It Felt Fluid and Rhythmic: An Interview with Diablo Cody and Ellen Page

2007-12-05 (Limited release)

This year, a quip-quick pregnant teen is the new pudgy beauty-pageant contestant. The recently announced Independent Spirit Awards nominations have confirmed what fawning and inescapable press has been telling filmgoers for the better part of 2007: If you liked Little Miss Sunshine, you’re going to love Juno, a comedy about a 16-year-old girl who develops a relationship with the couple she picks to adopt her unplanned child. It’s up for best picture, as well as director (Jason Reitman), actress (Ellen Page), and screenplay, by first-timer Diablo Cody.

Cody’s previous publications include her blog, The Pussy Ranch, which has made her a most unusual Hollywood hyphenate: stripper-screenwriter. The 29-year-old Minnesotan was dulling her brain cells at an office job when she decided to sign up for a dive bar’s amateur pole-working night. The erstwhile Catholic not only fell in love with a new profession, she also began chronicling her experiences. A literary manager helped Cody turn her scribblings into a memoir, Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, and when he suggested she write a screenplay, she sent him Juno, which she modestly describes as “a random original idea I had.”

The story in Juno is unpredictable and touching. But Cody’s dialogue is exceptional, a flurry of hip, witty words that snap and dissipate before you can accuse them of being too stylized. (“That ain’t no Etch-a-Sketch,” a clerk tells Juno as she shakes a newly taken pregnancy test. “This is one doodle that can’t be undid, home skillet.”) Juno is 16 going on 40, a Gilmore Girl who’s got a thing for ’70s punk and references Soupy Sales. She’s imperfect, too. You believe in her.

Cody admits that Juno is partly autobiographical, and when she and Page talked to PopMatters, it was apparent the casting was right on. There’s a nine-year age difference between the two, and while Cody rocks jet-black hair and a leopard-print coat, the most notable aspect of Page’s style this afternoon is a floppy beret. But they’re relaxed together, laugh at the same things, talk music. Clearly, they dig each other. It’s a fateful pairing that might never have materialized had showing the greater Minneapolis area her body not prompted Cody to show the world her mind.

Diablo, is this what you wanted to do with your life?

I always wanted to be a writer, but I never thought from a practical standpoint that it was something I’d do for a living. I was always encouraged by my teachers and discouraged by my parents. That’s not what they had in mind. Of course, now they think it’s a fabulous idea.

I know you worked at an alt-weekly for a while.

Actually, the alt-weekly [Minneapolis/St. Paul’s City Pages] contacted me while I was still stripping. First they did a profile on me because they thought it was interesting that they had this stripper/blogger in town who was becoming kind of high-profile. Then after they did the piece on me, they asked if I wanted to start writing TV reviews. I wrote about TV frequently on my blog. I had very strong opinions, which I now somewhat regret. I had a lot of bile as a critic, let’s put it that way. Instead I worked as an editor for a while, and then all this stuff started coming together.

Ellen, what was your first response to the script?

Blown away. It was like the greatest thing I’d ever read. I became literally obsessed, you know? It wasn’t just, wow, I’m really interested in pursuing this. It thought, this has to happen. [It was] so refreshing to meet a teenage female character that’s never existed before. Incredibly unique, but the screenplay didn’t overdo the uniqueness, you know what I mean? Completely genuine. I look for roles that are whole, and honest, and that I’m going to be challenged by. If it’s stereotypical and boring and there’s no dimension it, then I’m just not going to be passionate about it and I’m going to suck.

Were you comfortable with the dialogue?

Like in any process, at first I was really excited, and then I was really anxious and scared because I didn’t want to screw up her brilliance. I’d never really done a comedic lead. But I think the dialogue was one of the most amazing things [about the script]. It felt organic, it felt fluid and rhythmic, and it was just about owning it and not forcing it. And luckily I got to work with Jason Reitman, who’s so good at establishing tone.

Did you know who Soupy Sales was?

CODY: I always wonder about that line because I think, no way would any teenager reference Soupy Sales. But it always gets a laugh. I’m always aware of my own failings as a writer. I’m not even quite sure who Soupy Sales is… he’s like an old vaudevillian comic, right? Ellen, did you have to look that up, or did you just go with it?

PAGE: I had no idea it was even someone. Sorry.

Diablo, where do you pick up your slang? I mean, I think I talk like a 15-year-old, but there were phrases in this movie I’ve never heard before.

I just make it up. I felt very free writing the script because I’d never written one before. So I thought, you know, I’m not even going to bother writing something formulaic. I want to be noticed, I wanted to do something fresh and new, so I’m just going to go crazy with the language.

