In the new film “Paradise,” Julianne Hough plays a conservative and devoutly religious Midwestern belle named Lamb, a character that nearly mirrors the actress’ own early life.
After a horrific plane crash leaves Lamb with burns and scars on the majority of her body, the young woman travels to Las Vegas where she latches on to a sensitive bartender (Russell Brand) and a cynical lounge singer (Octavia Spencer) in hopes of discovering a slice of life she’s never known.
This story of profound life changes also marks a change for Academy Award-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody, who not only penned “Paradise,” but also stepped behind the camera to direct for the very first time. Cody is best known for writing the 2007 indie darling “Juno,” about a pregnant teen (Ellen Page) and her prenatal misadventures, as well as films “Jennifer’s Body” and “Young Adult.”
I recently caught up with Cody to talk about “Paradise,” the similarities between Juno and Lamb, and why she may never direct a movie again.
David Onda: Was “Paradise” born out of your interest in religion, Las Vegas, crash survivors or a combination of all three?
Diablo Cody: [laughs] All of the above. I’m very interested in people who’ve overcome trauma and the skills they have to develop to get past it and to feel like there’s something worth living for again. I am very interested in spirituality and religion, and I just don’t see that theme appearing in a lot of modern comedies. So I wanted to explore that. I love Las Vegas. It’s actually probably my favorite place in the world. It is a very personal movie, in a way, because it is a combination of all these subjects that intrigue me.
Onda: There’s a distinct style in the writing and dialogue of your previous films – particularly “Juno” and “Jennifer’s Body” – that make them very obviously Diablo Cody movies. “Paradise” feels different stylistically.
Cody: It’s always gonna be different when you have a new person stepping in and directing, which, in this case, is me. I do think my p.o.v. has changed kind of significantly since I had children. This was my first movie that I’ve written as a mom and, I admit, there’s definitely a lot of sweetness in it and maternal energy that maybe was missing from those other movies.
Onda: In the movie, Octavia’s character remarks that Lamb knows nothing about pop culture. Do you ever wish you were not so pop-savvy?
Cody: You know, I kind of don’t. It’s funny, I think a lot of people perceive the line that way. For me, what was funny about it was that these characters were fetishizing Lamb’s ignorance. They actually thought it was cool that she didn’t know anything, because they perceive that as being super-authentic. Hipsters are obsessed with authenticity. “Oh, this place is amazing because they milk the cows out back to make the cheese.” Like, that’s the kind of thing they love. Of course, they think someone like Lamb is fascinating. She’s this Montana girl who’s never been on the Internet, she’s like the new toy. I love pop culture. I admit, I sometimes wonder if I would be better off if I had less screen-time in my life. But at the same time, it’s so much a part of who I am. I love to communicate with other people, and what a great time to be alive where I have Twitter. It’s fun for me.
Onda: It’s an interesting evolution in your female characters – to start with someone like Juno, who was saturated with pop culture, to Lamb who is certainly not.
Cody: I’m committed to writing female roles, and I think the characters are definitely changing and evolving, but at the same time, they’re kind of similar, too. I keep seeing the same issues popping up over and over in everything I write.
Onda: What do your characters have in common? And do you ever intentionally try to make a character more different to set them apart?
Cody: I’m not afraid of the similarities. I think it’s kind of cool to have thematic similarities in your work. Musicians sometimes come back to the same musical themes, and I like the fact that all these women I’ve written about are undergoing transformations. That’s the overarching theme in my work is change, turning into something you don’t recognize – whether it’s getting pregnant as a teenager or becoming a flesh-eating cannibal. Or, it’s just aging in the case of “Young Adult.” With this movie, this is somebody who sees herself as damaged goods now because of what she’s been through.
Onda: Anybody who knows Julianne Hough’s life story and has seen her transformation over the years knows that this role is pretty perfect for her.
Cody: Yeah, she’s amazing. Even on a gut level, before I knew anything about her, I felt that she was Lamb. And then, getting to know her, it was sort of uncanny. She was raised Mormon, she went through her own experiences with questioning her beliefs or wanting to break away and see the world, and I think she related to a lot of stuff in the movie.
Onda: “Paradise” features a much more subdued Russell Brand than we’re used to. Was it hard to restrain him from being that Russell?
Cody: It’s interesting. I thought to myself, “Oh, Russell’s such a wild man, is he gonna have sensitivity for a part like this?” And he did. And I didn’t wanna restrain him. He has a really special quality that he brings to all of his roles that people love. He has this essential Russell-ness. At the same time, he’s also doing something different here. I just thought it was really cool to work with him.
Onda: What surprised you most about directing a movie?
Cody: It’s definitely a leadership role. And that is not a quality I think of myself as having. I’m not a boss lady. I’m a person who sits around. I’m kind of a slacker. I like writing. I spend a lot of time alone. I’ve always kind of played the court jester in situations and, in this case, it’s like, “Ok, you’re in charge. You have to make decisions on behalf of a lot of people.” And that was very intimidating for me.
Onda: I read a very candid quote from you about the constant influx of talented, young writers into Hollywood and how they are all vying for the same jobs you’re vying for. Was jumping to directing just as much an act of self-preservation in the business as anything else?
Cody: I think for some people it is. For me, I felt like I was really lucky, because I carved out this niche as a writer and I’m sure I could just keep doing it. And that’s actually what I intend to do. I have not reinvented myself as a director. I tried it, and I don’t think I’m gonna keep doing it. I think almost all writers – in fact, every writer I know – their goal is to direct. So this is something that people really wanna do, and I don’t blame them. It’s a very cool job, but it’s also a very demanding job.
“Paradise” opens in select cities on October 18. Click here to order your tickets through Fandango.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.