Throughout the press tour for Wildlife, the film’s first-time director, Paul Dano, has had nothing but praise for his life and creative partner Zoe Kazan. Dano has referenced Kazan’s talent as a ‘proper writer,’ having worked back and forth in workshop style of giving and receiving notes as they adapted Richard Ford’s novel. Kazan’s impeccable writing ability comes from years of work. Dating back to her time at Yale and in the subsequent years after, Kazan is the playwright of Absalom, We Live Here, and 2014’s Trudy and Max in Love. Posited in that time, Kazan also wrote the thoughtful, independent romantic comedy Ruby Sparks, showcasing her intrinsic talent for subtlety, commentary, and pure artistic exploration. Here, we take a look back at what makes Ruby Sparks come to life.
The narrative line of Ruby Sparks is fairly straightforward: a young writer, endeavoring through writers-block, dreams of his idyll woman. When pushed by his therapist to take on a writing assignment, though he contends he cannot write, Ruby wholly manifests. Calvin, the despondent writer in question, invents her backstory, her ticks, and thoughts. Every tame detail of who Ruby is, Calvin knows. But when Ruby goes from the page to Calvin’s kitchen, Kazan’s screenplay starts to take its shape as the true protagonist is revealed.
Kazan’s work goes beyond dream-girl appears and shenanigans ensue. Her writing plays with audience expectation when we come to find Ruby is our central point of empathetic connection as we bear witness to her journey of selfhood and consciousness developing her into a complicated woman rather than an idyllic caricature. What adds an even more staggering fixation to Kazan’s story is the subtle commentary by which it confronts authorship, ownership, and projection.
Ruby is such a fascination. She literally lights up the screen with her bold colors and thoughtful repose. Kazan’s witty and rye dialogue insight our own expectations when we come into a romantic comedy. Quirky, messy women aren’t real, and if they do exist there is far more to them than the expectations projected onto them by those who are interested. Ruby, herself, is less of an ideal and far more the reality of a woman in a relationship. She’s concerned and curious, while thoughtful and independent. Subverting Calvin’s own expectations, Ruby cannot be controlled by words on a page, unless, of course, they are written.
Here’s where Kazan takes preconceived notions and complicates them further. One would think writing their ideal partner would mean resonating nothing but absolute euphoria. With someone who is perfect for us there are no complications, right? But as Calvin finds that writing his will upon Ruby renders exaggerated emotions, the conflict within him is to continue this adjective charade or allow Ruby’s selfhood to simply exist.
Calvin’s own misgivings of the people around him come from a place of his self-perceived image. Upon confronting his ex, Lila, his former partner calls him to the mat. Calvin has navigated his life creating adaptations of relationships based upon his own projecting; wanting to be in a relationship with himself. Ruby’s existence and exploration of selfhood dominate the screen, while Calvin must relegate his power until he snaps. The personhood Ruby develops and knows to be true expands beyond Calvin; he is not, nor has he ever been the only entity that defines her. Jumping off the page, Ruby’s actions, words, and feelings are more complicated and honest than what Calvin could have ever written.
“I wrote you,” he says before abusing his power to control Ruby for an excruciating sequence. It is an innate possession; a tumbling through authorship, definition, and ownership. The sequence portrays a dark metamorphosis that began as creative exploration and manifestation. From our perspective, Ruby is wholly the woman Calvin idealized and made unspoken rules for without regard of her stunning self-awareness, consciousness, and personhood. Ruby is by far our point of sympathy. What we watch is no longer two people falling in love with one another, but a young woman’s discovery and exertion of self-consciousness and individuality. Ruby is not defined by who created her, as she manifests her own trajectory.
Whether Kazan intended it or not, Ruby Sparks complicated expectations of the romantic lead and the ideal woman. Ruby as the protagonist feels more of a self-realized person than an abstract assortment of quirks, clothes, and quips. The film insights sympathy for a person who began as an idea and became realized as an independent person from her creator. Kazan’s writing is thoughtful and sympathetic without feeling overbearing or wanting, connecting us to a woman and her journey.
Years after taking on Ruby Sparks, both Kazan and Dano have matured and navigated lived experiences that have influenced their work. As Wildlife continues to expand throughout the country, Kazan and Dano adapt to the screen a provocative feature about how we idealize people, until we realize who they once were and now are. With Wildlife, Kazan’s contribution to writing will act as a descendant of her work with Ruby Sparks; forming characters once confined in text to manifest from the page as wholly realized, imperfect people.