Writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman are quite the pair. After teaming on the beloved small-scale dramatic comedy (or comedic drama?) “Juno,” which won the first-time writer Cody an Academy Award, they collaborated on teen horror romp “Jennifer’s Body,” a Cody script that Reitman produced. They are back together again on the darkly tinged comedy “Young Adult,” opening this week in limited release before going wide next week. In “Young Adult” the unstoppably sexy Charlize Theron gets considerably uglier (inside if not out) as a young adult novelist named Mavis who returns to her hometown to woo her former high school flame. It’s funny, occasionally quite difficult stuff, and is made all the more special by Cody’s oddly heartfelt portrait of longing and obsession. We got to talk to Diablo Cody about the inspiration for the script, her own directorial effort, and her nervousness about bringing a character like Mavis to the multiplexes.
“The genesis of the script came from days much like today when I was talking to journalists and they would ask me why I was obsessed with writing about teenagers,” Cody explained. “I had to think about it. Because I wasn’t sure myself. And I started to go to a dark place and I thought, ‘What if I’m actually just living vicariously through these characters and I’m just a stunted adult who’s immature and who hasn’t progressed passed an adolescent stage of life?'”
This quite obviously is not the case, but it still gave her some ace material to work with in terms of crafting a character who is emotionally stunted yet still relatable; someone who doesn’t just look back on the past but clings to it violently. “I don’t know if that’s necessarily true of me but I started thinking that it sounds like an interesting character. So I started thinking, ‘Okay what about a character who writes young adult fiction and is very much a teenager emotionally and is still fixated on her high school boyfriend.’ I thought that would be fun for an actress to play.”
That actress, of course, turned out to be the immeasurably talented Charlize Theron. The part might seem tailor-made for Theron, but Cody didn’t write the character with her in mind. “Weirdly enough, I have this superstition when it comes to picturing actors in roles, which is I don’t,” Cody said. “I feel like there is some statistic where only one in 25 scripts that get bought even get produced, so when I’m writing I never presume that I’m writing something for the screen.”
Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone else but Theron playing the part, especially given Cody’s description of the character. “I had this very specific, neurotic, Nordic blonde in mind but I didn’t think specifically of Charlize. But then when Jason said he was thinking about Charlize for this part I went ‘BAM! That sounds good!’ She is definitely what I had in mind.”
We also wondered what relationship her long-in-the-works script for the “Sweet Valley High” movie had with “Young Adult,” since Theron plays a young adult writer of some very “Sweet Valley High”-ish books called “Waverly Prep.” It turns out there is a direct link. “It inspired the script in a way because I was rereading the ‘Sweet Valley High’ books for that project,” Cody said. “And I started to wonder about the women who wrote the books because their names don’t really appear on the cover – the creator of ‘Sweet Valley High’ appears on the cover. And what their lives must be like – women in their twenties and thirties writing about the prom, which was not unlike my life.” Cody then made the connection explicit: “In a weird way the two projects are inexorably linked, especially since the books Mavis writes are called ‘Waverly Prep,’ so there’s no question I was thinking of one with the other and vice versa.” This makes us wonder if there are characters in her “Sweet Valley High” script that guzzle 2-liter bottles of Diet Coke, drink too much, and sleep around? With a hard R rating in the works, we wouldn’t be surprised.
One thing we kind of longed for, after watching “Young Adult,” was to see Cody and Reitman to take the Mavis character to an even darker, more dangerous place. It turns out the opposite was their inclination. “There was an inclination to take her to a lighter place, which would have been more depressing,” Cody notes, saying nothing was watered down. “It would have destroyed the delicate balance Jason established. I think you’re seeing the real Mavis. We didn’t tone her down at all.”
Cody still loses sleep about whether or not audiences are going to accept Theron’s sour, sometimes off-putting character. “I have been anxious about this for weeks, months,” Cody confesses, somewhat surprisingly. “Because it’s definitely not what people are expecting from me and Jason. On one hand this could be a good thing because I like doing something new and proving people wrong and presenting something unexpected. But on the other hand, if you’re used to seeing a certain kind of Hollywood film with a certain type of pay off, you’re not going to get it here.”
Since Cody is about to start shooting her first feature as a writer/director, next year’s “Lamb of God” (about a devout Christian woman who has a crisis of faith after a plane crash and heads to Las Vegas), she has been getting tips from her frequent collaborator Reitman as she makes her first venture on her own. “The question is – have I begged him? And the answer is yes. I feel like I’m getting a free film school education because I didn’t go. So I just ask him all the time,” Cody said. But it seems like her quizzing Reitman isn’t a lone incident, with a very clear goal in mind.
“It’s funny – I’ve asked everyone I know who directs,” Cody says. They give her something to avoid. “Everybody says there are mistakes you make on your first film that you would never make again. The goal is to figure out what those mistakes are before you make your first film. But I think that’s impossible – I’m going to make them.”
With “Lamb of God” shooting in February, it won’t be long until she puts all those hints and tricks and short-cuts to work. She seemed to be both excited and nervous. “I’m excited. I’ve never done anything like this before,” she says, somewhat warily. “I feel intimidated but at the same time I feel prepared because I’ve been fortunate enough to surround myself with really talented filmmakers in the last few years, and worked on a lot of scripts, and been on a lot of sets, and I just might be equipped to do this. We’ll see.”
And while Diablo Cody may seem to have forged the perfect Hollywood career for herself, expertly mixing big money jobs (like her polish of Sam Raimi‘s upcoming “Evil Dead” remake) with more personal, creatively fulfilling fare, she still has her detractors. A recent Bobcat Goldthwait movie took jabs at her, and from what we understand the character played by Olivia Wilde in the new comedy “Butter” is at least partially based on Cody, something that she had never heard before. “Olivia Wilde? That’s a compliment. I hadn’t heard that. I’m excited to see ‘Butter.’ That’s really interesting,” Cody said, seeming genuinely surprised and excited. As we were leaving she added, “You completely just blew my mind. I think I’m relieved.”
It’ll be Diablo Cody (and Jason Reitman) who will be blowing people’s minds when the devilishly dark “Young Adult” opens in limited release this week and wide on December 16th.