My Super Sweet 16
Leading up to the Oscars on Feb. 24, we will be highlighting the nominated films that have appeared in the magazine or on the Website in the last year. Lisa Y. Garibay interviewed Juno director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody for the Fall ’07 issue. Juno is nominated for Best Picture, Best Directing (Jason Reitman), Best Lead Actress (Ellen Page) and Best Original Screenplay (Diablo Cody).
The pairing of writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman was one of complete chance, like one of those cop-buddy movies where the grizzled vet is set up with a renegade newbie and against all odds the two wind up catching the bad guy with everybody rooting for them in the end. Although Juno is only Reitman’s second feature, he was born into the film business; as the son of Ivan Reitman, he’s been involved in the making of movies all his life. Reitman’s award-winning short films played the likes of Sundance, Seattle and the Los Angeles Film Festival; his feature debut Thank You for Smoking was lauded by the National Board of Review and Independent Spirit Awards.
Cody, on the other hand, arrived on the film scene out of seeming obscurity with a ready-made notoriety. Her blog Pussy Ranch, which detailed Cody’s exploits as a stripper and phone sex operator, attracted the attention of a bored ’net surfer who turned out to be manager Mason Novick. In 2004, Novick got Cody a book deal for her memoir Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper. On the heels of the book’s success, Novick suggested that Cody try to write a screenplay just to see what would happen. Cody (whose real name is Brook Busey-Hunt) hit a home run with her first shot at bat: Juno became the hot script around town and was first handed to Brad Siberling before ending in Reitman’s lap.
Reitman gathered a stellar cast that included Hard Candy’s Ellen Page as the pregnant teen who steals your heart and is as much a cheerleader to her family, friends and audience as they are for her throughout her trials and tribulations. Supporting Page are Allison Janney, J.K. Simmons, Michael Cera, Olivia Thirlby, Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner; together, they form a circle of love and laughs that has enveloped cheering crowds at Telluride and Toronto. In the midst of year-end awards hopefuls, Juno has come up from its unlikely roots to prove itself a strong contender.
None of Juno’s successes is as coincidental or far-fetched as it may appear. Reitman champions Cody as a born storyteller; he was so taken by her work that he put aside a script of his own in order to go after the chance to direct Juno. For her part, Cody took advantage of her perspective outside the industry to think about the kind of people she’d like to see on the big screen and came up with a story that reflected the complexities, strengths and smarts she wasn’t witnessing in women’s roles these days. Here, Reitman and Cody — who are still as much a team in the film’s promotional process as they were during its production — talk about how much Juno meant to them and how they worked to make sure viewers would appreciate the potential they believe it always had. Fox Searchlight opens the film in mid-December.
Filmmaker: What are the most common reactions you’re getting from viewers or the media about Juno?
Cody: I’ve been repeatedly asked — and I do think this is a good question, it’s just difficult for me to answer every time — the sort of all-purpose “Where did the character of Juno come from?” Which is difficult because when you’re a writer, you just pull characters out of the ether that are mutant babies from your brain. So it’s hard to describe that process; every time, I feel like I’ve done it inadequately so I dread that question.
Filmmaker: That would not be a question that I’d ask because one of the reasons I liked the film so much was because Juno reminded me of myself and all my friends when we were adolescents. She was so familiar to me.
Cody: Great! Bless you — I think that’s so cool!
Filmmaker: Was the experience of making Juno anything remotely close to what you imagined making a movie was like?
Cody: I could never have imagined it would be this wonderful! I have enjoyed every single moment of it. There does not seem to be a downside to the process of making and promoting this movie. It’s just been awesome. Obviously I’m kind of green, so all of this is new to me, but this strikes me as great.
Filmmaker: Do you feel — and Jason, you could probably speak to this — that people were protecting you by going the extra mile to make it a good experience for you because you were so green, as you say?
Cody: I guess I would agree with that except I have a lot of friends who have also been first-time screenwriters and they have not been protected in the least. So maybe in this situation I have just been incredibly lucky.
Reitman: I’ve always felt very protective of Diablo, but as far as the experience on this film, the reason that I always wanted her on set was very selfish. I constantly wanted her input on Juno’s life and how she spoke and what she’d wear. On Thank You for Smoking, I thought I had a pretty good insight into who Nick Naylor was and I felt like I understood his voice. In a pinch, I could write something on set. On [Juno], I would never pretend like I could do that; it was always very valuable to be able to turn to Diablo and also Ellen, who understood what this character was going through.
