Giving birth to ‘Juno’
A couple of years ago, Diablo Cody called her parents in suburban Chicago to tell them she was getting her first book published. That was the good news. “Then I have to say, ‘Wait, the book is about something that I did for a year that I didn’t tell you about, that will horrify you,’ ” recounts the author. “My mom started guessing. I guess the term ‘crack dealer’ came up.”
In fact, Cody, whose real name is Brook Busey-Hunt, spent a year stripping in clubs and masturbating for paying customers in a peep show in Minneapolis. For her parents, hard drugs would have been preferable. “My mother would have rather I wrote a distaff ‘Million Little Pieces’ than a stripper memoir, because I was raised in a Catholic household and sex is the ultimate taboo. If I don’t cross my legs in a certain way when I’m seated in a dress, [my mom] gets a little nervous.”
Cody’s first screenwriting effort, “Juno,” debuted on Wednesday, and it contains a memorable scene in which 15-year-old Juno (Ellen Page) confesses to her parents that she’s pregnant. Clearly, shades of Cody’s own past crept into the script, as Juno’s father and stepmom (J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney) first try to guess what horrible thing their daughter is trying to summon up the courage to tell them. (“Do you need a large sum of money? Legal counsel?”) And after Juno has retreated upstairs, the stunned pair commiserate. Her stepmom says with a sigh, “I was hoping she was expelled or into hard drugs,” to which her dad responds, “That was my first instinct too. Or D.U.I. Anything but this.”
Like Juno, the 29-year old Cody has to deal with a birth of her own -- of her film, her meteoric screenwriting career, her full-tilt plunge into the media limelight. Over lunch recently at a Melrose Avenue restaurant, the writer, a Los Angeles transplant as of April, appeared slightly dazed, as if she were just waking up after a long night of partying. In fact, this is her first day off from a marathon of travel, a different plane every day, as she’s barnstormed Europe and the U.S. talking to journalists about “Juno.” She’s dressed in a turquoise T-shirt, with sparkling silver letters proclaiming “Rock and Roll Party all night long,” and has a cap smashed down on her black Louise Brooks bob. On one arm is a tattoo of a pinup girl, which she recently had burnished, and the newly applied ink left her bedsheets looking like “the shroud of Turin.”
Cody is at once exuberant and wary about the media glare. About six months ago, when the cognoscenti starting calling her the next big thing, it was easy to see her as a screenwriter with a trick up her sleeve. Now that the movie’s out, it’s clear that Cody lives up to the hype.
In a town that shells out millions of dollars for screenplays so practiced that they read as though the human element has all but been squelched, hers is an authentic voice, alternately sardonic, wide-eyed, hilarious and sad.
“I’ve always gotten a large ration of negative reactions to positive in my writing,” she says. “For some reason, it tends to provoke reactions on the extreme ends of the spectrum. I hate the idea that I’m some sort of self-invented Gatsby-type figure who clawed her way to the top. I have done nothing of the sort. I’m Forrest Gump. I feel like I’m superimposed in all these scenarios. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here.”
Cody is certainly a refreshing conundrum, an unexpected mishmash and a self-declared “radical feminist” who’s routinely received angry e-mails from readers who believe that’s she a female chauvinist, complicit with the porn industry. Her memoir “Candy Girl” is certainly not for the fainthearted, full of the up-close-and-personal details of what it’s like to strip and entertain depraved customers. Her book combines Diane Arbus prurience with a wacky sense of humor and Midwestern do-it-yourselfness; it landed her as David Letterman’s one-and-only “Book Club 2006 pick” and a jaunty appearance on the show, where she declared herself the “Margaret Mead of sex.”
In the book, she glosses over her motivations, except to say she wanted to escape from her life of privilege. Although she still likes going to strip clubs, today she says “they’re gross places. They’re little shame terrariums. I guess I was raised to feel shame more acutely than any other emotion. Maybe I felt that’s home.”
Perhaps this is why “Juno” might be one of the few movies, indeed one of the first pop-culture artifacts, that has dealt with teen pregnancy without the usual tsunami of humiliation.
