Mad about the girl

Just perfect … real-life partners Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano in <em>Ruby Sparks</em>.
Just perfect … real-life partners Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano in Ruby Sparks.
Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano in Ruby Sparks.

Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano in Ruby Sparks.

What if you could create your own perfect partner? How perfect would your imagined dreamboat actually be in real life? Not all of us would be prompted to consider these questions upon seeing a discarded store dummy on a rubbish pile but Zoe Kazan has the mind of a fabulist. ''I'm a big Greek mythology buff,'' she says. ''So I thought of the Pygmalion myth, I thought of the sculptor turning his head and thinking he sees the statue move. And I thought, what would I do with that myth, if I were writing it from my own perspective?'' Next day, she got up and wrote the first 10 pages of the script that would become Ruby Sparks.

At 28, Kazan is already an established actor, with supporting roles in such films as Revolutionary Road. As a writer, she comes with quite a pedigree: her grandfather was Elia Kazan, who directed On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire, and her parents, Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord, are both Oscar-nominated screenwriters.

Not that there was room for smugness in the Kazan household: when Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the married couple who directed Little Miss Sunshine, signed up to direct Ruby Sparks, Kazan's parents insisted they open champagne in case they never had anything else to celebrate.

Ruby Sparks is the story of a withdrawn writer, paralysed by his prodigy status since writing a massive literary hit in his late teens, who finds his voice 10 years later writing about a girl he meets in a park. Then the girl, called Ruby Sparks, materialises in his flat. Miraculously, she is exactly as he wrote her: cute, funny, effervescent, eccentric, with appetising tastes in thrift-shop clothes and indie music. As time goes by, however, he discovers this is not everything she is: she has become real.

Kazan plays Ruby; her partner of five years, the actor Paul Dano, plays the writer Calvin. ''I wasn't trying to write a vehicle for me and Paul but I showed him the first two pages and he asked if I was writing it for us. Then I thought that probably was what I was doing, but I tried not to think about it while I was writing. I think when we are really happy in a creative state, we're not thinking about ourselves.''

Ruby's appearance is a metaphor for creativity. ''My experience of creativity is very much one of being visited,'' Kazan says. ''Things come to me, like waking up in the morning with this in my brain.''

Not many rom-coms look at such big ideas but then Ruby Sparks is no ordinary rom-com. Rom-com heroines in Hollywood are generally interchangeably blonde and smooth. Now there is an indie alternative: a kooky, unreliable or possibly quite mad young woman who lives in a loft and brings the sad-sack hero back to radiant life. She is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl - as one critic dubbed this archetype - and she is, Kazan says, no less reductive than her better-coiffed counterpart. Giving the love interest good taste in music does not change the fact that she is still just the love interest.

''If someone wrote me, I'd be a character like that,'' she adds. ''Because I'm not conventional; I'm very emotional; I have all those hallmarks. But my life is not cute and not convenient, my problems are not adorable. My life is real. And that's what I think about those characters in those movies, that the writer is only considering about 12 per cent of that person and there's a whole ocean of other stuff … being erased by the male gaze.''

Calvin is a nice guy; he doesn't set out to create a Stepford wife. But when the 88 per cent of Ruby that he didn't imagine starts to emerge, he faces the same adjustment problem as anyone does in a relationship as it deepens from infatuation into reality. ''Anybody can fall in love,'' Kazan says. ''But it's staying in love and really seeing the other person, not just who you first thought they were … that shows you who you are. That's where we reveal ourselves. So that's what I was interested in exploring.''

GENRE Indie rom-com with a brain.
CRITICAL BUZZ Suffers slightly by comparison with the anarchic brilliance of Little Miss Sunshine but there is no denying the sparky cleverness of Kazan's script or performance.
STARS Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano.
DIRECTOR Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris.
RELEASE September 20.

This story Mad about the girl first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.