Cody: How cool is that? You don’t hear that from a lot of directors!
Filmmaker: Jason, your script for Thank You for Smoking got a lot of positive attention and racked up a few awards. You obviously know what you’re doing, so based on your experience and judgment, what was it that Diablo did with the script for Juno that was absolutely right and made it a strong, shootable script?
Reitman: What excites me about a screenplay is [when it] takes on a tricky subject matter, has a very original point of view and basically makes original decisions throughout. I was actually writing another screenplay myself that I was going to direct when I was given Juno. I read it and I fell in love with it because it did exactly that. It took something like teenage pregnancy, which is a tricky topic that can easily get political, yet this movie doesn’t get political at all. It’s filled with human experience and human decision and original choices from top to bottom. It was one of those things where I started reading it and just a few pages in I thought, “Wow, this girl can really write!” Then, by the end of the first act I thought, “Wow, this is a really good screenplay!” and by the end of the screenplay I was thinking if I don’t get the opportunity to direct this I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.
Filmmaker: Diablo, how did you go about prepping yourself to write a screenplay given the fact that you had never done it before?
Cody: It was a modicum of preparation to say the least. I think I went into it as an experiment; I didn’t really have a whole lot invested in it. It was more something I just wanted to try. I had no idea throughout the process that this would ever wind up being a produced screenplay or that this would ever be cast with these amazing actors. There was absolutely no pressure on me because I was just sitting in Minnesota writing for my own edification. So I think that was freeing in a lot of ways.
I’ve written a couple of features since then and Juno was definitely the easiest even though it was the first because there wasn’t that sense of… I guess ignorance is bliss is the best way of putting it. [laughs] The only thing I did was I went to Barnes & Noble and bought the shooting script for a couple of movies that I liked so I could see how they looked on the page and that gave me a little structural guidance. But that was all I did.
Filmmaker: Did you do any work with your manager on the script before it was circulated to get it shipshape? One of those cardinal rules you hear in screenwriting classes or read about in screenwriting books is that your script should be absolutely flawless because you’re competing with thousands of others out there and if you have the wrong act structure or bad punctuation or any distraction in that regard, then you’ll get discarded immediately.
Cody: So I’ve heard! Which is so funny to me because when we sent that screenplay out, it was riddled with typos and formatting errors because I had no idea what I was doing. [laughs] My manager, I think, was so stunned that I had turned out something vaguely coherent that he just said, “Let’s throw it out there and see if anybody likes it.” We really didn’t obsess; I think it was just a case of expectations being so low that there was not a lot of polishing and spit-shining going on.
Reitman: I think the literary world and the screenplay world are very different when it comes to grammar, per se. Thank You for Smoking had grammar mistakes all over it.
Cody: You’d be surprised, though, Jason. After Juno I was hired to work on this pilot and I made the smallest, the most benign formatting error — like parenthesis were like a tick to the left — and the show runner called me and was like, “This is not acceptable! You cannot work if you are doing this sort of thing!” I was like, “I think I did that a hundred times in Juno, lady, so back off! I really don’t think the spacing in this particular case is very important to the story.” [laughs] I’m into great grammar, don’t get me wrong — I don’t want people to scrawl shit in a napkin in crayon, but tone down.
Filmmaker: Jason, did encountering somebody from outside the industry as you did with Diablo help give you perspective on not just this project but also your approach to filmmaking?
Reitman: To be perfectly honest, I never really thought of it that way. I grew up in the business and Diablo grew up outside of the business. In terms of perspective, when I was working with Diablo on Juno, all I felt was that I was working with a great storyteller and whether she’s industry-savvy or not really didn’t factor into anything. That was never part of our conversations, really; they were about how we can translate the story into the screen and how I saw things and how she saw things. Whether she had shown up in Hollywood the previous day or 20 years prior, I don’t think I would have noticed.
Filmmaker: Was there anything that you pioneered or learned about your own style of filmmaking in Juno? New things that you tried or things that you never thought you would do because it was such a different script? And how did you make decisions about what the visuals were going to be to complement such great dialogue?
