PRINT October 1993


VECTOR NUNEZ’S RUBY IN PARADISE jump-starts on a lick of asphalt as a woman’s voice fills the air and her look fills the frame. A quiet thoughtful woman in a quiet thoughtful film, Ruby Lee Gissing is speeding down the highway, not to find work or romance or adventure but to find herself. Ruby has gotten out of Tennessee without, in her words, in Nunez’s words, “getting pregnant or beat up, which says something.” When she hits the Florida coast she takes a job in a notions store and waits for life to happen; which it does, eventually, by way of reading, writing, a friend, and two affairs, one with a man who’s awful, another with one who’s too nice. “It’s women who pay the most price for security,” says Ruby, “suckers for the tender, cozy life.” A high school graduate in her early 20s, Ruby, played by Ashley Judd, will come to consciousness through pleasure—in books, bodies, and a diary in which her words don’t just sit on the page, they take root.

Nunez himself was raised and still lives in Florida, which he left only to go to film school. His first two features, Gal Young ’Un, 1980, and A Flash of Green, 1985, were critical and festival successes but didn’t win him the money for a third. I met Nunez at Utah’s Sundance Film Festival, of which he is a veteran: not only has he premiered work there, he served on the festival’s founding board. Sundance has evolved into the leading showcase of American independent film, as well as a choice feeding ground for Hollywood. It’s a place where deals are cut, prestige is invented, and careers are launched, a place that tells you why, to understand movies, you need to understand the crucial worth of the dollar.

And also why a smart, circumspect man like Victor Nunez would sometimes rather talk money than virtually anything else. What does it mean for a man to write a woman’s story, especially this one? Nunez never quite managed to tell me—to say why, at age 48, he’d found it necessary to make a film about a young woman’s journeys, on the road and off.

MANOHLA DARGIS: I’ve read about your disappointments after your first features.

VICTOR NUNEZ: I think ideally filmmakers in this country should be allowed the size of film that is appropriate for the story. For years my frustration was that the only people who get to make little movies are major stars; Accidental Tourist is a small movie, yet the only way it got to be made was the people attached. That just didn’t make sense.

Ruby’s a demanding film, it’s a difficult character, and you have to be willing to get involved. There’s something very nice about it in that the story is the simplest of threads, and you can follow that and just let all these other things happen. I wrote something I wanted to make, and knew I could make. Maybe just that made this script and story much more direct. I really felt like this was my last shot.

MD: Really?

VN: Sure, even if I got it right it might be the last time I got to make a film. What was wonderful, though, was that something happened, something snapped, and I said “And that’s fine.”

MD: Why did you have a young woman tell this story?

VN: I was aware from day one that I would be asked this question. [Long pause.] My son is that age, and in many ways I think men are having a more difficult time now than women, because the issue has been focused for the last fifteen, twenty years in our culture. Ruby is not a coming-of-age story, it’s like the first time you’re on your own, which is different. Coming of age is usually this thing where you become aware of death, of sadness. For me it was always Okay, I know all that, but what in hell does a person do with life?

MD: You said that it’s harder for men—in what way? That’s a provocative thing to say.

VN: I know, I’ve been thinking I don’t want to say it. I think the cultural patterns that are clearly outdated—we don’t want to say they were wrong, per se, because I think patterns that have that much power at some point or another must have worked for most people. You don’t evolve these systems unless some way or another a majority of people believe they work for them—

MD: Or the strongest people believe they work for them.

VN: An interesting question is, Why is it possible that those patterns will continue? Even with all we know or feel now, why may those patterns survive? It’s real clear for women, because they find themselves in that white void:if anyone is going to figure it out, it’s going to have to come from inside. And I think there’s much more flexibility because of that.

MD: The so-called crises in masculinity have men trying to figure out what kind of men to be if women don’t necessarily want to be what they’ve been. There’s a confusion about what kind of roles to play—which is why, on the one hand, you have Schwarzenegger types, and on the other, men trying to get in touch with their emotions, Iron John and all that. However much we might think both are silly, there is something profound in all this. But instead of making a film about a young man, you made one about a young woman, who was going through this incredibly thoughtful process about how to be an adult in the world. There’s something deeply moving about watching a female character do this. Other than Thelma & Louise, I can’t think of a film recently that spoke to me this way.

VN: In the end we’re all in the same boat. That said, the difference is obvious.

I’ve never been drawn to intensely first-person fiction, because, I guess, one of the things I’m interested in is this issue of how do you see beyond. With Ruby in Paradise someone could say, That’s a first person. Well, it isn’t, because you’re with her in a lot of ways.

