Navigating the Emotional Pathways and Pressures of ‘Ruby Sparks’ With Composer Nick Urata

By  · Published on July 25th, 2012

Ruby Sparks tells the story of a young writer (Paul Dano) who seemingly creates his dream girl out of thin air (and his writing) and is then able to control her through said writing. This curious tale is further heightened thanks to a magical score from composer Nick Urata (Crazy, Stupid, Love), which bounces from feeling hopeful to ominous to almost dangerous. The score succeeds in grabbing the audience’s attention from its first note and does not let go until its very last.

With the soundtrack for Ruby Sparks released just yesterday, I spoke with Urata about his process creating the film’s score, how effected he was after seeing only the first cut of the film, and how that led to him getting the gig as the film’s composer.

To begin ‐ how did you get involved with Ruby Sparks?

I know the directors Jonathan [Dayton] and Valerie [Faris], who also directed Little Miss Sunshine and I did most of the music for that one [with DeVotchKa], and this is their first film since then and they were at the very beginning of the process when they first got their cut together and they asked me to come in and just watch the film. They had a bunch of other composers [in consideration], they weren’t sure if I was the right guy for the job, but I saw an early cut of the film and I basically just went home and wrote 3–4 pieces and when I played them back for them, they were very excited and decided they were going to go with me as the composer. Which is a fairly boring story… [Laughs]

Not at all! I think that’s how these things usually work. The story of Ruby Sparks, on the surface, may seem like just another romantic comedy, but your score really gives the film some major weight and makes it feel almost operatic ‐ was that something you felt after first seeing the footage which then came out of you when creating the score?

Yeah ‐ there was something bigger about it [the film] and they [Dayton and Faris] also put this opera piece in there early on so that was in there and they were really excited about what that was doing to the film so that sort of gave me an opening and, like I said, I watched the film just once and went home and sort of ran with that idea. And even in its early form there was no music, but it had a ‐ like most good films ‐ it had a lasting effect on me. It stayed with me for a while and that helped inform the first few pieces that I wrote and then we turned that into a score. [Laughs] So it happened, I think, organically and emotionally. And it’s an emotionally arresting film, for sure.

Certainly. And the score is hopeful, but there are also moments where it sounds slightly ominous (probably hinting at particular plot points in the film) ‐ how do you decide which moments in a scene the music should highlight? Is it you actually going through particular scenes with the directors and then playing off the emotional moments in those scenes?

Yes, yes. Jon and Val ‐ they’re very, very hands on with the music and, every director has a different style, some don’t like to get too involved, but they [Dayton and Faris] were very deeply involved and they wanted the music to be a big part of the film. So I would take a first pass and see if I got the right emotion and they would usually guide me through what emotional pathway we’re supposed to be following so that was really helpful because they had a very clear vision of which emotions should be highlighted with the score. And a lot of times that really is the best way to do it because, coming from an outsider’s perspective, you’re not really sure which way the director wants to go.

I can only imagine. I loved how the score starts out mainly with strings, then the horns start to come in, and by the end the percussion starts to make itself more known so the score itself feels like a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end ‐ was this a conscious decision or did it just naturally develop that way when you were scoring to the film itself?

Yeah ‐ I think that’s how when you start out ‐ even when you’re writing a script ‐ when you’re writing your score you hope to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, like you just said, and a lot of times it doesn’t work out that way. But I’m really glad you picked up on that because it definitely has three very distinct acts that take us through the story in three very big shifts, so we tried to do that with the music as well.

And you succeeded!

Aw ‐ that’s awesome to hear!

Some of the tracks actually have some of the film’s dialogue mixed in ‐ what led to the decision to include dialogue with those particular pieces?

It was just sort of a fun thing that the directors wanted to do to sort of bring that main character Calvin [Dano] back into the listening experience, that was why we did it. And they’re two very, very big sort of moments leading up to what’s happening in his experience with this girl [Ruby Sparks, Zoe Kazan] and we always talked about how, with soundtrack albums, we liked to have a little bit of dialogue in there as placeholders and we wanted to emulate that.

The soundtrack is also populated with some non-scored tracks from different artists ‐ are you involved in deciding where the score gets placed versus songs or is that more the director’s decision?

