Meet the sharp-minded Hollywood outsider whose comedy 'Juno' is being called the next 'Little Miss Sunshine'
Before her screenwriting debut Juno received a rapturous standing ovation at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, before Steven Spielberg called, before she found herself in a world where people cancel meetings because they have a 2 o’clock with the Dalai Lama, Diablo Cody was giving halfhearted lap dances to greasy men at a Minneapolis strip club.
That was when she still went by her birth name, Brook Busey. Fed up with a dull copy-typist job at an ad agency, she decided to give the finger to her middle-class, suburban, Catholic-school upbringing and get naked. She spent a year strutting for tips and gawking at the seedy suckers waving their dollar bills, though while her colleagues were undulating around the stage like drugged eels, she punctuated her routines with screeching ninja kicks. When she started chronicling the experience on her divinely crude blog, The P—y Ranch, she decided to ditch her real name. ”I’m writing on the Internet,” she says. ”I’m writing about sex work. I wanted to maintain some anonymity so I didn’t get f—ing killed.”
Nothing about this 29-year-old woman, who changes the color of her hair every week and likes to wear a ”broke-ass weave,” is boring, and neither is the story behind her name: On a road trip out west with her graphic-designer husband, Jonny — whom she met on the Internet and married on the Star Trek ship at the Las Vegas Hilton, surrounded by aliens — they passed through Cody, Wyo., while listening over and over to ”El Diablo” by the Duran Duran side project Arcadia. ”I think when we get back home,” she told Jonny, ”I need to invent a new persona. So from now on I am Diablo Cody.”
Mason Novick, a talent manager/producer from Benderspink, was surfing the Internet one day when he stumbled onto her blog. ”She was distinctively funny, and her tone was so great, and she’s so current,” Novick says. He reached out to her, and she dismissed him as a creep. ”Some random guy from L.A. is e-mailing me,” recalls Cody. ”I’m not going to take the bait.”
For eight months Novick courted her, eventually hooking her up with a New York book agent who scored Cody a deal for her memoir about her state of undress. While Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper was in the works, Novick encouraged her to produce a screenwriting sample so he could persuade a studio to let her adapt the book. She sent him Juno, about a wiseacre 16-year-old who gets pregnant and decides to give her baby up for adoption. ”She pitched me this quirky little comedy that sounded like it could be a Lifetime movie,” says Novick. “But from the second I got the script, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is the best thing I’ve ever read.”’
Cody recently moved with Jonny and their dog, Barnabas, into a 500-square-foot guesthouse in Los Angeles. She suggested we meet at Fred 62, a hip café that the actress Eliza Dushku had taken her to for a meeting. “I always remember where the actor suggests and then I recycle those places,” she says. “Honestly, if I picked the place, it’d be like, ‘Oh, this Arby’s on DeLongpre is really awesome.'” She orders a salad for lunch, despite the fact that she once wrote that salads were for losers and Best Supporting Actresses. “I got a trainer now, man,” she says. “I’ve sold out. It’s a shame, I know. But I ate cake for breakfast.”
Looking around at all the other diners, most of whom are male and floppy-haired and tapping away on their laptops, she acknowledges that life has gotten deeply weird. “When you live among other screenwriters in the center of the entertainment industry, it’s difficult to maintain perspective. It’s not the same as sitting in Target in suburban Minnesota, which is where I wrote Juno. People there just thought I was schizophrenic. I would say I was writing a movie or my book, and they would just nod and say, ‘Sure you are. I’m sure you’re going to be a big star. Big star!'”
When Jason Reitman, who’d made a name for himself with 2006’s Thank You for Smoking, read the script for Juno, he scrapped plans to direct his own project to work with Cody instead. “When I think of the response to Diablo and her screenplay,” he says, “the only person I can equate it to in recent history is Tarantino, that kind of overwhelming excitement about a fresh new voice.” But the movie would have imploded fast without the right actress in the title role. Enter the impressive Hard Candy actress Ellen Page, who, Cody believes, beautifully embodies her wry, tough-talking, secretly tender main character. “It would have been really heartbreaking to meet Ellen if she was like, ‘Oh, hey, wassup?’ while talking on a rhinestone-encrusted cell phone,” says Cody. “But she’s so cool, she scares the s— out of me. She is Juno.”
