Continuously transforming, both physically and emotionally, and constantly learning how to adapt and embrace change can be a difficult task for people in their emotional and personal lives. Whether a person is struggling to overcome a traumatic, life-altering accident or experience, or learning to take on a daunting new job, learning to accumulate into their new lives can be an overwhelming experience. Screenwriter and producer Diablo Cody, who not only penned and executive produced her new drama, ‘Paradise,’ which is now available on VOD and in select theaters, overcame challenges to make her feature film directorial debut with the comedy-drama. The main character in the movie also contended with her own struggles as she searched for her new identity after surviving a near-fatal accident.
‘Paradise’ follows 21-year-old Lamb Mannerheim (Julianne Hough), who, after a nearly fatal accident, is beginning to realize that the world is much bigger than her small, God-fearing Montana town. Armed with a big insurance payout and a checklist of untried sins, there’s only one place for her first taste of temptation…Las Vegas! The wide-eyed, innocent girl will have to navigate the bright lights, seedy bars and dark alleys of “Sin City.” With the help of a few new friends, including William and Loray (Russell Brand and Octavia Spencer), Lamb just might survive her strange adventure and discover what it means to really live.
Cody generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘Paradise’ over the phone. Among other things, the writer-director discussed how Lamb’s ordeal of surviving the plane crash reflects the abstract idea that many people who endured a major ordeal have to learn to reconcile their new identity with the person they were before their accident; how hiring Hough to play Lamb was an easy decision, as the actress had already really prepared herself for the role, and had done a lot of research, before she was even officially cast; and how she met some unexpected hurdles while making her feature film directorial debut, as she doesn’t fully understand the actor’s process, and she didn’t realize that actors really want direction, and want to be told what to do, on the set.
Question (Q): You wrote the screenplay for the new comedy-drama, ‘Paradise.’ Where did you come up with the idea for the film, and what was the research process like as you were getting ready to pen the script?
Diablo Cody (DC): Well, as you write a film about a burn victim, or as I like to say, a burn survivor, who’s coming from a very specific environment, obviously you have to do your homework. To me, it was really about the abstract idea of the trauma of a person who survived a major ordeal, and how they reconcile their new identity with the person they were before their accident.
I think a lot of us feel completely transformed about a lot of the events that happen in our lives. For me, the movie’s about getting back to the person you were before you were bitter, and when you were just a child, and excited about life.
Q: While most people haven’t suffered through surviving a plane crash like Lamb has in the film, do you think audiences can still relate to her struggles of trying to find her identity?
DC: Yeah; to me, that’s the part that’s relatable. Obviously, I don’t think many of the people who watch this movie are going to be burn survivors from conservative Christian households. But I think everyone’s been through something that they feel has altered them in some way, and has taken away some of their innocence or optimism.
I wanted this to be an uplifting movie. I want people to watch this, and feel as though they could be new again.
Q: Besides scribing the screenplay, you also made your feature film directorial debut with ‘Paradise.’ Was it always your intention to helm the movie as you were writing the script? What was your overall experience of directing your first feature like overall?
DC: I really didn’t think of this as a vehicle for me directing. I just wrote it, and assumed the entire time that I was going to try to find a director when I finished. Then when I was done, Mason Novick, who’s my partner and with whom I produce a lot of things with, called me and said, “So, are you going to direct this one yourself?” In that moment, I think I just said, “Yeah.”
I’m a big believer in trying things and getting out of your comfort zone. I always used to say that I was never going to direct, as it wasn’t something I really aspired to do. But for some reason, in this case, it seemed like the right time to take a chance.
Q: You wrote ‘Paradise’ after writing a couple of acclaimed scripts for director Jason Reitman, including ‘Juno’ and ‘Young Adult.’ Did Jason offer you any advice on helming a film as you were developing ‘Paradise?’
