Roger Durling with Directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris
Roger Durling: There is a warm welcome, and see it was so adorable. When they walked in they were like, “Oh my God, there’s lots people in here and it’s seven in the morning!”
Valerie Faris: We like that, yeah. This is the earliest screening I think we’ve had of the film, so thank you.
Durling: This premise could have gone really broad, instead you ground this film. You make it very real. Could you talk about that?
Jonathan Dayton: Well, one of the things that excited us about this film and this script was that even though it had this fantastic premise, we could explore these very real things that happen between people, and issues of control, and how we view the people we love. So, we liked the idea that we would play it very real and we liked the idea that magic can happen in a world that we recognise.
Faris: Yeah, very early on we said we didn’t want to explain how she got there. Or just as soon as she appears in his Calvin’s life, we always felt that it was important that Ruby wasn’t explained how she got there and she’s absolutely real the first moment he sees her, even though it takes a while for him to believe it.
Durling: And how did this process happen? The fact that Paul Dano and Zoey Kazan are a real life couple. She wrote the script for the two of them, and it ends up with a real life couple directing this.
Faris: A real life couple? [laughs] I know. I think it is strange. I think in some ways that was part of the charm of this. Was that we were, all four of us, were so committed to the project, because they were obviously very invested. And to have your two stars be that invested in your movie, and have such respect and love for each other and to have it also on our end. It felt that the flow of the four of us (and our producers), but it was a very tight knit group who were all invested in the project, which is a nice and kind of rare thing.
Durling: The design! I have to jump because I’m obsessed with something I wanted to ask you: the apartment, it looks like, from the get go, like it’s a labyrinth, like we’re inside his head and its white pages. Can you describe that, and was that intentional?
Faris: Yeah you just did, very well. I mean that was our… we were looking for a very “L.A.” house, because there are a lot of hillside homes in L.A. that are very vertical. We were looking for something that had a kind of maze-like, kind of Escher-like quality. We ended up painting it more white (it had more color in it originally), but we did want it to feel like the blank page. But it was a very fun house to stage things in because it did have the multiple levels and kind of open floor plan, so it did have this…like you were stuck in Calvin’s head a little bit and moved like a rat in a cage, and we liked that idea.
Durling: And you did do a lot of close ups and everything was so tight in there. But then when you go to the environment of Annette Bening’s house it’s like a total different environment. And then when you go to his rival, you know the LA house, it’s almost like you go from heaven to hell. Was that the three different environments you wanted to create?
Dayton: Well the locations are like separate characters in the movie. We were very excited to stage the film in Los Angeles and not pretend like it was some other city. We could find our favorite spots. And the Big Sur house is actually the house of Sid Croft, who created HR Puffin stuff in the 60’s. And we didn’t have to do anything to his house. We just took out the figurines of HR Puffin stuff. The crystals, the drift wood were all there.
Faris: We picked that house because we wanted to find the polar opposite of Calvin’s house. There were a lot of good choices, but that one was by far the best. And it was not an easy house to shoot in because, it was full of… He built that house so it was very precious to him. We had to tiptoe around, we had about 100 crew people there and it was just nerve-racking. But in the end he survived it and the house survived it.
Dayton: It was the first time that he let anyone shoot there.
Faris: Probably the last time too.
Dayton: But anything that Gertrude says about the house, that it was Amish wood and that it was bricks were from a Catholic girl’s school, those are all true facts about the house.
Faris: And once we found the location, we worked with Zoey to tailor those scenes more to that house. But I think the houses are like Jonathan said, they’re like characters in the movie. And the Langdon house is actually… the last party scene is in a house that was designed by Lloyd Wright and it’s called “Jaws”. The house is, because the front of the house looked like it had these jaws, so it had a kind of dungeon, dark feel to it and it had that kind of Frank Lloyd Wright/Egyptian style. You know, very low ceilings, so it just felt right. You know the character of the house take you on the journey.
Durling: I mean that’s the part, and this is the second time I’ve seen it, and I’m so drawn into it. It’s so subtle throughout the movie. The visuals, the journey as you point out, with his clothes also. In the beginning he’s wearing mostly whites, and then as the movie progresses you slightly notice colors.
Faris: Yeah. I’m glad you noticed that. I think that was the idea that Calvin is living in kind of seclusion in the beginning of the movie. That’s why he works on that typewriter. We talked to Zoey…wrote it with the typewriter in the script, and we thought that he wrote his first novel with this typewriter so it had this extra power for him and that it also keeps him very isolated. You know if you write on a computer you have this connection to the outside world and it was important that Calvin was cut off to the outside world. So when Ruby enters his life we started to add more color to his life. And the real change for them is when they go out to the outside to visit the family in Big Sur. And that’s when things get more complicated for him.
Durling: I kept thinking when I was watching it this time around how bizarre the fact that Zoey, she wrote that character, but it’s about someone else actually writing her character. How was that dynamic on the set?
