‘This is for the Writers!’ A Conversation with Diablo Cody

By April 24, 2015Screenwriting 101

Diablo Cody is the multi-talented writer, producer and director who landed firmly in Hollywood with her Oscar-winning screenplay Juno in 2008. As she stepped atop the stage at the Kodak Theater to accept her golden Oscar statuette from Harrison Ford, she first proclaimed, “This is for the writers!”

If that statement tells you anything about Diablo Cody, you’ll understand why the organizers of SCRIPTFEST are so thrilled to have her as a guest this year. Here is just a glimpse into the type of genuine insightfulness she’ll be sharing on May 30 in Burbank, CA.

Diablo’s latest script, Ricki and the Flash, directed by Jonathan Demme and starring Meryl Streep and Rick Springfield, opens August 7th (USA).

ZG: What is your first memory of writing (in any form)? Have you always enjoyed it?

DC: I started “writing” stories at a really young age, like before I’d acquired the motor skills to pick up a pen and actually write. I’d dictate stories to my mom and she’d write them down for me. One day, a typewriter appeared on our dining room table, and I was instantly intrigued. I started typing out stories right away, and I took it seriously. I wrote an entire novel when I was 10 about teenagers living in the San Fernando Valley. Which is hilarious, because I had never been to the San Fernando Valley. I think I had heard some reference to it on TV and thought it sounded cool. Now, I actually live in the Valley, so my 10 year-old self is pleased.

ZG: Did you read a lot of scripts to learn the craft of screenwriting?

DC: I remember I read Ghost World and American Beauty, just so I could get an idea of how my script should look on the page. Reading scripts early on helped me with rudimentary stuff, like how to write a scene heading. I never even looked at a script until I was 26, so I had plenty to learn. In terms of actual story or act structure, I never bothered to learn about any of that. It’s pretty obvious when you read my writing, because shit’s all over the place. I could probably benefit from a screenwriting class.

ZG: When you settle in on an idea for your next project, has it been stirring in your head for sometime? Do you struggle with pursuing one premise over another?

DC: Ideas are the hardest thing to talk about. It’s the toughest question at any press junket: “Where did you get this idea? Why did you want to write this?” I really don’t know why some ideas beg to be pursued and some just kind of fade away. With Ricki and the Flash, I thought of the idea and started writing that same day. But right now I have a concept I’ve been grappling with for about two years and I can’t seem to get it past page 1. The Muse is fickle and mysterious.

ZG: Do you lean more towards meticulous outlining, or do you write more freestyle?

DC: I hate outlining. Won’t do it unless I’m contractually obligated to do so. Unfortunately that comes up pretty often. It’s totally counterintuitive to my process, which is to basically make up a bunch of characters and let them drag me in a certain direction. I do tell people that I’ll deliver a better script if they don’t make me outline first, but this industry is fear-based and they want to know what exactly they’re paying for.

ZG: Can you describe your typical writing environment? Office? Home? Desk? Couch? Whiteboard? Cork board?  Do you find that you’re more or less productive in any particular environment?

DC: I’m most productive when I leave the house. I used to go to Starbucks when I lived in the Midwest, but I don’t like doing that in L.A. because it’s such a corny writer scene. Sometimes I go to Soho House and write at the ping-pong table. If I write at home, I’m probably just on the couch eating Taco Bell like a slob. My eldest son tells everyone, “My mama works on a couch.”

ZG: Who was the first person to read Juno after it left your hands?  Can you recount some of the anticipation/excitement/other feelings that you felt before you received feedback?

DC: When I finished Juno, I sent it to Mason Novick, who I still work with today. We were both pretty new to the business. It was very casual, and at the time, it didn’t feel like anything was riding on it. I wasn’t one of these people who’d dreamed about being a screenwriter or a filmmaker for years and was like, “THIS IS IT!” I wrote Juno for fun and it truly was a joyful and cathartic experience, so if people had shit on it, I would have shrugged and moved on to a different idea. I will say that it was pretty exciting when people in Hollywood took an interest in the script right away. I didn’t see that coming at all. Weird little indies about teenage girls don’t usually get much heat on them.

ZG: At this point in your career, how many different people would be reading that “first draft” of a script?  Does that make your writing process more daunting?

DC: I do sometimes wish I could submit stuff anonymously and have that experience of being a new writer without any professional baggage. I think people are expecting something specific from me. I had a conversation about this with Nia Vardalos, who deals with the same expectations. People want or expect all of her scripts to be like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but she has other types of stories she wants to tell. And she’s done that, and so have I, but people will always associate us with our first films.

ZG: You’ve grown from writer to producer, but always a storyteller… do you have trouble separating yourself from the granularities of the writing process? Have you felt more satisfaction in one role over the other?

DC: I like writing best. Producing is interesting. I’m pretty flexible when it comes to making changes to my scripts during production; the producer in me can reign in the writer, if that’s what you mean.

ZG: What excites you the most about the future of storytelling? How do you expect new mediums and more technology advancements to impact your craft?

DC: I think every writer working in the studio system secretly fantasizes about buying a couple of 7Ds and shooting their own script without any interference. I see people doing it, and man, does it look fun. i love that kids can make their own movies now. I even love that Vine exists. When I was in high school, if you wrote a story or made a little movie, there was really no way to get it in front of people. You could show it to your friends, but that was it. Now, you can make anything available to a vast audience, instantly. I always tell younger writers and filmmakers not to take that for granted.

ZG: Outside of continued success in writing, what are some of your other aspirations?

DC: I want to host a talk show. I did that on a small scale with a web series called “Red Band Trailer,” but I want to be on actual TV, interviewing people. I need to audition for “The View” or something.


This interview was originally published on the Great American PitchFest/SCRIPTFEST blog and is re-published here by permission. You can meet Diablo at this year’s SCRIPTFEST, being held on May 29-31 at the Los Angeles Marriott Burbank Airport. TSL fans can save $25 off of the event fee by using the coupon code tsl1234 when registering.

Photo: Vita