DC: This was a pretty solidary adventure for me; I didn’t really want to work with anybody else. But Jason had given me advice on directing in the past, which was really helpful. He’s someone who has this really engrained knowledge of filmmaking, because he grew up on sets, and he’s obviously a great director in his own right.
He always told me that if I was shooting a scene, I should read the scene before and scene after. That way I knew where the characters were coming from, and where they were going. It’s simple advice that’s extremely helpful.
Q: Besides writing and directing ‘Paradise,’ you also served as one of the executive producers. Why did you decide to also produce the film, and how did producing it influence the way you directed it?
DC: Producing is a nice job to have, as it ensures that you’re going to have input in a lot of different aspects of the production. I have been producing since ‘Jennifer’s Body,’ which was the first movie I produced. I was also a producer on ‘Young Adult.’ I was also an executive producer on ‘United States of Tara,’ so I have been producing for a while. It’s an interesting job.
There are creative producers, which is what I really am. Then there are producers who are managing the budget every day, who bail actors out of jail, and do all kinds of interesting things. (laughs) I avoid that aspect of it, and I’m not as hands-on every day as some producers are.
Q: Like you mentioned, besides writing and producing ‘Paradise,’ you also wrote and produced ‘Jennifer’s Body,’ ‘Young Adult’ and ‘United States of Tara.’ What lessons did you learn as a writer and producer on those two earlier films that you brought with you to ‘Paradise?’
DC: ‘Jennifer’s Body’ was my first experience with conflict behind the scenes, in terms of people not agreeing on what kind of film we were making. I always felt like Karyn (Kusama), the director, and I were always a team, but not everyone saw the movie the way we did
So I learned from that experience that you have to know what kind of movie you’re making, and everyone involved has to be on the same page. You can’t have some people thinking you’re making a feminist horror comedy, and other people thinking you’re making a big commercial horror film for teenage boys. So that was my takeaway from ‘Jennifer’s Body.’
With ‘Young Adult,’ I learned that when you’re working with a true auteur like Jason, you really have to trust the director’s vision. I think all of us just got out of his way for that one. We knew he had something really specific in mind, he knew what he was going to do, and he did such a beautiful job with it. I think the best producers are the ones who respect the artist.
Q: ‘Paradise’ stars a diverse cast, including Julianne Hough, Nick Offerman, Russell Brand and Academy Award winners Holly Hunter and Octavia Spencer. What was the casting process like for the cast, particularly Julianne, who plays the main character, Lamb?
DC: Julianne was such an easy hire for me; as soon as I met her, I knew she was Lamb, and there was no question about it for me. She had already really prepared herself for the role, and had done a lot of research, before she was even officially cast. She was very passionate about it, and was physically perfect. I just knew I wanted her to be this person.
Russell was more unexpected, because I hadn’t written the character as being British. It’s interesting, because Russell brought a totally different quality to the character of William than I expected. He was this unexpected treat, and I think he brought this interesting element to the movie.
Octavia’s just hilarious, and is the best. She should be in every movie. She makes every scene she’s in better, so casting her was a no-brainer.
Q: The comedy-drama follows Lamb as she travels to Las Vegas after getting into a plane accident and leaves her small, religious Montana town, to fulfill her checklist of sins she has complied. Why did you feel it was important to make Lamb come from a small religious town, and follow her as she explores temptation for the first time?
DC: Yeah, everyone loves a fish-out-of-water story. To me, there was no more pronounced fish-out-of-water than someone who’s completely sheltered from sin and travel and pop culture. Getting on a plane, going to Vegas and spending the evening with sinful people is the best story to see.
Q: ‘Paradise’ is a coming-of-age of a young woman in her early 20s who’s struggling to find her identity after living under her family’s religious beliefs, while ‘Juno’ is a coming-of-age story of a teenager trying to find her identity after she realizes she’s pregnant. Did you see any similarities between Lamb and Juno? Since you wrote both scripts, did you relate to both characters at all?
