By J.D. Lafrance
No other filmmaker other than Charles Burnett, John Sayles or Mike Leigh excels at telling stories about real people like Victor Nunez. He has been called the working man’s auteur and with one exception, his films capture the essence of Florida culture in a refreshingly understated way that is increasingly rare at time when big budget blockbusters and quirky independent films reside at polar ends of the spectrum with very little in-between. His films are populated by protagonists that are outsiders reinventing themselves in Florida. Nunez has said that he is fascinated by “people who have somehow strayed from the world, and they’re trying to decide whether or not they’ll be able to get back in again.” This is evident in the conflicted reporter torn between two sides in A Flash of Green (1984), the grandfather protecting his family from dangerous criminals in Ulee’s Gold (1997) and this is certainly true of Ruby in Paradise (1993), which chronicles a young woman’s journey from an abusive relationship in Tennessee to her new life working in a souvenir shop in Panama City.
Right from the opening scene Nunez eschews convention when he avoids the clichéd break-up scene by muting the sound of Ruby Lee Gissing (Ashley Judd) leaving her rural home and irate boyfriend (husband?) behind so that we only hear the Sam Phillips song “Raised on Promises” playing over the soundtrack as she arrives in Florida at dawn. Nunez captures this moment by showing Ruby in silhouette, which coupled with the music, makes for a very atmospheric introduction to the film’s protagonist. She awakes in a motel to the sounds of an Indian woman singing a traditional song while carrying some towels to her family. Ruby starts a diary, which allows us access to her innermost thoughts, feelings and musings on life. She’s a young woman trying to figure out who she is and what she wants out of life.
Unfortunately, Ruby arrives during the offseason and work is scarce. However, she finds work at a local souvenir shop when she convinces its owner Mildred Chambers (Dorothy Lyman) to hire her. As she gets acquainted with her new surroundings, Nunez uses this opportunity to immerse us in the sights and sounds of Panama City. There are nice shots of Ruby and one of her co-workers Rochelle Bridges (Allison Dean) walking the deserted streets with the stores shuttered for the season. Nunez wisely lets the impossibly beautiful setting speak for itself as we witness stunning sunsets over the ocean.
Rochelle is a young woman like Ruby trying to get by. She goes to business school when she’s not working and has a boyfriend in Atlanta whom she hopes to marry some day. Mildred’s son, Ricky (Bentley Mitchum), is a good-looking troublemaker who takes a shine to Ruby. He has a contentious relationship with his mother who warns Ruby not to get involved with him, which she does anyway, slipping back into a cycle of men who are no good for her. The crucial difference being that she is no longer suffocated by her surroundings, told what to think and is allowed to make her own decisions, even if they aren’t the right ones. Her relationship with Ricky represents her past, which is why eventually cutting him loose symbolically puts the past behind her. As she says at one point, he is “a 100% of something I would like to forget.”
Ruby meets a nice guy named Mike McCaslin (Todd Field) who runs a nursery where she buys a plant for her new place. They start dating and she finds him to be everything that Ricky isn’t. Mike listens to her, makes her feel good and gives her breathing room. He helps her break out of the cycle of bad relationships with domineering men. Todd Field brings an easy-going affability to the role of Mike and is not afraid to show the character’s faults. He is cynical, looks down on people who enjoy mainstream popcorn movies (and yet is fascinated by a T.V. evangelist) and discourages Ruby from going back to school. Mike is definitely a glass-half-empty kind of person. He doesn’t buy into the materialism of our culture. He leads a lo-fi life. His job is growing things from the earth and selling them.
Ruby in Paradise is filled with all kinds of character-defining moments that are little pieces of a bigger puzzle. For example, Nunez paints Mildred the way you would assess someone in real life. At first, we only see as a strict boss at work but later in the film she takes Ruby on a business trip to a trade show in Tampa and the two women get to know each other. We get the impression that perhaps Mildred even sees some of herself in Ruby and, in turn, the young woman sees her boss in a new light. This sequence humanizes Mildred and helps us understand her character better. Nunez obviously has affection for these characters and this makes us care about them as well.
