Going from screenwriting to directing isn’t an easy transition for most. Some writers have found great success behind the camera, while others have buckled under the pressure. It’s a different job with its own set of demands. With Paradise, Academy Award winner Diablo Cody takes her first crack at directing with the story of a young girl named Lamb (Julianne Hough), who visits Las Vegas after a serious plane crash leaves her with burn scars and a desire to explore places outside of her religious community.
Whether we’ll see Cody direct again is a real question mark. Instead of proclaiming how amazing her experience was, Cody expressed to us her problems with the job and the way certain critics respond to her flawed female characters. Here’s what she had to say about those critics, writing women and, of course, her take on Gravity:
Does running a television show prepare you for the exhaustion of directing a film?
No [Laughs]. I don’t think anything really prepares you for the psychological load of directing a movie. It’s a really strange experience to go from being a solitary writer at home to an authority figure on a set, which is terrifying. I have a problem with authority, so I ended up becoming “the man.” I have to say, it was scary, because I don’t think of myself as having leadership qualities. This film confirmed that [Laughs]. That was the most challenging aspect.
Do you prefer that isolation and having full control over what’s on the page?
I have to say that I do prefer working alone in my sweatpants making up stories, and that’s what I got into this industry to do. Obviously it’s very thrilling to make a film. I’m very fortunate I got to do it. Do I think it’s something I want to do again and again? No.
Why is that?
It’s just, you know, it’s interesting to me so many screenwriters naturally want to transition to directing, because I see the two occupations as being fundamentally different. There’s such a big difference between inspiration and perspiration [Laughs]. I can’t believe I’m quoting Edison or something.
Why do you think writers feel the urge to direct?
I think a lot of writers are disenfranchised. They haven’t been fortunate enough to find sensitive collaborators in the way I have. I’ve worked with these directors who have been so cool with me, allowing me to hang around on set, have input, and be a part of the filmmaking process. They’ll ask me, “How is this scene supposed to go? How is this character’s bedroom supposed to look?” That’s not typical, because most writers are shoved aside as soon as the film goes into development. I just feel like I’ve been such a lucky bastard so far that I didn’t feel the need to go off and direct my own movie. I have a trusted collaborator in Jason Reitman and other people I’ve worked with.
Would you ever feel comfortable handing off a script and having no input?
I like to be involved. I always say, I have a pretty great racket going. I get to write the script, hang out on set and reap the awards. I think directing is really difficult, and it was particularly stressful because I have a really young family. People always ask, “Why aren’t more women directing?” Now I know why.
Do you think that’s a major reason why?
It’s a huge part of it. It has to be. I have to make the decision every day if I want to be good at my job or a good parent. Basically, it’s impossible to do both, so you have to switch off.
After having experience on set, did that impact the way you write?
I think when you spend a lot of time on set you do become more conservative when you write. You’re thinking about the logistics as you’re writing. When I was writing Juno I had never been on a set before, so I was writing scenes, like, “Then we see the track team run through the snow!” Now, I wouldn’t do that, because I’d think, “Ah, it’s such a pain in the ass to make snow.”
Is there anything else you wouldn’t write?
[Laughs] Well, at this point, if I wrote another movie I knew I had to direct, I’d probably make it like The Breakfast Club, with five people in one room with five costumes. I’d make it simple, not three months in Las Vegas.
Do you have scripts like that written?
No, I don’t actually have a script like that. Looking back, I think Young Adult… I’m not saying that was an easy film to make and Jason did such a beautiful job on that movie, but logistically that’s a good first-timer script. It’s people in rooms having conversations.
When you’re on set, how precious are you about your script?
Oh god, I always assume someone can write the line better than I can [Laughs], and often they can. First of all, if the actor keeps gravitating towards a different interpretation of a line, then it’s usually the right choice. If the line doesn’t sound natural or they’re having trouble saying it, then it’s usually not the right choice. I have no problem throwing out entire scenes. You know, I don’t think my scripts are masterpieces that have to be protected [Laughs]. It’s a fucking movie.
Your characters generally have a specific voice. Have you found that type of dialogue can become unnatural once spoken?
All the time. So much stuff I write sounds stupid. There’s always going to be lines of mine that will make me cringe on every project, which is why I don’t sit down and watch them. I haven’t watched Juno in five years.
How about Jennifer’s Body?
A couple of years ago I was invited to the Castro in San Francisco to host a screening of that movie, so I did see it then.
Why do you think people were split on that film?
I like that movie. First of all, I don’t think it’s a movie for everybody. I meet people that love it, so I’ve discovered who the audience is. It’s such a terrible cliche to blame marketing, but I feel like it was marketing this sexy commercial horror movie for guys, where Megan Fox is just eye candy. The movie isn’t that, and it’s this offbeat feminist horror comedy. I mean, who is the audience for that? Not a very big one. I don’t think it’s surprising that movie wasn’t a blockbuster. I certainly didn’t expect that.
The response to Young Adult, while positive, was interesting. Certain people took issue with it simply because of how much they hated Mavis Gary. I was just reading an article that discusses how people respond differently to male antiheroes than female ones. Do you think male characters with issues like Mavis are generally given more of a pass?
Absolutely. When I think about all the questions we fielded with Young Adult, so many of them focused on the perception of Mavis as unlikable or as difficult. People saw that as radical because you don’t see it in movies a lot. I think, for instance, with a movie like Greenberg where you have a total curmudgeon in the same way, I doubt the conversation around that movie was focused on that. Maybe it did. It does seem to surprise people when a female character is unlikable. I think it’s very threatening to people because we have this Freudian, deep primal aversion to unpleasant women, like, “scary mommy.”
It’s refreshing seeing a character like Mavis.
I found it refreshing too. I’m very proud of that movie. The one thing I can say about myself is that I’ve always been able to predict the reactions to everything I’ve done. I knew people were going to respond to Young Adult in the way that they did, and how they would respond to Jennifer’s Body. I don’t think I’m the best writer in the world, but I do think I’m self-aware and deliberate in what I do.
How do you define a “strong” female character?
I’m perhaps alone amongst my colleaugues because I like talking about women’s issues in film, and feminism. I think a lot of women don’t like to do that. It’s usually, “Can we please turn the conversation back to my work?” For me, it’s an important part of who I am. I feel like so much of the reaction to my work and to me is connected to the fact that I’m a woman, so I can’t avoid that conversation. A part of my career is that I am a woman and I’ve committed myself to writing roles for women. I cannot separate myself from that and say, “Oh, can we please just talk about my work?” That is my work.
Right. A filmmaker who’s always been applauded for his portrayal of women is James Cameron, but he’s also been criticized for how “butch” they can be. What’s your take on those kinds of female characters?
You know, I’m happy with any major representation of women in film. Even though you can say they’re couched in these masculine symbols, I think Sarah Connor and Ripley are really important. I do think it’s interesting… I saw Gravity last night and I thought, “There’s a very interesting conversation to be had about the fact that Sandra Bullock’s character is named “Ryan,” has a masculine haircut and, for most of the movie, has her femininity masked by this big space suit, except for these key moments of extreme vulnerability where she strips the suit off and you see her body.” To me, there’s no question [director] Alfonso Cuarón is making some kind of a statement about masculinity and femininity in that field. I thought, “What a shame people are only going to talk about the amazing effects.”
Paradise is now in limited release and on VOD October 18th.