Ever since the linguistic backflips of “Juno” sprung Diablo Cody into the spotlight and anointed her a pop prizefighter, always at the ready with a punchy piece of dialogue, it’s been easy to forget the emotional acuity underneath that made those words matter.
It’s actually been Cody’s work after “Juno” that has confirmed her unique voice, not only in her clever turns of phrase, but in her abiding and remarkably unsentimental belief in the goodness of people, even when faced with the prospect of vampires, bitter young adult novelists or in the case of her first film as a director, a plane crash that robs a devoutly Christian blonde of her faith and her confidence.
In “Paradise,” Cody introduces us to Lamb (Julianne Hough), a young woman who heads to Vegas in search of what she’s missed under the roof of her religious parents (Holly Hunter and Nick Offerman) and finds, instead of sin, a collection of people in search of purpose as much as she is, discovering kindred spirits in the bartender (Russell Brand) and the lounge singer (Octavia Spencer) at the first bar she goes to.
Although Cody suggests it was hardly planned this way, the story of Lamb’s search for something more proves to be an ideal subject for the filmmaker at this particular juncture, extending her reach to behind the camera as well as to where she’s willing to go with her characters. While there are traces of Cody’s trademark wit, the film follows the trend of her most recent work on “Young Adult” and the TV show she created “United States of Tara” in its more contemplative, occasionally melancholy tone.
In the days leading up to the release of “Paradise” in theaters, that could also describe the tact Cody has taken in other interviews about her first feature, with IndieWire blaring the headline “Diablo Cody on Feeling Vulnerable” and telling the Huffington Post that she felt more suited to writing and producing. Still, in the few minutes I had with Cody, I found her to be genuinely curious and enthusiastic about what people will make of her initial effort as a director, a rare American film to grapple with spirituality with clear eyes.
It was honestly a really arbitrary decision. I did not write the script with directing in mind. I’ve had such success collaborating with directors that I just assumed I would do that again. When I finished, I sent the script to Mason Novick, who has produced pretty much everything with me and he’s always the first to read my stuff. He read the script and called me and said, “This is interesting. Are you going to direct it?” Just in that moment, I made a snap decision and said, “Yeah. [laughs] Sure, I’m going to direct it.” I felt it was time. It was my fourth produced script and I just thought I want to give it a try.
You can feel free to disagree, but it’s interesting to me that when you’ve worked with other directors, they seem to have amplified some of the pungency of your words while here, you seem to be more reserved or subdued tonally. Do you actually think that’s the case?
You know, people always say I’m a subdued, reserved person. [laughs] Just kidding. No, they don’t. With “Paradise,” if anything, it probably has a more cautious feel because it was my first time. I was just really focused on shooting the script and covering everything. I was a novice in so many ways, so hopefully, maybe some day if I direct again, I will feel more confident or more free. But I was probably just being measured in my approach.
The film manages to talk about spirituality in a way that isn’t necessarily religious, which is something I’ve always admired about your work – the idea that you can place your faith in other people. Was it a challenge to strike the right tone when you’re dealing with it so directly?
It is a challenge. Tonally, it was really important to me that you could respect Lamb’s journey and the decisions that she makes. At the same time, I didn’t want the movie to be a negative depiction of religion in any way because I myself am a spiritual person. I feel like I’ve learned a lot from religion and I wanted to show that she could reject some of the more extreme things she’s been taught and at the same time, maintain her faith in God. And that is a tricky thing to do.
You find Lamb at an interesting place, as you often do in your films. The worst has usually happened to the characters at the start, even if they’re the last to know it. Do you actually find your characters in mid-crisis when you first start writing?
In this movie, I thought about starting it off with the accident. I wondered if maybe there was something to people seeing the effects of the trauma in a more immediate way. But ultimately, I thought it was more interesting to show the aftermath of what had happened to her. I guess I haven’t really done that before because when I think about it, in “Juno,” you’re with her for her transformation. You’re watching her get more pregnant as the movie goes on whereas this movie you pick up after the fact that it’s about what happens next.
There’s that great image at the beginning of evaporating cotton candy that would seem to sum up Lamb’s situation so simply. Where did it come from?
That’s one of the last things we did on the film was coming up with a title sequence. Originally, there were just going to be standard title cards, but I said I’d really like to do something special that establishes a tone. We had this title company that came up with the idea of the cotton candy and I said, that is too perfect because that’s what this is. This is a girl who had a really candy-coated view of the world and now it’s just been burned away and she needs to figure out who she is.
Yeah, it was such a trip. As a writer, you dream about bringing a script to the screen without any interference. As much as I love collaborating with directors, it’s an amazing feeling to write something, conceptualize it, shoot it, edit it and keep your vision as intact as you can along the way. I will say I felt limited in some ways. We only shot for 26 days. It’s not a huge-budget movie. And as a first-timer, there were a lot of things I wanted to execute that I wasn’t able to just because I was learning. So it certainly wasn’t a perfect translation of what I had in mind, but it was as close as you’re going to get.
Are you happy with how this turned out?
I am happy. It was a lot more challenging than I thought it would be, for sure. But I’m excited to share it with people.
“Paradise” is now open in Los Angeles at the AMC Burbank 8 and in New York at the AMC Empire 25. It is also available nationally on VOD.