Diablo Cody knows what’s good for her. Like many of her on-screen creations, the screenwriter has pushed herself through many of iterations – from “feminist stripper” to journalist, memoirist to Oscar-winning screenwriter, all the way up to director – and emerged from a whirlwind decade in Hollywood with a strong sense of who she is, what she wants, and what she doesn’t want — which now includes directing movies. After Cody stepped behind the camera for her first feature in 2013, the Julianne Hough-starring “Paradise,” she stopped pursing other directing gigs, and five years later, that hasn’t changed.
Asked in an interview if she’d ever direct again, she didn’t mince words. “No, never. I’m retired,” she said. “I’m done directing.”
Cody’s reasons for staying away from directing will likely ring true to many – especially the kind of people who will spark to her latest film, “Tully,” her third screenplay for director Jason Reitman – but they also spring from a place of hard-won pragmatism. “I can only talk to a certain amount of people per day, it’s like I have a limit,” she said. “When you’re directing, you’re just bombarded with questions and you live the film for the duration of production, and I can’t live the film. I have to eat, drink, hang out with my kids. I’m not that focused of a person. So it’s a very specific personality type that makes a good director. And I ain’t it.” (Plus, she hates reading reviews and hasn’t done that for “at least 10 years.”)
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Instead, Cody has chosen to keep working on the kind of stuff that feeds her and jives with her personality: movies like “Tully,” which offers up an honest, underrepresented look at the realities of being a parent (with trademark Cody humor to spare). The film stars Charlize Theron as struggling mom Marlo, who’s pushed to her breaking point with the arrival of her third child. A generous gift from her brother (indie stalwart Mark Duplass) changes things, as he offers to foot the bill for a night nurse who can get Marlo and her family acclimated to her new normal. That’s the eponymous Tully, played by Mackenzie Davis, who whips Marlo and her fam back into shape, thanks to her endless empathy.
“What I really wanted to do and what I want to do in everything that I write is to tell stories that feel untold to me,” Cody said. “It seemed like I had not really seen that many really truthful dark depictions of the emotional changes that a person goes through when they become a parent.”
The film is a natural continuation of the offbeat universe that she and Reitman first crafted with 2007 breakout hit “Juno” and kept mining with 2012’s “Young Adult” (which also starred Theron). All of the films are focused on women at a crossroads (pregnancy, fertility issues, arrested development), expectations to conform to some kind of social construct and failing miserably at it. While other Hollywood movies would use that framework to build out feel-good stories about redemption and rising above it all, Cody and Reitman opted early on to jettison those sorts of constraints. Their movies are funny, weird, and very honest.
They also hinge on the creation of complex female characters who reach beyond the tired trope of the “strong female character,” instead emerging as something more realistic. Those stories are always the ones that have compelled Cody, and it finally seems as if the industry is catching up.
“I’ve noticed on my end of things, in terms of pitching projects and selling scripts, that people are a lot more open to depictions of complicated women than they were when I started out in the industry,” she said. “I think, weirdly, TV has something to do with that because there have been so many interesting and complicated and difficult female characters on TV in the last decade that I think maybe the powers that be have realized that people aren’t as afraid of that as they used to be.”
There’s plenty of scary stuff in “Tully,” though – at the film’s “secret” Sundance premiere, its depiction of the struggles of motherhood were so intense that a male colleague, relatively new to the parenting game and suddenly guilt-stricken, leaned over and whispered, “I feel like such an asshole, I need to go call my wife” – and Cody’s script excels at throwing the real stuff right up on the big screen. That came from experience.
“I love being a mom, but I found after I had my third child that I hit a wall and I was really exhausted and I was able to use this movie to kind of cut a door in the wall, so to speak,” she said. “It was like writing it was my therapy, and I was able to get my own emotions out on the page. I was able to use Tully as a form of relief, oddly, much like the character in the movie.”
In the film, the introduction of the self-assured Tully upends Marlo’s entire life. Tully’s zen-like approach to self-care unlocks repressed emotions in Theron’s character. Cody had the same kind of experience while writing the screenplay.
