Written by Dylan Callaghan
Diablo Cody is on the hunt for a Six Dollar Burger. But spare the “snarkage,” punk-os: the burger has nothing to do with this blogger-turned-Oscar-winning-scripter’s fondness for food.
The nimbly-worded Juno scribe and erstwhile stripper is giving an interview to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about her Showtime series United States of Tara. She’s famished because she’s just out of a marathon costume fitting for a guest cameo on TV’s reboot of Beverly Hills 90210 (she calls it, “the greatest thing I’ve ever done”) and has overlooked eating, leaving her blood sugar to plummet.
But again, the burger quest isn’t even about blood sugar. It’s about the central truth that Diablo Cody doesn’t plan anything -- nothing in her life -- from her writing to her basic sustenance. That’s the key. She didn’t overtly plan to write a book or a screenplay, much less such a startlingly winning and original one.
She just fo shizzled it when the fates called.
That’s why, nearly an hour after the interview starts, the Six Dollar Burger has again dropped from her radar. During a sprawling, Cody-ism-laden conversation, she riffs with her now-famous “womp, there it is!” bluntness on her new television show, which stars Toni Collette as a housewife with multiple personality disorder, the notion that her cynicism might be covering a mostly candy center, and the fact that the mother of her creative power is, essentially, chaos.
Is it correct that Steven Spielberg got in touch with you about writing United States of Tara before Juno was actually released?
It was actually before Juno was even filmed. He got in touch with me a long time ago. I was extremely surprised because at that point Juno was just a script, but it was a script he’d enjoyed. He thought I might have a good voice for television, and he had this idea about a mom with multiple personalities, and I kinda took it and ran with it.
Did that idea immediately speak to you?
It did, but it scared me as well because I was like, “Hmmm, multiple personality disorder? That sounds serious.” I had never done anything that research-intensive before, so I was intimidated. Also writing about a woman with children was intimidating because, you know, I’m not a mom and that’s a little out of my wheelhouse. But I wanted to do my best because it’s Steven Spielberg.
Photo: © 2009 Showtime
Brie Larson and Toni Collette in United States of Tara.
Is it happenstance that you’re following up a hard-to-top, Oscar-winning feature debut with a TV project, or is this a conscious or unconscious way to juke the whole unrealistic expectations thing?
Yeah, I have said that. It’s a nice buffer. I wasn’t sure what would be out first, Jennifer’s Body, which is shockingly different than Juno…
That’s your next feature, a horror film, right?
Yeah, or this show. I was pleased that it was this show in terms of timing and expectations. I don’t like to buy into the whole “sophomore jinx” thing. They ask me if I feel any pressure, and I don’t know what they’re talking about. I already have an Oscar. I’m just gonna coast from here on out. If I didn’t have an Oscar, then I would feel that intense, gnawing pressure, but I don’t.
No one can touch you now?
No, I don’t think that’s true. There are a lot of people that can touch me. But I just think backwards. Now that I achieved something that a lot of people reach for, I can do things that are interesting to me. I can relax a little bit… I feel very fortunate.
You have obviously met with amazing success, but with that success has come a fair amount of “snarkage,” as you call it. A recurring snark was that your dialogue is not realistic for a teenage girl...
Yeah, that’s why I won an Oscar -- because my dialogue is bad.
They also say that your characters tend to sound the same. Is it total bullshit?
Actually, I have never heard the criticism that my characters sound the same. That is new.
It’s fine. It’s obviously not true. If you just compare Juno and United States of Tara... Yeah, I really see the similarity there.
True. This show could not be a more pointed demonstration of different voices for different characters.
I like writing stylized dialogue. I have had a really unique career trajectory because I’m willing to have a signature style, you know what I mean? Everybody always says “Writers don’t get to go on talk shows.” That’s because a lot of writers are hired guns, who are just doing what people want them to do. I’m willing to offend some people’s sensibilities to get noticed.
You’ve talked about how Mamet and Tarantino have the exact same tendency to speak with their own voice through all characters, but they don’t get crap for it. You believe this is sexist?
I think it’s absolutely, transparently sexist. Women are set dressing. We’re not supposed to be characters... I think people like women to be self-deprecating and not particularly distinctive. I don’t think they like women who are outspoken and weird. Men are allowed to be brilliant and weird, but when women do it, it completely messes with people’s circuitry.
How much is your unique voice and persona something that just happened or something you cultivated?
I don’t know. I’m the same person I’ve always been. Honestly, I don’t understand it. If you go on the Internet there are thousands of unknown bloggers who are funnier, more outspoken or better writers than me. I don’t know why I was chosen. I don’t. I don’t really think I have that distinct a persona. Snark is universal. There are a lot of people with a similar shtick to me. I’m not doing anything original, I just think I’ve been really lucky, I have good timing, and I’m good at exploiting situations.
It shouldn’t be overlooked here that you’re funny. What have been some crucial influences on your sense of humor?
I know this might seem like an unlikely influence, but I like Woody Allen.
No, that doesn’t seem that weird.
