10/16/2013 09:01 am ET

Diablo Cody On Directing 'Paradise': 'I Make A Good Sidekick'


Diablo Cody, one of the most savvy writers working in Hollywood, wanted to try something different after finishing her latest screenplay, "Paradise": She took a seat in the director's chair. As Cody told HuffPost Entertainment, however, directing a movie isn't the easiest job in the world. "I was freaked out," the 35-year-old, who won an Oscar for writing "Juno," said in a recent interview.

Despite Cody's apprehensions, "Paradise" turned out just fine: the new film is a funny and swift coming-of-age tale about a pious young woman named Lamb (Julianne Hough) who survives a plane crash, disavows God, and heads to Las Vegas to learn how to live. (Octavia Spencer and Russell Brand lend blasphemous assistance in Lamb's quest.) Cody's sharp wit is present in the film's screenplay, which includes the best AltaVista joke this side of "Parks and Recreation" and provides Spencer with an unexpected and hilarious supporting role.

With the film out in limited release and via on-demand services starting on Oct. 18, Cody spoke to HuffPost Entertainment about writing "Paradise," the challenges of directing, and how she snagged one of Radiohead's most beloved songs for her film's soundtrack.

As a screenwriter, you're very in tune with popular culture, yet you made Lamb someone about as far away from the zeitgeist as possible. What was the impetus behind that?
I felt like that in some ways I had become known for writing characters who were tapped into the zeitgeist, as you say. The last movie I wrote, "Young Adult," had a main character, Mavis, who was very versed in popular culture. She hung out with a guy who was obsessed with "Star Wars." I thought it would be interesting to kind of turn away from that a little and write about somebody who was completely sheltered from that stuff. Someone who was not fluent in that language and who hadn't been exposed to any of it. I saw it as a personal challenge.

What was the most challenging part of that?
Finding Lamb's voice. Because when you have a character who is positioned as innocent and her name is Lamb and she's wandering off into Las Vegas, I think it can be very easy to fall into a cliche. Like, "Oh, she's going to be wide-eyed and naive and sweet and maybe a little bit stupid." To me, that wasn't who Lamb was. To me, in a way, Lamb is intelligent, she's a bit sanctimonious because she's been raised in a culture that judges others freely, and she is a little bit of a bitch. It was important to me to show that. I think she's somebody who, despite being raised to be submissive and gentle, has a little bit of that sassafras, and I didn't want to lose sight of that. For me it was important that she be a real, three-dimensional person and not just a symbol.

I imagine that's more fun for you as a writer.
I like to write characters that are complicated and have many qualities. I do think we sometimes see the same archetypes over and over again in movies, because people like to go with what works. There's nothing wrong with cinematic comfort food. I like to watch the rom-coms with familiar characters, too. With Mavis and with Lamb and even Juno, I just thought, "Let's just try to create somebody who's a little more complicated who we haven't seen a million times before."

That definitely comes through with Octavia's character, Loray. She's so funny in the role that it feels almost tailor-made for her talents, yet it's definitely a character we haven't seen before.
When I wrote the part, I had assumed that Loray would be someone in her early 20s. I had seen her as a peer of Lamb. We started reading actresses for the role, and when I heard Octavia was willing to come in and read for it, I was shocked. By that point she had already been nominated for "The Help." I think of her as such a heavy hitter, and I thought, "Oh, what a privilege to hear Octavia Spencer read for this role." Then she did it and there was no question: She was Loray. She was perfect. She made me laugh, and I don't think people are necessarily expecting to see her in a role like this, where she's this cynical alcoholic hipster roaming around Las Vegas singing Radiohead while the crowd is screaming at her to sing Aretha instead. I hope it was fun for her to play it, and I think it was.

I'm glad you brought that up: How hard was it to get the rights to "No Surprises"?
I love that song as well, and I always really loved the video, where Thom Yorke is drowning. I thought that was a perfect metaphor for what Loray is feeling. She's trapped in this horrible bar where she's expected to be something she's not every night. Weirdly enough, our music supervisor, Linda Cohen, had a relationship with Radiohead and was able to get us the song without any drama, which I couldn't believe. It's really hard to get music from them. The other songs we had such a hard time getting. I was thrilled. Octavia, I think, had never heard the song before. I liked that, because I don't think she attempted to karaoke it or sing it like Thom Yorke. She does her own completely unique version of the song. I love listening to it.

I've read how you didn't love directing. What was the experience like?
When I say that I didn't love it, that's true. It had nothing to do with the cast and the crew. I had a wonderful crew, and I'm so grateful for the opportunity, but I did learn that I am more suited to writing and producing. Waking up in the morning and having to make a thousand decisions is not really my vibe. I think there are people out there who are very confident and have leadership qualities and they make great directors. I'm more of the ride-along [type]. I always like sitting next to a director and observing the process, but then not being responsible for everything.

You can be the Monday Morning Quarterback.
Exactly. I think I make a good sidekick. I make a good class clown on the set. I'm good at weighing in with decisions as a producer, but actually being the boss was something that I found very stressful and unnatural for me.

Yet you did get some great performances out of your cast.
That was all new to me. I also really respect the actors' process, and I don't understand it because I'm not an actor myself. So, I think the reason actors make great directors is because they really understand how to direct a performance. They know where that comes from. I still don't. It's still mysterious to me. So, I learned a lot in terms of how actors think, how they get inspired. That was probably the most interesting aspect for me. Thankfully, my cast was very patient with me and they understood that it was my first time and I was being initiated.

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