The author and star of this year’s most popular and critically acclaimed independent film talked with me about “Juno,” a smart, funny, touching film about a pregnant teenager who decides to give her baby to a childless couple. This is the first screeplay for Diablo Cody (born Brook Busey), whose book and blog about her life as a stripper first brought her to the attention of Hollywood. Ellen Page’s astonishing performance in “Hard Candy” as a young girl who turns the tables on a predatory pedophile showed her to be an actress of formidable range and talent. There could not be a better match of performer and material and it was clear that they have become close friends.
NM: I am a big fan of your director, Jason Reitman, who wrote and directed Thank You for Smoking.
EP: Working with him in the kind of atmosphere he creates is just lovely, awesome. He is extremely assured, he knows what he wants, but he is also unbelievably collaborative. And he has an enormous heart, only good intentions, there’s only goodness with Jason.
DC: I agree on all counts. It’s very rare actually. It’s very rare that you meet somebody who has that incredibly sharp mind and is also incredibly compassionate. You don’t see those qualities paired in a lot of people, and Jason has that elusive combo. He is a great filmmaker and has a keen comic timing, which is something that is evident in his first movie as well. Juno is a movie where he really wears his heart on his sleeve as a director. As a writer it was amazing to work with him because he is such a generous collaborator.
NM: It’s impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. Ellen, you seem perfectly cast as the stunningly self-possessed but very vulnerable heroine. I was especially moved by the scene where she finally lets go and sobs.
EP: Ever since first reading “Juno” and Juno kind of entering my life, I immediately fell head over heels in love with Diablo, the script, with Juno, I became obsessed. With regards to that scene, Juno definitely hides a lot in what she projects as herself in her kind of sarcastic wit and what have you, but the reality of the situation is that it is a bit of an extreme situation, even though Juno in the film deals with it in such a refreshing way. There’s the kind of relationship she hasn’t had with her mother, literally abandoned by her mother, as she develops this connection with the baby that is growing inside her along with Vanessa’s love for that, when it all starts falling apart, it’s absolutely devastating for her. In that moment, when she’s alone, she allows herself to experience that devastation at that point.
DC: Ellen is such a strong actor I’ve seen that people sense a connection between her and every character she plays. I like to believe in my heart that she has a special connection to Juno, but that’s just talent, baby.
EP: I think the reason that Diablo’s script is so awesome and people are connecting to it is so many elements of it are completely unexpected and that is so refreshing. People, especially these days, are afraid to take risks. Mind you, every year, it is the people who do take those risks who are successful, the people who have had those really long careers are the ones who have dared to have a sense of integrity and individuality. And I think that’s something Diablo really did with this script. So you have Jennifer Garner giving an incredible performance, just outstanding. And Allison Janney and JK Simmons, it’s full-on pandemonium extravaganza of awesome individuals.
NM: When you said how collaborative Reitman was, did that include casting?
DC: Jason had a really specific vision for the cast and I put my trust in him. I had never envisioned anyone as high-profile as Jennifer Garner in the cast but I thought about it and it began to make perfect sense to me. If anyone is completely connected to her character it is her.
EP: it’s kind of like our secret thing about the movie, Jennifer’s performance, her body language, the way she responds when she catches Juno and Jason Bateman’s character playing the guitar and says, “I’m sorry to interrupt the jam session.” That was improv. There’s a couple of lines in the movie that I lose myself over, but I find doesn’t really get a belly (laugh) from the audience, and it’s her stuff.
NM: In the movie, Juno at first intends to have an abortion but changes her mind after talking to a schoolmate who is protesting in front of the clinic. Of all the pregnancy complications in a series of movies we have had this year, this script is the only one to address the right to abortion and the difficulty of the decision with such sensitivity.
DC: I’m really not a diplomatic person at all. I’m usually out to chafe people. And so it surprises me that I have had people from both sides contact me and thank me for pleading their case. It wasn’t a conscious decision to make the story as unbiased as it is, but that’s cool, something to stumble into.
NM: You can tell right away you are in good hands from the opening credits of the film. How did that come about?
EP: The firm is called Super Cool and they did “Thank You for Smoking” as well. They were working out of one room back then but they’ve really taken off. We all wrapped (shooting the film), and then I woke up the next day and walked on a treadmill for seven hours and they shot me from every angle and separately animated every frame.
NM: Where did the music in the movie come from?
DC: Ellen hipped Jason to the Moldy Peaches.
EP: The song we played at the end of the film is a song that has been in my life for years, it has pretty substantial sentimental value for me. Jason asked me what kind of music I thought Juno listened to. I played the Moldy Peaches for him and he fell in love and the next thing I knew he’s in contact with Kimya Dawson, next thing I knew, there’s a song at the end of the film, next thing I knew, I’m playing it and Kimya Dawnon’s on set.
DC: It was important to me that Juno have eclectic taste in music and that she be into music that was from before her time. I felt that was an interesting echo of her fascination with Mark, who’s also a relic compared to her. I came of age in the 90’s and my friends and I were all into punk. I sometimes feel, and this is going to make me sound crotchety, if that’s possible at 29, but I feel like we were a different breed of teenager. I feel like in the 90’s there was this energy that is perhaps lacking now. I feel like teenagers these days have gotten a lot more materialistic, less DIY. I’m always telling Ellen she’s from the wrong era because she has the sensibility of a girl from the 90’s, listening to Bikini Kill and wearing 18-hole Doc Martens.
EP: But so are my friends. It’s what’s reflected in a broad spectrum, you know? Do you watch Hills and what’s that other one, Laguna Beach? I’m a proud not-owner of a television.
NM: One of my favorite things in the movie is the friendship between Juno and a much more conventional girl — a wonderful performance from Olivia Thirlby as Leah.
DC: You know what was really important to me about that friendship? Leah and Juno, they do not look the same, they don’t come from the same social castes. Leah is this perky, bubbly teenager who flirts with teachers. Juno is Juno. That was my experience in high school. My best friend was a popular girl, and I was a freak. And yet we were really simpatico, and I think that’s more typical and more realistic than that clique warfare that you see in most teen movies.
NM: What are you doing next?
DC: I’m very interested in other types of genres. I’m still surprised that “Juno” is as sensitive as it is. That’s not my usual aesthetic. I tend to be a pretty flippant person. I always say that I expressed more emotions through the character of Juno than I did in my regular life. Actually, my favorite genre is horror. I just wrote a horror movie. I love comedy; I’ll always write comedy. I don’t see myself writing a melodrama about a war-torn country. That’s really not my forte. I’ve always been all about seeing the absurdity of life.