Reitman: I think Juno’s a much more sophisticated film than Thank You for Smoking. As for my directing, I’m much more proud of it; the style’s more complicated, it’s more real, it’s more honest and the screenplay definitely offered the opportunity to do that.
On Thank You for Smoking, I was trying to be a little more cute. I was definitely doing more portraiture photography; it was a satire, so it lived in a heightened reality. Whereas for Juno, I was just constantly asking myself, “Is this real?” and “Is my camerawork getting in the way of telling the story? Is anything I’m doing as a director drawing attention to the fact that you’re watching a movie?” Because I didn’t want that — I wanted the story to speak for itself.
Filmmaker: Diablo, talk about how Jason involved you in the production and about tweaking the script during shooting.
Cody: That was actually a really fun process for me. Obviously, it was really righteous being on set; that was supercool. There were a few instances in which Jason needed something and, as a writer, that’s the most stimulating, fun exercise — being able to sort of write on the spot and create something right there. So having had the opportunity to do that a few times was really cool.
Filmmaker As a writer, those requests for changes never bugged you? You weren’t concerned with having your own vision of the story changed?
Cody: Oh, no! You don’t understand how much I trust Jason. He could’ve asked me to put in like a random competitive-eating scene and I would’ve done it. I’m not really precious about my writing.
Filmmaker: Did you guys go out to specific people that you had in mind for the cast?
Reitman: I did something a little different on this. I had a few people in mind right from the start, and I didn’t want to do a traditional audition process; I didn’t want to be going out to people and waiting. So right off the top, I took Ellen Page, Michael Cera, J.K. Simmons and Olivia Thirlby and I went over to a stage at Panavision and we shot something like 45 pages of the movie in one day, shooting scenes on 35mm with a black background. Then I edited the whole thing together and I presented it to Fox and said, “This is how I want to start the cast — these four actors.” It was really nice because instead of watching an audition, which doesn’t really say much, they were watching scenes that if you watch them, there was no way that you could think that these people were wrong for the film. So that became the initial cast and we went from there.
Filmmaker: Why do you think more filmmakers don’t get their projects started this way — put something like this together?
Reitman: I don’t know…this is how they used to do it! I mean, this is what they did in the ’40s — it’s a screen test! Nowadays, it’s two things: one thing is that many actors won’t come in for something like that, but on top of that I think the audition process opens, from a studio point of view… I don’t want to say that. I don’t want to talk bad because Fox is so supportive of me, I don’t think they would have ever pushed me in a direction I wouldn’t want to go. So it would’ve been wrong for me to say that.
But I think that’s just what the process has become, especially now with video — you just set up a video camera in a room and it’s a simple way to do it. I direct commercials and that’s how we do casting on the commercials. But this is a movie that’s all about relationships and the idea of auditioning people outside of each other, one-on-one with the casting director, didn’t make sense. I needed to see how Juno and her father were going to interact and how she and her best friend would interact and how her and the guy who got her pregnant would interact. So seeing them do the scenes was really important.
Filmmaker: Diablo, some writers entertain the notion of becoming a screenwriter and breaking into the business, but some are okay with never going in that direction. Since it was such an unexpected direction for you, would you be fine if you never made another movie again?
Cody: No, I absolutely would not be fine. I’m a complete junkie at this point. I’m like gearing up for my next fix! [laughs]
Reitman: Diablo and I had this conversation at one of the film festivals: We want to go to every screening because it’s such a rush to sit there and watch the audience laugh at the movie and be moved. Once the film festivals end, it’s like, “God, I need to go make another movie!”
Cody: I’ve been writing a lot since Telluride and Toronto and I feel like it’s motivated by the desire to do this again and again. I mean, I love writing in general, don’t get me wrong. It’s just when you write something and it becomes a film that people treasure — and I hope some people do — then the situation becomes epic. But I’m happy writing in any form.
Filmmaker: Jason, you talked about how Juno was a step up from Thank You for Smoking in certain ways. How has it changed you as a filmmaker?
Reitman: I’m very proud of Thank You for Smoking; it’s my first film, but this movie seems to move people in a way that Thank You for Smoking never had the opportunity to. It’s exciting to watch Juno and see myself growing as a storyteller and a filmmaker. Your hope always is that you haven’t reached the limit of your abilities and that you keep on improving yourself.