LOS ANGELES – Diablo Cody's real life story almost sounds like a movie she might write: A dynamic young woman with a unique voice wins an Oscar for her first screenplay, is at once embraced and vilified by the media, and then emerges with more opportunities and greater self-assurance than before.
Today, though, Cody is apologetic, and a tad frazzled. She arrives 45 minutes late for an interview, having thought it was the next day. The 35-year-old bounds into a nondescript tavern down the street from Universal Studios for happy hour, fresh faced in a Grateful Dead T-shirt and jeans, her red bob still slightly damp from the shower. She hugs the reporter she's meeting for the first time and offers a string of sorrys.
“I'm a Midwesterner,” she says. “This kind of tardiness is unacceptable.”
Very un-celebrity-like, Cody arrives without a publicist or assistant, since she has neither, and settles onto a barstool to discuss her directorial debut, “Paradise,” which is in theaters today.
After a Hollywood crash course that began with her best screenplay Oscar for 2007's “Juno” and continued with a TV deal with Steven Spielberg and two more movies, it was time to try directing. Her challenge, like that of her protagonist in “Paradise”: To discover her central character.
“I want to believe that you can maintain your essential core and hang onto your innocence in a way — even if your body is burned, even if you get pregnant as a teenager, even if you're a stripper, even if you win an Oscar with your first screenplay,” she said, referring to personal experiences. “I feel like human beings have a pretty amazing, resilient spirit and you can get through a lot of (stuff) and become the best version of yourself.”
After Cody captivated Hollywood with “Juno,” people pressed her to direct, but she wasn't driven to try it. She'd never made a short film or helmed an episode of the TV show she created, “United States of Tara.” She didn't feel she had to.
“I've worked with directors who were really respectful of my scripts and who involved me in the filmmaking process, so I used to say I had a good racket going,” she said. “All I had to do was write the script, and then I got to sit back and take credit for these amazing films.”
But, `'this was my fourth feature I'm getting made — I'm very lucky — and at this point, I almost felt like I was avoiding it (directing).”
“Paradise,” which she also wrote, stars Julianne Hough as Lamb Mannerheim, a small-town religious girl whose faith is challenged after a disfiguring accident leaves her covered with burn scars. Lamb sets out to experience all she's been sheltered from, so she heads to Las Vegas, where she meets a pair of nightclub workers (Octavia Spencer and Russell Brand), who accompany her as she checks off a list of “sins” such as drinking, gambling and dancing.
Making the film coincided with Cody's second pregnancy, which compounded an already challenging task. Cody also had her 18-month-old son in tow as she directed her cast and crew through 26 days of shooting in New Orleans and Las Vegas.
“I don't recommend it,” she said, though it does make the filmmaking/giving-birth comparison particularly apt.
“During pre-production, I was in my first trimester. During the shoot, I was in my second and then during post, I was in my third,” she said. “Then I had the baby and delivered the movie. ... The metaphor is so on the nose that it's almost lame.”
She's grateful for the opportunity and experience, but found directing only reaffirmed her love of writing. “I'm not thinking about what's the next thing I'm going to direct,” she said. “I really don't feel that I will.”
Instead, she's hoping for a green light on her script for a musical version of “Sweet Valley High,” which she says already has a director and songwriters interested. In addition, she has another script finished and a talk-show pilot that she's proud of.
Cody is also working on another book, a follow-up to her 2005 memoir “Candy Girl,” this one a collection of stories about her experiences in Hollywood.
And if her plate isn't full enough, Cody says she is looking to develop a TV series for Fox with “The O.C.” creator Josh Schwartz called “Prodigy,” a drama about a teenage female genius who “gets sucked into this glamorous world of crime and debauchery.”
Then there's Cody's work secretly rewriting scripts. “They basically always just want me to Juno-ize the girlfriend,” she said.
It's fun and well paid, but frustrating: “All I can do is add dimension, where what I would like to do is make the female the protagonist.”
Cody is particularly good at that, notes Hough.
“She just has a knack for writing complex, real, relatable and ballsy characters,” Hough said. “I really do think she is the women's voice of our generation.”