In the first of today's columns (which actually won't be in the paper until Sunday), I talk with "United States of Tara" creator Diablo Cody about the show, her quick rise to fame and Academy Award approval, and the backlash that resulted from it.
When an interview is particularly lively, I like to run the full transcript, so after the jump, a brief intro and then a whole lot of talk about the above topics, and Cody's unique style of dialogue (and my inability to correctly identify it half the time), and more.
Some brief background is in order first. "Tara" (which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Showtime) stars Toni Collette as a suburban mom with Disassociative Identity Disorder (or DID), who retreats into other personas (or "alters") in times of stress, including a slutty teenage girl named T, a perfect 1950s housewife named Alice, and a gruff, male, Vietnam veteran named Buck. John Corbett plays her husband Max, Brie Larson and Keir Gilchrist their teenage kids, and they all have to roll with the punches in this odd family situation.
Sportswriters used to say about Ted Williams that he was a great hitter because he had amazing eyesight, and he would always retort that his eyes were normal; he just worked really hard at hitting. People talk all the time about your great ear for dialogue. Is that something that came naturally to you, or something you've had to pay attention to?
I think I've always had a fascination with speech, for sure. I didn't know that I had an ear for dialogue. People say that I do, which I appreciate. I don't know that I do, but people say it. That was a discovery for me. When I wrote "Juno," I didn't know there was anything out of the ordinary. So it was a surprise to see that's what people were interested in. I've tried to stay true to that in subsequent projects, but I didn't want to just be known as -- excuse me, "to be just," I really hate to split an infinitive -- to be just known as a master of dialogue.
I'm sorry, did I split an infinitive? As you can see, I have a complete obsession with these things.
One of the things about the "Juno" script is that there's like a marked split between the first 10 minutes and the rest of the movie. Was that deliberate, or just the way it played out?
I think it had to do with Rainn Wilson's character in the store. I just had envisioned that guy as being incredibly eccentric. And Juno playing off of him, when you have the two of them in the same scene, it's going to be off-the-wall. Plus I thought it would be a nice introduction to the tone of the movie.
Here's my theory: I actually don't think the first 10 minutes of "Juno" sound any different from the rest. I think it's the swimming pool effect, where when you first get in, it's shockingly cold, and then your body acclimates.
Hmm... that makes a certain amount of sense.
I'm probably lying, but that's how I think about it.
We're not just going to talk about dialogue here, but I pulled out a couple of examples from "United States of Tara," and I wanted you to talk a little bit about the thought that went into structuring the line the way you did. One of them was, "Sometimes, you make me feel like I'm living in some Lifetime lady tampon movie." Lifetime's easy to beat up, I make jokes about them all the time, but this felt more cutting than mine usually are.
I'm not looking to ruin your story here, but that line was actually given to me by Alexa Junge, who is our executive producer. That is an example of us all getting into the spirit of things. I think I actually have made fun of Lifetime before in scripts. Lifetime is actually getting hip these days. I don't want to piss them off; I may do a show over there one day.
Well, let's try...
I'm going to keep plugging away at this.
I know, I'm thinking, "He's going to be so disappointed."
Okay, when Tara's daughter says, "I'm sorry. I guess I should have let that fertilized egg implant itself in my uterus."
That was me. And you know what's funny? I got called out in a review, for saying that particular line was unrealistic, because there's no way the teenage daughter would be that articulate. And I thought to myself, "YAWN! Where have I heard that criticism before?" Okay, we get it: some people think my teenage characters are too well-spoken and sassy. There's no changing their minds.
I personally think that is a very realistic reaction. (Tara's daughter) Kate is a smart cookie. For her dad to be bagging on her for taking a morning-after pill, what was the alternative? That's what she's saying.
Well, let's veer off and talk about that. You're obviously very aware of how quickly the Diablo Cody love affair turned into an opportunity for people to pile on you.
It's typical. Here's the thing: I come from the world of blogging, and I have written some incredibly snarky blog entries in the past. I understand how it feels when you feel like you have no voice and no outlet for your opinions and are just shouting into an abyss. It can make you a little caustic. So I have sympathy for those people. I have been one, and can sometimes still be one. So those are my people. The meanest people are kind of my comrades, in a strange way. It's not something that I can feel righteous anger about. It's part of the Internet, part of the fun.
