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Zoe Kazan on Writing Ruby Sparks and Why You Should Never Call Her a ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl’

Zoe Kazan. Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

Ruby Sparks is a fantasy-romance about a lonely writer named Calvin (Paul Dano) who spins a story about his dream girl — she listens to Phil Collins, roots for the underdog, loves motorcycles, and didn’t finish high school — and then that girl comes to life. Zoe Kazan, Dano’s offscreen love, not only stars as the title character, she also wrote the movie. Vulture spoke with Kazan about her debut screenplay, what Warren Beatty had to do with it, and why you should not call Ruby, or anyone, a manic pixie dream girl.

Why write a screenplay? Was it for lack of interesting roles or just an extension of your creative work?
Honestly, the story and characters just came to me. I didn’t do it because I wanted to showcase myself or anything. It was much more a feeling of creative compulsion. And Paul said, “Are you writing this for us?” I said, “Yeah.” It hadn’t occurred to me until he said it, and then when he did, it seemed totally clear that’s what I was doing; I was, like, five pages in.

Why do you think Paul asked that?
Because of the character descriptions. I think I had written, like, “Calvin: tall, skinny, glasses, hadn’t seen the sun or a gym in a very long time.” And then he was like, “Oh, is that me?” It wasn’t a far-flung thing. And we had talked before about, “Why don’t we just get a video camera and make a movie?” Because we both are interested in taking more control of our lives and careers. So I think when I first started writing, that was part of why he asked that question.

It seems like a lot of actors of your generation are getting into writing or directing. Like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jesse Eisenberg. Do you have a theory on why that is?
I think that the means of production are more in the hands of the people than they ever have been in terms of filmmaking. It costs less to make a movie now than it ever has, cameras are more available, digital has opened things up. It’s much harder to get financing — but it does cost less. And we have really great role models; people like Warren Beatty, who was having one kind of career and then totally changed his life by starting to produce and direct and star in material that he developed. Nothing’s going to come to you by sitting around and waiting for it.

Did Warren Beatty come visit the set when you were shooting Annette Bening’s scenes?
No! But I have so much fondness for him and he in some ways is like a godfather to this project, although I don’t think he knows it. Because he met with Paul — he’s been thinking about doing a movie for a really long time and he likes to meet with young actors — and he met with Paul a couple of years ago and said, “You’ve got to develop your own material. It’s the only way.” Basically exactly what I just said to you, like, “Nothing comes to those who wait.” And Paul really took that to heart and started saying to me, “We’ve got to do something ourselves, you should write something for us.”

Were you guys concerned that doing a romance together might open your relationship up to speculation? Whether that’s right or not …
That relationship isn’t our relationship. Those characters aren’t really close to who we are. We’d worked together before; I really loved collaborating with him, he’s a great collaborator. And those things seemed more important than whether or not it opened our relationship up to speculation. You know, I think I should have been more concerned about that, to be totally frank. I was just much more focused on, like, How are we going to get this movie made? Who’s going to do it? How can we do it in the best way possible?

You’ve said you were nervous to approach Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton about directing it, since this would be their first film since Little Miss Sunshine. Was Paul onboard, though?
Paul had remained friends with them from Little Miss Sunshine and that friendship was so important to him that I felt trepidatious about overstepping that boundary. But when Paul read the first ten pages he said, “They’re the right people to direct it.” When we brought it to producers, it was the first thing they said. The truth is — like I said about it being worth it to take the chance with Paul to do this together — that’s how I felt about them. When everybody agrees like that, we just had to take the chance.

Do you think of Ruby as a manic pixie dream girl?
[Makes a face.]

What? What do you think of that term?
Well, I am not a fan. Look, I don’t think of her as that; I hope other people don’t think of her as that. I think if they do they’re misunderstanding the movie. That term is a term that was invented by a blogger, and I think it’s more of a term that applies in critical use than it does in creative use. It’s a way of describing female characters that’s reductive and diminutive, and I think basically misogynist. I’m not saying that some of those characters that have been referred to as that don’t deserve it; I think sometimes filmmakers have not used their imagination in imbuing their female characters with real life. You know, they’ve let music tastes be a signifier of personality. But I just think the term really means nothing; it’s just a way of reducing people’s individuality down to a type, and I think that’s always a bad thing. And I think that’s part of what the movie is about, how dangerous it is to reduce a person down to an idea of a person.

Well, yeah, there’s a line in the movie that basically questions the idea of manic pixie dream girls: “The quirky, messy women whose problems make them appealing are not real.”
Sure. What bothers me about it is I think that women get described that way, but it’s really reflective of the man who is looking at them, and the way that they think about that girl. Not about who that girl really is or what her personality actually is. I think that to lump together all individual, original quirky women under that rubric is to erase all difference. Like, I’ve read pieces that describe Annie Hall as a manic pixie dream girl. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby. To me, those are fully fledged characters that are being played by really smart actresses. I just think it’s misogynist. I don’t want that term to survive. I want it to die.

Where are you with your Jake Johnson movie, The Pretty One?
We just wrapped it four or five days ago. I just loved working with Jake; he’s an incredible person.

Good luck dealing with his lady fans.
[Laughs.] Yes, I know. Everyone loves Jake; everyone falls in love with him. I totally get it. He’s just really a cool guy and getting to know him over the course of making this has been one of the true pleasures of my career so far.

Maybe now you’ll get a guest role on New Girl?
I really love that show. Liz Meriwether [the showrunner] is a buddy of mine from college, actually. And New Girl is one of the few shows that Paul and I can agree on to watch together; he loves that show.

[PR comes in to end the interview.]

Before we go, can you tell me about that Hello Kitty Band-Aid on your arm? What happened?
I skinned my elbow on my last night of filming with Jake, attempting to do my own stunt. And it just hasn’t healed yet. And Hello Kitty makes me feel better. I was in Canada and I didn’t have any Band-Aids and it was getting infected and I went into the store and it was like SpongeBob Band-Aids or Disney Princesses or Hello Kitty or plain. Like, what are you going to do — are you going to get plain Band-Aids?

Zoe Kazan Does Not Write Manic Pixie Dream Girls