Diablo Cody talks about Paradise, her directorial debut on DirecTV VOD about a young Christian woman suffering through a crisis of faith, and how motherhood has changed her as a writer.
Written by Dylan Callaghan
(August 16, 2013)
Diablo Cody knows better than anyone on the planet how not normal it is to win an Oscar for your first ever screenplay (not counting Matt Damon and Ben Affleck). Juno is now six years in the rearview and, in some ways, she still seems to be shaking her head saying, “did that really just happen?”
Cody likes to self-deprecate – to say she has no huge ambition, that she was as gobsmacked as anyone by Juno and that she thinks there are tons of writers that are better than her. She means it, but she’s also playing possum.
Cody is shrewd, sharp, and more than a little driven. When you achieve your wildest dream on the first go, it takes a minute to figure out what your new wildest dream is gonna be. But since 2007, she’s plowed ahead into impossible expectations – writing the divergent films Jennifer’s Body and Young Adult and created the Showtime series United States of Tara, in which Toni Collette played a mom with a multiple personality disorder.
And now with her newest film, Paradise, she’s taken on directing her own script. The helming, she says in classic deadpan, was just the fastest way to get the movie made – she really has no directorial aspirations (there doesn’t seem to be any possum in that assertion). Paradise is a sweeter-than-before tale of Lamb (Julianne Hough), a young, conservative Christian who loses faith after being badly burned in a plane crash. She leaves her ultra conservative parents – including Holly Hunter in a memorable turn as Mom – behind to explore the seedy side of life in Vegas, where she recruits a bartender (Russell Brand) and a card dealer (Octavia Spencer) to shepherd her on a “journey of sin.”
It’s sort of the story of how, on her way to the dark side, Lamb finds a new path to the light.
Photo: © 2013 Image Entertainment
Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, and Octavia Spencer in Paradise.
Paradise represents another first for the Oscar winner – it premiered this month exclusively on-demand for DirecTV customers and will then release theatrically on October 18. Cody spoke to the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about the VOD premier, why now that she’s a mom of two boys, she’s tired, but weirdly more productive, and how, no matter what, she really, honestly still can’t outline to save her life.
Tell me a little bit about the sort of genesis of the story for Paradise.
You know, it's always a challenging thing to talk about where ideas come from. It's always kind of a mysterious process for a writer. For me, I wanted to tell a story about recovery from trauma… it's a theme that I've dealt with before, actually, in the United States of Tara and I just… I don't really know, this is… Honestly, this is always the hardest question for me…
Well, I thought I'd just start off with a real tough one.
It's just a theme that I've played with a lot in the things that I've written, the idea of transformation and the idea of the changes that we go through in life and how they affect us and how they affect our identity – how do we reconcile the person that we were when we were born with the person that we become?
Is the fact that Lamb is from a religious background reflective of that loss of innocence?
It's more about how her identity was shaped. She was raised to believe that her physical purity was extremely important and after she's been through this accident, been disfigured, she feels like she has nothing more to offer the world because she's been quite literally saving her body her entire life for her future husband and now her dowry, so to speak, is ruined. So she has to kind of figure out, who am I now? What do I have to offer the world? Maybe it's my intellect, maybe it's my sense of humor and maybe it's all these things that I never bothered to cultivate because I was so busy just trying to be submissive and sweet.
To your original point that this theme of recovery from trauma is something that you've dealt with before, is it something that stems from your own personal life or is it just a thematically kind of fertile area for you?
It's something everybody has dealt with on a personal level. I mean, I don't know anybody who hasn't been through a transformative experience in their lives that was painful. It makes some people stronger and some people it just injures permanently. At the beginning of Lamb’s journey, she falls into the latter category, she seems like somebody who's really been crippled by what she's been through, and she finds out it might actually be something that strengthens her. I meant for this to be a very uplifting movie, not a depressing one.
When you were writing this did you have in mind that you were going to direct it?
No, no, no. I had no plans to direct, I was never, like, an aspiring director at all, and I'm still not. It was really just matter of getting frustrated with the development process. I've been very fortunate in that a lot of the things that I've written have actually gotten produced so I'm aware that's a blessing. At the same time, it always took years because we had to attach the director, and then there was the director's cast and every writer's familiar with this experience. So in this case I just thought, you know, let’s take this idea while it's still fresh and just go make the movie. And the fastest way to do that was for me to take the reins and direct it. For me it really was more about efficiency than a need to express myself as a director.
And going through the process of directing it, particularly with not having any massive aspirations to be a director, what did that do, if anything, to your understanding of the writing?
Oh gosh, you know it made me realize that it's so easy to block a scene in your mind when you’re sitting in a room alone writing. It's very difficult to do it with real people. I have a great deal of respect for directors. I don't think I think in three dimensions, I really think that I'm a writer first and foremost. And for me the physicality, like, the real world aspect of directing was very challenging.
The thing is, though, I've never been precious about my writing, like I've never had a problem with directors killing my lines, changing my lines, working with me to rewrite a scene. So for me it wasn't like a new radical thing to say, “Oh that joke sucks, let's throw it out.” That's something I've always done even when I don't direct.
But for someone who's famous with coming up with some real corkers of lines you're telling me you've never been pained by a line getting cut?