With Page in the lead, Michael Cera as her surprisingly fertile friend, and Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman as the adoptive parents, Juno started filming in Vancouver late last year. “I don’t even remember the first day,” says Cody, “because when we pulled up and I saw them shooting my movie, there were just tears streaming down my face.”
[pagebreak]”This is pathetic that you can’t find a frickin’ bar open in the afternoon,” says Cody, sweating on the sidewalk. “Sir, we’re on a sad quest for alcohol,” she tells a grizzled old man in Levi’s. He points her down a back road, and 10 minutes later, she swings open an unmarked door and enters a pit of darkness that smells strongly of disinfectant and rancid beer. The leathery woman behind the bar examines Cody’s license. “You’re the second Gemini today,” she tells her, then returns to her conversation with one of Ye Rustic Inn’s regulars: “…Anyways, I drink a lot of Wild Turkey. That is my thing.”
“This looks exactly like my parents’ old restaurant,” says Cody happily, sliding into a cracked round burgundy booth beneath cloudy stained-glass windows. “They owned a German-themed supper club called the Matterhorn with moose heads on the walls and live entertainment—as in a guy with an organ singing ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.'”
She slides the wide left leg of her jeans up to her thigh to show off a large pinup-babe tattoo. She has “Jonny’s Girl” inked on her right tricep, and the word yes on her left wrist (which she got in response to Jonny’s marriage proposal). On her rump there’s a little fairy sitting on a moon sprinkling pink dust. “Which was cute, I thought, when I was young,” she says. “If you want to know who I was at 18, you look at my left butt cheek.”
If you need more personal insight than a Tinker Bell tattoo, you’ll find it in Juno. Like her character, Cody was best friends with a sexy cheerleader. She dated a boy exactly like Cera’s sweetly vulnerable Paulie Bleeker (although she didn’t actually get pregnant). And she talked for hours each night on a hamburger phone. “My mom started to cry when the hamburger phone appeared on screen,” says Cody. “When we started filming, Fox Searchlight bought everybody hamburger phones as a welcome gift. So now my stepdaughter has one and thinks it’s the coolest thing ever.” (Jonny’s 8-year-old daughter, fondly referred to as “Peanut” throughout Candy Girl, has bonded with Cody over their mutual love of America’s Next Top Model.)
“I think teenage girls deserve a better shake in cinema,” she says, pointing to My So-Called Life‘s Angela Chase as the rare female character in pop culture she’d actually want as a friend. “God knows people might say the dialogue in Juno is too stylized, but I’ve met so many hyperarticulate teenage girls who are not just shallow and image-obsessed.” Because scripts get passed around, screenwriters can be acclaimed long before anyone has actually seen their movies. With buzz for Juno building, Cody has found herself a hero among young Hollywood women desperate to play something besides arm candy. “I never get to meet with male actors because they don’t need me,” she says. “But actresses? Constantly.”
And because she is the new broad in town, studios are sending her any and all projects that star a woman. “If there’s a female protagonist or a romance, they just assume it’s up my alley. What, because I have a vagina?” Cody’s taste runs more toward movies like Rosemary’s Baby and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (she props a Spicoli black-and-white-checked sneaker onto the booth as evidence of her devotion), or sharply funny TV like Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. “God, I would slit my wrists to meet Judd Apatow.”
After Cody saw Superbad, she immediately went home and started writing a female response to the teen comedy, which Universal promptly snatched up. Girly Style, named after the wuss version of push-ups, tells the story of some nerdy college women. Cody has two other scripts in development as well: Time and a Half, a satire about the cult of modern-day hipsters, and a horror movie about a girl who eats boys. “It’s Juno but with cannibalism and evisceration,” she explains. One day soon, she hopes to direct. “If I were a dude, I don’t know that I’d be so eager,” she admits. “But I feel like I have a responsibility to try because there’s such a paucity of female directors. There are worse things you can do in life than direct a bad movie.”
