Zoe Kazan has what you might call a pedigree. Her parents are the playwrights/screenwriters Nicholas Kazan (Frances, Reversal of Fortune) and Robin Swicord (Little Women, Memoirs of a Geisha), and of course her grandfather is one of the greatest directors in film history, three time Academy Award winner Elia Kazan. Unlike the scions of many connected families, though, she’s used her connections and heritage to build a fascinating and weighty career, as a playwright, an actor of theater and film, and this year as a screenwriter. Kazan sat down with Paste recently to discuss her film Ruby Sparks, now available on DVD.
: It sets my teeth on edge whenever a writer uses the term ‘Manic Pixie Dream Girl,’ because I think it’s a short hand that subtitutes for actual thinking. I know that your film is about many things. A lot of writers seem to think you specifically had that image in mind and you were sort of deconstructing it in this film. Do you think think that’s true, or is it broader than that?
Zoe Kazan: Well, look — I definitely am fine with it being read as a critique of that archetype, because I think it deserves critiquing. But it wasn’t my original intention. You know, I was aware of that trope, and I was aware of its pitfalls, and maybe that leaked into my writing. I was much more thinking about how we all start with this image of the other person when we fall in love. and how some people have a really hard time transitioning from loving that image to loving the real person that they’re with. It’s something I’ve definitely experienced in my own life, and I think it’s something that you see in the film. You don’t see a whole lot of movies about what happens after that first kiss. So, you know, I was obviously looking at movies like Annie Hall or Manhattan, movies that go beyond that first stretch of love.
You must have been looking at my notes, because that was actually my second question for you. Because The Village Voice had a neat phrase, maybe a little reductive, but I liked how clever it was. They said this was sort of a literary Weird Science. So I was going to ask you what other films you had in mind as you were writing this. Anything, other than the two Woody Allen greats, that you were conscious of?
Kazan: Uh, someone said Annie Hall meets Frankenstein, which I thought was pretty good. If, again, reductive. Movies like Groundhog Day or Big were an inspiration to me just because I think those are movies that really work on a metaphorical and a comedic and sort of an emotional level. I think that movies like those Woody Allen movies, but also Hannah And Her Sisters, they kind of nail down male and female perspective in a really interesting way that I was also interested in exploring. And then, looking at a movie like Harold and Maude, maybe where there’s a sort of unconventionality to the love story but you still really believe in it. I know that Jonathan and Valerie are huge Hal Ashby fans. That was something that we had discussed.
Very cool. Now, I’ve read conflicting accounts. I read that Paul wrote the script with you and then I read that you wrote the whole script but that you had Paul in mind when you were writing it. That right?
Kazan: Yeah, definitely. Paul didn’t write this with me. I’m not very good at sharing. If you’ve seen the movie you might know that I might have one or two control issues. (laughs) I’m not really sure I’m going to be taking on a writing partner anytime soon. In his book On Writing, Stephen King says that every writer has their ideal reader. Stephen King says that person is his wife, Tabitha, and for me it’s definitely Paul. You know, that he’s such a-to be totally honest, he’s such a snob about movies, so I really rely on him as a sort of bouncing board.
Specifically the reason I ask is because there’s a line early on where he says ‘She’s complicated, that’s what I like about her,’ and it struck me as-interestingly enough, given the conceit of the film-it struck me as something that a woman would write about wanting a man to say about her.
Kazan: Right. And there’s also the line later where Harry says ‘Quirky, messy women whose problems only make them more endearing are not real. Period.’ And that was also a meta commentary in some way. Well, I just feel like-I don’t know how to say this in a way that’s not going to sound terrible-I, as a person, am the kind of girl that if you were going to write the character of me in a movie, it would end up looking kind of like Manic-Pixie-Dream-Girl-sh. (laughs) Right? But I don’t actually feel that way at all. And knowing myself, I know I am much much more complicated than what I might be reduced to as a character, either in a movie or in someone’s head. I think we’ve all had bad experiences in love, or at least I have, of feeling like someone’s looking at you but not really seeing you. They are seeing their own projection of whatever they think that you should be or want you to be. They had a girlfriend once that reminds them of you or something, you know? So I wanted to write about the vast gap between real life and that that codification, between looking at someone and being able to really see them.
The penultimate line of the movie is such a beautiful turn. Because of the double meaning but also because I think anyone that’s become emotionally invested at all by that point tends to identify with the mistakes that we all make in these relationships. This idea of having a chance to start over is just-it’s just beautiful. Along the way, did anybody ever sort of try to tell you that it needed to be a little darker or that it was too hopeful or cheesy or anything like that at the end? What was the reaction of people around you to the ending?
Kazan: To be totally honest, I think the opposite. The very very very first ending to the very first draft of the script was, I would say, less romantic in tone. Everybody who read it said to me, you’ve got to give it a more romantic ending. We’ve been through so much and the audience deserve that. And also, because there’s so much hope in the movie too, to sort of help foster that hope would make the movie cohere better. So I listened to that, and I think that the ending still is ambiguous enough for me to feel like it says the things that I want it to say. I think, like you said, it’s the hope of starting over. It’s not necessarily everything working out, you know, and he’s gonna make it this time, but he has the chance to try to do it right, to try and do it on his own. Without manipulating her, without having power over her. That he has the opportunity. And for me, you know, it’s funny. People talk about the movie as being in some ways like a fantasy but I think that most of the movie, for me, feels very rooted in reality. Obviously not the part about her coming to life. but you know, their relationship. The kind of changes that she goes through. Those feel to me like life. But that dream, of being able to sit down with the person that you loved and get another chance, you know? I think a lot of people find emotional truth in that kind of fantasy.
Before we go, I want to talk too about how not only is there an ethical question which extends beyond not just romantic couples but to your relationship with everybody in the world. Not to treat them instrumentally, to treat them as actual people. But then there’s also a sort of practical element of it there. Where every attempt to instruamentalized or objectify someone is sort of doomed to failure. You’re never going to going to get what you want, out of that. Was that something that was conscious in your mind as you were writing the movie. Because it seems to be something the movie very strongly points to. You see what I mean? I’m separating the ethics and the actual practical effects of it as well.
Kazan: That it’s impossible. I understand what you’re saying. I think that that’s trueThere are a thousand cliches that reflect exactly that. Like, ‘if you love them, you have to let them free.’ ‘Love always comes to you when you’re not looking for it.’ But I think that there is a sense that you can’t control a person. You can’t even control yourself. We are mysterious and to try and take away that mystery by putting a label on something-it’s not just dangerous, it’s futile in some ways. Yeah. I definitely am trying to reach out to something regarding that.
It seems to be the tragedy of humanity. We’re always reaching out for what we think is going to fill the need that we have, but it’s always the wrong thing that we’re reaching for.
Kazan: Absolutely. I think we’re in a constant struggle with ourselves to fear the unknown versus delight in the surprise. You can’t truly fall in love with someone that you’re in control of, because then you’re cutting the possibility of change out of your life. And yet, being with someone who you are not controlling is an incredibly scary thing. You know, the idea that someone you love can leave you at any time, or change suddenly. The unpredictability of that I think is really scary.
Yep. I agree. Well, thanks for you time. I really appreciate it, Zoe. Great movie and look forward to talking to you next time.
Kazan: Thank you! Me too! Thanks so much.