Dayton: When we first read the script there were some things we wanted to explore, that we felt like she hadn’t had time to do so we spent nine months with her on the script, knowing that also if she was going to star in the movie, that we needed to finish the script so she could become Ruby and focus on her duties as an actress. Thankfully when it came time to shoot, she was done writing. And there were little moments where it was nice to have the writer on set, like in emergencies.
Durling: Like if she was in a bad mood you would [inaudible]…
Dayton: I mean she explained later, after making the movie and we started talking about the experience. She said there was a couple times where she would be acting and the person she was performing with would kind of murder…
Faris: …change a line…
Dayton: or change a line out and she had to use everything in her just to keep from reacting like “you just blew it.”
Faris: Or Paul says too that Zoey would go to the script supervisor and say, “He’s not reading that line right. He missed this word.” She didn’t go to us, because they were minor things. But she would go to the script supervisor, and script supervisor would go to Paul and give him the corrections.
Durling: And did you have Albert and Ron Yerxa, who produced LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and produced this film. Did you have trouble with this funding because Zoey and Paul are not big stars yet? You know, because they were going to be the leads to this movie.
Faris: I mean that was part of partly what was exciting about us about the movie. The idea of working with two leads that; for one: we were excited we could really introduce Zoey to a new audience. You know people haven’t seen a lot of her so for them she could really become Ruby. Which is nice, it’s great to have actors with names to draw an audience in, but it’s also nice to discover new talent in a movie. But Ron and Albert from the moment they came to us, and from the early discussions with Paul and Zoey, always said they would make this movie with them. That they could get this movie financed. And with the six of us, with Fox Searchlight working with us before, they kind of chased the project down. So, they were very supportive, and it was made with a kind of tight schedule and tight budget.
Durling: It was also fantastic to see Paul Dano like we’ve never seen him before, in this new romantic lead. We’re used to seeing him as this brooding character always, and now he’s the dashing, romantic, comedy lead.
Dayton: I appreciate you saying that. And we loved working with him on LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and we really felt that there were so many things that he could do that we all haven’t seen. He’s almost like a Jimmy Stewart kind of character, and he can be an everyman. And he’s taken a lot of darker roles. Obviously we have some dark roles in our movie, so it was great that he had that range.
Durling: But he seemed to me at least, with you guys directing, finding the tone that you don’t play for laughs and the performances. Paul Dano doesn’t play for laughs, he plays everything very real, but there is an innate comedic aspect to the film.
Faris: Well that’s what we try for. I think that’s the way you kind of manage a tone of the film. To play every moment as real as possible and that’s why casting is so critical to a film like this, to get people that can do this. Like Chris Messina for us was a very important element in this movie. He’s the character that the audience relates with and goes through the movie with. His kind of warmth, but absolute authenticity, when he questions her existence it’s satisfying to hear him go, “Well there’s got to be a logical explanation.” I feel like that’s a skill that some actors have to be funny, but very real, and I think he’s great at it.
Durling: Speaking of performers that we’ve never seen them be this way. Annette Bening. How did it come about her being involved? It was so refreshing to see her just being this character.
Dayton: Well, we went to her very early on. She is one of those actors who can who can perform in drama, but has this great sense of comic timing and can be very real. And we had lunch with her one day and talked about the film, and she said she loved the script and she, on the spot, said, “I want to do your movie”. And it was so nice. There were no heavy negotiations “let me talk to my agent”. She just gave herself to the film. And you know she has short hair, and we wanted to have this flowing hair for Gertrude, and so we had this wig made, and when she put it on her inner Gertrude just came out and it was just so… We just rehearsed for a couple of days, sadly the schedule wouldn’t allow more time, and we didn’t do scenes from the movie. We improvised scenes from their lives, their earlier lives. So we had Chris and Paul as their sons, and we had them talk about the time when their father died, and she talked about her sex life with her new boyfriend. And her improv was so funny, it made Chris and Paul so uneasy, but it really just laid the groundwork for those scenes in the movie.
Durling: You know, of course one of the things that is so great about this movie is that it’s all about the fact that in order to love somebody you have to buy the good parts and the bad parts as well. How do you guys work together in a film?
Faris: What are the good parts and bad parts about working together? [laughs] We’ve done it for a long time. We’ve worked together almost twenty years and it’s really all we know. We worked together right out of college. You know film is a collaborative medium, so it really just starts with us. We do a lot of prep for movies, in addition, development. We do a lot of work with each scene. We act out the scenes together before we shoot just so we put ourselves through the paces. I think for directing teams you have to come set of one mind. You can’t be working out issues on set, not on a 30 day schedule anyways. But we could talk for hours, but I don’t want to bore anyone.
Dayton: It’s great to be surprised. You know, you bring everything you can into a work, and to have someone else right there next to you say things you would never think of. It’s just, it’s the best. You know there’s a new movie coming out about Hitchcock and the making of PSYCHO, and it’s all about how in this very critical point in his career his wife was there, behind the scenes, intimately involved in every aspect. And really saved him and the film with her support, and that evidently throughout a lot of his career she was instrumental. So I think very often there is a collaborator. It may be the director of photography, an editor, a spouse…
Faris: A screenwriter…
Dayton: …a screenwriter.