Oh, I've never given a crap… I'm a good collaborator. You know what? It's like I'll make more. That's the fun thing about being a writer, and plus, it's like anybody who writes comedy will tell you, if you don't get the line into that one movie, you'll save it for the next one.
Just out of curiosity, do you have off the top of your head like a favorite line or turn of dialogue from Paradise?
Yes, my favorite part of the movie, hands down, is at the very end when Holly Hunter is talking about how she has defied the church and bought a yoga DVD… Just the way she delivers the line destroys me. She’s so serious about it – “I’ve been going through the poses, and I just changed their names…”
Right. “Sun salutation is now…”
“The God salutation. Down dog is down Satan.”
I wanted to ask about the whole video on demand aspect of this. The film is going to DirecTV VOD first. You’ve talked about this. On Twitter you said it’s great because now people can watch the film “at home naked eating Mint Milanos.”
Yeah, which is how I like to watch movies… I like to watch movies at home with my snack. I don't go to the theater very often myself, so…
Sure, get your snack on. Given the VOD thing, are you at all concerned about the perception or do you genuinely think this is kind of an increasingly…?
If I was remotely concerned about perception I would have left this town in, like, 2009. I'm not even part of this conversation. I'm just trying to write movies, I could give a shit what people think, I hope it makes more money this way.
So you don't give a shit about perception, but do you think on the other hand that, because on-demand is exploding, are you pretty stoked that it's going this way?
Yeah, I'm really stoked about it. You know, if it's good enough for Lars Von Trier, it's good enough for me. VOD is exciting. I mean this is obviously where things are going and a lot of very visionary people predicted this, like, a few years ago. So I know it pisses off some purists, but I'm perfectly happy for my movie to premier on DirecTV and for people to watch it that way because that's typically how I watch movies. Even though, of course, you know, if I want to see The Avengers I want to go to the theater, but for something like that I might want to watch that curled up on the couch with my husband.
Totally. Who wants to watch a good dialogue driven rom-com in a dirty megaplex?
Yeah. And also, like, I don't know if it's just me but it seems like people aren't really going out to see indies anymore. I feel like a phenomenon like Juno could not happen now and it's only five or six years later.
I know what you mean… Maybe it’s a better experience to watch those in small groups at home, you know?
Yeah, I don't know what it is. I just kind of feel like it would have been an absolute disaster to take this movie and roll it out on, like, a thousand screens. I actually can't think of anything worse so I would say not only am I okay with the distribution strategy, I'm, like, pleased.
When I interviewed you a couple of years back, you were talking about the fact that you're definitely not an outliner or a planner as a writer and that things spring from a kind of almost chaos with you… I'm curious if anything has changed in terms of your writing approach.
Not at all. You know, for some reason I am incapable of delivering a good outline. Yeah, I like to have a spontaneous process. A lot has changed for me in terms of needing to make things happen in a quicker timeframe because since I spoke to you last I've had two children so…
Oh, you have two kids?
I have two kids, yeah. I have a one-year-old and a three-year-old. So I have a limited window in which to write every day… Now I definitely don't have time to outline, so I just have to get the pages.
So now you can blame it on the kids.
Oh my God, they’re such a convenient scapegoat for so many things, especially when I like don't want to go somewhere…
As a writer, has that kind of drained you? Or has it made you more efficient because you don’t have time to screw around?
Here's the thing. I will say that my working hours have changed dramatically because I'm physically drained at night. I can't write at night anymore, period. If the kids are in bed, I am just turned off and I am watching reality TV or surfing the Internet. So if I don't get it done during the day, I'm not getting it done. But, I will say I have become weirdly more productive and like anybody who works with me will tell you that I actually have written more since I had the kids than I did before.
I've written a bunch of things, and it's mostly a sense of urgency because, a) I have children to support now (laughs), and b) it's like I know, “Okay, the babysitter's only here until two o'clock, I'd better haul ass.” I just use my time much more wisely. Like the last time you talked to me I was probably playing Wii golf for four hours a day.
Do you miss those days, Diablo?
No (laughs). You know what? You know what it's like. It's a tradeoff but you would never want that back, you know?
No you wouldn't. So it is kind of like an efficiency of necessity.
Exactly. Like I just, I can't mess around anymore like I used to.
Going forward what do you have in the pipeline that you're interested in? Are there some dream projects that you're either working on or eager to get to?
I wrote a script recently, a movie that I'm really, really proud of, and I don't believe that anything's been announced yet but a dear friend of mine is attached to direct, and I'm very excited about it, and that's all I can say about that right now. Trying to get Sweet Valley High off the ground, still, although right now we're tantalizingly close… But it seems like that a lot. I'm determined to make that movie happen. I don't know if it's going to happen in 2013, but I'm going to make it happen. And then I'm developing a couple of TV shows and doing more stuff on the producer's side. But ultimately, what would I like to do, my aspirations?
Well, I mean…
You know, it's weird. I don't actually have any movi- related aspirations. That's the one kind of slightly depressing thing about winning an Oscar early in your career, is you don't really have that like, that big…
That golden chalice dangling in the distance.
Yeah, like, it's happened. So for me it's just been about keeping things interesting and I just… It's weird. I do think about it. I guess my dream is just to continue working steadily and getting offbeat projects made. Some of them work and some of them don't. I really feel like I've somehow managed to cram a 15-year career into five years.