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Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, and Octavia Spencer, in the quirky comedy “Paradise,” directed by Diablo Cody.
As the screenwriter behind such subversively funny and somewhat twisted screen tales “Juno,” “United States of Tara,” “Jennifer’s Body” and “Young Adult,” Diablo Cody’s maverick sensibility has won her mainstream accolades and made her a poster girl for strong female voices on screen.
But while she’s utterly comfortable putting words in her character’s mouths, she found that telling a cast and crew what to do as a director felt a little out of her rebellious wheelhouse.
“As a director, you become an authority figure, which is weird for me because I've spent my whole life rebelling against authority figures, and now, it's like, I'm The Man,” says Cody, whose directorial debut “Paradise” opens in theaters on Friday. “It was strange to be in a leadership position. That's not really my personality. I'm not a super-assertive person, and suddenly, it's like, a hundred people who are waiting to be told what to do every single day.”
Nevertheless, the Oscar-winning scribe – who’s sampled varied careers ranging from exotic dancer to blogger – makes a decidedly smooth transition with an intimate, measured and sharp-edged story that unfolds against the gritty/glitzy Fremont Street backdrop of workaday Las Vegas.
It's there we encounter Lamb (Julianne Hough), a once sheltered and assiduously Christian-raised young woman seeking to sample every sin and temptation she can after a portion of her body is burned and scarred in a plane accident. On her journey to self-realization she forms unlikely bonds with a world-weary lounge singer (Octavia Spencer) and a seemingly dissolute bartender (Russell Brand).
"The only thing specific about it was the timing,” Cody says of her reason for sampling the director’s chair. “I just felt as though it was time. There wasn't anything about this story that seemed more conducive to a directorial debut than 'Young Adults' or 'Jennifer's Body.' It just was time. I had to know if directing was for me.”
After her experience helming “Paradise,” Cody’s candor is as refreshingly blunt as one of her characters. “Directing is really difficult, and especially coming from a really solitary writing background. It always surprises me that people think that the natural trajectory of a screenwriter is to jump to directing because they're very different jobs,” she says. “When you write, you're alone. Your imagination can run wild. You're not answering to anybody. Nobody's answering to you.
“In the past when I would collaborate with people, there was less pressure,” she adds, noting that watching her juggling all of that responsibility was a source of amusement for her prior colleagues. “[‘Juno’ director] Jason Reitman was joking around with me: he had heard that this movie was set in Vegas, and I was going to direct it. And he said, 'Just wait. The next script you write to direct is not going to have any complicated exteriors in it at all. It will not be in Vegas. It will be all Interior – Day – Kitchen. You're going to make it as easy on yourself as possible.'”
While she worked to find her footing on set, her writing voice seems brimming with confidence, growing and evolving from the distinctive dialogue of ‘Juno’ into something that still feels strongly Diablo Cody but isn’t derivative of her past work.
“You want to evolve and hopefully improve with every project, and there's only one 'Juno,'” she says. “I don't think I would have been very successful if I had tried to just replicate that kind of tone in everything that I did. And in 'Young Adult,' I felt was an interesting exercise, because I was able to tap into something a little subtler and a little darker. And then with this movie, I think I tapped into a lot of the kind of sweeter, more joyful energy that I feel now that I'm a mother. I think there's like an optimism in this movie that reflects how I'm feeling.”
Cody has championed strong female central characters in her work – “Even if wasn't an agenda, I think I'd be writing female protagonists just because it comes naturally to me” – and is encouraged by hopeful signs that Hollywood’s gradually broadening its interests with films like “Gravity.” “There was no reason for that to be a female protagonist, and in most cases, I would think, the astronaut hero would be male – and it's Sandra Bullock, so that's pretty cool. But yeah, I do feel like women are still underrepresented in a lot of ways in film, so I do think it's kind of like my job to keep writing these movies.”
Her whirlwind “Juno”-to-Oscar experience and seeming reign as screenwriting’s ‘It’ Girl had a profound effect on her, one she’s glad she eventually transcended. “That experience changed me dramatically, and for better and for worse,” she explains. “It was a lot to deal with emotionally, and at the same time, it was like, incredibly cool. It's very exciting to not ever have been recognized for your writing before, and then suddenly, someone's giving you awards.
“But it was also really frightening,” she continues. “I wasn't prepared to be a public figure. I didn't think that was going to happen because there's writers who win Oscars every year, and you couldn't pick them out of a lineup. Typically, writing is a very anonymous profession, even at the top of your game. So for me, that was shocking. I didn't expect to wind up in like US Weekly or the cover of the New York Post the day after the Oscars. That was weird, and it freaked me out. It really made me reassess, like since because I didn't want that to happen really.
“Now, I just try to see it as just like a sort of funny and extraordinary thing that's happened to me,” she adds. “And it's always going to be weird, but I also feel like I'm older, and I'm not as sensitive as I used to be." In the end, she says she understood she’d always have her writing. “It's something that I would have done every day, even if no one had ever paid me a penny to do it. I always wrote, and I'm very fortunate that I'm able to do it as a job.”