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With the release of 2007’s Juno, Diablo Cody (née Brook Busey) vaulted instantly into the sparely populated ranks of Hollywood writers who have both clout and, even more impressively, name recognition. (She’s also the first screenwriter since Quentin Tarantino that the average moviegoer could pick out of a lineup.) Cody’s big-screen follow-up, 2009’s Jennifer’s Body, fizzled, but her series The United States Of Tara, starring Toni Collette as a woman with multiple-personality disorder, was a critical hit with a cult following, albeit not one substantial enough to take it past its third season. Young Adult, which stars Charlize Theron as a working novelist who returns to her small Minnesota hometown intent on stealing her high-school boyfriend (Patrick Wilson) away from his wife and newborn child, reunites Cody with her Juno director Jason Reitman, but the slang-ridden patois of her earlier films is in short supply. As her heroine, who makes a living ghost-writing books in a fading young-adult franchise, struggles to put her prom-queen past behind her, Cody, now the mother of a 16-month-old son, has moved on from wisecracking teenagers, with impressive results. Cody talked to The A.V. Club about questioning her own adolescent fixations, the lessons she learned from The United States Of Tara, and the enduring appeal of footie pajamas.
The A.V. Club: Young-adult literature turns out to be more of a thematic backdrop to Young Adult than a major part of the plot. What’s your own history with YA? You’ve been working on a Sweet Valley High movie for several years.
Diablo Cody: The reasoning was twofold. First of all, I was working on Sweet Valley High at the time I was writing Young Adult, so I was in that world and I was thinking about the people who actually produce that content, the people who are hired to write these young-adult novels, and what their inner lives must be like. But I was also thinking about myself, and why I had spent my career writing about teenagers. Like, what’s wrong with me? Why am I totally fixated on adolescence? Honestly, when I thought about it, it seemed like a pretty fucked-up area of interest. I thought to myself, “Am I some kind of stunted woman-child that’s living vicariously through her characters?” And then I thought, “Stunted woman-child—that’s a character.”
AVC: Now you’re living vicariously through a character who’s living vicariously.
DC: Yeah, it’s like Escher.
AVC: Did you read those kind of books growing up?
DC: Oh, absolutely. Growing up, and even now it’s a guilty pleasure. I’ve been known to pick up a Stephenie Meyer novel or two.
AVC: They’re not easy to read.
DC: I like the constant use of the word “chagrinned.” I think that’s funny. But you know what? I’m not Hemingway either.
AVC: You can’t argue with success.
DC: Yeah. You can actually. [Laughs.] Many do.
AVC: How did the movie end up being set in and around Minneapolis? It was a comparatively short period of your life that you lived there, but it’s also when you started writing.
DC: It’s strange when I think about it. I only lived in Minneapolis for four years of my life and I’m 33. So it wasn’t a long percentage of my existence, but for whatever reason I felt really energized when I lived there. For the first time in my life I was really motivated to try and become a professional writer. I credit the town with that. I think for me it was important not to set the story—for instance, somebody asked me, “Why didn’t you have her be a successful writer living in Manhattan? That would have been a greater contrast between her past life and her current life.” I said, “I wanted to do this on a small, relatable, real-world scale. Somebody who comes from a very small town in Northern Minnesota and has made it in Minneapolis.” That is a scenario you would see. People do feel that she is very successful, and maybe she is.
AVC: Do you ever actually name the book she’s working on? It’s mostly referred to as “Waverly 178,” which certainly underlines the industrial nature of the job.
DC: Oh, yeah. I wonder if it was in the script. I don’t think it was. We did, in fact, do mock-ups of some Waverly Prep books that I have in my house with names like Racing Toward Danger, with a girl on a horse. Typical young-adult plots.
AVC: What were you drawing on for the backdrop of the small town she goes back to? You’re not simply ridiculing it, but there are some sharply observed touches, like the fact that her high-school boyfriend is excited that they finally have a sports bar called Champion O’Malley’s.
DC: See, there are two sides of Mercury. There’s Woody’s, this cool dive bar that’s been there forever. And then there’s the sprawl that I think a lot of us from small towns have watched unfold with dismay. When I go back to my hometown, which used to be this charming, quirky place, but now it’s big-box stores and fast food, that’s depressing to me. And a new sports bar that’s a chain that everybody goes to because it’s new. You worry if people have stopped valuing Woody’s.
AVC: With Juno, you talked about how Jennifer Garner’s character was the one you related most to, and the character that in many ways made the movie work. How did you approach Elizabeth Reaser’s character in Young Adult, who’s married to Mavis’s old flame?
DC: I wasn’t sure how to write that initially. My temptation was to make her a very stereotypical, soft-spoken, frumpy, small-town girl. Then I thought, “It’s a lot more challenging to us and to Mavis if she’s kind of cool.” She’s in a band. Granted, it’s a lame mom band, but they have a sense of humor about themselves.
AVC: She’s cooler than her husband for sure.