But you go see a Mamet play, or a Sorkin show, and everybody talks the same way --
I like where you're going with this.
-- and nobody, for the most part, beats up on them about it.
I have brought up Quentin Tarantino, David Mamet, Aaron Sorkin, whom I love, in that context. It definitely has to do with sexism. I'm sorry, I believe that it does. A female writer is not allowed to be a maverick. You can write a cute romantic comedy, even run a studio, but God forbid you have an outsized personality, or they are going to bag on you.
Do you think it's just sexism, or is there anything unique to your own personal backstory?
It's absolutely where I come from. I am a representative of those people. So naturally, they're going to turn on you. You are what you hate.
"I liked that band until they became popular."
Uh-huh. I used to post on Internet message boards all day and talk about celebrities. I loved all the gossip, and now I find myself on those pages, so I can't go anymore. It's pretty ironic. Not that I'm a celebrity, but I do come up for discussion occasionally.
Well, you are one of the closest things to a celebrity writer that there is right now.
That's exactly it, and I do wonder about that. I wonder why I was able to become a visible writer, because there aren't many of us, but it happened. It happened, and it was something I thought would fade very quickly, and now I'm back out here again, and it's a surprise.
Not to blame yourself, but is there anything you could have done differently in the "Juno" rollout campaign to limit the fact that you were being put out there?
You know what? I was so enthusiastic about the movie and had no idea that it was going to do the business that it did. Obviously, when you work on a movie that costs 7 and a half million dollars, you want to promote it as much as you can. I was incredibly close to the director and the cast, and it felt like we were all out there together. I was excited. It wasn't like I was out on this big campaign of self-promotion, though if I go back and read those materials, I can see how it could be interpreted that way, absolutely.
Because I was everywhere, and the portrayal of me in a lot of articles was really super-cheesey. Over-the-top cheesey. It's strange. I was on the cover of Written By magazine, which is the magazine of the Writers Guild. It's a prestigious publication, and every screenwriter dreams of having the cover. I get it, and the headline was "Her First Time," which is really sexually suggestive. And I'm like, "Uh, they don't do that to Bill Monahan." It felt a little squicky to me, and when people read that, they think I'm complicit in it. You know, like I said to them, (in a very breathy voice) "Hey, can you allude to virginity on my Written By cover? My mom and dad are going to love that!"
How long, if ever, do you think it's going to take before the phrase "stripper-turned-screenwriter" disappears from the first line of articles written about you?
It's funny. I would have thought it never would, and then I just sat through this panel downstairs and not a single journalist brought up the stripping thing. You could knock me over with a feather right now. I was sure of it, I had warned people, "Get ready for the inevitable derailing of this conference, because somebody will want to talk about stripping." And nobody did, thank God.
It's always going to come up in articles. That's fine with me. I wrote a book about it. I think if I hadn't written a book about it and it was a dirty secret that somebody dredged up to hurt my career, then it would be very painful. But it's always been a freak flag that I've flown, so I don't have a problem with it.
Okay, let me try another phrase from the show, (when Kate complains about someone being) "Gimp-slapped."
(Cody spins around in her chair and doubles over in laughter)
I'm sorry, I swear I wrote all this content, but...
So who wrote that?
Alexa. "Gimp-slapped" is pretty funny, though. It didn't make sense to me at the time, because nobody involved had a limp, and isn't that usually what "gimp" refers to?
That or the guy in "Pulp Fiction."
But it made me laugh, and that was the way it went.
I'm going to keep trying.
I'm sorry. But I have to tell Alexa about this.
This is good, because I was the one who asked her in the press conference about the difficulty of writing like you. So, clearly, she can.
She was up for it. Certain things, like in the pilot, there was a line by T that went on too long. And for some reason they weren't able to contact me, and Alexa changed it on the set to something like "Hormones and that clap-clap can make you grow a third nipple." And I went, "You sound just like me!"
I've sat in rooms and watched David Milch rewrite every single word of his staffer's scripts.
That happens. I do not believe in rewriting. I do not mind being rewritten, I'm of the mind that most people can do it better than me. But this is one way that I don't necessarily fit into the television world: I'm not a big believer in giving writers excessive notes, I would not deign to rewrite their stuff without permission. I respect what people have to bring to the table. I feel like the only thing you have to offer as a writer is your individuality. Otherwise, it's just a vanilla sitcom. So if someone else's episode doesn't sound exactly like mine tonally, I see that as adding texture to the show. I don't see that as a problem.
