Seven years ago screenwriter Diablo Cody established herself as the voice of a wonderfully disaffected generation with her first feature film Juno, doling out witty cynicisms that could have only been borne out of the heyday of the social media era. With Paradise -- out today in theaters and starring Julianne Hough, Octavia Spencer, Russell Brand, and Holly Hunter—Cody takes on new challenges writing a lead character, Lamb , who couldn’t be much further from Cody’s own experience, as Lamb is a sheltered evangelical Christian completely devoid of pop culture cues. And while Cody has written four features and produced films as well as Showtime’s benchmark Toni Collette starrer The United States of Tara, Paradise marks her directorial debut.
While much ado was made early in Cody’s movie career about her time as a stripper, which Cody chronicled in her highly addicting “The Pussy Ranch” blog and her memoir Confessions of an Unlikely Stripper, she’s gone on to establish herself as a major female force in Hollywood.Juno’s crackerjack script earned Cody the Academy Award in 2007, and although she recently asserted in an article entitled “7 Lessons of Being a Screenwriter” that “You will be a big deal for about 10 seconds,” she has since managed to write a hit show (Tara) and three more female-driven feature scripts – two with very unlikable (but freaking amazing) female leads with the horror movie Jennifer’s Body (Megan Fox) and with the acerbic Young Adult (Charlize Theron).
While Paradise reflects Cody’s laser-sharp sense of humor in characters portrayed by Spencer and Brand, her lead Lamb, played with wide-eyed enthusiasm by Hough, is essentially a blank slate following an accident that leaves her with permanent burn scars. But Lamb’s accident takes her on a journey of self-discovery from her sheltered evangelical Christian home to – where else?—Las Vegas, where Spencer and Brand become her guides, not entirely unlike Dorothy discovering Oz with the Scarecrow and the Tin Man.
Cody chatted with SheWired about juggling directing with motherhood, penning a character so far off of her radar, women in film, and the possibility of a Jennifer’s Body franchise!
Congratulations on Paradise and making the leap to director. What was that transition like for you?
A lot of people think of going from writing to directing as being a really natural transition, which is shocking to me. The two jobs could not be more different. I felt I had to develop a totally new skillset to direct. It’s a job that requires you to be a leader, and authoritative, and collaborative, and all these things you don’t have to be as a writer. I mean, sitting alone and making up stories... I was stepping out of my comfort zone, and every single day was filled with new challenges.
Is this something you would want to take on again?
I always say no. I think maybe—eventually… This time was pretty crazy for me. I had a one-year old son and I was pregnant with my second. I was really struggling with finding a balance with making the best film I could make and being a competent mother. I wouldn’t even pretend to be a good mother working 14 hours a day. I was doing my best, and—you know—it’s really important to me that I didn’t lose the bond that I have with my son, and I wanted to stay healthy. And yeah, it was a crazy time. I cannot lie.
Were you able to have your son on set with you at all or would that be just too much of a distraction?
I did. I was able to have him on set actually. My son was actually in the church scene, where Lamb makes her big statement. But I had to cut him out, and I always think I’m such a monster. I think I’m the first director in history to cut their child out of a movie.
Oh no. You left him on the cutting room floor. He’s going to need therapy for that.
I know, it's such a shame. He had a little reaction shot and it got cut out.
Lamb goes on an odyssey in Paradise. I kind of see it as a Dorothy in Oz story. Not sure if that’s an apt analogy…
So she goes on this journey of discovery… The inciting incident in the film is the accident, but what was it that inspired the script for you?
I had been toying with the idea for a while about writing a character that had been totally sheltered from pop culture and from social media, because I think I have become sort of known for referencing those things and writing those characters that are really fluent in that world. And I thought, "Oh, wouldn’t it be fun to kind of turn that whole perception on its side and write a protagonist who doesn’t own a television and who doesn’t have a phone?" Having her be a burn survivor was just more personal, because--you know--I’m not a burn survivor in the literal sense, but I feel that everybody has been through traumatic things in their lives, things that make them feel like they’ve been permanently transformed, or disfigured in a way. And I want to believe in my heart, in a way, that we can always get back to the person we were, that we retain some kind of essential sense of self, and essential goodness, and that we can find that again if we look hard enough.