“I was communing with myself and I was coming to certain realizations at the same time that Marlo was,” she said. “When Tully sort of gives Marlo that speech about how her life is supposed to be boring and that being boring means you’re doing it right, that was something that I needed to hear and I don’t know where it came from. It felt like it came from some mysterious source.”
“Tully” itself has some mystery to it, though Cody is reticent to call what happens in the final act a twist – “I’m not M. Night Shyamalan,” she said with a laugh – and she hopes audiences will be able to see the film without being spoiled first.
“It’s tricky, especially in this day and age where there’s this endless 24/7 dialogue on the Internet,” Cody said. “I want people to talk about the movie, obviously. The more secretive you are about it, the more of a thing it becomes. I don’t want this to be like when I was in high school and ‘The Crying Game’ came out. That was like, ‘Have you seen “The Crying Game”? Do you know what happens?'”
So, yes, it is a twist, and it’s a testament to Cody’s skills that it works as well as it does (though it does seem designed to get audiences talking about it the second they leave the theater). “It came to me as a whole,” Cody said. “That’s maybe not the most articulate way of putting it. I don’t like the word ‘twist,’ so I don’t know what to say. The ‘third act turn,’ we’ll call it, to me that is the emotional center of the story. There is no story without it. If anything, it was the first component of the story that came to me.”
While Cody’s body of work is most commonly associated with her Reitman team-ups and her now-defunct Showtime series “United States of Tara,” she’s got plenty more under her belt. She wrote the Meryl Streep-starring “Ricki and the Flash” for Jonathan Demme and the wild Karyn Kusama high school horror comedy “Jennifer’s Body.” She even tried to get a talk show off the ground back in 2013. She was often reported as being attached to high profile projects. That doesn’t happen as much now.
“My name doesn’t get thrown around that much these days because I’m not super fancy anymore, but, yeah, occasionally those weird rumors come up,” she said. A persistent one: that she wrote the script for the upcoming “Barbie” film supposedly starring Anne Hathaway. Not true.
“I never even handed in a script,” she said. “I was hired to write it, and I failed. I’ve never failed harder at anything. It was the first time in my life I’ve ever had classical writer’s block where I couldn’t get a fucking word on the page. Usually, I can produce something to fulfill my obligations.”
That doesn’t mean that Cody isn’t still enthused about the idea of the film, but just like directing, it’s just not for her. “The reason I took the job is because I think the idea of a Barbie in 2018 is fucking cool,” Cody said. “I want to see the Barbie movie. I hope they make it.”
It’s not the only project that she can’t seem to shake, and when asked about other buzzy rumors that still crop up, Cody went on a tear. “You know what’s funny? Okay, so there’s a movie like ‘Burlesque’ that came out a long time ago and I was one of 900 writers that worked on it, and people will still ask me about my involvement in ‘Burlesque,'” she said. “I’m like, ‘That was a week of my life.'”
And that’s not all. “When I worked on ‘Evil Dead,’ that was a very short time and I remember it being presented as like, ‘Diablo Cody’s vision of Evil Dead,'” she said with a laugh. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, God, help us, no.’ I’m doing a [script] polish, you know?” (Cody contributed a draft and a later polish draft to the 2013 Fede Alvarez-directed remake, which wasn’t enough to get a credit on the film.)
One rumor that she’s not ready to put to bed: that she’s making a musical “Sweet Valley High” feature, based on the best-selling YA novels from Francine Pascal. It’s stalled for now, but she’s been working on it for almost a decade. “That’s like my dream,” she said.
It’s another kind of untold story about complex women – twins! – that Cody is eager to tell, this one just might happen. Meanwhile, she’s currently working on the Alanis Morissette stage musical “Jagged Little Pill” alongside composer Tom Kitt, who wrote a number of songs for Cody’s unmade “Sweet Valley High” film. Cody says the pair have been talking about it lately and she hopes it will one day see the light of day.
“The songs sound fucking solid and the movie was going to be great,” she said. “Stuff just falls apart.”
Focus Features will open “Tully” in select theaters on May 4.