Creatively brilliant, but tensions simmer

Special to The Times

Will an Oscar run end the long artistic alliance between Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and his countryman, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga? Their brilliant collaborations have thus far given us the intricate and intense dramas “Amores Perros,” “21 Grams” and “Babel,” which hits theaters Oct. 27. Along the way, they have become one of the most distinctive creative partnerships in dramatic filmmaking.

But long-simmering tensions about who is claiming responsibility for the success of the pair’s films have recently bubbled over. Though no one is speaking publicly, several of the people invested in the two artists and their project are privately aghast that Inarritu, apparently miffed that Arriaga claimed much of the credit for the critical success of “21 Grams,” banned the writer from attending Cannes, where “Babel” had its world premiere. Inarritu, in full “auteur” glory, went on to claim the best director prize. Multiple calls to Arriaga’s UTA agent went unreturned, Inarritu’s manager would merely confirm the ban and acknowledge the feud, and a message left for Inarritu sits idle.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Oct. 18, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 18, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Feuding filmmakers: An article in the Oct. 4 Calendar section about tensions between filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga reported that Inarritu’s manager had no comment beyond acknowledging the feud and related incidents. Inarritu says he does not have a manager. The unnamed individual who was the source for that comment works with Inarritu but is not his manager.

Now “Babel,” which stars Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Gael Garcia Bernal, is on the verge of exploding into Oscar season (“Perros” was nominated for best foreign-language film; “21 Grams” pulled acting noms for Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts), and no one knows whether the creators will buddy up to do the film’s publicity.


Fans of the duo’s work tend to think of them as a cohesive unit, one perfectly blended, deeply powerful cinematic voice. Inarritu, who helps develop the original ideas, clearly finds Arriaga’s writing fertile ground for his many directing talents, and could even be said to rely on it since he’s never made a major feature with any other writer. The director himself has said Arriaga spent two years working on “Babel’s” incredibly complex structure.

This seems like the kind of snowballing crankiness that will suddenly evaporate the moment one of them has another good idea over cold beers (then again, more Oscar recognition could blow the rift even further out of proportion). But if they do decide to dissolve the partnership, Arriaga could always push his future work into the hands of filmmakers such as Tommy Lee Jones, who movingly directed “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.” Which, incidentally, won Arriaga the best screenplay award at Cannes last year.

From stripper to screenwriter

As far as Hollywood discovery stories go, 28-year-old Diablo Cody’s is one of the more satisfyingly original. A self-described pale office geek from Minneapolis who on a whim years ago entered the sex trade as a stripper, phone sex worker and peep show performer, Cody was gaining notoriety online for simultaneously writing a saucy and profane blog detailing her exploits.

Enter Mason Novick of the management firm Benderspink. “I don’t know exactly what I was doing on the Internet, but ... we’ll call it what it is,” he says. “I mean, yes. I was reading her dirty, dirty blog, and it was funny.” Novick eventually cold-contacted her, discovered that she had a memoir lying around and got it to a literary agent, who sold “Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper” for six figures a few weeks later.

Novick then asked for some movie ideas, and by Valentine’s Day 2004 Cody, who had since abandoned sex work for a job at a local newspaper, sent him a completed screenplay called “Juno” that burned with the same incredibly original voice that had made her blog such a unique read.

A bittersweet portrait of a 16-year-old Minnesota girl who muddles her way through an unplanned pregnancy and a tenuous relationship with potential adoptive parents, the script suddenly had everyone in Hollywood scrambling to find the woman behind the voice.


I’ve read the Sept. 10 draft, and I can see why. “Juno” bursts with outrageous comedy centered on a cockeyed protagonist much like Cody herself, who is alive with flip one-liners, a handy hamburger phone and sexuality that’s aggressive and sweetly innocent in equal measure. Every other page made me laugh out loud.

It’s verbally raunchy in the most entertaining way, and no line of dialogue or descriptive element is left standard -- Cody could give a seminar on clever and inventive dialogue.

Now Cody’s manager, Novick is producing the film for Mandate Pictures with Russ Smith and Lianne Halfon, producers of the similarly acerbic “Ghost World.” “Thank You for Smoking” writer-director Jason Reitman has recently replaced Brad Silberling as the film’s director, and he and Cody are in the process of fleshing out some of the adult characters with an eye to start shooting in early January.

Ellen Page (“Hard Candy”) and Michael Cera (George-Michael Bluth on “Arrested Development”) are the probable candidates to play Juno and her hapless accidental stud, Bleeker.

“I don’t know if it’ll ever feel real to me,” says Cody, who, now married, still lives in Minneapolis. (Diablo Cody is not a stripper pseudonym, it’s a nom de plume the erstwhile Brook Busey-Hunt devised on a road trip in Wyoming: “It sounded kind of bad.... I need all the false bravado I can possibly muster,” she says.) “It was so serendipitous and so random that it still feels like I’m in an alternate reality. I always wanted to be a writer, but I imagined I would be a really pretentious poet type. I never, ever envisioned myself writing movies. But this is way better.”

No kidding.

After Mandate picked up “Juno,” Warner Bros. slipped a few hundred-thousand-dollar bills under Cody’s creative garter to write two more scripts. She’s just filed the first, “Time and a Half,” another dark comedy about a recent college graduate having her “mid-20s crisis,” that is going out to directors.


A huge fan of “The Descent,” Cody is next looking to write an action or horror movie, but only after finishing the TV pilots she owes Sony and DreamWorks. As an extra bonus, work meetings no longer require a sheet of protective glass. “I hope I can be an inspirational story to all,” she jokes. “I should do my own Lifetime movie.”

But the real lesson here, as Novick has proven, is that surfing porn at work can no longer unilaterally be written off as unproductive. “I gotta hand it to him, because I don’t know many people whose instincts would have led them in that direction,” says Cody, crediting Novick’s management for much of her success. “Naked women on the Internet are not usually thought of as being fonts of screenwriting talent.”

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