First-time screenwriter Diablo Cody was the "Cinderella story" of the Telluride Film Festival. A former stripper who got her first break writing a book about her experiences in that line of work, Cody's first script, Juno, made the rounds of Hollywood, got a deal, and then got director Jason Reitman, fresh off his successful feature debut, Thank You for Smoking, hot to make it into a film. Cody took time out of a whirlwind schedule at Telluride to hang out at the gondola station, catch some rays, and talk about her script -- and what it's like being the writer of the film everyone is talking about.
Cinematical: Your film is getting the best buzz I've heard so far at Telluride.
Diablo Cody: It's just amazing. I was surprised, to be invited to this festival. It has a reputation for being a sort of highbrow fest, heavy, a fest for cinephiles. I think people are enjoying it because it's kind of an alternative to the heavier stuff that's being offered. For me to even be here to see all these amazing films is a real privilege. But, yeah, I think that Juno is kind of a lemony palate-cleanser in between all the paralysis and Holocaust stuff.
Cinematical: When I interviewed Jason after Thank You for Smoking, we talked about how he didn't feel comedy was respected enough, especially at film festivals – that comedy can be just as artistic as drama, and he wanted to prove that. It seems Juno is a step in that direction.
DC: I think Jason has a lot to do with that. He's really elevated the material. I know a lot of people feel it was a strong script, which is a great compliment and I'm really happy about that. But to me, Jason just came in and took the script and he really built on the material. Jason and I, we come from very different spaces, I tend to be the one who's, you know, making the joke about the condom making the guy's dick smell like pie. I tend to be a little more ... well, and Jason is a trained filmmaker, and some of his points of reference are more impressive than mine. Well, that's not really what I mean. What I mean is that's good that he and I are different and that we balance each other well.
Cinematical: The dialog in the film was one of its strongest points, a lot of people have been talking about it.
DC: I'm glad that they enjoyed it. My dialog has a tendency to ... it sounds very natural to my ear, and then other people hear it and to them it sounds very stylized. Which I'm glad they do – it makes it appear as if I'm doing something very innovative and creative, when it fact it's just the way I think coming out on the page. And I'm like, "Really? Because to me this just sounds like very realistic dialog."
Cinematical: Can you talk about Ellen Page and how she brought Juno to life?
DC: She is just amazing! Anyone who saw her read for the part unanimously agreed that she just is Juno.
Cinematical: You really can't imagine anyone else playing the part after seeing her in it.
DC: No, you can't. She's the one and only and she's so natural and she's so authentic, to use a word that's kind of trite in the film community. But she is. She just is the character. She's sharp as a tack, right? And one thing I found interesting about this movie is that a lot of the actors had a kinship with their characters that I can't imagine happens in every production. There's a lot of Juno in Ellen Page, there's a lot of Pauly Bleeker in Michael Cera, from what I know of him. He just is a really gentle person. And even Jennifer Garner, who is just this incredibly lovely, graceful person, she has this vulnerability. I think it's one of her best performances.
Cinematical: Maybe it's because she's a mother herself now, and she was able to bring that tenderness, that deep longing to be a mother, into that role.
DC: I'm not a mother myself, so I'm glad she was there to bring that to it. I am a stepmother, and I brought a lot of that angst into the character of Brenda, who Allison Janney plays. I am kind of that no-nonsense, shit-talking Midwestern step-mom, in a lot of ways. So that character was really important to me.
Cinematical: Would that be you at the ultrasound?
DC: Absolutely. I would have kicked that woman's ass. My best friend, when I was in high school, had a baby at 17, which is the incident that inspired a lot of events in the screenplay. And that's one of the things I remembered is her coming back from doctor's visits having been treated like a pariah. And she still, to this day – her son is 10 now – and she still gets people treating her weird, they do the arithmetic and then they treat her weird.
Cinematical: Now this is your first screenplay, but you wrote a book before this.
DC: I wrote a book before this which was this fun, trashy sort of memoir about stripping. That was actually a really cool experience.
Cinematical: Did you do burlesque?
DC: No, I was a hard core stripper, worked at peep shows, did phone sex. Which for me, was actually really transformative and an ultimately positive experience, even though there was a lot of really filthy stuff along the way. And it was after coming off that, that my manager discovered me, lonely and naked in obscurity, and said, why don't you try writing a movie. And that's where Juno came from.
Cinematical: So your manager says write a movie, your memory of your friend was the seed of the idea ...
DC: I don't remember where it came from, actually. My experience with my friend assisted me, but I don't think that's what inspired me directly. Actually, what happened was that one day, I was sitting in my kitchen thinking about writing a screenplay, and every idea I came up with felt like it had been done already, which is something a lot of writers go through. And so I was thinking, what is something that's contemporary, but nobody's really done a movie about it yet. Because I kept hearing about people doing this open adoptions, and instead of it being this cloak-and-dagger experience that it was in the sixties. Suddenly adoptive parents were meeting the birth mother. And I was like, that's gotta be a really weird dynamic, the dynamic between these adoptive parents and these pregnant women. I think I originally intended it to be a lot darker, but I'm just such a ding-a-ling, that it ended up becoming a comedy.
Cinematical: Is there a lot of you in Juno?
DC: Yes, definitely. Absolutely.
Cinematical: So you and Ellen probably got along famously.
