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Juno - Diablo Cody interview

Diablo Cody, writer of Juno

Interview by Rob Carnevale

OSCAR nominated Diablo Cody, the hottest new screenwriter in Hollywood, talks about being discovered while writing a sex industry blog, her former career as a stripper and why it felt like a right of passage for her.

She also talks about the inspiration behind teenage pregnancy comedy Juno, working with Steven Spielberg and some of her forthcoming projects…

Q. How did you come to be discovered?
Diablo Cody: I was, I was discovered like an American starlet in the ’50s or something. It’s a very weird story. I was blogging about the sex industry and working as a stripper but I hadn’t done any kind of professional writing at all at that stage. I was really just self-published and had this cult following on the internet. But one day I got an email from this guy who said: “I’m a fan of your blog, I read it every day and think that you’re really funny and by the way I’m a manager/producer in Hollywood and I think you should try writing a screenplay.” I’ve never been a very ambitious person and I loathe competition. I prefer to stay comfortable, so the idea of immersing myself in a really sort of competitive, cutthroat industry was not appealing to me. And I didn’t really see the point of wasting my time writing a screenplay that would just end up banished to a desk drawer, which is generally what happens 99% of the time.

So I wasn’t very interested. But he kind of hounded me about it for a while and finally I was hanging out with my sister in Minnesota and I hit on an idea for a movie and I thought about Juno. So, I sat down and I started writing and I wrote the movie and it was a really, really painless process because ignorance is bliss and I’ve never had an easier writing experience since then… So I gave it to this guy who at that point had decided to be my manager and we took it out and it was received very well in Hollywood, which was a big surprise. We found many people that wanted to make it and it was just shocking.

Q. Did you believe the guy in the first place?
Diablo Cody: No! Especially when you’re naked on the internet you tend to be rather wary of most emails you receive. At first I thought he was probably lying. Then my husband encouraged me to look him up on and I think he had just produced Red Eye, the horror movie on the plane. So then I thought he might be legit and I should listen to him. But I have to admit I did think he was probably just another pervert or someone who was looking to take advantage of me. Now, I can’t think of anybody I would trust more in the world and I kind of wish I’d listened to him sooner.

Q. You mentioned that you lived in Minnesota. I find it hard to imagine who would want to be a stripper there…
Diablo Cody: It’s so cold, right? [laughs] It was sometimes kind of funny to be inside buck naked and think that it was minus 30 outside. It was actually a hard place to be a stripper, especially considering that Minnesota is a very puritanical state. I’m actually from Chicago but I lived in Minneapolis in my 20s but I didn’t enjoy it there. I didn’t really fit in and stripping was sort of my way of coping with that.

Q. Had you done it before?
Diablo Cody: No. I always wanted to. I’m sort of one of those people who would walk past a strip club and while everybody else might give it a passing glance or cracks a joke, I’d be like pressing my face up against the window trying to see in. I was very curious always.

Q. And was it what you thought it would be?
Diablo Cody: I think I always expected it was going to be more of a hedonistic, glamorous environment when in fact it’s really like any other job except that the terms of the job are unusual. I mean on one of the jobs I actually had a little time card I would punch in and punch out just like I was working in a kitchen. But then you get up on stage and dance to Metallica.

Q. In Juno you write the pregnancy as almost like a growing up ritual. Was stripping the same for you?
Diablo Cody: Yeah, it was a right of passage. It came late. I keep hearing about this quarter life crisis in society and I’m starting to think that was it. I think our culture is so accelerated that people are actually having crisis in their mid-20s. That was what happened to me. I started to feel like: “Oh my God, it really happened, I’m actually an adult! What am I going to do?” At that point I wasn’t going anywhere in my career, I wasn’t going anywhere in my life… my personal life was extremely messed up at the time. I’d just met my husband, he had just gone through a messy divorce, he was going through all kinds of crazy custody stuff with his daughter and our home life was very chaotic. I don’t know if you’ve ever since Jerry Springer… [laughs] But that was my reality. So, I kind of freaked out and sort of lost it. The world was suddenly starting to come down very heavily and I just needed an escape and stripping allowed me to become a different person. Literally. I had a different name, put on a wig and I was in a disguise.

Q. Is Diabo Cody a stripping name?
Diablo Cody: I actually didn’t strip as Diabo Cody. I would change my name just about every week. I was being bounced from club to club because I would piss people off wherever I went [laughs]. But when I was blogging about the sex industry I sort of wanted it to be anonymous because I didn’t want my parents to Google my name and find me writing about stripping, so I came up with an online alias and never thought that it would wind up one day following me out of the internet and sticking to me and being attached to things that I’m really proud of. So, it was really an accident. When Mason, my manager, and I just started talking he’d just call me Diablo because that’s how he knew me. And then he’d take me to meetings and it just snowballed from there.

Q. And do your parents now know you as Diablo?
Diablo Cody: Yeah, but it drives them crazy because they’re worried that people will think they called me that!

Q. Did you look up anything that told you how to write a screenplay or construct a narrative?
Diablo Cody: No and now I’m really resistant to the idea because I’m superstitious. But the wonderful thing about the world is that movies are so accessible to most of us; we’ve all seen a lot of movies and I grew up watching a lot of movies, clearly. I’m not one of those people that gets the AFI’s top 100 list and sits and watches every single one to analyse them. But I love movies and anyone who loves movies is familiar with that kind of structure. If you were watching a movie and it unfolded in a strange way, you’d feel that even if you didn’t have a formal education on film. For me, it was just instinctual – what kind of movies did I like? What’s the tone? What was the dialogue like? How long are the scenes? How is it paced? And I just wrote a movie according to that formula.

