Diablo Cody, lap dancer turned ace screenwriter

January 20, 2008
Diablo Cody

As Diablo Cody is technically on a world tour – this being her umpteenth international hotel of a lengthy promotional assignment – she figures she might as well act like she’s on one. “You wanna trash the room?” she offers, scanning the suite for defenestrable objects. The puny flatscreen telly doesn’t cut the rock’n’roll mustard. “Let’s do a chair,” she suggests, bounding to a leather Chesterfield. In this particular Soho establishment, the window’s handles have been bolted down: something to do with the air conditioning. It is probably a good thing… I’m not entirely sure she is joking.

Cody, a veritable bundle of she-devil, can be forgiven her excitement. “I’ve had to numb myself psychologically just to deal with the dramatic changes in my life,” she says, curling her black-clad frame onto a chaise longue, fixing me with pale blue eyes from beneath an asymmetric bob. “If you had told me, five years ago, I would be working with Steven Spielberg or sitting in London talking to journalists, I would never have believed it… I’m medicating with drink.” Cody has earned various plaudits of late (Hollywood Breakthrough Award, a spot on Entertainment Weekly’s “50 smartest people in Hollywood” list), but recently topped it off with the Critics’ Choice best screenplay prize for her debut effort, Juno, plus Bafta and Golden Globe nominations for her work.

For a rookie screenwriter, this is impressive stuff. Juno is touted as one of the freshest comedies around – “this year’s Little Miss Sunshine”, the pundits say. American audiences seem to agree: it has taken $72m since it opened in early December and has beaten Sideways’s record take for an indie film. Directed by Jason Reitman, it’s the bittersweet story of Juno MacGuff, a sharp-tongued 16-year-old from small-town Minnesota who gets pregnant after a perfunctory sexual initiation. Rather than “procure a hasty abortion”, as she requests, initially (and deadpan), of her local clinic, she opts to have the baby and seeks out an affluent suburban couple as adoptive parents.

“I had a close friend. She got pregnant when we were teenagers,” Cody explains. “There was no adoption subplot in her life, but it was an unusual experience. Because, when a married woman in her thirties gets pregnant, everybody is so overjoyed, it’s very cutesy, duckies and bunnies; but if a teenager gets pregnant, there’s a sort of hush surrounding this whole event.”

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Inevitably, the subject matter has caused the film to be lumped in with two other recent entries in the “unwanted pregnancy sub-genre”, Waitress and Knocked Up (“Foetus madness,” Cody says). But it’s best to bin those references and enjoy the acerbic wit and barbed comments Cody channels through her heroine (named after the Roman goddess of midwifery), a preternaturally sassy pint-size who prefers Gibson guitars to Fenders, loves Dario Argento’s horror films and is pop-culturally literate beyond her tender years.

The actress who plays Juno, Ellen Page, 20, is undoubtedly a talent. “The funny thing is, she’s a decade younger than me, and I’m completely intimidated by her,” Cody remarks, which is really saying something. The reason Cody has been pushed into the spotlight, when screenwriters are generally given a leper’s berth, is that she brings more than a little colour to the caravan. Not too long ago, she was better known as a sex worker – one who detailed the quotidian drudgery of pole dancing, lap dancing and “wet’n’wild nights” in her excellent memoir, Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper.

Back in 2003, Cody (real name Brook Busey-Hunt) was a bored ad-agency secretary who decided, on a whim, to enter amateur night at a dingy Minnesota strip club. She didn’t win, but was sufficiently hooked to explore this netherworld further. “I’m a textbook adrenaline junkie,” she says. “I was at a place in my life where I felt very understimulated. I just figured I would rather do something reckless than spend the rest of my life in this vanilla prison.” Soon, she had given up the day job and, in the guise of Bonbon, Roxanne and Cherish, begun sashaying through the downtown “jack shacks”, learning the tricks of the private bedshow, the peep-show and, later on, the phone-sex artist.

Cody’s observations began as a blog in her (continuing) web diary, The Pussy Ranch, revealing such nuggets as the fact that strippers hate the Eagles, a loathing exceeded only by their distaste for the “white knight”, the type of customer who, in a Richard Gere delusion, thinks he can “save” the fallen woman. (“You’re assuming that you, Mr Jackass, can somehow extract me from an undesirable situation,” she snaps. “What if I want to be here?”) If for nothing else, Cody should be credited with the thoroughly 21st-century concept of “porn shui” – a reference to the aspect of one’s desk at work, good porn shui allowing the occupier to surf the net without being overlooked by colleagues.

