opens.

She would like to produce more films and is eager to direct but is somewhat ambivalent about the spotlight acting has brought.

“The goal for me was never to be famous. But I want to be powerful,” said Kazan, picking at her lunch at a Santa Monica diner down the street from her parents’ Craftsman home. “People use ‘ambition’ as a negative word, but I feel incredibly ambitious. I want to make the things I want to make and do the things I want to do. Because of that, it’s good for me if the movie does well. I want the movie to do well. Yet I love secrets. I love my secret life, and I’m profoundly uninterested in feeling exposed. I don’t know how to make those things come together.”