And then there’s Spielberg, who handpicked Cody to write the pilot for a comedy idea he had about a woman with multiple personalities. She conceived the story, then pitched it to him over the phone at the Universal lot. “I’ve never met him in person,” she says. “Isn’t that awesome? It’s like Charlie’s Angels. So we had the call, and he said, ‘Okay, go write it.’ I walked outside and just went numb. E.T. is the first film I ever saw in the theater. I sank down to the curb and put my head between my knees.” (Showtime is co-producing the pilot of the series, titled The United States of Tara, and Toni Collette has signed on to star.)
Cody says she’s keeping her sanity during this frenzied time with some help from her new fast friends — Dana Fox, who’s currently writing Vince Vaughn’s next comedy, and Lorene Scafaria, who has her first film, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, in production. The three often meet to write at Doughboys coffee shop, though they have a tendency to get distracted. “We always joke that we’re going to start our own little club, like those Mexican directors did,” says Cody. “We argue about which one of us gets to be [Alejandro González] Iñárritu.” First, though, they need a catchy name. “It should play into all of the stereotypes of what people think about women,” says Fox. “So we thought about naming the club ‘I Don’t Get It’ or ‘Hee Hee Hee, I’m Scared.’ And we’ll dress up in geisha outfits, or white T-shirts and no pants! Honestly, this is all we ever talk about.”
When their workload eventually lightens, the trio plans to start a production company with a strong emphasis on projects that don’t involve beautiful actresses acting dumb and, whoops!, falling down the stairs into the arms of Mr. Right. But first, they’ve got to help Cody celebrate Juno. “Diablo won’t let me read the script because she actually feels like the movie totally did it justice,” says Fox. “She has no idea what a miracle that is for a writer. I keep telling her, ‘You have to enjoy every minute of this.’ Because she’s like, ‘Oh, no, no, I don’t need to.’ Well, okay, lady, but you better have your f—ing outfit on when I show up at your house with beers in the limo and we drive around to all the different theaters that are playing Juno. Because I’m not going in the limo by myself!”
“I’m f—ing sick of actors!” declares Cody, stabbing the lime in her third vodka soda. “They look airbrushed in reality. I swear Jennifer Garner has to be bathing in the blood of virgins because she has the most beautiful skin that I’ve ever seen on a human being. The boys too! I met Brandon Routh from Superman last year. He looks like a special effect. He’s too beautiful to live. And actors are all tiny people. Why is that? I’m a hulk compared to them! If you look at pictures of me with actors, I look like I ate them all.”
We’re getting near the point of having had too much to drink. But before the waitress brings the tab, Cody describes, as evidence of her strange new existence, a recent night with former boy-bander Lance Bass. She’d been meeting with Anna Faris when the two got to drinking and Cody let it slip that she was turning 29 at midnight. Because this is Hollywood, and because such things happen here, Faris pulled a $40 bottle of hand lotion out of her bag and presented it to her as a birthday gift, and then a car roared up to the hotel, whisking the two to Bass’ house, where Cody found herself bumming a cigarette from Melrose, the runner-up in America’s Next Top Model Cycle 7. “That’s the weird thing about this town,” says Cody. “People just end up congregating in really weird places. Why is Melrose there? But more importantly, why am I at Lance Bass’ house? He didn’t invite me. Oh, and here’s something awesome about Lance Bass: When you go into his bathroom, he has the MTV Moonman award holding his toilet paper.”
Marveling on her way out of the Rustic that there’s Alice in Chains on the jukebox, she bursts forth from the comforting gloom into the fading daylight. “Best bar of all time,” she declares, promising to bring Jonny back for the $6.99 Bloody Mary Breakfast Special. We shake hands on the street corner, and Cody heads in the opposite direction of her car. She’s going to wander around Hollywood until her buzz wears off. It’ll be a while.