Perhaps it’s an insight into what Hollywood producers do when they should be busy, for she was duly tracked down by one. Once he had assured her he wasn’t another eager onanist shuffling through her life, he convinced Cody to try her hand at both a book and a screenplay. Unaware that Diablo was a cyber-pseudonym, he addressed her as such, and the name stuck. It was just a case, then, of revealing all to the folks back home. “It was an interesting phone call to have to make,” she laughs. “To say, on the one hand, ‘I am going to be a published author’; on the other, ‘It’s about stripping, and I did it for a year and I didn’t tell you!’”

Though a keen writer and movie buff, Cody had never attempted a screenplay. “I’ve always been in love with the descriptive quality of the prose. In a film, the camera takes care of that. It seemed it would not be that exciting to do.” Maybe she knew more about it than she realised. “I heard that films are structured around the male orgasm, the way they climax,” she says. “Though, if it were modelled on the male orgasm, it would just immediately cut to black.”

With baggage like Cody’s, it is perhaps understandable that men tread a little warily. “Guys come to a strip club because they want to be massaged, mentally and physically. And I think my touch can be quite prickly.” A college graduate and a Russian-speaker, she was also probably a little smarter than they were expecting. It would be fair to say that, despite her claims (“I’m a liberal feminist,” she insists), the rest of the sisterhood doesn’t know quite what to make of her either, conflicted by her having wilfully participated in a perceived oppressive trade, yet being something of a would-be Wilberforce when it comes to exposing the exploitative practices. “I have radical beliefs about feminism, so sometimes I get defensive – like, ‘Don’t tell me what is or isn’t good for womankind,’” she growls. “I don’t understand why anything involving sex or sexuality is an issue, ever. It’s base human instinct, as natural as it comes.” The embracing of Juno as a pro-life movie (which it certainly isn’t) has muddied the waters further.

The controversy probably has more to do with Cody’s self-description as a “prostitute” (or “happy hooker”, as she tweaks it here, in homage to all those tart-with-a-heart films). Did she have sex for cash? “I engaged in sexual acts for money,” she clarifies. “I never had intercourse for money.” But whether real or simulated, she adds, it’s still about a transaction. “Everybody’s definition is different, yet, when you think about it, it’s exchanging sexuality for money.” What does it say, then, about those actresses (and actors) who pretend to get it on – and for considerably larger sums – on the silver screen?

“If a woman takes her top off and makes out with a guy for a porno, it’s porno. If she does the same thing for Roman Polanski… bad example, ha ha ha… for Paul Verhoeven, it’s completely legit, she’s done a film,” she says. “I don’t understand how me giving a guy a lap dance for 20 bucks is any different from an actress in a film playing a stripper giving another actor a lap dance for $200,000.”

Cody’s future projects have a touch of girl power about them: the Dream-Works/Showtime television series United States of Tara, starring Toni Collette and produced by Steven Spielberg, about a woman with multiple personalities (“Weeds meets Sybil”); and the “Porky’s for girls” teen comedy Girly Style. But she’s most looking forward to the impending horror flick Jennifer’s Body (also with Reitman), about a demonic cheerleader. “Horror is my favourite genre,” she trills. “That’s why Juno is so passionate about that stuff. I’m incredibly psyched.”

Meanwhile, success has dragged Cody into the belly of the beast, Los Angeles. “I didn’t ever think I would wind up immersing myself in Hollywood culture. I was fighting the impulse, and recently I realised I’m ready to step up and become part of the community,” she says. “It’s a scary thing, because it’s so competitive, and I’ve avoided competition my entire life. Now I’m feeling myself becoming ambitious as I approach 30.” She’s enjoying her first time in the UK, too. We have that same juvenile attitude towards sex that the Americans do, she notes, far more entertaining than those sophisticated Europeans. “I like being somewhere where there’s a sort of forbidden aspect. It gives us something to snigger at.” And she’s looking forward to checking out Soho’s seedier side. “I’m curious. I heard a lap dance is £50, which is, like, a lot of money.”

Juno opens on February 8


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