MD: It goes back and forth, in many different perspectives.

VN: Yes, that’s how the film gets to be. It’s very subtle, though, because you never leave her point of view. My feeling was always that the camera was sitting in frame next to her, and sometimes it was seeing things that she wasn’t quite seeing but that she was capable of seeing.

MD: Like that relationship with that hideous boy [Ricky, played by Bentley Mitchum].

VN: [Laughs.] You can go back to Badlands. There are certainly precedents; I’m not pretending there’s never been this movie.

MD: Yes, but the thing with Terence Malick and Badlands is the fascination Americans have with their own violence. Ruby has moments of violence, emotional and physical, but there aren’t any guns.

VN: Structurally one of the decisions I madeand these arethe things writers do just to help themselves was that I would just turn the hero myth over. Obviously, ultimately, you’re working on feeling, and that’s what makes the difference, but it really helped me. There are little references to The Odyssey: on [Ruby’s lover] Mike’s wall there’s a poster for Calypso, because Calypso is one of the early feminist icons of the misunderstood, the abandoned, the sheltered, come-stay-away-from-the-world. That’s what Mike is offering Ruby.

MD: Ruby starts off on a highway. For a woman in a movie to get in a car and just drive off by herself still amazes me.

VN: One of the things I’m interested in is what we need out of our stories. By and large, most of us trying to figure things out skirt things—

MD: [Laughs.]

VN: What? [Laughs.] That’s one of the miracles of life. I’ve always thought that the challenge for film would be to find the marvelous in the everyday. I don’t pretend that I’ve always pulled that off in my films, but as the images we live with become more powerful and more extreme, how are we going to get through the next twenty years, culturally?

MD: I’ve thought about that in relation to Ruby in Paradise, which has a very thoughtful pace and is antithetical to the MTV kind of cutting. Ruby really takes its time.

VN: Well, I’ve always been accused of taking my time.

I like all the movies I’ve ever written, but obviously I feel that Ruby is sort of everything I’ve ever learned, and more than I know. I know a lot of feminists will object because it’s the male projection versus the reality of the female experience. The male gaze—one of the things that interested me was that it was going to be more important to see Ruby seeing the world, to feel and understand how she was processing information, than necessarily to see her. There’s only one basic way that you can get inside a character’s head: you show their eyes and then you show what they’re seeing, and it depends on the camera angle, the relationship of the camera to the character’s eye-line, all this stuff. You can either see with them or see at them. Ashley had such good instincts about what you look like when you’re looking somewhere. She grew up in Kentucky, and I think she has a real sense of what kind of hardships women in that environment had, and have.

MD: Were you also intent on showing someone who wasn’t middle class?

VN: When I was a child I lived for a good while in that world—a world that does not have a tradition of books and ideas, where you can’t sit down and start talking about Nietzsche or Kant—

MD: We didn’t always do that in my house either.

VN: I think all of this stuff, all this intellectual stuff, for it to work you have to translate it into filmic and dramatic experience. I don’t know if anyone is going to see Ruby and say, Oh, yeah, he’s read so-and-so, or he’s dealt with that issue. It’s irrelevant. Ruby says in the laundry—and this was a line I actually added in the course of the film—“We’re all of the same world.” It was the experience of physically shooting that scene in which I realized even further the truth of that.

MD: I think when those of us who aren’t theologians or philosophers talk about what it is to be alive, we get very embarrassed, particularly if we don’t have God to fall back on. We want something. With Ruby, that’s not necessarily overt but it does fuel the story.

VN: Very much. Conrad said that what drove him to write was trying to figure out the reasons people find to go on living. Look, you have a finite set of characters in a situation, and you can chart out the possibilities. What you want to do is find some way that what happens is the only thing that could happen, and that’s a truth. That’s why you believe in art, because you believe it’s on a par with philosophy or analysis—it’s not going to solve anything any more than anything else, but it’s a part of the mix. You’d like to feel when someone finishes that thing, or goes through that experience, their life is—not better, but refreshed, maybe.

A question no one asks is why a person my age is doing something about someone that age.

MD: That’s a good question, I’m glad you asked it.

VN: Cuz that’s as far as I figured anything out. [Laughs.] Talk about arrested growth.

MD: Well, I’m not interested in doing a psychological portrait of you, seriously. But I did want to ask you how you got Ruby off the ground.

