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Interview: Diablo Cody on 'Paradise,' Her Odd Trio, and Nick Offerman's Shaved Mustache

Diablo Cody
(Getty Images)It's been nearly six years since Diablo Cody won an Oscar for her screenplay for Juno, and in that time she's written three more movies, created the critically acclaimed Showtime series United States of Tara, and learned to take both praise and criticism in stride. Her latest movie, Paradise, finds her sitting in the director's chair for the first time, and bringing together a high-profile cast (Julianne Hough, Holly Hunter, Russell Brand, Octavia Spencer, and Nick Offerman) in the process.

Paradise follows a sheltered religious young woman named Lamb who loses her faith in God after a plane crash leaves her burned over much of her body. After receiving a fat settlement check, and dropping some choice words on her parents' God-fearing congregation, she heads to Vegas to experience sin for the first time. We spoke with Cody over the phone earlier this week about the movie, its cast, and keeping her characters and settings authentic. Here's what she had to say.

This is your first time directing and you've got a pretty phenomenal cast. How did you pull together so many really talented actors?

I could not tell you how I got so lucky as to work with these people. This is obviously my first time out directing. It's a small, character-driven indie. I didn't know what actors were going to be interested in working with me. Julianne came onboard first, and then I was incredibly lucky to get Octavia Spencer, who had just been nominated for an Oscar, and could basically be in any project she wanted to. It was a real honor.

Russell was kind of the wild card. The role was not written for a Russell Brand type so to speak, or for a British guy. It wasn't written with him in mind and he has such a specific vibe, and then when I met him, I was so impressed by what he had to say, and the ideas he had for the character that I just said, "All right, let's do this." So I got really lucky.

And then you've got Nick Offerman with the bald head and no mustache! He's almost unrecognizable.

[Laughs] That was his decision, and I'm so scared that people are going to think I made poor Nick Offerman shave his head and his mustache. He showed up like that! He felt that that's how his character would look. And I really admired his dedication to the part. So he made that decision, and I thought it was pretty cool. The first time I saw him I didn't recognize him.

What about Julianne Hough? What did she bring in terms of Lamb's naiveté?

Julianne is very intelligent and sophisticated, and I think because she tends to play the innocent, and has done that in a series of projects, people assume that's what she is, when in fact she's just very smart. I had gone down to Miami to meet her. She was shooting Rock of Ages. And I had an idea that she might be good for this role.

She and I had such an interesting conversation about the script. And she had already prepared for the role in a really surprising way. She read a couple scenes for me on tape. Well not that there's any actual tape involved in these things nowadays. And I realized that she was really dedicated, and perfect. I didn't need to see anybody else. I flew back to LA, and I said, "We have to get Julianne Hough. She's the person to do this."

I wouldn't have pegged her as a first choice for a Diablo Cody movie before this.

A lot of people were surprised to hear that I had cast her, Russell, and Octavia because it seemed like an unlikely trio.

It really is.

When that casting was announced, I had friends email me and say, "This is a very unlikely group." But that's what I was kind of excited about, and they did actually have a very interesting chemistry together. And I didn't think Julianne Hough seemed like an unlikely choice for someone for me to work with. Why would you think that?

I would say that because her projects before this were like Footloose, which is a pretty safe movie. She did Dancing with the Stars —

Yeah she's done mostly commercial stuff, like Dancing with the Stars. I think that's probably true. But she isn't a commercial girl. Like I think she's going to do a lot of interesting stuff after this. I hope that she is. I know that she wants to.

I didn't mean that as a knock against her.

No no no, I know you didn't. I was just asking because I was curious.

So did you show up as the bartender in the movie? I wasn't sure if I spotted you or not.

I am so flattered that people think that's me! [Laughs] One other person asked if it was me, and I was like, "I wish. Maybe if I lost 30 pounds!" That is not me.

And the guy playing the Dirty Santa that Octavia Spencer is making out with, I was like, "Who is that guy?"

Oh my god that was actually our extra casting person in Louisiana. We needed to find someone with a thick beard, and I was like, "What about you?" And he was like, "I'll do it." It was a real family affair.

So in an article that was on Vulture last week, you talked about some of the ghost writing that you'd done. I was wondering if you're able to say what the most unlikely project —

[Laughs] I will not talk about it!

Okay, okay.

It takes away the fun if I name names, or name projects. But I do think it's fun that people were so intrigued by that. I've been asked about it a lot.

It's like a guessing game now.

I mean wouldn't it be funny if it turned out I wrote like half of Superman?

[Laughs] That's going to be my headline now is that you wrote half of Superman.

[Laughs] Please no! I don't need to make anymore enemies.

Getting back to the movie, it kind of feels like a Vegas local movie. Did you live in Vegas at some point?

No, and I love Las Vegas. It's my favorite place in the world. I go there a lot. Not so much anymore now that I have kids. But it used to be my favorite place. I have this thing for manufactured environments. I love amusement parks, I love Disney World, and I love Vegas. And that's what's so great about it. Lamb goes off looking for America, and she goes to possibly the most inauthentic version of America there is.

Some of my wife's family lives in Vegas, and it kind of felt like you were getting into some of the local spots. One of the things you do with your movies that I like is that you kind of peel away the layers, and try to get to what the characters and places are actually like as opposed to what we get out of most screenplays.

Thank you very much. I always try to be specific. That's the one trick that I know how to pull off. I feel like I still have a lot of weaknesses as a writer, and definitely as a director, but I do feel like I'm always striving to create an authentic three-dimensional character who has a real life off the page and isn't just serving as an archetype to drive the story.

I think we definitely got that in Young Adult, too. I come from a small Midwestern town, so when I see Charlize Theron go back to this smaller Minnesota town, that feels to me more like what the Midwest feels like. How do you approach setting, and try to make it feel authentic?

I'm fortunate in that I was raised in the Midwest, and it's strange, but I think it's more representative of real life, and I think writers who are from, like, Manhattan or LA tend to be hobbled in that way. They can only write what they know. And I think — I'm not sure. I was going to say I just write what I know, but I've never lived in Las Vegas, and I've never lived in Montana so — I do travel, and I do try to be observant and pay attention to my surroundings. And I use that.

Could you talk a little bit about your show Prodigy? It sounds like it has some of the same DNA as Paradise where you've got this home-schooled female protagonist.

Totally. It totally does. The difference is that Lamb has been completely sheltered from pop culture because of her religion. The character in Prodigy, she is not sheltered at all. She's part of mainstream society, but she's been isolated in a sense because of her brilliance. She's really really exceptionally brilliant. So she's never had the normal school experience, and she doesn't have a lot of teenage peers.

She's 16, and she feels like this is her last chance to have that before she heads off to get her PHD, and so she decides to enroll in the local high school for a year. So in a way she has a learning curve like Lamb, but she's a different character. She's a lot more worldly, and she's a challenge to write because she's so smart, and I am not a genius.

And when will we see your TBS talk show. Is that still going to happen?

I shot a pilot, and as far as I know it's not going to series with TBS, which sucks. But I can't say enough about them. They're great. Honestly, I wish people could see the show. It's so bananas. That was probably part of the problem.

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