DC: She’s definitely cooler than Buddy. And she works with special-needs kids and she’s likable. She even takes pity on Mavis, who’s a beast, and I say that with great affection. Beth is a character that I love, and in a weird way I’m jealous of her, too. I don’t know if I’ve been gaslighted into hating Beth just because of being in proximity to Mavis for so long, but I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who everybody thinks is just cool and nice, and it never works out that way.
AVC: Once you have kids, it’s not easy to maintain a semblance of coolness.
DC: Yeah, it’s hard to do. I say just give up. Last night I was wearing a Forever Lazy. It’s like pajamas with a zipper so that you don’t have to take them off to use the bathroom.
AVC: Like the sleep sacks you put toddlers in. It would be great if they made them for adults.
DC: Yeah. It’s comfy right? My son was in his footie pajamas and we were just lying on the couch and I was like, “I can surrender to this. I don’t need to be cool anymore. I’m happy.”
AVC: Let’s talk about The United States Of Tara.
DC: It’s sad, although I still feel shocked and grateful that we were able to do even three seasons of a woman with multiple personalities, and not ever having a consistently large audience. The fact that we were even given an opportunity to unpack some of the stories is great.
AVC: How do you look back on the experience?
DC: I look back on it fondly. It was definitely the most challenging thing I’ve ever done, bar none. Yes, I would absolutely love to do TV again. TV is one of those situations where if it works out, it’s life-changing. Who wouldn’t want that? As a writer you’re kind of an attention whore by nature, so you kind of dream of having your words forcibly delivered into people’s homes once a week on a consistent basis. It was an unbelievable learning experience and to say that I collaborated with [Steven] Spielberg on something is still surreal. So I can’t complain.
AVC: As a learning experience, what would you take from it if you were to do another series?
DC: This doesn’t really apply anymore because I have done a series, but my suggestion to someone who’s never done a series is maybe don’t create and run a series if you’ve never worked on a television show before. [Laughs.] You might want to spend a season being a staff writer or a script coordinator just to learn the ropes before you fling yourself into the fire. So I wish I had been a little more prepared, emotionally and intellectually. It’s a crazy process. I still don’t understand how the best shows manage to maintain the same tone week after week when you have 10 people in the room, but they do. It is absolutely its own art form, completely separate from feature-writing.
AVC: Do you miss the writers’ room when you go back to writing on your own?
DC: No. It makes you a more efficient writer because you’ve become accustomed to insane deadlines. That’s nice.
AVC: On TV, you’re shooting the equivalent of half a movie every 8 or 10 days.
DC: That, and sometimes we wouldn’t get an outline for an episode approved until two days before it had to shoot, so you just had to gun it and make those 30 pages appear.
AVC: People say that about blogging as well, that the pace of posting several times a day means you’re forced to extinguish your bad habits.
DC: Especially people like Gawker, Movieline, The A.V. Club, where you’re having to produce all this content all day long. I do not understand how they do that. That’s amazing.
AVC: They can have my bad habits when they tear them from my cold, dead, procrastinating hands.
DC: I still procrastinate, don’t get me wrong. I’m good at that.
AVC: My favorite moment in the movie is when Mavis sits down to write, looks at the blank document for a second, and then immediately clicks over to her e-mail.
DC: Yes. That gets a laugh occasionally, and I’m like, “Those are writers laughing.”
AVC: It’s easy to be facile about autobiographical elements, but when you’re writing about a woman sitting alone in a room trying to come up with a story, you almost have to draw on yourself.
DC: I absolutely relate to being alone in squalor, trying to come up with something adequate. I relate to that, and I’ve been known to crawl out of bed and drink out of a 2-liter bottle of Diet Coke. I share some of those bad habits. I do relate on that level. However, I don’t so much relate on the psychotic going-home-to-break-up-a-marriage level.
AVC: With both Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt’s roles, there’s a substantial degree of exposure, physical as well as emotional.
DC: It’s cool to see Patton that vulnerable, isn’t it? Crying and stuff. I’ve known he was a great actor for so long, I’m just excited people are going to see it.
AVC: Did that make it harder to find actors for the roles, knowing they’d have to go there?
DC: This is definitely a Jason question, because I don’t involve myself in casting at all. I just write the words and then Jason comes in and makes a beautiful film and I get bask in the reflective glory of Jason Reitman. It’s a pretty nice gig.
AVC: When you were writing the scene where Mavis is standing there in her control-top hose with the falsies stuck to her breasts...
DC: I did think at the time when I was writing that, “There’s going to have to be an actor with a complete lack of vanity.” Charlize is incredibly brave. She’s just balls-out in general. She’s fascinating. She was completely committed to this and she’s exceptionally tough. She would have gone even further.
AVC: In a way, that seems harder than something like Monster, where the character is more of a grotesque. There’s no makeup for her to hide behind here.
DC: I like hearing the comparison to Monster, because here you’re taking a movie about someone who is actually a serial killer, and then you have a character who’s hung up on her ex, and little bit destructive. And yet I think, in a funny way, Charlize is equally threatening or even worse [in Young Adult]. I’ve sat with audiences watching this movie and I have seen them cringe and gasp and cover their eyes. That’s an amazing feeling.