The WD Interview: Diablo Cody

Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody knows she’s not the best example of how to sell a screenplay. In fact, she’s probably the worst example of how to sell a screenplay. So if you’re reading this in hopes of finding a viable path to literary stardom, don’t. Move to L.A. Shoot a short. Get a job at a studio.  There are a million better paths than Cody’s, which begins in suburban Chicago and takes an odd detour through the strip clubs of Minneapolis.

Cody was born in Lisle, Ill., where she attended Catholic school before heading to The University of Iowa to write short stories. Three years after graduating, 24-year-old Cody was withering away as a copy typist at a Minnesota ad agency. Her media studies degree was doing nothing for her. Her dreams of being a writer were going nowhere. She was blogging about the mind-numbing effects of corporate America, but no one was reading.

She took a job as a stripper to have something to write about. And when readership spiked, Cody turned her acerbic observations and
no-holds-barred storytelling skills into The Pussy Ranch (diablocody.blogspot.com) a regular blog that attracted a large following.

One of those readers was Mason Novick, a manager at Hollywood’s powerhouse management/production company Benderspink. Novick contacted Cody, who told him she’d not only written a blog, she’d written an entire memoir called Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper. Novick read the manuscript, loved it, and sold it to Gotham Books, who published it in 2005.

Novick then suggested Cody write a screenplay. A few weeks later, she sent him a script for the teen-pregnancy movie Juno.

Since its September 2007 debut at the Telluride Film Festival, Juno has been nominated for nearly 60 awards, including winning the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Today, the 30-year-old Cody is working on her next films, Universal’s Girly Style, a raunchy women’s road trip movie, and Fox Atomic’s Jennifer’s Body, a comedy-horror flick about a high-school girl who must stop a possessed friend from eating boys in her hometown. She’s also gearing up her Steven Spielberg-produced Showtime series, “The United States of Tara,” starring Toni Collette as a mother with multiple personalities.

Regardless of the genre she’s writing in, Cody is a master of using her own life experiences to create narrative gold. Here, the anomalous writer talks about her writing process, its flaws and what she’s learned in her short—yet illustrious—screenwriting career.

YOU’D NEVER WRITTEN A SCREENPLAY BEFORE JUNO. YOU’VE SAID YOU SIMPLY HAD A MENTAL IMAGE OF A PREGNANT TEENAGER INTERVIEWING POTENTIAL ADOPTIVE PARENTS. SO WHEN YOU GOT THE IDEA,  HOW DID YOU BEGIN THE PROCESS OF EXPANDING YOUR IMAGE INTO A FULL-FLEDGED STORY? 

I had gone to the bookstore, and while I hadn’t bought any books on how to write a screenplay, I’d bought a couple of scripts so I could see how the formatting works. I just needed to know how a Hollywood screenplay looked on the page, which was something I was totally unfamiliar with. I had American Beauty and Ghost World, and interestingly enough, the producers of Ghost World wound up producing Juno.

My now-ex-husband convinced me to use our last $200 to buy Final Draft, so I just sat down and started writing a movie. It’s that simple.

DID YOU OUTLINE?  SKETCH OUT ANY SCENES?

Initially, I didn’t have an outline. I remember about halfway through thinking, this would be a lot easier if I knew exactly where I was going in a more structured way. So then I started doing a beat sheet, and that wound up being really helpful. Now I do that for every script.

AT THE TIME YOU WROTE JUNO, YOU’D ALREADY PUBLISHED CANDY GIRL, WHICH IS A MEMOIR AND A VERY DIFFERENT FORM THAN A DRAMATIC SCRIPT.  HOW DID THE MEMOIR-WRITING PROCESS DIFFER FROM WRITING A SCREENPLAY?

It’s harder! People are always surprised to hear that the ridiculously skimpy stripper memoir was a challenge to write. But to be frank, when you write a screenplay, it’s really a skeleton, and you’re going to have cameras and actors and a director adding color and substance, turning it into a whole new animal, whereas prose is a one-man show. It’s all gotta be on the same page. So I find writing prose more mentally taxing. At the same time, in a screenplay, you have to be more efficient, have a better grasp of narrative economy, and you have to be able to express more with fewer words. Each is challenging in its own way. Each is fun in its own way. For me, writing essays, prose and fiction is a great way to be self-indulgent. I really just love to open a blank document and spew, whereas with a screenplay I have to be more judicious.

DID WRITING CANDY GIRL HELP YOU WRITE JUNO? WHAT DID YOU LEARN FROM WRITING A MEMOIR?

Writing the memoir might not have helped in terms of mechanics, but it helped me in terms of discipline, because I knew I could sit down and complete something, and I had never done that prior to the book.

HAVING WRITTEN JUNO, WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT SCREENWRITING? WHAT MISTAKES DID YOU MAKE IN YOUR WRITING PROCESS THAT HELPED YOU GROW INTO A STRONGER WRITER?