Faris: Someone to bounce ideas off of. Making this film is just this ongoing dialogue, and it starts with us. But I think most directors have somebody that they have a constant dialogue with, or it just constant dialogue with everyone working in the film.
Durling: I don’t mean to pry, but do you take work home with you? Is there like a time out, where this private time as a family?
Faris: Oh yeah! I mean, we have three kids at home and they don’t really care about what’s going on in our lives. And they are our top priorities, so in a way that is an escape from work in that you have to deal with their issues first. I guess we’re good jugglers. We do shift gears a lot every day, and we’re used to that and we like that, and we don’t minimize our life much. It’s all kind of mixed up and we like that.
Dayton: You never have to say, “Honey how was your day,” because you know. And for that, and what great that is that we can go to a meeting that was bad and process it and walk out and go, “Was that me or was that person crazy?” You know at eleven o’clock at night you can be lying in bed and come up with an idea with something you were working on and you can just talk about it for a minute.
Faris: Or go “I don’t want to talk about that right now.” Or you’re on a set and you get a call from your son who wants to go to a party, and you can say, “Well should we let him go?”. It’s just at all times we can handle problems together, it’s just kind of nice to have that access at all times. I don’t know. It works for us. I don’t recommend it for everybody. You know most people say they couldn’t work with their spouse.
Durling: I have to ask you about the scariest scene in the movie; where he’s writing and writing and writing. How difficult was that to perform? And Dano and Kazan together?
Dayton: Well that was one that we worked on a lot in the rewrites. It was in the original script, but we knew that, in a way, it was one of the most exciting and challenging parts of the story. And we went as far as hiring other actors, prior to shooting, and staging different versions of it so we could see what looked like and see what it felt like. We acted it out ourselves, so we knew what it was like to ask someone to do something, or being told when you don’t have a say in the matter. And we worked on this all the way through editing, constantly changing, trying different music. And the final scene really wasn’t written until the morning before we shot it, which was on the last day. And it was incredibly taxing on both actors, as you can imagine, particularly Zoey. And we did continuous takes were we created a list of the actions for her to do. So, you know, the first one would be to snap her fingers, and then we had two pipes off camera and we would have her start doing it, and when we felt it was time to move on we would clang this pipes and she would move onto the next one. And there were ten minute takes. And part of the reason we did this pipe thing so she would have no idea when to stop. It might be a minute it might be, you know, longer. And there was this terror of not being in control. So on take seven we were in the midst of doing the take and everything came together. She felt it in a deeper way then on any previous take. And our cameraman, Mattie Lee Patique, who was locked-in in front of her, was locked in front of her like he’d never been. And it was incredible. It was like a twelve minute take and when she finished Val turned to me and said, “We have our movie. That was it.” And it was incredibly painful, but we knew that was what we needed.
Faris: And we waited for the end of the whole shooting schedule, just so we kind of understood what they’d been through as a couple. And it was where the concept was kind of dealing with something that doesn’t happen in real life exactly. And how do you? It’s one of the hardest things to figure out and until you’re there and you’re feeling it. It’s kind of hard to intellectualize what would happen in that scene, so it was a harder for Zoey to actually write. So she went up to us and said, “You guys just tell me what you want me to do in this, because I can’t write it.” It was interesting.
Dayton: I think you know the whole meta element of writing for your boyfriend to write for you is just so….
Faris: And I think at that point she just only wanted to be the actress. She just wanted to be able one hundred percent, feeling it and not thinking about it.
Durling: We’ve established that they’re a couple in real life, but did you have to work, I mean on screen, pun intended. They have sparks when they first meet and they get together. Did you have to work on recreating that sort of moment of them getting together?
Faris: We did. In rehearsals, we had about a week of rehearsals with them, and one of the things that we worked on was that moment that they actually met. They met on a play called Things We Want in New York, and they described the first time they ever kissed. And it was during a rehearsal for the play, and they were just running lines and there was a point in the play where they kissed. And they hadn’t discussed if they were going to actually kiss or not, but they already had feelings for each other, but hadn’t copped to it I guess. So they describe this moment in rehearsal where everyone was standing and waiting to see if they were going to actually kiss or not and kind of just read the lines and not go through the action. And they ended up kissing in that rehearsal, and they said it took an eternity for their lips to come together and it was this super dramatic first kiss. You know, we talked about things like this when they had their first experiences, because they’re super comfortable with each other now so it was a challenge to bring them back to that excitement of first falling in love.
Dayton: So when they kiss outside the magazine stand, after he’s come to terms that she is real and she says, “Kiss me stupid,” that was the moment we really worked to have that slow coming together as their first kiss.
Faris: They’re both good actors too. That helps.