Okay, we're going to give this idea one last try, and then I'm going to leave the field of battle.
This whole article is going to be about how I don't do my own writing and I've just outsourced my dialogue. All I care about is "90210" and I don't write my own lines, that's what it's going to say.
When Alice confronts her son's teacher, finds out his first name is Orel, and gives him this long pep talk that ends with "It's time to start loving Orel."
That was a collaboration, that whole scene was. I credit Toni with that, because the way she says it as Alice is just unbelievable. I wasn't sure where she was going to go with that alter, because all I had mentioned was Alice was very maternal and very traditional, and she added this great lilt to her voice. It gets a laugh.
Well, that brings me to the way Toni plays the three alters we've seen in very archetypal ways. Alice is a character out of a '50s movie, Buck is a redneck, etc. How did you decide that these three were the ones you were going to start off with?
I always try to find a feminist angle in everything. I was thinking about "What particular roles does a modern woman have to play in her life?" And I can take that to a modern extreme with this show. Alice is the caretaker, domestic, making the cake for the school bake sale. Which is the kind of thing a lot of moms have to do, even if they have a full-time job. Then there is T, who represents the sexual side of her personality, which is something we all need to tap into occasionally. And then there is Buck, when we need to be aggressive or asexual or even masculine, and you'll notice that Buck comes out when she feels threatened, or protective of her children. He's sort of the man of the house in her mind. They were definitely conceived of as a response to stress.
It sounds like there are going to be others either created or re-introduced later in the season. Are those in some way, reflections of a woman's struggle?
No, some of them were more based on research that we had done about the kind of alters that are typical. Someone (in the session) did ask, "Are they all as developed and archetypal?" And the answer is no. Some of them are a lot more mysterious than, say, somebody like Alice is out there voicing her opinion.
Well, when she slips into one of the three main alters, it's obvious on her face who she is even before she puts on the costume. Could there be times when she slips into one of these alters and it's not only not immediately obvious to us, but to her husband? Or can he always tell?
No. We played with that idea a little bit. Obviously, a show like this has potential to confuse people. So in the beginning we wanted to make it really explicit: "She has transitioned." But later in the season we were really able to play with the idea of, "Would Tara ever masquerade as one of the alters to get away with something?"
Her son Marshall, while he doesn't have DID, has his own carefully-cultivated persona as a jazz aficionado and old film buff, and he has this best friend who dresses like she's in a '40s movie. Can you talk a little about that? I think those two are the kind where people might pile on again and say, "There's no people like that out there."
I've known a lot of Marshalls, a lot of old souls. He's kind of the eye of the storm in a way. I liked the idea of his room being this very sophisticated womb in a chaotic house. He's in his own world, dreams of getting out. Seems like the kid will move immediately to New York when he's 18. He and his friend are really above it all. She makes the comment about how a teacher went to a state school. They're really pretentious, and that was kind of fun for me. The important thing about Marshall is we see he is so supportive of his mother, and they have this intense bond. So when and if that bond gets compromised later on, it'll affect people.
You're new to TV. How much have you thought through not just this season, but beyond it?
We all hope that we'll get another season, obviously. And if we did, I know we've all thought about things we'd like to do. I have high hopes for the show. I would want to be around for the life of it, absolutely.
TV, it's been a stressful experience for me. Working on "Juno," I was just the writer. And on this show, to be a creator and executive producer, and write five episodes, was quite a bit. I'm not used to being entrusted with decisions. I'm used to having other people say, "Oh, look at this amazing set we've built!" Or "Hey, come look at Juno's costume." And I would go, "Oh, this is great!" And I got to enjoy other people's decisions. Now I'm responsible for them. That was new for me, and, honestly, I'm a pretty Type B person. There's not a lot of people in the entertainment industry who are as laissez-faire as I am. So for me, it was hard to put myself into the headspace of, "Okay, you have to be decisive and ambitious."
Well, there are guys like David E. Kelley who do nothing but write and delegate all the other showrunner responsibilities to a trusted lieutenant.
