Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Devil is in the Details

Writers always are advised to “write what you know.” That advice is not as restrictive as it sounds. It doesn’t mean that someone with a day job as a realtor should write only about real estate or that an office worker at Mutual of Omaha should write only about life insurance. For example, in 1959 in order to save money while he pursued his literary ambitions, science fiction author Harry Harrison moved his family to a small town in Mexico; he later commented that the characters in his novel Wheel World (part 2 of his To the Stars trilogy) were based on the inhabitants of that town. The setting of the story was another planet but nonetheless Harry wrote what he knew – and it worked. If what you know is unconventional, it’s a good bet your writing will be too: not necessarily better or worse, but different.

Diablo Cody
Among this century’s crop of screenwriters, one of the more unlikely success stories is Diablo Cody (Brook Busey on her birth certificate) whose career path is very unconventional. So are her scripts. By and large, her films have been critical successes, as is The United States of Tara, the TV show she created. To my mind, even the film that critics panned (Paradise) has something to offer. So, I needed little prompting last week to pick up Cody’s Candy Girl, a 2005 memoir written in lively and literate prose of her year as a stripper. In it Cody tells how she grew up in a conservative religious family outside of Chicago. A failed relationship landed her in Minneapolis where her job at an advertising company bored and frazzled her. Tempted by amateur night at a local strip club, she started working the pole part-time and soon quit her day job altogether. With the full support of her boyfriend (currently her husband) she became a fulltime exotic dancer. The reasons were the money, the thrill, and the series of oddball characters (customers and coworkers) whom she met.

There always has been a minority but vocal feminist wing (e.g. Camille Paglia, Angela Carter, Wendy McElroy) that embraces pornography and the sex industry as not objectifying but human. Cody adds her voice: “I always believed in the potency of women. I’d supported and participated in the sex industry even as it was buffeted with criticism from people who felt it objectified us… There was a reason men paid ridiculous sums of money for the company of an exaggeratedly feminine creature. Because strippers are spectacular. They rule.”

A decade ago Cody was contacted by film producer Mason Novick who read the memoir and wanted her to write a screenplay based on it, but he first wanted to see a sample of her scriptwriting. Over several weeks at a table in Starbuck’s, she came up with the script to Juno. The Candy Girl movie was never made but in 2007 Juno was. Cody’s offbeat sensibility and irony won over critics and audiences. Writing for the big screen and for television, Diablo has been a Hollywood power player ever since. Currently among her credits:

Juno (2007) – Juno (Ellen Page) is a 16-y.o. Minnesota high school student whose sexual exploration with her boyfriend (Michael Cera) results in pregnancy. Rather to the dismay of her parents, she decides not to go through with an abortion but seeks out adoptive parents instead. She finds a well-to-do couple with whom she signs a contract, but her relationship with them – especially the would-be rocker adoptive dad – follows an eccentric path. Diablo says she based much of the script on what she witnessed or did herself in her own high school. She even had a hamburger phone like Juno’s. It’s not your typical high school movie.

Jennifer’s Body (2009) – Directed by Karyn Kusama, it’s about a cheerleader who undergoes a supernatural transformation and becomes a cannibal. Uh, yeah. One can imagine the pitch for this film as way to exploit the popularity of comely Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried by unabashedly pandering to teen horror junkies. Unfortunately (for commercial purposes), Diablo doesn’t quite write down to that level. All the necessary gruesomeness and voyeurism are there, but the situations and dialogue are quirky, ironic, and occasionally clever. The result was that critics liked it better than the intended audience. Roger Ebert gave it 3 out of 4 stars but theaters had a lot of empty seats, and to this day its audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes is dismal. Nonetheless, though teen horror is not my preferred genre, the film is better than its public reputation, and the female writing/direction gives it a somewhat different perspective than most films of its type.

