Screenwriting Rolemodels: Diablo Cody
April 16, 2020
No one saw her coming.
The young, suburban Chicago-born woman-turned-stripper, blogger, journalist, author, screenwriter and mother of three (in that order) — in two words, Diablo Cody — has always been a force to be reckoned with.
Her enchanting Hollywood overnight success story sprouts from her box office charmer Juno. The first script penned by Cody captured the lives of outcast, sexually active teens taking on the responsibility of young adulthood plus accidental parenthood. It was so well received Cody nabbed her first Oscar® nomination and win (lest we forget her BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplay, Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay, and Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Screenplay).
But as the true hustlers of Hollywood know, there is no such thing as overnight success. Cody’s career as a creative writer started loosely in college.
She was a true talent, but not necessarily a promising one. As she recalled in her interview with Wired, “One of my teachers told me that I was lazy. He said, ‘I think you're the best writer I've ever taught. But I'll never hear from you again because you have no ambition.’” But Cody’s goal was never to turn her talent into a career.
“I never intended to get my writing out there,” she said.
In spite of that, Cody was able to show herself to the world; organically, unapologetically and in her own style.
Her path was a rousing one; Cody was stripping full-time after moving from Chicago to Minneapolis when talent manager Mason Novick discovered her 2003 adult blog The Pussy Ranch. It detailed her adventures as a twin city stripper. Novick was drawn to her wit and sarcasm, but most distinctly her fresh and innovative voice as a writer.
The Pussy Ranch is also where Cody’s pseudonym was born.
Cody, born Brook Busey, was on a road trip through Cody, Wyoming while listening to El Diablo by Arcadia.
“I think when we get back home,” she told her then-husband, Jonny, “I need to invent a new persona. So from now on I am Diablo Cody.”
Due to the popularity of Pussy Ranch, Novick was able to secure Cody a publishing deal. She penned her 2005 memoir Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper. To keep the train running, Novick suggested Cody try her hand at screenwriting. Cue Juno.
When Cody first hit the scene, she was a breath of fresh, honest, alt air. She offered something unique, even if she still had a little bit of the imposter complex that plagues most screenwriters. Recalling Juno in an interview with Vanity Fair she said, “The weird stylized dialogue was like the Trojan horse that I used to get that script read.”
She was the antidote in many ways; a female writer’s perspective to male-penned hits like Superbad and Knocked Up.
With Novick by her side, Cody went from part-time blogger to full-time Hollywood star. Dipping her toes into television, she created United States of Tara for Showtime. Cody penned her next feature film Jennifer’s Body, which was released in 2009 and flopped with critics. Recently, the film has transformed into a horror cult classic.
In 2011 Cody teamed up again with Juno director Jason Reitman for a true coming-of-age tale; Young Adult starring Charlize Theron. Audiences were thrilled to visit the ugly, suburban universe Cody created for her flawed, struggling characters. Cody, Reitman and Theron worked together again in 2018 for Tully, which surfs that same wave of brutal reality. Both films perfectly display what happens when you marry pretty with ugly: You get real.
Cody went on to write the playbook for Jagged Little Pill, an angsty take on the music of Alanis Morissette in the form of a Broadway musical.
But that’s enough of a book report on Diablo Cody. Let’s talk about her writing.
Her story may have made her a darling of Hollywood, but it always comes down to what’s on the page. To that end, the best way to learn about a screenwriter is to study what script they broke with; to pinpoint what allowed them to break through that glass ceiling and make their way onto the scene.
For Cody, that’s easy: Juno (you can read the script here). This is how that infamous spec begins:
EXT. CENTENNIAL LANE - DUSK
JUNO MacGUFF stands on a placid street in a nondescript subdivision, facing the curb. It's FALL. Juno is sixteen years old, an artfully bedraggled burnout kid. She wincesand shields her eyes from the glare of the sun. The object of her rapt attention is a battered living room set, abandoned curbside by its former owners. There is a fetid-looking leather recliner, a chrome-edged coffee table, and a tasteless latchhooked rug featuring a roaring tiger.
It started with a chair.
Okay, let's look at that. Right from the beginning we know who our protagonist is. The writing is filled with word choices meant to conjure images and tastes and textures. Cody is of the modern screenwriting school of thought that screenplays should be part script, part prose; gone are the cut-and-dry, no-nonsense action lines of screenplays of yore.
Here, she chooses words like “placid,” “artfully bedraggled,” “fetid-looking,” “tasteless.” Those are feeling, tasting and touching words. This may seem obvious, but first lines are the most critical of your script. Busy producers, actors and contest readers have so many scripts to go through in a day, and your word choices tell them more about the read they are in for than even what is on the page. We’re writers and word choice matters. Cody makes hers count.
But let’s leave Juno behind and go further back to look at her debut memoir, Candy Girl (you can get it here and honestly, I like it better than Juno; the book is a whirlwind of filthy and funny).
Here are a few quotes from that book, just to get a sense of her tone and style:
On growing up in the Midwest: “…choking on normalcy, decency and Jiff sandwiches with the crusts amputated.”
On vodka and Red Bull: “Upper meets downer in an effervescent hybrid of bubble gum and junkie piss.”
On love: “Love is mysterious and rad, like Steve Perry from Journey.”
On being a geek/stripper: “Above the stage was a glass-floored second stage, which allowed customers to look up and watch another girl dancing overhead. This multidimensional display of poontang reminded me of the 3-D chessboard on Star Trek, which in turn reminded me that I was a huge nerd.”
Cody is a masterclass in the one-two punch; the familiar next to the absurd, the filthy beside the family-friendly. She creates juxtaposition by combining items and images that come from opposite ends of the spectrum. It may seem common these days, but in the early 2000s this was fresh, edgy and fun. Actually, it still is if you can do it well.
The true takeaway here isn’t to mimic Cody or to criticize her; there’s too much of both in modern writing. The real takeaway is to recognize two key points: Diablo Cody drew from her own experience and her own life (warts and all) and by channeling it, she discovered her voice.
Then, instead of trying to mimic what screenwriters and bloggers of the day were doing, she told stories the way she saw them in her mind.
This is the heart of what makes her special, what makes her the screenwriting superstar she is: Diablo Cody has a voice. And that’s the only thing a screenwriter really can ever have of their own. Let’s be clear: Hollywood has a million screenwriters they can hire to rewrite, polish and re-imagine what other writers do.
But what Hollywood pays for, what they thirst for, what they need is a fresh voice; it’s the only thing you’re really selling within your script. Screenwriters are a dime a dozen, but a unique voice that is devilishly one of a kind, that they can’t get anywhere else, well the world will move heaven and hell to get that.
Find your voice, find your career.
Written by: Dennis FallonDennis Fallon is an award-winning journalist and screenwriter. When not ghostwriting feature films in Los Angeles and Europe, he is a member of MENSA, an ordained minister and a rock musician who has composed music for over two hundred episodes of television.