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Surprises, Oscar Clout & The “Magical Negro” Trope: Diablo Cody, Octavia Spencer & Julianne Hough Talk ‘Paradise’

Surprises, Oscar Clout & The "Magical Negro" Trope: Diablo Cody, Octavia Spencer & Julianne Hough Talk 'Paradise'

For such a notable first-time event from one of our favorite screenwriters, Diablo Cody‘s directorial debut “Paradise” certainly stuck a soft landing. First popping up under the title “Lamb of God” with an odd blend of cast members—Russell Brand, Octavia Spencer, and Julianne Hough—it then promptly disappeared before Cody announced on Twitter its DirecTV world premiere with the changed title. Following a young Christian woman (Hough) in Montana as she loses her faith after a horrific burn accident and travels to Las Vegas to transgress, the film is in fact one of Cody’s sweeter efforts, away from the bitter laughs of “Young Adult” or the horror comedy of “Jennifer’s Body.”

However, we found its more lighthearted tone to be one of the film’s many flaws, calling it “an insipid confection of cloying hopefulness, bubblegum teen spirit and self-reflexive clever quips” in our review, but during a recent Los Angeles press conference, Cody joined Hough and Spencer as she described the surprising tone of the film.

“I think people might hear the logline and think this is going to be a movie that’s anti-religion or anti-spirituality, where [Hough’s character, Lamb] abandons her church and goes and has fun for the first time in her life,” she said. “If you see the movie you know that’s not what it’s about. I’m actually a very spiritual person, and I think that sometimes you have to find your own spirituality above the din of human voices. And that’s what this is about–her finding her own moral compass outside of the more conservative structure of the church.”

Hough, an expressive actress and dancer who’s starred in “Safe Haven” and the “Footloose” remake, found the role of Lamb a major change in terms of conveying the burns inflicted upon her character’s body, saying that “all of that energy that I usually use had to be completely contained” in the film. Wrapped from the torso down in compression bandages while filming, also prepared beforehand by speaking to burn survivors and hearing their stories; these then contributed to the crucial scenes where her injuries are shown—disturbing moments that Cody wanted to push further.

“Honestly if I had had my druthers they would be [more substantial]. But let me put it this way: there are a lot of people who are more interested in making a commercial film, and I think it’s hard to put a picture of a girl on a poster if she’s disfigured,” she pointed out. “Up until the color correction process [her injuries] were always a discussion and sometimes an argument, because I wanted to take it as far as I could.”

While writing the script, Cody had to do a great deal of research because, she says, she was” not only talking about burn survivors—which is something that I knew nothing about prior to production—but I was also very interested in Vegas. The culture of Nevada in general is very conservative, and it’s more like Utah than we think Las Vegas to be. But when you get into the inner city of Vegas, Paradise, that’s where you find your colorful characters and people who are down on their luck. People who are doing things they maybe never imagined themselves doing, so there’s an interesting dichotomy happening there for sure.”

For Spencer, the chance to play a curmudgeonly character that’s “definitely different to what people know me as” was enticing, along with the opportunity to say Cody’s words. She explained that writer/directors are her “bread and butter”, because “half of my research is just sitting down and having a conversation with them, because they know what their intentions are. There’s not a mediator as far as the director that you have to go through. They’re the writer, and it’s their vision that you’re seeing.”

One of the sticking points in our review of the film was the notion of Spencer’s character, Loray, subverting the trope of the “Magical Negro”—a supporting black presence there simply to aid the white lead to her goals. When asked what makes her character different that the trope, Spencer responded, “I think the Magical Negro doesn’t grow. The Magical Negro throws down the seeds and the world just comes together, but Loray goes on a journey too and she grows. She’s more of a shield for Lamb, but Lamb makes her get back to her foundation, I think. So that’s the beauty of this story—everybody grows.”

Cody added with a smile, “Just the fact that she says I’m not your Magical Negro disqualifies her from that position, because usually they’re really happy about it.”

Taking the writer/director credit on the film was difficult for Cody to embrace, even though she’s logged many set hours on her partnerships with Jason Reitman and on “United States of Tara”. “I really enjoy collaborating with other directors and I hope to continue doing that. For me it was a series of why not questions: ‘Why haven’t I done this yet?’ A lot of people in my life have in encouraged me to try and I really felt at this point was just garden-variety fear, and that’s not a good reason to avoid something.”

Since she had never directed “a commercial, a video, a short, Funny or Die, nothing”—Cody admitted she took on the writerly assumption that “you’re going to be able to translate everything from the page directly into the film”. However, she quickly found out the budget, time, and lighting constraints inherent to the job, adding her biggest surprise was “that you have to make compromises all the time even when you’re the director—unless you have that $200 million budget. And I imagine there are compromises there too.”

Certainly one of the reasons for Cody gathering the budget to bring “Paradise” to the screen is her Oscar recognition from winning Best Original Screenplay for 2007’s “Juno.” She’s shared in Oscar clout with Spencer—more recently a winner for her role in “The Help”—but the two women say that while doors have definitely been opened for them, they’ve made the decision to keep their lives the same. [My life] has to be small, because I can’t have it too big,” Spencer said. “But my career—I get to work with the best of the best and I get to have an opinion about the things I want to do. And let me tell you, that is great to have your voice heard.”

She added, “I think what we do is an art, and it’s great to enter into a project and know that it will either enlighten, educate, or be a form of escapism. Right now I’m more attracted to parts like this that will enlighten, but also be a form of escapism. I don’t feel responsible for shaping the consciousness of society. I think that’s our job as functioning human beings to do that. [‘The Help‘] spoke to women that came before me who were invisible who shaped the people who run this country. It’s like that little hush-hush thing that we don’t talk about. Well, why don’t we embrace it? There’s nothing wrong in honorable work, whether it’s a maid or a sanitation worker. I don’t want be the moral compass for anyone, because I think that’s your own personal journey.”

Cody said that she regards her award as “souvenirs from a fun year”, adding, “You can’t fixate on them. I always say it’s kind of like class president—you win that year and then you get over it. You can’t around college telling everyone you were high school class president, because you’re not going to be very popular. So you savor the memory and move forward.”

“Paradise” is available now on VOD and iTunes and in theaters Oct 18th.

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