Yeah ‐ definitely. There was a point where a lot of the scored pieces did replace songs and as the score developed, it just seemed like for some scenes, it seemed kind of wrong to have a song or a needledrop [placing a cut of music into a scene] come in so we replaced a lot, almost every song, with a scored piece ‐ barring the few that are in there ‐ which really worked and kind of changed the mood. So in that sense I was involved, but that was really the director’s choice.

And there really was a clear theme that developed throughout the score ‐ is that something that happens as you are working or it something you seek to do first and then have the rest of the music build from there?

Yeah ‐ you try to do it first, it doesn’t always happen. You just sort of keep pounding away at the piano and try to find the right thing and usually it becomes apparent when you do. But essentially it takes a lot of trial and error, and a lot of failure. There were definitely points trying to come up with that theme where I didn’t think it was going to happen.

To that end, was there something particularly difficult when creating this score? And on the converse side, was there something really simple that immediately worked well?

No ‐ it definitely wasn’t simple, in the best possible way. Like I said, it was very much a collaborative process with the directors and it was great because I would come up with the bare bones of an idea and they would sort of push one direction or another and we would keep developing each scene. We spent a few weeks on each scene, which is really nice because sometimes you don’t really get to do that, and the picture editor was involved so it was a big collaboration.

We would cut the film to some of the music and then we would go back and cut the music to the film and vice versa so some of the scenes really were great in that way. Because a lot of times you just get the finished film and that’s all you have, but we were able to sort of make the two work together in a really organic ‐ I hate to say organic ‐ it was like a slow brewed concoction which really helped develop some of those themes. It was a different experience than we had in the past, which was really great just because we had a gift ‐ somewhat ‐ of time.

Do you feel you are a bit more creative when you have the time to sink into a project and explore it or does creativity seem to be born out of the pressure of having to do something on a stricter deadline?

Yeah ‐ with film music, and myself certainly, it definitely comes out of the pressure because there is no reprieve. It’s a very kind of strict schedule so you are basically writing from the starting whistle until the very end. So for me, it is actually the pressure of having to sit at the piano all day. It is kind of painful, but usually the results are good and it comes from that sort of, I don’t want to say fear, but fear. Fear of failure.

[Laughs] Which makes sense! My final question, what impression or feeling do you hope audiences walk away with when they watch Ruby Sparks?

Like I was saying before, the thing I loved about it [Ruby Sparks] and most of my favorite films is I could go away, and we noticed this early on when we started showing it to audiences, it’s one of those films where you will immediately want to go to the bar or the coffee shop and talk about it. And I think the great thing about the story is it touches on these universal themes of changing the things we love and the creative process ‐ I know these are broad swipes [laughs] ‐ but I think the overall impression is even when you think you’re in complete control, you really have no control over the events of the universe.

So I think that is the lesson here, especially with relationships and beings creating art. I know I’m probably way more eloquent on the musical end, but hopefully you’ll see it and see the point I’m talking about.

The soundtrack for Ruby Sparks is available through Milan Records.

1. “Creation” ‐ Nick Urata
2. “Writer’s Block” ‐ Nick Urata
3. “Inspiration!” ‐ Nick Urata
4. “Ruby Sparks (with dialogue)” ‐ Nick Urata
5. “I Was Waiting For You” ‐ Nick Urata
6. “I’ll Go With You” ‐ Nick Urata
7. “She’s Real” ‐ Nick Urata
8. “Ca Plane Pour Moi” ‐ Plastic Bertrand
9. “Une Fraction de Seconde” ‐ Holden
10. “He Loved You” ‐ Nick Urata
11. “Quand Tu Es La” ‐ Sylvie Vartan
12. “Psychedelic Train” ‐ Derrick Harriott
13. “Roll It Round” ‐ The Lions
14. “Miserable” ‐ Nick Urata
15. “Inseparable” ‐ Nick Urata
16. “You’re A Genius” ‐ Nick Urata
17. “The Past Released Her” ‐ Nick Urata
18. “She Came To Me (with dialogue)” ‐ Nick Urata
19. “Can We Start Over” ‐ Nick Urata
20. “Ruby Was Just Ruby” ‐ Nick Urata

Ruby Sparks is currently in limited release in Los Angeles and New York.

Urata will also be performing selections from Ruby Sparks live at The Largo in Los Angeles on Thursday, August 16th ‐ tickets available now.