If you watched MTV at all during the 1990’s, chances are you’re already very familiar with the work of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. This husband and wife team directed some seminal, constantly re-run videos for R.E.M., Soundgarden, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins and even The Ramones. Dayton and Faris made the leap to features with 2006’s surprise smash LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.
They’re back this week with RUBY SPARKS, an off-kilter romance about a writer who falls in love with his fictional creation. Dayton and Faris sat down last month with BOFCA’s Sean Burns.
Q: I was wondering about your approach to this movie, because it is based on such a literary conceit. How did you decide on a visual language to express that?
Valerie Faris: That’s a good question. We haven’t been asked that one yet! The first starting point was finding the house. We knew the house should be mostly white, because the script described his house as a blank page. We were looking for the typical L.A. 80’s house, which are all kind of white boxes on the hills. We wanted to create a space that felt maze-like, referencing M.C. Escher with stairs and multiple levels.
Jonathan Dayton: It was like the inside of Calvin’s head.
VF: A little lonely, a little cold and empty. We thought it would start very much like the blank page, and then Ruby would bring colors in as she got more involved with Calvin.
JD: Because it was such a fantastic premise, we wanted to treat it in a very matter-of-fact way. We didn’t want to use a documentary filming style but we did shoot most of it hand-held, so the camera is breathing and responsive. It’s not a formal frame where you have a locked-off camera.
VF: Especially in that house where there are so many right angles. It would get very sterile.
Q: It sounds like such a comedic premise, but the movie’s tone is much darker than I expected.
JD: That’s what was exciting to us. Like LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, we felt there was a real interesting mix of humor and…
VF: And pain. There’s a lot of humor that comes from pain, which was definitely the case in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, and in this too. This struggle to try and get a relationship right, even though it is high-concept, the issues that are raised are very relatable.
JD: Also just getting the audience to accept this premise…
VF: And then forget about it. We never wanted to explain how she got there or make much of the magic in the film. The tone was the trickiest thing, how to keep it real at every turn. It’s funny because when you envision a film, the difference between what works on the page and what works when you’re shooting… and then in the edit when you see the whole thing altogether you realize how much you really need.
Q: There’s an old saying that a movie is written three times, on the page, in front of the camera and in the editing room.
VF: It really is. We spent every day in the editing room, and it really comes down to every frame. Now with the Avid you really can shift things – actors don’t like to hear this – but you can take dialogue from one scene and put it over picture from another. There’s a little bit of puppetry in editing.
JD: A little bit?
VF: Okay, a lot of it. So it’s incredible to have actors who trust you, and they let it go. That’s a really nice feeling and we had a great collaborative relationship with these guys.
Q: So when I was a wet-behind-the-ears freshman back in film school, I went to see a picture you produced for Perry Farrell called GIFT.
JD: OH NO! Oh my God!
Q: I saw it at midnight at the Angelika and had no idea what the fuck was going on.
VF: Neither did I! Yeah, that was the beginning of our relationship with Perry Farrell.
Q: I think it ended mine.
JD: HA! Well, we weren’t involved in shooting a lot of that. We shot all the concerts, but then they came to us with this pile of footage and said: “Help?”
VF: We worked with Perry and an editor and just tried to…
JD: There were some great elements to it. Perry’s mind is just… we’d be cutting and pasting graphics in the editing room and he’s saying: “I’m gonna do this little thing, I’m gonna call it Lollapalooza.” That’s been the pleasure of filmmaking all these years. You collaborate with amazing artists.
VF: I miss working with musicians. Nick, the composer on this film, has a band, and we’d worked with him on LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. We really enjoyed making the score with him. It harkens back a little bit to working on music videos, and we miss that. You just got to work with some really great artists. It never felt so much like a business back then.
Q: So you’re not doing music videos anymore?
JD: We get asked all the time. But we had such a good time doing them in their heyday, they aren’t really a force now. They’re seen on the Internet, if you’re lucky. As nice as it is to be able to pull up a video any time you want to see it, it’s really fun to have them broadcast.
Q: I do miss sitting in front of MTV for hours wondering what was going to come up next.
VF: They were curated for you. I think MTV could be successful if they started showing videos again.
JD: But they make more money now with their shows.
VF: Yeah. Their crappy reality shows.
RUBY SPARKS opens Friday, August 3d at Boston Common and Kendall Square.