I was feeling rough the morning of the Juno press day here in Los Angeles. It had been a long couple of days and very much a long night; I skipped the food in the hospitality suite and went right for the Starbucks doubleshot espressos and the Red Bull.
I was about to start my second Red Bull when director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody came in to the room. It turns out they brought more than enough energy for everyone, and I wouldn’t even need to open that can. Juno is Reitman’s second film, and it’s a massive leap from Thank You For Smoking. A lot of that comes from Cody’s script. A new face on the Hollywood scene, Diablo Cody already has her own mythology – stripper turned writer and all that – but the basic truth is that whatever her background, she writes terrific dialogue. She’s also very attractive and engaging in person, and I guarantee you that most of the people who interview her walk away with huge crushes.
When the duo came into the room they were already mid-conversation. They left mid-conversation as well; Reitman’s just producing Cody’s next script, but I think that these two should work together as long as their muse is mutual. The rapport they share was incredible to see in action.
The conversation they were having, by the way, was about the term ‘screwed the pooch.’
Reitman: I know that expression. Which is a vile expression.
Cody: You never heard ‘screw the pooch’ in a card game setting?
Cody: You’re just not hanging out in enough back alley saloons.
Reitman: Apparently. But again, that’s the perspectives we bring each other.
Cody: I’m looking at that Red Bull and salivating.
Don’t even think about it, lady.
Cody: I know! You better clutch that thing.
Reitman: Do you know what Red Bull tastes like?
Cody: Bubble gum?
Reitman: Carbonated gummi bears.
Cody: That is why it’s awesome. I can think of nothing better.
I’m interested in the tone of this movie. It would be easy for a movie
like this to get too quirky, to get too twee, but you guys keep it even
keeled. You don’t get too sentimental. How much of that comes from the
script and how much of that is decisions made on set?
Cody: I feel that I cannot take responsibility for the tonal choices
made in this film. I am not an experienced filmmaker, but I’m learning
that’s something the director establishes. My screenplay, I think, is
inherently quirky and twee because I was influenced by quirky, twee
movies when I wrote it. Then Jason came in and he’s the master of tone
and was able to strike a balance.
Reitman: Actually that’s part of my formal name now. You know how there’s the Masters of Horror series…?
Cody: Masters of Tone would be so boring! Can you imagine?
Reitman: Me and Alexander Payne. Masters of Tone! Oh my God. ‘They have such complicated ideas but their tone is so solid!’
Cody: ‘This week, the most tonally strong film you will ever see!’
Reitman: Oh my God, I want to do that so badly.
consistency. It’s a combination of our perspectives that I think
contributes to the tone that you’re talking about and you liked. The
first time I read the screenplay it was like the first time I read the
book Thank You For Smoking – it’s what I’m attracted to in general in
material, and in people, oddly, which is why Diablo and I get along –
here was material that took a subject matter that could have easily
been sensitive, tricky. Teenage pregnancy, like smoking cigarettes, is
something that could become easily emotional, easily politicized. Here
was a screenplay that didn’t do that at all. It spoke about the issue
in a frank way and in an open minded, non-judgmental way. Right there
you set the attitude that the characters are going to have on the story
and subject matter. That’s what got me excited. And it wasn’t just one
or two characters – it was every character. We have seven strong
characters throughout this film who are all very thought out, clear
human beings, who all had fresh perspectives on the same idea. Then you
have Diablo, who grew up in a very Juno McGuff-like house, and you have
me, who grew up in a very Loring-like house. You know the white photos
on the stairwell? I did that as a kid. That is my house. So because of
that, I think there’s this air of non-judgment to both sides. It’s not
a film where Juno is cool and look at these asshole Lorings. And it’s
not a film from the Loring perspective, where they’re normal and who is
this really weird kid. It’s a film that doesn’t judge either side
because it’s coming from both sides. I do think I’m good at tone. I
think every director has a gift. Fincher can shoot the lights out, and
I can’t touch him. There are directors who do all sorts of things I
can’t touch, and for whatever reason I think I haver a good gut for
tone. I was raised by a director who was ruthless with tone as well,
and who taught me to cut stuff that doesn’t fit. Because of that no
matter how funny a scene is, no matter how much I like a scene, if it’s
outside of the rhythm of the film, outside of the tone of the film,
Cody: We’re both good at killing things. There are a lot of people who are precious about that sort of thing.
Reitman: It’s true. I would contribute it to our relationship. Often
there’s so much animosity between a writer and a director, but one of
the reasons this worked wasn’t just our perspectives but that there was
no ego between us and there was nothing precious. I don’t think either
of us ever called each other with some news on the film where we said,
‘Oh you can’t do that!’ There was one time we had to cut one word –
Cody: Yeah, it was the MPAA, not you. And that broke my heart.