DC: One hundred percent. If you think about it, it’s two young women who are having their identities altered by a physical transformation. In Juno’s case, she’s pregnant, and she’s having to deal with this new body and identity. In Lamb’s case, it’s the same thing, except she had a blatantly traumatic experience.
I feel like every movie I’ve written deals with the same theme, in a way. ‘Jennifer’s Body’ was also about someone turning into someone she doesn’t recognize. ‘Young Adult,’ meanwhile, is about a woman who can’t change. So these topics of change and transformation have always been resident for me. I feel like maybe I’ve exhausted them now. (laughs) But maybe I’ll write about it again, I don’t know.
Q: Were you able to have any rehearsal periods with the rest of the cast before you began filming? Did you work with Julianne specifically, to help her get into Lamb’s mindset?
DC: Yeah, I worked with Julianne as much as I could. But that’s where I found most of my deficiencies as a director; I don’t fully understand the actor’s process, and I still don’t know how to talk to actors. I don’t know how to tell them to do their jobs better, or where to go or how to move their bodies.
I didn’t realize that actors really want direction, and want to be told what to do. Even great actors, like Holly Hunter, who have been in a million movies, are looking at you for advice on the set. I feel like that was one of my weaknesses. I don’t act myself, and I don’t understand acting. I wondered if I should take a class, because I would really like to understand that process better.
Q: With so many Hollywood movies being written, directed and produced by men, why do you think it’s important for more women filmmakers to make movies like ‘Paradise,’ and have their voices heard in the film industry?
DC: Yeah, there are a lot of women working in high level positions at studios. There are a lot of female screenwriters and showrunners on TV. But the one thing you don’t really see that often is female directors.
Women are really underrepresented in filmmaking. Of course, I would like to see more female directors. But at the same time, I think there’s a lot of stuff standing in our way. For me personally, directing was really hard, because I have two small children, and I think a lot of women are dealing with the same issue.
Q: Are there any particular women filmmakers that you admire, or aspire to work with in the future?
DC: Yeah, I really admire Sofia Coppola, and I’m a huge fan of hers. I always look forward to whatever she’s up to. Lorene Scafaria is a dear friend of mine, and I really enjoyed her film, ‘Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.’ I’m actually trying to actively work with her right now. There are a lot of talented women out there, but I just wish there were more.
Q: You filmed ‘Paradise’ independently on a smaller budget. Did having that smaller budget influence the way you were able to shoot the film, and would you be interested in directing a bigger budget, studio film in the future?
DC: I don’t have any plans to direct again anytime soon. I will say that one of the biggest challenges of making a lower-budget movie is time. We only had 26 days to shoot this film, but I would have loved to have 35 or 40. Sometimes you only have one or two takes to get a line, and I would have preferred 10. But there’s not enough time, as you have to keep moving constantly.
Q: ‘Paradise’ was released on VOD through DirecTV, before being released in theaters. Are you a fan of watching films On Demand, and why do you think the platform is so vital for smaller, independent films?
DC: I think the climate has changed for independent movies in the last couple of years, and it’s harder to succeed with a traditional release. VOD is so useful, because people are comfortable small, character-driven movies in their own homes. I don’t know if you’d want to watch ‘Gravity’ on VOD, but something like ‘Paradise,’ definitely. For me, I see it as a big opportunity, and I’m glad we chose this release strategy.
Q: Besides writing, directing and producing films, you were also the creator, scribe and executive producer of ‘United States of Tara,’ like you mentioned earlier. Do you have an interest in returning to television in the future? Do you have any upcoming projects, whether on TV or in films, that you can discuss?
DC: I’m actually really interested in getting back into television, and I’m trying to get a couple shows on the air right now. But that’s a challenge, as you have to jump through so many hurdles to get a show on the air. But I definitely want to do that again. To me, that would be the best thing that could possibly happen, to be on another series.
I also just wrote another movie. We’re out to cast it, and I hope people hear more about it soon.