Q. But the dialogue isn’t like normal movie dialogue, so where did that come from?
Diablo Cody: I just think I have always sort of cultivated a flowery writing style. I’ve always sort of over-written in every genre that I’ve attempted. I went to college and took a couple of writing classes and I remember my teachers were always incredibly encouraging. But it was inevitable to get the criticism: “Take it down a notch!” But the nice thing about screenwriting is that you don’t really have to.

Q. Why?
Diablo Cody: I think when you’re writing prose there’s also a lot of attendant description and that’s were I used to really go bananas. With a screenplay that all gets filled in by the director, so it just sort of pulls you back by virtue of the form. You also have to use more economy as a screenwriter and so it’s kind of limiting in a good way.

Q. What is it about the world of the teenage girl that interests you?
Diablo Cody: Teenagers never cease to fascinate me. I’ve always been fascinated by them. I really like teenagers. I know most people don’t like to be around teenagers but I do. I’m one of the only people I can think of who can’t wait for my kid to be a teenager. I think being a teenager is one of the most wonderful things in the world. I really enjoyed it – just this heightened emotional state where everything is beautiful and everything is new and you’re convinced that you’re really going to break the mould and be different from your parents. It’s just a time of such possibility. And the best part is that you have so much more time that you didn’t have as a child. I didn’t enjoy my childhood because I always felt very stifled and I didn’t like eating my vegetables and going to bed. But when you’re a teenager after you go to bed you can sneak out the window.

Q. Are the teenagers in Juno the way teenagers are, or are they how you were?
Diablo Cody: They’re the way I was. I don’t know a lot about modern teen culture to be honest. I came of age in the ’90s and it was a great time to be a girl because we were wearing Doc Martins and flannel shirts and starting bands. We had these great magazines. It was an empowering time to be a teenage girl whereas now the culture seems very flaccid to me. That’s why I love Ellen Page so much, because she is a part of that generation but she seems more like a riot girl from the ’90s.

Q. How involved were you in the casting process?
Diablo Cody: I wasn’t really. A typical writer is not involved in casting. But I was kept updated and I was asked for my opinions. Ellen was just a unanimous thing. Everybody knew that she was Juno. I was really thrilled when Michael Cera came on. But Jason Reitman had a really specific idea of who he wanted to be in the movie and the cast is great.

Q. Why teenage pregnancy? What was it about that topic that appealed to you about Juno?
Diablo Cody: Well, when you’re trying to come up with an idea for a movie it’s actually the hardest part – the germ of the idea. Inevitably you think of something that would be great and then discover that it was on an episode of The Simpsons. So much has been done that I was having trouble thinking of something that hadn’t been done. And I thought about this new phenomenon of open adoption, where people who are looking to adopt are actually meeting these young pregnant girls beforehand and almost auditioning for them.

The internet is such a good resource and there are a lot of blogs out there of sort of prospective parents writing about their experience of trying to get a child. So, I thought that was a relatively new dynamic in society – the idea of a birth mother and an adoptive parent hanging out. It’s weird but it’s also interesting, so I thought: “What if you have this teenage girl who was this offbeat weirdo, who was pregnant and dealing with this very prim, uptight suburban couple. What is that dynamic like? What kind of conversations would they have?” Of course, it would be really awkward but would she connect with them in some way? And then I thought: “What if she connected with the dad? What if she fell in love with the dad?” I even contemplated making her have an affair with the dad but I thought that was kind of screwed up. I didn’t have to take it that far. So I ran it past my husband and he said: “That’s the one.”

Q. You’re currently now working with Steven Spielberg aren’t you?
Diablo Cody: Yeah, I have been working with him in some capacity. It’s not like we sit together in a little coffee house. It’s so crazy that I just try not to think about it. It’s probably good that all this stuff happened at the same time because my adrenaline level is already through the roof and it’s just like: “What next?” I’m just trying to act natural and get through it even though on the inside I’m probably falling apart and screaming.

Q. What is the Steven Spielberg thing?
Diablo Cody: We haven’t even shot the pilot yet but it’s a series over at Showtime [The United States of Tara] and Toni Collette has just taken the lead. She’s awesome.

Q. How does it feel when somebody like Steven Spielberg becomes simply Steven to you?
Diablo Cody: It’s really weird. I don’t actually call him Steven! [laughs] I don’t call him anything. I actually used to routinely call people “sir” and got mocked for it. But it just seems like the polite thing to do. You hear the term “staying grounded” a lot when you’re coming up in the industry and it’s the one word I don’t really understand because it implies being tethered almost and I don’t like that. Why stay grounded? You might as well become a complete eccentric, float off into the sky and burn yourself on the sun and go crazy.

Q. Do you ever think that this is your accelerated growing up process? One minute you’re this renegade blogger and the next you’re in the most corporate industry in the world?
Diablo Cody: [Laughs] It’s kind of weird isn’t it? I think I’m still in the phase of my career where I’m being rewarded for rogue tendencies. Eventually, people will probably get frustrated and I’ll be put back in my place.

Q. But you’ve also sold some other scripts as well…
Diablo Cody: Oh yeah, this is so cool. I love horror movies and I haven’t been this excited about something since Juno. But I wrote this horror movie called Jennifer’s Body and it’s also a comedy. I think we’re going into production very soon. It’s sort of about the rivalry between teenage girls and how it can be extremely evil. I would say that Heathers is probably the comparison people come up with most except that this one isn’t about popularity. This is about sexual jealousy and how you literally want to gauge somebody’s eyes out if they go after your man [laughs].

Find out more about Juno