How long did you work on it?

A couple months. I tend to write pretty quickly. I don’t write frequently; I write in bursts. I’ll sit down and write a script in two months and then I won’t pick up a pen for six months. I write every day, but I don’t work on screenplays. I’m not super-prolific, I’m just fast. If that makes any sense.

[This was, quite frankly, stunning. Forget about Cody’s seemingly offhand decision not to write a script that sucks. (Can you imagine a world in which it were just that easy for every scripter, from television to movies to plays, to “not even bother writing something formulaic?”) She already has other projects in development, including Jennifer’s Body, a horror-comedy with Reitman; a “response to Superbad” entitled Girly Style; and a television series, The United States of Tara, that’s being produced by Steven Spielberg. Cody also found time to do a rewrite on a Steven Antin-directed film called Burlesque. Consider that her book came out only two years ago: I’d call that super-prolific.]

Will the writers’ strike affect any of your projects?

CODY: The Writer’s Guild has allowed me to promote [Juno], which is great. [Reitman and I] wanted to start Jennifer’s Body soon, in February or March. The strike complicates things. The script is finished, so technically they could go shoot it, but I don’t know. I feel like I would rather not be on strike when the movie’s filming. Wait, I could be misquoted there. I’m completely in favor of the strike. Absolutely. I just meant that it’s an awkward position for a writer if they went and filmed one of my scripts and I was not able to contribute at all because of the terms of the strike. That’s a weird situation.

Did you have input as Juno was filming?

Yes. That’s not typical. But I’m working with a lot of the same people on Jennifer’s Body, so I feel like they would allow me that freedom again.

Diablo, you recently moved to Los Angeles. Do you feel it’s changed you?

I’ve been there about six months or so. Very weird place, and it has affected me. It didn’t initially. Initially I was just an outsider and I was enjoying myself, enjoying the sunshine and the excitement. And I still do enjoy those things, but I feel it’s very difficult to sustain a sense of normalcy living there.

Ellen, do you live in L.A.?

No, I live in Halifax. I’m away a lot, but that’s where I have my pillow… I don’t really want to be in a car, so why would I live there? Good sushi, and I have lots of friends down there, but not for me.

Cody and Page

You’ve been doing a hell of a lot of promotion for this film.

CODY: I’ve enjoyed it. [But] it’s difficult to bring something fresh to all the interviews.

PAGE: Of course, you hit points when you’re [exhausted], but, boo-hoo, you know? We made a film that people like. I’m just grateful that I get to be an actor and pay my electric bill. It’s pretty ridiculous.

Diablo, have you been asked, “Who are you wearing?”

Oh yeah. It’s actually like pulling teeth with us. Neither of us likes getting dressed up. I really hate it, actually. The last event I went to, a friend of mine bought a dress and a purse for me because she knew that I would just re-wear something, or put on something at the last minute from Forever 21. And so I put it on and I got asked what I was wearing, and I was like, “I don’t know. My friend bought this for me.” People worry.

Are you a big movie fan?

CODY: I love horror movies. I love big comedies. Those are usually the two things that I gravitate to. Lately I’m becoming a little more of a cinephile. I’m watching stuff that challenges me. I’ve always loved movies, but I love movies. I took a film class in college when I was like 19 and I thought it was the most boring thing ever. Which is funny in retrospect, because now I’m fascinated by that stuff. Now I want to see 8 1/2. When I was 19, I was like, What the hell? I thought we were going to watch Jaws. This is a film class. We should be watching great films!

PAGE: I’m the same.

CODY: You like that stuff, though. Your favorite movie is 400 Blows!

PAGE: I mean, I love Truffaut, but I don’t like Godard, and I’m not going to pretend I like Godard. I also love Snakes on a Plane. That was one of the best movie-watching experiences I’ve had in a long time.

CODY: Juno, in a way, is Snakes on a Plane meets Truffaut.

Do people in the movie business want to engage you in lengthy discussions about “cinema”?

CODY: People don’t actually want to talk film with me, because they assume I know nothing. And they’re fairly accurate. People seem to think I know more about music.

The music in Juno was great. I thought it fit the character.

[Cody points at Page, who reportedly recommended the movie’s main artist, the Moldy Peaches, for the soundtrack.]

CODY: I looked up CocoRosie last night.

PAGE: Did you like it?

CODY: I did like it, it’s a little: deet, dee dee deet… kind of cute and quirky.

PAGE: Yeah, but they have one song called “Honey or Tar,” and it’s this soft, beautiful song. But when you listen to the lyrics, it’s about this girl raping her boyfriend in her mind.

CODY: Okay. I’m going to download that one.