Screenwriter Diablo Cody follows her muse to ‘Ricki and the Flash’
A lot of people in Hollywood say they don’t read their own press. Because even if you find a good review, it’s the bad one that sticks, and that ends up warping your sense of self. It can feel like a line, though, in this age of Google alerts and selfie sticks — especially in a business that places so much emphasis on self-image.
But coming from Diablo Cody, you buy it.
People said a lot of mean stuff about her after she won an Oscar for her first screenplay for the 2007 comedy “Juno.” Nothing about her rang authentic to her critics: her neon hair, her tattoos, her affinity for leopard print. Her pen name, which she’d plucked from the song “El Diablo” by Arcadia. Her script’s quirky dialogue, like “honest to blog!” or “your Eggo is preggo.” And especially her post-college stint as a stripper, for which she was subsequently branded “an overpriced call girl who got lucky once” on an episode of “Family Guy.”
“It definitely wasn’t worth it. I would have rather been completely unrecognized and anonymous forever than deal with that,” says Cody, now 37. “It’s a tough thing when you think of yourself as a human being with many dimensions and then you see yourself rendered as a caricature. No one is as simple as their public persona makes them out to be, and it’s sort of traumatic to see yourself packaged that way.”
That’s kind of what her latest film, “Ricki and the Flash,” deals with. It’s not about her — in fact, it’s based on her 61-year-old mother-in-law, Terry Cieri, the frontwoman of a Jersey Shore classic rock band called Silk and Steel.
In the Jonathan Demme-directed film, due out Friday, Meryl Streep plays a leather-clad, glitter-covered rocker who has become estranged from her family after moving to California to pursue her musical dreams. When she’s called to Indiana to help her daughter cope with a cheating husband, Ricki finds it difficult to square her edgy L.A. persona with her Midwestern roots.
That’s the part Cody related to, of course — identity, and who defines it. She’s tried to stop letting outsiders lay claim to hers since September 2009, when she stopped Googling herself. Now, if her friends email her reviews, she immediately deletes the messages. She even deactivated her popular Twitter account.
“I grew up in a family where I was very loved and my personality was appreciated and the things that made me me were treated like they were appealing and nice,” she recalled. “And then to see those same qualities and eccentricities get torn apart was very painful. It was like undoing all that.”
Despite how adamant she is about having “no interest in having a public profile,” she agreed to meet on the Sony Pictures lot last week to discuss her career because she felt an obligation to promote her new film. She was eight months’ pregnant — soon expecting her third boy — and wearing a baby doll dress, bling skull necklace and (duh) leopard flats. She had recently dyed her hair pink because she was hoping it would serve as inspiration for the live-action “Barbie” movie she’s currently writing.
Despite the vitriol hurled her way post-”Juno,” Cody has continued to land high-profile writing gigs. There was Showtime’s “United States of Tara,” executive produced by Steven Spielberg, and “Young Adult,” a dark comedy on which she reteamed with “Juno” director Jason Reitman.
“What attracts that level of talent to her is that there’s something that feels real and complicated about her writing,” said Marc Platt, who produced “Ricki.” “Her characters never feel kind of Hollywood. A lot of times, writers make characters accessible by finding the least-common denominator for a more down-the-middle resolution. But Diablo’s characters are very specific. They don’t fit into a formula and have their own voice.”
But there have been misfires, too, like her “Juno” follow-up, “Jennifer’s Body,” and her directorial debut, “Paradise.” The latter film, starring Julianne Hough as a devout churchgoer who sows her wild oats in Las Vegas, was critically panned and barely got a theatrical release in 2013.
“I had no idea what I was doing directing,” she said. “I’m not the most assertive person, and you have to be able to make demands to be an effective director. On ‘Ricki,’ people were like, ‘You don’t want to direct again?’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m out. I want to work with somebody who is incredibly capable and not go off and ... it up, which is what I would do.”
Writing, meanwhile, has always come easy. She’s regimented about spending a few hours working every day from her home office in the San Fernando Valley, when she has someone watching her boys, who are 3 and 5. (She thought she was done having children until last Christmas, when she was “overcome by baby rabies.”)
“I’m very envious of her, because she just writes like other people breathe,” says Reitman. “There’s been more than one instance in which she’s sent me a feature screenplay, I read it, and it’s not something up for directing. Then I never hear about it again, and I realize she’s writing multiple screenplays that are not seeing the light of day just to get the words out of her.”
She’s quick to point out that her prolific nature isn’t “necessarily a good thing,” that she’d rather write “‘Citizen Kane’ and have it take 10 years than crank out something that’s not successful in a month.” She wasn’t sure if “Ricki” was going to work — she just felt like she had to write something about her cool mother-in-law, who she’d expected to be “a typical mother-in-law in an appliqued sweater with cats on it.”
“I saw her perform and just thought, ‘How does society perceive women who follow their dreams?’ ” Cody said. “And I had to walk the walk, because I’ve said a few times I wanted to write roles for older women and I hadn’t done it. Fun stories don’t end when people turn 40 — at least I hope they don’t, because I’m 37.”
She’d also like to tackle her past as a stripper — which is all any studio executive wanted from her when she first landed in Hollywood. But despite the success of the “Magic Mike” franchise, she’s still not sure moviegoers would take as kindly to a lighter story about female adult entertainers.
“I think people inherently find female sex work depressing,” she said. “I’ve spent years trying to unpack this, but it’s tough because I think that people refuse to get past the idea that a woman who is a stripper doesn’t have a tragic past.”
She’s too busy right now, anyway, between the “Barbie” project and a new Tig Notaro comedy for Amazon she’s co-writing, which is being executive produced by Louis C.K. The Notaro project — which, “don’t worry, is super weird” — is the kind of thing she knows she never would have gotten if she hadn’t gotten all that attention for “Juno.”
“So, yes, maybe sudden notoriety was difficult for me, but it has really pushed a lot of doors open for me,” she said. “But I’m not going to reactivate my Twitter account or anything. Unless I could be one of those rare celebrities like Chris Pratt, who everyone loves unconditionally. But I’ll never be one of those people. I would need a serious image revamp.”
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