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Diablo Cody: ‘It was a bit chilling. Suddenly grown men are following you home’

Lisa Frankenstein, the Oscar winner’s new film, is a defiantly silly hoot. But it also touches on a ‘very specific danger’ that girls first feel as teenagers

Diablo Cody is that rare thing: a celebrity screenwriter. There are a few who manage that without – or before – establishing themselves as directors. Aaron Sorkin springs to mind. But when, 16 years ago, she strode up the red carpet in leopard skin print to accept her Oscar for Jason Reitman’s Juno, Cody established a persona that endures. Irreverent. Witty. Sharp.

Look where we are today. She is the one promoting this weekend’s sparky Lisa Frankenstein. The high-school horror comedy – a cousin of Jennifer’s Body, her 2009 romp – is directed by Zelda Williams (daughter of the late Robin). It stars the up-and-comer Kathryn Newton. But Cody is the person we wanted.

“Me? It’s crazy,” she says, laughing. “When they told me I was going to be helping promote this movie I said, ‘Really?’ It’s still surprising to me that I have any influence, to be perfectly honest with you. I am 45 years old. I do actually spend a lot of time alone in dark rooms, just doing my job. So having even minimal celebrity as a screenwriter is a rare thing. I’m grateful for it.”

That is (well, duh!) mostly to do with the writing. In Juno, her first produced screenplay, she demonstrated a gift for tart aphorisms that get at unspoken truths. But it was also to do with her zesty personality. And her background. A graduate of the University of Iowa, Cody was among the first of the screenwriting generation to come up via the internet. When writing conversational blogs such as Darling Girl and Pussy Ranch, she had no notion she was on the road to Hollywood.


“That never would have occurred to me,” she says. “That wasn’t a realistic career path for me. I had a blog at the time. And I got an email one day from Mason Novick, who is still my manager to this day, 20 years later, and he said: ‘I work in Hollywood. I think you have a voice for screenwriting, and you should try it.’ And I blew him off at first, because I just assumed it was a scam.”

The script was Juno. Elliot Page’s performance as the sassy pregnant teen earned them an Oscar nomination. Cody actually won, and her speech was a highlight of the 2008 ceremony. By then one aspect of her biography was making the subheading in every interview. She had done all sorts of mundane jobs to get by, but her brief spell as a stripper – something she blogged about – was catnip to journalists.

Look at me. I’m bringing it up again.

“I guess it was my calling card at the time, so I can’t really get annoyed with it,” she says with no apparent bitterness. “It is kind of funny that it still comes up. I don’t know how amusing it is to my kids,” she says, laughing. “I always tell them, ‘The things you do before you have children don’t count. You guys didn’t even exist. I wasn’t aware I could humiliate you in advance.’ But I don’t feel ashamed of that. So I don’t really have an issue with people bringing it up.”

She rolls her eyes at the absurdity of it all.

“I don’t know if it’s still there. But for a long time it was in the first line of my Wikipedia page. ‘Diablo Cody is a former exotic dancer.’ I’ve won an Oscar and a Tony.”

It’s as if she worked in a bar for a summer and that defined her forever more.

“I always joke about that. Shania Twain worked at McDonald’s when she was young. It’s as if you referred to Shania Twain as a former McDonald’s employee who became a country star.”

Such immediate success creates its own anxieties. Nobody wants to live life as the stick that came down after the rocket went up. Happily, Cody has been steadily in work ever since. The partnership with Reitman proved particularly fecund. Charlize Theron looks to be a Cody avatar in that director’s Young Adult (2011), an underrated gem about a writer returning home, and his Tully (2018), detailing a woman’s debilitating stress after giving birth. The films are not exactly autobiographical, but I do sense Cody working through her own traumas on the big screen.

“So much, and I want that to continue,” she says. “I keep threatening him with the menopause script. Yeah, it will happen. But our business has changed so much. I sent Jason this script recently and said, ‘We should we should do this.’ He read it and loved it. But he said, ‘I think you need a female director for this.’ He was right. Knowing the changes that have been made in our business, I think he might have said that about Tully.”

Like all screenwriters, Cody sees projects come and go. You write something great and then it doesn’t get before cameras. The most conspicuous unmade Cody project is her screenplay for an authorised Madonna biopic. That seemed all ready to go, with Julia Garner in the lead. Then suddenly it had vanished again.

“I don’t know the full story,” Cody says. “As far as I know it’s suspended at the moment. All I know is I want to see that movie. Madonna has had such a fascinating life. She’s an incredible person. I still can’t quite process the fact that I got to spend a summer working with her – during a global pandemic. That feels like the strangest dream I’ve ever had. Ha ha! I hope they can still make that movie.”

We need to talk about Jennifer’s Body. Starring Megan Fox, then fresh off the first Transformers movie, as a possessed school student who consumes the flesh of her classmates, Karyn Kusama’s film arrived to so-so reviews and poor box office. But there were dissenters from the indifference. Roger Ebert, always independently minded, said Cody’s script brought “a certain edge, a kind of gleeful relish, that’s uncompromising”. I sense there has since been a complete reappraisal. It now feels like a feminist classic.

“I’m enjoying the vindication now,” she says. “But when it first started happening, a couple of years ago, I was bitter. I just thought, I went through a lot when that movie came out. People were vicious. And Megan Fox went through a lot. It was a critical and commercial failure at the time. And that was hard on everybody, because everyone involved in the film believed in it. When the movie was being rediscovered by Gen Z I thought, I’m happy, but it’s a consolation prize.”

She goes on to argue that Jennifer’s Body is now the project fans most want to talk to her about. Really?

“You would think it was Juno. Right? But in the last two years I have been approached more about Jennifer’s Body.”

Lisa Frankenstein feels as if it’s set in a similar universe. Newton plays a Gothically inclined teenager living with her bereaved father and ghastly stepmother in a stereotypically bland suburb during the late 1980s. (There are definitely bits of the Cinderella mythos in here.) Life changes when the corpse of a Victorian romantic reanimates and becomes her companion in misery. Not for the first time, horror tropes offer a way to examine pubertal unease. The movie is also a defiantly silly hoot. It is unmistakably a Cody joint.

“I think female adolescence is a time when you become aware of a very specific danger,” she says. “And unfortunately some people are made aware of it before then. When I was 13 or 14 years old I suddenly became aware there were people on the street looking at me like prey. Even though it was normalised it was still a bit chilling. Suddenly grown men are following you home. So I think there’s something about puberty that is compatible with horror.”

I’m interested that she set the film at the time of her own adolescence. It helps that you don’t have to worry about mobile phones interfering with the plot. But there is something else.

“The majority of their social lives take place on their phones,” she says of today’s youth. “According to two recent studies, teenagers aren’t even really having sex any more. Because you’re not bored enough. You’re completely occupied and entertained at all times.”

I like this notion that you need to be bored to bother having sex. That feels like a line from one of her movies.

“I know. Right? Ha ha! That’s my theory. I guess sex supersedes TikTok or whatever. Back then we had to live in the moment.”

Lisa Frankenstein is on general release