What was the word?
Reitman: The word was ‘balls.’
You can’t say ‘balls’ in a PG-13 movie?
Cody: ‘Balls’ is edgy!
Reitman: I’ll tell you why. ‘Balls’ can be used, the problem was that
it was used in a term that visualized sexuality. I have to say, I don’t
want to discredit the MPAA because they actually liked this film and
there are a lot of things they let slide in this film because they
thought it was an important film for teenagers to see, and because of
that they actually made us cut very little. There’s heartbreaking
stuff, but they actually loved this film. I’m proud of what they did in
giving us a PG-13.
Ellen Page and Michael Cera are these Canadian breakouts. What is it about them that makes them so special?
Cody: Personally, when I first started working in Hollywood a couple of
years ago I was very much a hayseed from the Midwest. Some people were
enthusiastic to meet me just based on my origins. They said, ‘Oh good
dark comedy always comes out of the midwest. The Coen Brothers.
Alexander Payne from Omaha.’ They said they like to see that
perspective instead of the usual New York/LA thing. Canada’s completely
different but –
Reitman: There’s a second city element to Canada.
Cody: There’s a freshness there. And the young actors I’ve seen come
out of Canada aren’t as affected or insincere as the kids in LA.
Reitman: There’s something about their voice. There’s a maturity – it’s
a weird conflicting idea – there’s a maturity that has held on to
innocence, where the kids from LA and New York seem immature but
they’ve lost all their innocence.
Cody: That’s actually true. That’s a fascinating paradox. You’re pulling them out today.
Reitman: Hey, it’s the LA junket! Yeah!
Cody: He is knocking them out the park.
Reitman: This ain’t Atlanta!
Is there anything else about Ellen and Michael?
Reitman: What makes them truly special is that they’re incapable of
honest dishonest moments. That’s what I look for in an actors – actors
who can be honest. With dialogue like Diablo’s, it’s very easy to have
a dishonest take on that dialogue. Take a great line like Ellen Page
saying, ‘You do this all without trying at all,’ and Michael Cera
responds, ‘Actually, I try really hard.’ That’s a tough line to deliver
because you don’t want it to sound insincere, you don’t want it to
sound like he’s making a joke. You want it to sound authentic and
heartbreakingly sweet – that’s very hard to do. And he does it and he
makes it look so easy. He makes it look like he could have woken up and
just said that line. That was take one. Those two actors, no matter
what they’re doing, there’s an authenticity that makes their scenes
feel real and makes us care.
Can you talk about working with Jason Bateman to get the right balance for his character, to make him not seem like a creep?
Reitman: That was the trickiest role to nail. Jason and I had both
become fathers in the year leading up to this film, so we both had a
fresh perspective on what it’s like to have a baby, to have your life
changed, to close a chapter on your life and open a new one. At the end
of the day the idea we latched on to was that they weren’t flirting
with each other, they were flirting with each other’s time periods.
Here was a man flirting with the idea of being a child and here was a
girl flirting with the idea of being an adult. Like many teenage girls
right now there’s this idea that she can make this decision, that she
can become an adult like that, and that’s what they were flirting with.
Using that as a guiding line we could do a scene like the one in the
basement – which was by far the hardest I’ve ever had to direct – and
use that as a guideline so that it never became about ‘Are they
flirting too heavily with each other.’ As long as it followed from the
interest in where the other person was in their life it could seem
dangerous without seeming wrong.
Diablo, how necessary was this film being set in Minnesota to you?
Cody: Absolutely. Arizona, not so much, because I think of this
Southwest aesthetic and I see a coyote wandering through the shot.
Sorry, I guess I have a picture book view of the US. Cactuses
everywhere! But it was just important to me that it didn’t take place
in one of the usual – it wasn’t LA, it wasn’t New York. And it was
important that it take place in a section of the US that felt sheltered
to me, where a teenager being pregnant would be unusual. We see the way
the gaze of Juno’s peers becomes increasingly judgmental as she gets
increasingly pregnant, while in some schools in this nation every other
girl is pregnant.
In the year 2007 the very idea of a girl getting pregnant and keeping
it is sort of political in itself. Did you think about how people would
approach this as pro-life or pro-choice?
Reitman: We never had a conversation.
Cody: You and I never talked about it. I remember early on when I was
writing it, thinking to myself ‘Now that I think about it, this could
be a controversial subject.’
Reitman: That’s a projection. When I was doing Thank You For Smoking
the best compliment I got was that liberals thought it was their film
and conservatives thought it was theirs. Christopher Buckley used to
say that’s what satire is – satire is a mirror, and you see yourself in
it. Juno is not a satire but in some ways I guess it is a mirror.