Alexa was a massive help. Not only is she definitely one of the voices of the show, but she ran the room. I couldn't run a writer's room. I am not a leader of men. So that was an intelligent decision that they made. But I know there are some people who completely micromanage everything. I admire those people, but I have no idea how they sleep or eat.
So what are you like in a writer's room? Because previously you had written largely on your own.
I'm totally chill, and I honestly -- it's a strange experience. I think if I had gone into someone else's writer's room -- like, if I had been hired on a staff writer on a show -- I would have been an eager beaver, and I would have felt like, "I better get all my lines in!" On this show, I was able to be more of an observer, because it was my staff. It was cool to see how these really seasoned professionals -- we had people from 30 Rock, and West Wing, and Six Feet Under, and I would sit there going, "Tell me what it was like writing that episode!" I was like a fan. I was a pupil. I was not in any position of authority. I didn't want to be.
Has Alexa or anyone else who's a TV veteran, talked to you about saving stuff for if there's a second or third season? Because the easy rookie mistake is, "I've got all these ideas, and we're gonna get 'em in as fast as we can!" And you've got nothing for year two.
That's just something that I do in general. I'm constantly trying to cram as much information into everything I write, because I always feel like I may never get an opportunity to use this joke again. It's hard for me to pare down. The thing with Alexa is, she taught me the discipline of TV writing. As we were writing episode two, she was already figuring out episode 11. So in that way, we were already aware of what we had used, hadn't used, and what we would use, early on. It wasn't like we were throwing things out randomly until the end and went, "Hope we can think of something else." It was very calculated. We were conscious of that, and the network was as well. We did have several meetings about, "This plot point, do we want to introduce it now?"
Getting back to the Sorkin/Milch/Mamet thing, when I've talked to them in the past, they will argue that their characters do not, actually, speak alike, that they can very clearly and easily identify what would be an Al Swearengen line versus a Seth Bullock line. What, for you, is the difference between something Kate would say and what Tara would say?
I'm very interested in the rhythms of language. To me, Kate's lines have a staccato quality to them. She has more of a rat-a-tat-tat delivery. Whereas Tara is very thoughtful, and she always seems to be thinking about things when she says them. Kate is obviously a lot younger, she peppers her dialogue with more slang, and there's more anger underneath a lot of what she says. Where with Tara, there's a kind of sadness. Kate and Tara, to me, sound different. I think Marshall has a really specific way of talking, and then Max is probably the straight talker of the bunch.
That's definitely a challenge. When I write screenplays, that's always the test: you read a line and you ask, "Could anyone else have said this?" I try to avoid that.
Maybe I should have asked about Kate versus T, then. How do you do that?
T is completely confident and clueless. She's not even hearing herself. There's just all this bravado there. Kate, I think, is a little deeper than that. Some of the things T says are absolutely ridiculous.
How do you decide, with pop culture references, how much is too much?
There's never too many. And I guess, for me, that's my form of cinema verite. Because everybody I know is constantly making pop culture references. I don't know if it's because we're living in a post-modern world, or what, but it's endless. Just on my way up here, I had a conversation with a journalist about "Bewitched." To me, that's reality.
And there are some things I can't resist. When Tara makes a reference to Alice's dress looking like the robot from "Small Wonder" -- okay, I'm sorry, I know I sometimes go too far, but I couldn't not say it. It's a pinafore!
Obviously, you went with it in that case, but do you ever think, "Tara wouldn't make that reference because she's not the right age to have seen that?"
You know what I sometimes think about more is that Toni wouldn't, because she's from Australia. I wonder if she finds all of this bizarre.
I'm sure they have their own equivalent of the horrible girl robot show.
Maybe they do, I don't know. But of course, I think about those things. But Tara's young, she had the kids at 20. She's kind of of my generation.
One last one, this is from "Juno," so I know you wrote it: "Honest-to-blog?"
That was me.
Talk about the conception of that one.
I probably conceived of and typed that line in the same half-second. At that time in my life, I was not sitting around thinking about my craft. I was just, like, "I'm enjoying myself. I have two hours tonight to write and then I have to get up early tomorrow to work, and I'm going to just write this scene where two girls talk on the phone."
Because it seemed like that was the line that people pulled out of the movie and either said, "Oh God, I love her!" or "Oh God, she really makes me nuts!"
It makes me laugh. Like, it's just a throwaway line like people use in conversation. I like when people say "Oh my blog," as well.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org