Finding God

Diablo Cody’s Personal (and Directorial) Paradise

She’s a religious person who likes getting wasted and dancing. Seven years after ‘Juno,’ the first-time director returns with the crisis-of-faith dramedy ‘Paradise.’ By Kevin Fallon.

Jordan StraussInvision, via AP

Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno, is known for catchy, quotable dialogue. And she kicks off her new film, Paradise, with a doozy: “There is no God!”

It’s the kicker in a screed delivered from the pulpit by Julianne Hough’s Lamb, a formerly devout and puritanically chaste Christian in the peak of a crisis of faith after being severely burned in a plane crash that killed her fiancé. Why would God reward such saintly behavior with such a ghastly tragedy? After telling off her congregation, Lamb flees to Las Vegas—a sinner’s paradise—to indulge in all the vices she’s spent a lifetime rejecting.

Paradise marks the directorial debut for Cody, who in addition to Juno, wrote the screenplays for Jennifer’s Body and the criminally underrated Young Adult, and co-created the award-winning Showtime series The United States of Tara. Boiling the film down to an anti-religion logline, which is easy to do after such a damning opening monologue, would be reductive—a laziness that Cody herself is used to, having fielded questions about her oh-so-brief stint as a stripper from journalists ever since Hollywood toasted her breakout with Juno six years ago.

“I myself am actually a spiritual, religious person,” Cody tells The Daily Beast. The film, then, is more nuanced than the simple plot outline lets on, showing through Lamb’s complicated journey that everyone’s paths to enlightenment are different—some, for example, take you out drinking with a Vegas lounge singer (Octavia Spencer) and bartender (Russell Brand) on the strip—and everyone’s own paradise is personal to them.

But don’t mistake it for a treacly Hallmark film. It also boasts that unique, instantly recognizable style of writing that, well, Cody’s won an Oscar for—dialogue that manages to blend precociousness, sarcasm, and heart into one tightly-phrased zinger: “My mother calls glitter Lucifer dust,” Lamb says, for example, after seeing a bedazzled t-shirt in a gift shop. “I’ll take it in an extra small.” Or there’s her monologue when she first arrives in Sin City: “I know you can’t catch AIDS from a plate. But just in case I brought my own Fiestaware.”

With Paradise finally hitting theaters this Friday after over a month of play on Video on Demand,

we chatted with Cody about her own spirituality and crisis of faith, giving into her own vices (often), and that one time God got angry at her during her film shoot.

I loved your tweet about Paradise’s VOD run: “Most directors force you to leave your house to see their movie, but you can watch mine naked with a bag of mint Milanos.”

It’s true! I personally am a VOD fan. I like to watch movies at home. I even prefer it to going theater, unless I’m going to watch something that’s visually spectacular.

This movie starts out with a pretty bold statement with Julianne Hough’s opening monologue. How important was striking the right tone, and making a statement about religion without offending anyone?

Oh gosh, it was so important to me, because I honestly mean no disrespect to any church. I myself am a spiritual, religious person. I am a believer. Do I belong to a conservative Christian church? No. But that scene was important because she had to show that she had completely lost her faith and everything that she believed in. That the trauma had shaken her to her core and she had become a total cynic, and that she felt that she was completely alone in the universe. And she honestly wanted to make a big statement to share her finding with the congregation. I think she almost sees herself as the pastor in that moment, like she was going to enlighten everybody.

But you shot that monologue in a real church!

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Shooting that scene was really crazy. All the power went out! Like, she was renouncing God and then suddenly it was black inside this church in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. It was really interesting. Eerie…

I read that you called this a very personal film. You were raised going to Catholic school, right?

I was. I say it’s personal in the sense that everything I write is personal. I certainly don’t see myself as this repressed Catholic who had to break away and run off to Vegas, or anything like that. I do—I know where Lamb is coming from. I went to mass every single day as a child. Not just a Sunday thing. So I know what it’s like to be raised with a lot of religion.

Did you ever have a crisis of faith moment like Lamb has? An event that rocks your world and makes you reevaluate everything?

I think adulthood made me reevaluate things. I had moments where I was really close to believing that there was really nothing to live for, that there was nobody looking out for me. That I wasn’t loved. I think everyone has been through at least one major personal trauma in their loves that causes them to question things, to rethink their identity. So for Lamb it’s more literal—her entire body has been transformed by this accident she’s been in. From a community that values purity and beauty more so than creativity and intellect, at least in women, for her she feels like she’s completely damaged goods.

