Director Jonathan Dayton dazzles with his new film, Ruby Sparks.
Photos by Merrick Morton
Walnut Creek–raised filmmaker Jonathan Dayton has been on Diablo’s interview wish list ever since his feature debut, Little Miss Sunshine, codirected by his wife, Valerie Faris, was nominated for Best Picture. This month, Dayton and Faris are back in theaters, with Ruby Sparks, a dark, fascinating fantasy about a wunderkind novelist whose fictional dream girl comes to life.
Q: Tell us about growing up in the East Bay and where you went to see movies when you were here.
A: I went to Oak Grove Middle School and Ygnacio Valley High, and I loved it. I was there in the early 1970s, during a time that was the peak of public education. Our school had nearly 4,000 students, and it was just this bustling, thriving community. I remember a pivotal experience was going to see The Exorcist at the Dome in Pleasant Hill.
Q: Did you aspire to be a filmmaker when you were in school?
A: I knew very early, when I was a student at Ygnacio Valley. I had an English class, and I asked if I could make a film instead of writing a paper. Then in a social studies class, I asked if I could make a film instead of a paper, and for a biology class, I did the same thing. I made the same film for all three classes, and a light went on for me.
It was at a time when education was looking to expand the student’s connection to communication; they were open to me working on film. I even had a film class. My teacher was Mr. Atkinson. So, I actually had the resources there at school to make a Super 8 film.
Q: What was the film about?
A: It was a film about the environment called Jack and the Beanstalk. Instead of a cow, Jack sells his car, and when he plants his beans instead of a bean stalk, a giant skyscraper grows out of the ground.
Q: It’s interesting to think of you as an aspiring artist in the 1970s. Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks are contemporary stories, but other than the characters having cell phones, these could have been ’70s films.
A: We aren’t making an attempt to be nostalgic, but we do want the films to be universal. The films of the ’70s combined a certain realism and humanity and political discourse in a very human storytelling style. I can’t help but feel the influence of those films in our work.
Q: I wanted to touch on the success you had in the ’80s and ’90s shooting music videos. What was it like working on those projects during MTV’s heyday?
A: We were very fortunate to come out of college just when MTV began running videos. At that time, there were no experts, so there was this need for new filmmakers to come forth and create this new media. Being students, we were the cheapest filmmakers around, and that’s always how things start: There’s not a lot of money, and people need to step in and experiment.
It was a really fun time because, as it grew, it was this medium that kind of touched the entire country immediately. It’s almost hard to imagine a time before the Internet, but in those days, when a video came out, it was a big deal, and people talked about it.
Q: One of my favorites was the Smashing Pumpkins’ “1979.” I just watched it again, and it’s still a perfect little film about teens in suburbia.
A: It’s funny because you’re one of the few people around who I can tell that the video “1979” is about life in Walnut Creek in the ’70s. I lived in Walnut Creek in the early ’70s, and it was all taken from our teenage years of hanging out and riding around in each other’s cars and TP-ing houses. And do you know the photographer Bill Owens?
Q: Oh sure; we did a big feature on his Suburbia photographs not long ago.
A: He was a big influence in that video. We actually bought a bunch of those original photographs from Suburbia.
Q: Let’s talk about your new film, Ruby Sparks. It’s a fascinating movie, much darker and more provocative than I was expecting.
A: Thanks. I know the trailer suggests that it’s this fluffy romantic comedy, and while there are plenty of laughs in it, it does go to a fairly dark place. But it leaves you feeling hopeful at the end. We wanted it to be a roller coaster ride.
Q: There were scenes toward the end that had me squirming in my seat.
A: Good! Don’t spoil what they were, but there were scenes in the screenplay that had just never been done before. Even though it was a very high concept story—a guy creating the woman of his dreams—it actually explores very real things that men and women share every day.
Q: Zoe Kazan gives a wonderful performance as Ruby and also wrote the remarkably inventive screenplay. How did she come to you with this material?
A: We stayed friends with (costar) Paul Dano after Little Miss Sunshine. When Paul started dating Zoe, he introduced us to her, and we just loved her. Then, they came to us with this script, and at its core was this very exciting idea. Zoe turned out to be this amazing writer: Her parents are both screenwriters, and it just came very easily to her.
Q: I don’t know of any other directors like you and Valerie—a married couple that codirects. Can you tell us about your process and your relationship?
A: We met in college and started working on documentaries together. It wasn’t until later that we actually started dating. One of the secrets is to develop the work habits first, and then if the personal life happens, it’s already up and running. We share everything: It requires us to do a lot of work at home in preparation so we arrive on set in the same mind-set. We disagree plenty, but part of what’s great about it is that you’re constantly surprised by what your partner can do, and the work becomes so much bigger than what you bring to it.
Q: Little Miss Sunshine came out in 2006, and Ruby Sparks is your “long-awaited” second feature. Have you started working on the next project yet?
A: Yes. We’re working on a pilot for HBO called The Landlord, with a very talented guy named Daniel Clowes, who also happens to be from the East Bay.
Ruby Sparks is in theaters now.