VN: I knew I could get Ruby in the can for pretty little money, that was the first decision, and I went to the traditional sources. Names should be nameless, but no one, no one, would do anything. It’s not unique, as you know. But I think I had fallen into a trap: someone outside of me had to tell me it was alright to make this movie, I was still craving that sort of adolescent approval. To realize that the only person I had to clear it with was me was very liberating. But then, it was still the money. In the credits is a thank you to Susie B. Hodnett, my great-aunt, who left me a trust out of the blue. I’m gloriously in debt.

So I got it in the can, and we thought we had the rest of the money. Several different groups almost came in but they had so many strings attached. There are these vultures out there in the industry with finishing funds waiting to just take the filmmaker to the cleaners, because they know the filmmaker is going to be desperate to get it done. At any rate, basically through the kindness of the labs and stuff, I got sixty days [credit] on certain things. The main thing is, from start to finish, it was one glorious running leap; principal photography was six weeks.

MD: How much did it cost?

VN: Well, the generic, safe thing to say is well under a million. We got it in the can for $350,000. People got good salaries and the key people got points; if everyone gets paid the first time it will be another $115,000, if everyone gets paid twice it will be around three-quarters of a millon.

MD: For me money is less a fetish than proof you can do films like this.

VN: I went in knowing that if Ruby didn’t work, or was an interesting movie but didn’t do what I wanted it to do, we didn’t have to have the quality of the mix. I’m a real believer in low-budget films, and super-16 [-millimeter film] allows for so much more fluidness and speed in the production process, and is so much less expensive. You know, do you need to shoot close-ups of people in small rooms in 35 millimeter? Then the other thing we did is digital audio. That track you heard was done with three people and a Macintosh. If you count Charlie [Engstrom], the composer, four people and a second Macintosh. The technology has gotten to the point where you can do this.

MD: Ruby is really unusual. I don’t know if you quite know how unusual.

VN: What’s interesting is that men really connect to it too. Which to me is obvious.

MD: Well, yes and no. You’ve obviously read theory about women having to learn to hook into male subjectivity, to work this sort of transvestitism.

VN: In independent film, we always used to talk about how we were going to be the spokespersons for the small voices, the little voices, the regional ones, the ones left out and lied to. Lyotard says capital doesn’t care what stories are told except the story of how stories are told, and if it controls that, it’s got it all. In that sense, any independent film is a subversive act just because it’s out there. What’s so ironic is that Ruby isn’t about marginal experience, it’s about things that are at the very heart of experience.

One of the conflicts in American art has been whether to appeal to the masses or to the highest standards we can conceive of. Other cultures have never really had to deal with that. It’s the power of numbers. How do you deny $200 million at the box office in three weeks? You don’t. It’s very tricky in Western culture, how you counter mass with whatever it is, this little delicate—delicate is the wrong word—mystery. You just try to do it. That was the other impetus for me: Okay, if you believe in independent film, goddamn go make one. Because, you know, it sounds great on paper.

MD: Too many editorial people conceive of their readership as Joe Sixpack. I’d like to think people are a little smarter.

VN: “Ain't I got feelings?” [Both laugh.] Ideally, you’d like people to see your movie because you feel it would mean something to them. Nobody—and this has more to do with the critical establishment—affirms and proclaims, the way André Bazin did, that there really is a reason for the little movie. One of the things that happened so quickly was all these distributors who started with some little movie decided if it’s less than $4 million they don’t want to talk with you, they’re not interested. Partly because these people are aging, and they want a secure, stable life, and it’s like, “I really need to make a hundred and fifty thousand a year.” That’s really the bottom line.

MD: The weird thing is, and I used this term before, the “fetish” of the small movie, those “miracle stories” we keep hearing about. El Mariachi, $7,000; Slacker, $23,000; Laws of Gravity, $28,000. Okay. What happens when studios pounce on these guys? Richard Linklater just finished a $6 million movie [Dazed and Confused] that’s a fake negative pick-up. [A negative pickup is an independently produced film bought for distribution.] Universal said, We’re going to pretend this is a negative pickup, we’re going to shoot in a right-to-work state to get around the unions, we’ll give you x amount of teamsters. It’s the same-old-same-old at the service of the industry.

VN: No one is going to take Hollywood away, though I must say when I heard the quarterly report for IBM I said, Gee. The problem with film in America is that you can make too much money from it, and because of that it’s skewed. But again, this is a reality. You can scream against it or you can find someway to do something anyway, and people do out ’ there [trails off] . . . I can’t name them right off the top of my head. [Laughter.]

Manohla Dargis is a writer who lives and works in New York City.