Did you watch a lot of films by your favorite directors before embarking on directing for the first time?

I probably should have. I was like, “You know what? I probably should have done a little more homework. I probably should have gone to film school. I probably should have opened a book. Maybe I should’ve called Jason [Reitman] a few more times?” I would love to emulate people like Alexander Payne or Sofia Coppola, who does fish-out-of-water movies so well. But I don’t know if I have the skill set to be like them. I just tried to be the best “me” I could be, as cheesy as that sounds.

What part of this were you anticipating being the most challenging for you?

I was really nervous about talking to the actors. I was really nervous about the prospect of telling Holly Hunter what her character’s motivation was. It was ridiculous to me. She’s someone that I idolize, who I grew up watching. I know she knows more about directing than I do. So I thought to myself, “Why am I in the position of power here?” Like I could not believe that I had authority in that space. Even for someone like Julianne, who was incredibly collaborative, I thought, “OK, she’s asking me where her character is at emotionally in that scene.” How am I going to answer that question? I am not an actor at all. I don’t understand that process. What I know is writing alone in my pajamas. So this was very, very new. I was very out of my comfort zone.

Were you open about that insecurity to them when they got to set?

You try to be confident because you want people to feel that they’re in good hands. It’s similar to parenting. I have two kids, and even though there are times when I’m really frightened or don’t know what I’m doing or don’t know what to tell them, I don’t let on because I want them to feel like they’re growing up in a safe space with a confident authority figure. So I try to apply the same lessons on set. You definitely don’t want to let actors see you sweat. But I think the producers all knew that I was shaking in my boots.

So they say in “the biz” that the mood on set is set by the director. So what kind of mood did you try to establish?

That’s funny. There was a piece in Vogue earlier this year. They had called Russell [Brand] for a quote. He said that he felt that my energy on set was very maternal. And he’s right! Obviously a lot of that had to do with the fact that I was pregnant and I had my toddler with me. I really have become a very maternal person. I think people felt comfortable and I think people felt cherished and loved. I really hope that they did.

I loved the idea in this movie that everyone feels like leaping off the edge and giving into their vices must be so much fun, like they romanticize it. But you see Lamb partaking in all of these things and then realizing that indulging vices isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. I feel like it was a unique perspective.

The funny thing is that I am a person who actually enjoys just getting wasted and dancing and doing stupid shit. That for me is bliss. But it’s not for everybody. I think there’s this narrative in society that you have to enjoy doing that stuff, and it should be normal. That it’s an all-American way of letting go. I don’t think that’s Lamb. Lamb would be happier playing board games. It’s not everything it’s cracked up to be. She finds Vegas ugly and frightening, which it can be. I love it. It’s my favorite place on the planet. But I know a lot of people that are repulsed by it.

Have you ever done the impulse Vegas trip before, a spur-of-the-moment “screw this!” trip?

You know, I do so little spur-of-the-moment stuff these days. Back in the day? Yeah.

Do you remember your first trip to Vegas?

I do. It was really surreal. I was an adult. It was like 10 years ago, and I just remember what I loved the most about it was that it was this totally manufactured environment. You could never tell what time it is. Everything’s always open. There’s something about it that is very appealing to me. It’s so unnatural.

I love how the movie made a checklist of all Lamb’s first “sins”: her first drink, her first time gambling, etc. I feel like so many of us remember those firsts the same way that parents keep in their minds their kids’ first steps or first smile.

Oh my god, yes.

Do you remember your first drink?

My first drink? Yeah, I remember it well. When I was 14, my parents went out of town. They went to San Francisco. I remember it vividly because they had to come back early. My brother and I threw a big house party. I had like three drinks in rapid succession and literally passed out. I mean, just like passed out on the floor. When I woke up the next day, the house had been completely trashed. It was a nightmare. Like, if my kids ever do that…I swear to god. I feel so bad for my mom and dad. Because that’s the kind of kids my brother and I were. Like mom and dad are leaving? Party.

It must be terrifying to think your kids could turn out like that.

Oh god. I hope they’re so much more responsible than I was. All I ever wanted to do was cause trouble. It was so scary.

But it’s so fun to cause trouble when you’re young.

It is! It is, it is. It’s so fun and they are so few consequences.