Ironically enough, this ardently pro-choice gal has recently had her politics doubted by those who note that her protagonist Juno opts against an abortion after a punky Planned Parenthood receptionist offers her a boysenberry-flavored condom and tells her to fill out a raft of paperwork, adding, “We need to know about every score and every sore.”
“I would have written a really gory graphic abortion movie had I known. . . . I’ve had to field so many questions about the sinister pro-life agenda of ‘Juno.’ There was only one way to get Juno so she’s sitting in the room with Mark and Vanessa.”
Cody is referring to the scene that launched the film in her head, in which the scruffy but bright teen heroine goes to meet the yuppie couple (played by Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman) who want to adopt her unborn baby. “To me, there was an entire movie about a pregnant teenager, a prospective adoptive mother who’s dying to be a parent, a reluctant adoptive father with a strange connection to the young girl, with Juno’s father mediating the whole thing, and an attorney.” Indeed, it’s as if different strains of Cody’s persona were having a confab.
Although there’s been a tradition of journalists such as Nora Ephron, Nick Pileggi, Paul Attanasio and Stephen Schiff jumping into screenwriting, Cody is one of the first from the new blogging world to cross over, bringing with her much of the raucous, young, irreverent attitude of the Internet. She’s an exhibitionist -- but she’s honest. (Indeed, her own blog -- diablocody.blogspot.com -- is now featuring posts about the breakup of her marriage.)
She launched her first blog in the dark ages of the medium, back in 2001, not long after she graduated from college. In those medieval days, she used to take three buses at night to attend a class where she had to learn HTML so she could hand-code her own blog. She called the site “The Red Secretary,” and it was the faux diary of a secretary in Belarus. “It was this proto-Borat character. I would write about my ancient computer, this flat with no hot water. All I wanted for X-Mas was an American Frisbee.” The only people who read it were her family.
She then rebooted as a Beach Boys fanatic with a website devoted to them called “Girls, Cars and Surfing.” On the site, she met Jonny Hunt and later moved to Minneapolis and married him. She was very bored working as a typist at an ad agency and launched another blog with a name that contains part of the female anatomy that can’t be published in a family newspaper.
No one much read her personal chronicles until, on a whim, she tried out for amateur night at a strip club and wrote about that. Her page views soared. “Clearly I’m catching people’s attention with sex. Who knew?” she says sardonically. “I kept stripping and blogging. It was kind of stunt blogging.”
Eventually, Hollywood came calling. Cody says her Hollywood manager, Mason Novick, was googling profane names for the female anatomy when he stumbled upon Cody’s blog and became a fan. After courting her for eight months, he eventually helped her land her book deal and start screenwriting. In the interim, the jobs have poured in, including a horror-comedy, “Jennifer’s Body,” about a cheerleader (“Transformers’ ” Megan Fox) who devours men, and “Girly-Style,” her female empowerment answer to “Superbad.” There’s also a Showtime comedy, based on an idea from Steven Spielberg, “The United States of Tara,” about a mother with a split personality disorder. It stars Toni Collette and is slated to start shooting when the writers strike is over. Although she’s talked frequently to Spielberg on the phone, she hasn’t met the icon yet. “I’m looking forward to that. It’s a tough meeting to get,” she says, adding that despite her flip mouth, she’s a Spielberg nut. “I genuinely love his movies. I always have. I think ‘E.T.’ may be the first movie I ever saw in the theater.”
Cody is aware that it’s not been a great time for females onscreen, given the paucity of interesting roles.
“It’s a grim time for women,” says the writer. “I feel sometimes like we live in ‘The Matrix,’ ” she says, referring to the Keanu Reeves film in which people live in a pseudo-reality. “People are completely blinded to the patriarchy because we’re so used to it. I try to live every day completely alert and aware of how I’m being marginalized. I don’t have a persecution complex, but I look for it.”
This said, as a screenwriter, and potentially one day a director, Cody hopes at least to keep adding quirky, subversive, original female characters to the Hollywood canon.
“I have a responsibility to write strong female characters. I’m going to continue to do it.”