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Originally published Thursday, August 2, 2012 at 5:28 AM

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Zoe Kazan goes 'down a rabbit hole' with the movie 'Ruby Sparks'

An interview with actress and first-time screenwriter Zoe Kazan, whose "Ruby Sparks" opens in Seattle on Friday, Aug. 3, 2012.

Seattle Times movie critic

Coming soon

'Ruby Sparks'

Rated R for language including some sexual references, and for some drug use. Opening Friday at Meridian, Sundance Cinema Seattle and Lincoln Square. For a review, go Thursday to www.seattletimes.com/movies or pick up a copy of Friday's MovieTimes.
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Zoe Kazan, in her screenwriting debut, created a character who creates a character who's played in the movie by Kazan. "You start thinking about it too hard and it kind of goes down a rabbit hole," she says, laughing.

In "Ruby Sparks," the clever new movie made from that screenplay, a young novelist named Calvin experiences severe writer's block. Encouraged to write about something simple, Calvin imagines a young woman named Ruby Sparks, who's pretty and quirky and likes his dog. Suddenly, just like that, Ruby shows up in his apartment. She's everything he dreamed up — to the extent that she changes whenever he writes a new detail — except that she doesn't appear to be fictional. "She doesn't know I wrote her," Calvin nervously warns his brother, trying not to spill the beans. Calvin and Ruby are played by Paul Dano ("There Will Be Blood," "Little Miss Sunshine") and Kazan ("Revolutionary Road," "It's Complicated"); a real-life couple of five years.

Kazan, a 28-year-old Yale graduate who's written several plays, said she was inspired by the Pygmalion myth — and that she didn't realize, at first, that she was writing the roles for herself and Dano.

"I had written about five pages, and was feeling very excited about my idea, and Paul came home and I showed him the pages," she remembered, during a telephone interview last week. "He said, 'Are you writing this for us?' As soon as he said it, I thought, that's exactly what I'm doing. And then I tried to put it out of my mind while writing, so I could let [the characters] speak for themselves." (Calvin and Ruby, she says, bear no resemblance to Paul and Zoe; Dano, a very private person, "would never have wanted to play a character close to him.")

Though Kazan could have sold the finished script, she and Dano wanted to keep the project personal. "We both knew that if we sold the screenplay, we would never get to play the parts, and that they could hire another writer and it could quickly stop resembling the movie that we wanted to make," she said. The husband-and-wife directing team of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, who'd previously directed Dano in "Little Miss Sunshine," came on board, then a period of rewriting began.

"I loved the process of making it ours instead of mine," said Kazan. "There are so many examples in literature of novelists who've been helped by good editors. But there's no editor for screenwriters. A director fulfills that, or should fulfill that, but it's rare that it actually happens."

As executive producer (a first time in that role), Kazan with Dano shepherded the movie through production: contributing to casting, viewing early edits, watching it take shape. When Annette Bening signed on to play Dano's mother, Kazan said she burst into tears — "that was the first time that I felt like we had a real movie."

Next up for Kazan is more movie acting, including a turn opposite Daniel Radcliffe in "The F-Word." But "Ruby Sparks" is surely the first of many screenplays from a writer who has filmmaking in her bones: Her grandfather was stage and film director Elia Kazan, and her parents, Nicholas Kazan and Robin Swicord, are both Oscar-nominated screenwriters (for "Reversal of Fortune" and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," respectively).

And her next film just might be born in the Northwest. Kazan grew up spending summers on Vashon Island, where her parents have a home (she spoke warmly of attending Dragonfire Pirate Camp — "the most amazing place on earth!" — as a child). Once her busy acting schedule calms down, she hopes to return. "I want nothing more in the world," she said, "than to go up to Vashon and just chill out and write."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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