Sure, and that idea of having the power within you all along goes with a Wizard of Oz narrative.
Yeah. I love Wizard of Oz so much. I think that was the first movie that cast a spell over me.
It’s been such a great year for women directors and their films actually getting a release. In just the past few months we’ve seen Jill Soloway, Nicole Holofcener, Lynn Shelton, Stacie Passon, and of course, Kimberly Peirce get their films released. Do you see this as a trend or as an anomaly?
I hope it’s not an anomaly. A lot of the movies that you named, with the exception of someone like Kim Pierce (Carrie's director), which I think is a big commercial studio movie -- in a lot of cases -- we’re talking about the indie space, so people are taking less of a financial risk to make those movies. I still think that people are afraid to take a big risk, and you know, give a woman a Spiderman to direct.
Right. Unless you’re Kathryn Bigelow.
Exactly. Unless you’re Kathryn Bigelow. So—you know—I think though, that things have changed for the better. But I also think that for women the playing field is still not level.
Going back to Paradise, how difficult was it to get into the mind of someone who was devoid of those pop culture references?
For me it was fun. I like getting into the mind of Lamb, and I liked having to think differently. It can be hard to relate to somebody who has had such a different life experience. But I did my best. And I was able to write other characters as well. Loray (Octavia Spencer) feels a lot more like me as a person. She was my personal mouthpiece, and Russell (Brand) was interesting because he has such a distinct voice. I didn’t write the part for him but it sort of became him.
I love him.
You had a wonderful cast all around.
Yeah. Really nice people too. I had a good experience.
Especially considering what you said you were going through being pregnant and having concern for paying attention to your son.
On a personal level, they couldn’t have made it easier. I had the nicest most supportive cast and crew. It just was one of those things that would have been challenging no matter what.
Vulture recently posted a piece of yours on “7 Lessons of Being a Screenwriter. In it you advise aspiring writers to keep their heads down and do the work, and also, that they’ll be big for about 10 seconds. But you won the Oscar for Juno, and then you went on to write this sublimely unlikable woman inYoung Adult (starring Charlize Theron), and she was fantastic. Hollywood typically bristles at unlikable women, so it seems like you still get to do your thing.
I just feel very lucky. I don’t know why people keep trusting me. I really don’t. It (Juno) was a real gift because it was a commercial success… I won an Oscar. Everything you dream of happening happened with that movie. And it did open a lot of doors for me. But I also feel like I’m very lucky that I was able to participate in a movie like Young Adult. Those movies are not easy to get made. A movie like Jennifer’s Body is not easy to get made. The movie Paradise was not easy to get made. People want to make super hero movies right now. You know, or they want to make big animated movies for kids. Those movies make money. I can’t believe I’ve gotten to make four features that are small, character-driven and weird. And, to able to do it in a relatively short period of time…
You mentioned Jennifer’s body—since Halloween is around the corner, I wonder if there’s any way we can look forward to a Jennifer’s Body in perpetuity a la the Friday the 13th franchise.
Oh man! I wish! Oh, I would have made a million Jennifer’s Body movies. I would have made a Jennifer’s Body TV show. If I’d had the opportunity to continue with those characters I would have. I loved that movie. I was just unfortunate that people didn’t really like it as much as I do. I think that might have been the end of the road for Jennifer.
I think it’s got a definite cult following.
I think that’s building. I’ve noticed that. But I think it’s going to take awhile before we actually say that.
Maybe it will be a fan-funded thing like the Veronica Mars movie.
Oh my Gosh! Can you imagine? I’d get like 40 cents on my Kickstarter.