There is plenty of local color in this film, like the next-door neighbor Ruby observes frequently – an old man who fishes daily off a nearby pier. There is the teenage girl next door who lives with her abusive boyfriend, which also acts as warning for Ruby that if she’s not careful she could so easily slip back into old habits. Ruby in Paradise is filled with blue-collar folks and Nunez actually shows them at work, which is a nice touch. He shows the little details of everyday life that enriches these people and pulls you into their lives because it makes you think about your own. These characters flesh out the world that Ruby inhabits.
Victor Nunez had always been fascinated by Panama City. As a child, he vacationed regularly there with his family. As an adult, he became intrigued by the life experiences of the people who worked year round in coffee shops and motels. This led to the genesis of Ruby in Paradise. After completing A Flash of Green, a few years passed and he made notes about his initial ideas concerning the challenges women faced: “How do we define who we are, now in this time?” He wanted his protagonist Ruby to try and figure this out during the course of the film.
He spent a year working on the screenplay drawing inspiration from several literary sources: William Faulkner’s The Bear for the character of Mike; the structure of The Odyssey but with a woman instead of a man going through a series of trials; and Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen as a model for depicting a woman’s dilemma. For the look of the film, Nunez was inspired by Italian neo-realism cinema where character, place and story are “inexplicably linked.” He spent years trying to get Ruby in Paradise made and was rejected numerous times by financiers who read the script and felt it wasn’t “American enough. It was not hot enough. It was not cool enough or urban enough.” It got so bad that he began questioning his abilities as a filmmaker and felt like an outsider in the film business. He finally decided to make Ruby regardless of the budget and financing suddenly fell into place when his great aunt passed away, leaving him what was left of her trust. In addition, he was also able to borrow money. The final budget was a lean $750 to $800,000.
Nunez went to Los Angeles for ten days to cast Ruby in Paradise. According to the filmmaker, the casting director was pushing a very accomplished young actress but she didn’t feel right to him. He saw three actresses who were very good but were “a little too much Tennessee Williams and not enough Tennessee. Their experience of the South was from doing Williams, not from living in the north of Florida.” He met with Ashley Judd who had grown up in various places in the South with only a few television credits and had been modeling in Japan. She came in late, did the interview, came back 30 minutes later and gave him a CD of the Judds (her sister and mother’s country music band) so that he would know which sister she was. Judd had read the script and “felt passionately moved by it. And for some reason or another had an instantaneous and deep understanding of the material.” Nunez realized that she had “minimal acting experience but exuded a ‘hungry’ quality that was right on.”
To get a feel for the role, Judd drove the back roads from Tennessee to Florida, observing the people she encountered along the way. Principal photography lasted six weeks with a day and a half in Tampa and two days of pick-ups. To save time, money and get the exact shots he wanted, Nunez operated the camera himself, something that he has done for his entire career. “When you make low-budget films, you live in the ‘good enough’ mode by and large. And if you’re lucky, you’re moving fast enough and everything is flowing well enough that ‘good enough’ is what you need.”
Judd’s performance, like the film itself, is wonderfully understated. While she is naturally beautiful, her hair and makeup are very natural. Ruby is a very stripped-down version of a human being as represented by how she dresses and where she lives. This is her foundation that will allow her to grow. Nunez allows the character moments of quiet contemplation as Ruby watches the world and enjoys the simplicity of life. She is not a perfect character. She makes mistakes, like getting involved with Ricky, but she learns from them. She often looks haunted, like she’s never fully in the moment, slightly detached from what she’s doing, like at work doing menial tasks. Judd suggests that Ruby is thinking about something else. Judd disappears completely into the role as she delivers an intelligent performance of an independent woman. Done early in her career (it was only her fourth role and first lead in a feature film), Ruby in Paradise was the breakout role for the actress who went on to bigger films and a variety of parts but nothing quite as good as this one.
While Ruby in Paradise launched Judd’s career it sadly did not do the same for Nunez despite winning the Grand Jury Prize (along with Bryan Singer’s Public Access) at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival. He did go on to make his most high profile film to date, Ulee’s Gold, which revitalized Peter Fonda’s career but then didn’t make another film until the little-seen crime film Coastlines (2002) with Josh Brolin and Timothy Olyphant. Nunez doesn’t make dynamic-sounding films that dazzle financiers, hence the lengthy lulls between projects, which is a shame because he is a rare breed of filmmaker. One that finds the poetry in the everyday lives of people just trying to get by as best they can.