Young Adult (2011) – Mavis (Charlize Theron) is a hard-drinking single thirty-something writer of young adult fiction living in Minneapolis. She is working on the last book of a series and is having trouble meeting the publisher’s demand to finish it. Once the high school prom queen in the small town of Mercury, she is feeling life and time slipping away – not an unusual reaction when folks notice that age 40 is not far ahead. She receives an e-mail announcing that her old high school boyfriend Buddy Slade and his wife have had their first child. She decides that she and Buddy were meant to be together. She returns to Mercury to do something about it. What she really wants, of course, is to relive the moment when she was queen and the future was bright. Mavis has real problems – diagnosable problems – and behaves abominably, yet it’s hard not to empathize with her. This is my favorite Diablo Cody film, hands down.

Paradise (2013) – This film was Cody’s directorial debut and generally is considered a misstep. Lamb Mannerhelm (Julianne Hough) survives a plane crash albeit with injuries. The experience shakes her severe Christian beliefs. She heads to Las Vegas to experience a side of life she has denied herself, and William (Russell Brand) is there to help. The title comes from Paradise, NV; much of the Vegas Strip is actually not within the city limits but over the border in Paradise. Critics and audiences alike hated this one – so much so that Cody says she has given up directing and will stick with writing. The LA Times printed the consensus opinion: “Though it's built around a kernel of tender feeling, the comedy never transcends its basic contrivance.”

Ricki and the Flash (2015) – Cody proved she could recover by returning to fine form with Ricki and the Flash, which I reviewed a couple blogs ago. An aging rocker (Meryl Streep) with family issues is forced to face them when her daughter has a crisis. The movie has great characters and dark humor that on this occasion hits its mark.

Barbie (2017) – Yes, the Mattel doll Barbie. This is Cody’s current work-in-progress for Sony Pictures. I only can imagine what she will do with it, but when the time comes I might be brave enough to buy a ticket in public to find out -- or then again maybe not.

Trailer for Young Adult (2011)


  1. Evidently Cody is doing something right. I can't say that I would love all those films, but it doesn't matter as someone else might, and they've earned her a living. That's the main thing. Writing what you know is somewhat a rather abstract concept at first, like can't see the forest for the trees or something. It's also like they say in the stock market: buy what you know. I felt like I didn't know anything. But it's just a way of saying, buy the stocks whose products you use in everyday life, and you'll probably be okay. If you're buying them more than likely others are as well. Use your life experiences.

    The other day Joe Lansdale posted his nuts and bolts to writing:

    Writing tips that work for me. Maybe not you, but me, and here they are, or at least some of the major ones:

    Short hours. I rarely work more than three a day, and sometimes less. But I'm focused. Now and again I do a second, or even third shift, but that's rare. This gives me the rest of the day to read, exercise, watch movies, and I'm home with my beloved wife. So, life is good. I became a writer partly because I didn't want to do the nine to five grind. It's still hard work, but not lonely or say work. I don't buy into that.
    Polish as you go. You may need to do more polish when it's finished, but if you have this mind set there will be a lot less to do when you finish. Avoid multiple drafts.
    Set a reasonable goal. Three to five pages a day is mine. If I get more, yippie.
    Don't outline. Let your subconscious work on the novel. I get up in the morning, have my coffee, and I'm ready to go. I start hot and burn down slowly.
    Enjoy something besides writing, and reading should be a big part of that. You don't read, you can't write good books. Oh, I know there's an exception, but that's why it's an exception.
    Travel when you can. Meet new people. Learn to talk to people, and learn to listen when they talk. Learn to work when you travel. I've written several novels out of country and in hotels.
    And best of all. Have fun. This is cool stuff, writing for a living, making up stories, and getting paid for it.

    1. Lansdale’s points are useful and I agree with them except sometimes “polish as you go.” I often do, but when I hit a blockage I’ve found it best to smash through it with whatever clunky prose I can get down on paper – after all, you can’t polish something you don’t have. True, I have to throw away the result sometimes, but more often than not I can shine it up. When not, it at least eliminates a false path forward.

  2. I saw this on the TV the other day about personal finance, where one man wrote everything he knew about saving. (I don't agree with all of it per se, but for the average person that doesn't know anything at all about personal finance, it's a good rule of thumb):

    1. Step 1: save. Most folks find that hard, but if they get past it sound investment strategies are not rocket science. (Well, some are, but there isn't good evidence they work better.) An index card is enough to hold workable rules of thumb.