Oh my goodness—I made so many mistakes! I still cringe at certain lines in the movie. The fact is, when I wrote Juno—and I think this is part of its charm and appeal—I didn’t know how to write a movie. And I also had no idea it was going to get made! It was really just a hypothetical in every way. So I thought to myself, Well, writing for me has never felt like work, I’ve always considered writing to be play. So I thought, I’m going to enjoy myself as much as I can. I was just having fun, and you can hear I was having fun. And in a way, I was having too much fun, if that makes any sense. I needed to be pulled back a little. When I watch it now, the dialogue seems very self-indulgent and undisciplined. But that’s one of the things people like about the film, so I can’t argue.

I READ THE SCRIPT FOR YOUR NEXT FILM, JENNIFER’S BODY, AND IT’S VERY DIFFERENT FROM JUNO.  MOST OBVIOUSLY, IT’S A HORROR FILM.  HOW DID YOUR WRITING PROCESS EVOLVE FROM JUNO TO JENNIFER’S BODY?

I hadn’t really evolved significantly at that point. I wrote Jennifer’s Body in the summer of 2006 before I had done any TV writing. It was maybe the fourth script I’d ever written, and at this point I think I’ve written nine. And also, at the time I wrote Jennifer’s Body, Juno had not yet been made, and my life hadn’t changed that significantly. So I couldn’t have been aware that there would be this Juno phenomenon and certain aspects of my writing would get attention. Now that I’m in the revision and pre-production process, I’m trying to make sure Jennifer’s Body isn’t too similar to Juno, which obviously wasn’t a concern to me at the time because Juno didn’t exist, except as a script.It wasn’t a movie and people weren’t walking around in T-shirts with my dialogue on them.

ASIDE FROM BEING A HORROR MOVIE, JENNIFER’S BODY IS DIFFERENT FROM YOUR PREVIOUS WORK IN OTHER WAYS, TOO. CANDY GIRL IS A TRUE STORY.  AND WHILE JUNO MAY NOT BE A TRUE STORY, IT’S A VERY PERSONAL, AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL MOVIE.

And so is Jennifer’s Body. So is everything I write. It will be a miracle the day I write, like, a Vietnam movie—a movie that clearly has no relation to anything that’s happened in my life. I just have a tendency to tap into my own emotions and write personal stories.

HOW IS JENNIFER’S BODY AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL? WHAT PART OF DIABLO CODY’S LIFE DOES THAT MOVIE REFLECT?

Honestly? The horror aspects of that script are obviously not real, just as the premise in Juno wasn’t real. [Juno director] Jason Reitman likes to say, “In Juno, the movie is not about pregnancy; pregnancy is the location.” In Jennifer’s Body, the horror aspect is a way of expressing realistic emotions of jealousy and love and pain that I had as a teenager. It’s the dark side of teenage girls, whereas Juno portrays girls in a very positive, bright light.

I’VE READ INTERVIEWS WITH YOU WHERE YOU TALK ABOUT HOW MUCH YOU HATE TALKING ABOUT THE SCREENWRITING PROCESS. ARE YOU IN AGONY RIGHT NOW?

[Laughs] You know, I love talking about writing, but I hate when people ask me over and over again, “Where did you get the idea for that?” You don’t just get the idea one day because you saw a billboard. It’s not this instantaneous thing.

HOW DO YOU ACCESS THOSE DEEP, DARK, PERSONAL PLACES THAT ALLOW FOR AUTHENTIC, HONEST WRITING, ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU’RE NOT WRITING SOMETHING AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL, LIKE JENNIFER’S BODY? DO YOU HAVE SPECIAL RITUALS?

No. Unfortunately, what I should do is develop some sort of ritual to ignore the Diablo instincts, because my writing does have a tendency to be too self-reflective. I wish I could branch out and relate to how other people feel and write a period piece about some emotionally guarded old man who never had a crush on a track runner. I can access my emotions too easily. What I need to do now is work on my craft.

YOU’RE WORKING ON YOUR FIRST TV SERIES, AND BEING A SHOWRUNNER IS AN ENORMOUS JOB. ARE YOU READY?

Right now, we’re really gearing up to shoot this thing within weeks. Up until this point, it hasn’t been that different of a process. Obviously the writer has more control in television. But for me, it hasn’t been that different of an experience, because I was lucky enough to be included in the filmmaking process for Juno. So I never had that experience of being left out and not feeling like I’m claiming the spoils. Jason Reitman and I collaborated every day on that film, and now it’s just another collaborative process.  What I’m curious to see is how the turnaround time in television affects my writing, because God willing, if they order more episodes, I’ll have to work at an accelerated pace. And I’m kind of looking forward to that.

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