And, I’m sorry, but everyday I find 10 people to laugh at, just in public. People are hilarious. Things people say to each other un-ironically are hilarious. The world is full of material.
That’s what’s strange to me. I think actual human beings have more interesting conversations than some of the ones I typically hear on television. I don’t understand why writing would be more boring than life. It should be the other way around.
How much is your hyper-real style based on your ability as an observer?
A lot of it. All I do is sit and watch people. All I do is sort of rip off the human condition.
I guess I feel like writers kind of forget about the connective tissue. I want to make every line count -- every one, even if it’s just exposition. I think that’s what lends the hyper-real quality, the fact that when real people announce that they’re going to the bathroom, they don’t make it that interesting, whereas I like to.
So it’s real-life observations on steroids?
Yeah, exactly. “Real life on steroids” is a good description.
How are you at structure?
Thing is, I don’t outline. I just sit down and make up a story and then flesh it out into a script. I’m lucky that we have a showrunner [on United States of Tara], who’s very experienced, talented, and organized, so she was able to be my guide because I live in a kind of blind chaos.
What guides you through a story if you don’t outline? Is it character or a certain voice? What gets you going?
I like to pick a theme. I know that sounds stupid. It’s not a super-advanced technique. They pick a theme on Laverne & Shirley. I think about what the emotional core of the story is, what’s something I can play on across multiple story lines, and then I go from there.
I like to come up with the theme and play with variations on it -- some that are obvious and some that are more subtle -- and then kind of use that color palette for the whole of that episode.
Something you did incredibly well in Juno and Tara is to flip characters from their initial, obvious appearance. How deliberately do you design your character arcs that way and why?
It's not premeditated, believe me! I wish I was like this master craftsman who could do those things on purpose. I’m no [M. Night] Shyamalan. I'm not an architect of surprises. In the case of Vanessa in Juno, I wound up liking her more and more as I wrote the script, and my own sympathies shifted. I went on the same journey as the viewers. I definitely didn't start out thinking “Vanessa is a stealth heroine.” I initially thought she was really annoying, and I planned to roast her from beginning to end. I was on Team Mark all the way. But Vanessa won me over and the plot began to shift in her favor. That's the cool part of writing-- being assimilated into the story.
So much has been made about the style of your writing -- the snappy, smart, cynical tone, yet there seems to be this kind of sweet, candy center to your stories. Is that fair?
Yeah, definitely. I never realized that I could appeal to peoples’ emotions until Juno came out, and I saw people crying in the theater. I thought, “Oh my God, I had no idea you could tweak people that easily.” I quickly realized that sentimentality is a good thing to have in your arsenal. People love sweet shit, they just do. They eat that shit up. They want to hear life-affirming stories.
Do you eat that stuff up?
Not necessarily. It often surprises me that I wrote a so-called emotional movie, although I usually blame Jason Reitman for that. I’m actually pretty cynical. I relate more to people who hate my writing than to people who love it, if that makes any sense.
The people who hate my writing are usually kind of mean-spirited. I don’t know how to put this -- I’m not a mean-spirited person, but I am a little more cynical than you might think based on my writing.
No, you seem very cynical, but what about the idea that every cynic is a true sentimentalist or idealist masquerading, in the sense that cynicism is a kind of protection?
That’s probably true. Every cynic is probably an adorable porcupine shielding itself, you know what I mean?
Yeah, I know what you mean -- adorable porcupine.
That’s probably true. I’m just shooting spines everywhere. No, but I do have sincere affection for Tara and her family. I didn’t want to see bad things happen to them, and I didn’t want to see bad things happen to Juno. I do care about my characters. But I’m often surprised by how mushy things can get in the third act.
As cynical as you are, are you also comfortable with your own treacle?
Sure. I mean, I've seen Waiting to Exhale like 25 times. Besides, even cool people like Wes Anderson write mushy stuff from time to time. The Royal Tenenbaums is like One Life to Live with tracksuits.
What’s your plan with this show -- how much of your time is this show eating up?
The show eats my life. I was prepared for that. Everybody told me that, as a writer, you have a lot more creative control on television and that means a bigger time commitment. I love it -- it’s an amazing opportunity. But I’m still trying to write features as well.
Give me an idea of what you’re putting in hours-wise each week.
I work in bursts, so there are some that are zero and some where I put in a normal work week that an actual human being would work.
And the rest of the time you walk around being cynical.
Yeah, you can tell that is such complete bullshit. I call myself a cynic, but I’m such a liar... But honestly, my working patterns are very erratic, and I hope they stay that way. The day that I actually become consistent, I’ll know my heart’s dead… My writing is the writing of a person who cannot organize their thoughts. The day that I become a hyper-functional human being is the day that I won’t write anymore.
That’s great. You’re going to help a lot of people with that advice.
I’m not really qualified to give any advice at all, but when I meet people and they absolutely demand some random pearl of wisdom, I always tell them to be comfortable in their own skin and to just fucking unclench. I’m sorry, there’s never been a great writer that wasn’t fucked up. Writers are fucked-up drunks, that’s just they way it goes. Embrace it.