DC: I'm very intimated by her. That was the thing, I felt connected to her, I hope the feeling was mutual. But just shooting the shit with her, I was very intimidated. She is needle-sharp. She's really an exceptional talent.
One of the important relationships to me in the movie was between Juno and Leah. Because you meet so many teenage girls these days, they are so mannered, so corked up. When I was a kid, me and my friends, we were just wild, there was such a sense of play. We were running around town stuffing people's mailboxes with Tic-Tacs and harassing the clerk at the gas station, and moving furniture from one lawn to the next. Just being goofy. There wasn't a lot of vanity there.
Cinematical: Do you feel that teenagers today are more self-aware, that there's more of a need to keep that pretense up, to be Paris Hilton?
DC: Absolutely. There's that influence, the Paris factor. But it's also that the economy caters to teens in a way that it didn't even ten years ago.
Cinematical: These teenagers today, their all running around with their rhinestone-studded cell phones, their salon-streaked hair, manicured fingers and pedicured toes ...
DC: Yeah, I didn't have a manicure until I was, like, 25! I can't imagine having one when I was a kid. They don't get to be kids anymore.
Cinematical: But in your story, Juno's not like that. She's pregnant, but she's still very much a kid.
DC: She is a kid! She is, and she knows that she is. I love that she still rides a bike. I love her hoodies. She's like, "I'm ill-equipped." She understands that. Maybe I was trying to recreate a teenage archetype from 1994, when I came of age.
Cinematical: She also operates in this little bubble of utter lack of concern for what other people think, which is also not terribly common in teenagers today.
DC: I just really loved her as a character. And I also really loved Pauly Bleeker, who was inspired by the guys that I knew in high school. The guys that I knew in high school -- when you watch these high school movies coming out today, they're portrayed as horndogs, as wolverines, as these desperate, horny, oily creatures. And the guys I knew weren't like that at all. They were just cowed by me.
Cinematical: I think Pauly's a lot more accurate a portrayal of what teenage boys are really like.
DC: I think so. I hope so. The character of Mark, I have to say, he was a lot more sympathetic as I wrote him. But then Jason (Reitman) came onto it and gave it an edge. He projected quite a bit of male guilt and male angst onto that character, and made him quite a bit more representative of men's failings as husbands and fathers. That was one interesting change I noticed from the script to the final project. That was his direction. He disliked that character, which was interesting. You would think it would be women who would be more wary of that character, but I was the one constantly apologizing for Mark – "he's a really a good guy, he's just scared ..."
Cinematical: You think Jason was irritated by that character?
DC: He was irritated, yes! That character just struck a nerve with him. And I was the one – I am the one still defending Mark. And a lot of Mark's personality were based on my husband, and then, when he saw the film, he was like -- what the fuck? I'm the character the entire audience gasped at when he (edited for spoiler)? And I was like, well, babe, the character kind of ended up changing in the execution.
Cinematical: Can you talk a bit about the process of the production of the film? I know you worked closely with Jason (Reitman) and that you were able to be a lot more involved than screenwriters often are with films.
DC: I was so incredibly lucky, I had such a wonderful experience on this film, and I'm spoiled for life. Writers usually completely get the shaft. They're kept on the perimeter for a reason. That's the way it goes. And I say I've been spoiled. If I ever collaborate with another director again I cannot imagine it will be this inclusive, this positive. Every time I speak with Jason I am amazed that we're the same age – and I mean that in a completely reverant way. He is just a person you meet and you can immediately trust him. Totally non-pretentious. I always say that, you know, I am a much bigger douchebag than Jason. And I come from a middle-class upbringing in Chicago, and I certainly have a much bigger entitlement complex that he does. He's a family man, I admire him in many ways. He was a great influence on me.
Cinematical: So in the process of filming Juno, he let you have input on the set?
DC: Absolutely, that was important to him – he felt that the script was so specific, that the person who wrote it simply had to be involved.
Cinematical: How did he get it?
DC: It really made the rounds, that script was all over Hollywood, I think everyone read it. My manager read it, he wasn't, you know, how do I say this? I love my manager so much ... he was realistic. He was like, you know, there are some people who might like this. And the response was surprising, we sold it pretty quickly. And there was another director on it for a bit (Brad Silberling), who is a wonderful guy and a great director. But that didn't work out, so Jason ended up coming in right away, he'd been watching the project and he came right on. And it was a great decision.
I'm really happy with how the film came out – the film! (laughs) I don't usually talk like that. The CINEMA! No, really. The movie is everything I wanted it to be. There's not a single line of dialog, nothing that sticks in my craw. And usually I'm such a perfectionist about my work, but with this film, I allow myself to love it, because I think of it as Jason's baby.
Cinematical: What are you working on next?
DC: I'm doing this pilot for a Showtime series, Steven Spielberg is exec-producing it, it's a dark comedy, about a woman with multiple personalities. It's called the United States of Tara.
Cinematical: Other movie scripts in the works?
Yeah, I've written a lot since Juno, I'm sitting on a few spec scripts. I have a script over at Groundswell called Time-and-a Half that's a generational, working stiffs kind of comedy. I was sort of inspired by films like Reality Bites, those films that defined "Generation X." I'm a little overripe to be writing about that age, the characters I'm writing about are 23, 24 ... but I'm fascinated by that period in life when you've just gotten out of college.