On July 26, 2006, Fox Searchlight released “Little Miss Sunshine,” the feature film debut of filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The film was an indie phenomenon, grossing $100 million worldwide and earning four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
Six years later — almost to the day — Dayton and Faris return to the indie multiplex with the Fox Searchlight release “Ruby Sparks.” Like “Little Miss Sunshine,” this film also co-stars Paul Dano, but the similarities end there: Written by Zoe Kazan (Dano’s real-life girlfriend and the film’s title character), “Ruby Sparks” focuses on Cal (Dano), an author struggling to follow up his successful debut novel with new work. Following a dream, he begins writing about Ruby Sparks, his idealized version of a woman who miraculously comes to life — giving Cal everything he’s ever wanted in a relationship, for better and worse.
“Ruby Sparks” mixes aspects of “Adaptation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” with commentary on how female characters are often given the short shrift in the current pop culture landscape. Beyond being a social criticism, however, the film is an assured romantic comedy, which — as Kazan has noted — doesn’t fall back on tired indie cliches.
Dayton and Faris — who are married and have worked together previously on music videos and commercials — sat down with HuffPost Entertainment to discuss their long break between films, why the industry is at a crossroads and whether or not they want you to root for the film’s lead character.
So, how come you waited six years to make another movie?
Dayton: [Laughs] It’s tricky.
Faris: There are a lot of different answers. Which one would you like?
The best one.
Dayton: We didn’t want to make another shitty movie. It was so much fun releasing “Little Miss Sunshine” and having people respond [to it]. It was something we never expected. And I realized the worst sentence on Earth would be to have to go out again [to do press] and not be proud of the movie.
Faris: I also think movies take time. At least for us. We’re not Woody Allen, even though I wish we were. I’m so envious of him being able to go write a movie and do it.
Dayton: He’s a one-man band.
Faris: It’s very frustrating that it takes so long. But we like to take time with projects, so we took a lot of time with a couple of projects that just didn’t fall into place. We were working nonstop through that six-year period, but we’re probably a little more particular about having everything go our way. I guess w are kind of controlling people.
Dayton: In a film about control.
Faris: If we don’t have the actors, or you get the sense that some of the other people involved in making the movie don’t necessarily see the movie the way you see it. All those elements, for us, we like having those things feel like they’re moving in the same direction.
And to be fair, for every Woody Allen, there’s a Terrence Malick.
Faris: Yes, exactly!
Dayton: It’s weird, because we knew this was going to come up and we looked around [at other filmmakers]. Alexander Payne was seven years between “Sideways” and “The Descendants.” Spike Jonze, Bennett Miller, Mark Romanek [all took time between features].
Faris: A lot of people who make the same level of movie as us — independent, not franchise.
Dayton: It’s a tricky time, as you know. These small movies don’t get made as much.
It’s nuts. There was a great interview with Spike Lee in New York recently where he joked that the only way he could get “Malcolm X” made today was if Malcolm X wore tights and a cape.
Dayton & Faris: [Laughs]
Faris: In the six years since “Little Miss Sunshine,” the business has changed a lot. I would give that a little bit of the credit, too. We had a couple of films that, in the course of working on them, the budget shrank to the point where we couldn’t make it. They literally ran the numbers: They took our numbers and the stars’ numbers and when they calculated whether we could make our money back or not, it said no.
Dayton: As if those are even real calculations.
Faris: No, but that is how this business is run.
Is that demoralizing?
Dayton: It is. We’re really fortunate we can work in commercials and not feel our livelihood is at stake. Our creative livelihood is at stake, but our livelihood isn’t.
Faris: It’s also sad for me — not just for us. I love small films and I love films being seen in a theater. I love film and unfortunately that’s being phased out. We shot this digitally. I’m worried about the art form getting shortchanged by all this. That’s upsetting to me, so it makes the obligation even great to try and make good films that revive peoples’ belief and love in film.
Dayton: The best thing we can do is try and make a good film. For the cause.
Faris: I love it when I see somebody else make a great film. I think there is a great supportive film community, even though the awards seem to do something weird to that. I kind of hate that about awards — it really should be about all the good movies that are being made.
What was it about Zoe’s script that got you excited? I’m sure you were inundated with offers post-“Little Miss Sunshine.”
Dayton: Big movies, small movies …
Faris: … Road movies. Every dysfunctional family movie.
Dayton: There were many things that attracted us to this. It was funny and it was about something. It took on relationships. It was kind of a romantic comedy — I’ve always wanted to take on that form, but I felt like this was a real twist on that.
Faris: It’s not really a genre film. We liked that it straddled genres. It had this other, darker element to it.
Dayton: That intimidated us. The journey that this film takes you on was a real challenge, tonally.
Faris: It was part of the reason we felt the story had to be told in the most grounded way possible. Not playing up the fantasy aspect. Because if you’ve gotten involved in the characters and the relationship, then you would make the journey with them.
Dayton: I liked in this fantastic premise that there were a lot of human truths. It was a very truthful exploration of what happens between men and women in relationships.
Faris: Not even just men and women. Our desire to control things in life.
Dayton: Whether it’s work or our partner.
At times, this film feels like a repudiation of the “Manic Pixie Dream Girl.” Was that something you wanted to explore?
Dayton: Oh yeah. That was something looming. In fact, we’re in kind of an awkward period right now because the trailer is out and the trailer makes it feel a little like this is the ultimate Manic Pixie Dream Girl movie.
Faris: It set up a whole slew of Twitter responses.
Dayton: I feel like saying, “No, it’s not [that]! Just give me a break!” But, this was just another thing about the script that we were excited about.
The film takes some dark turns at the end, especially in a moment where Cal is making Ruby do a bunch of things against her will. Were you worried the audience would stop rooting for Cal?
Dayton: Yes. 100 percent. It was something that we worked on, prior to starting production, with other actors. We actually rehearsed those scenes [at the end] and then we acted them out ourselves. We wrote versions of the scenes. The script didn’t really spell out what he was going to make her do. So we had to understand how dark it should get.
Faris: How sexual should it be? What’s really going on here? We always felt that scene was an essential scene in the story and it was unique to this story and we loved that we hadn’t seen that in a film before. That was exciting for us. But it was tricky because the relationship is happening on two levels: He did create her and at that moment he’s trying to prove to her that he did. So much is happening in that scene, in terms of their real relationship and in terms of their more imagined relationship. It was a tricky conversion.
Dayton: We wanted to show that he’s in a way doing it to himself. That he’s proving to both of them that this is untenable.
Faris: Once he crosses that line; once he decides that he’s going to do a little tweak to her. You have to take it to its end.
Dayton: It can’t be a light exploration of it. We had to just go, “All right!”
Faris: We’ve seen that. We’ve seen the playful, “Oh, wouldn’t this be cute? I made and girl and I’m going to tell her what to do.” Because we were exploring issues of control, we had to [go dark]. It’s almost like dealing with an addict. I do feel throughout the movie that he’s really trying to make it work with her. Then he has the realization that it can never work this way. He ultimately has to destroy it.
Dayton: We were concerned about whether the audience could recover from it.
Faris: Some people can’t, but we won’t be able to control that. Much as we’d love to! [Laughs]