Now in its third year, the Athena Film Festival, a celebration of women and leadership held at Barnard College in New York, is an engaging weekend of feature films, documentaries and shorts that highlight women’s leadership in real life and the fictional world. Co-chaired by producer Debra Martin Chase, filmmaker Mira Nair, actress Greta Gerwig and writer/director Diablo Cody, among others, the four-day festival, which has quickly established itself as one of the most prestigious festivals of its kind, includes conversations with directors and Hollywood stars, and workshops for filmmakers.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Cody talked about what sets the Athena Film Festival apart from other film festivals, why she wanted to get involved, the female writers and directors that she admires, and what it means to her when young women or aspiring filmmakers tell her that she’s inspired them. She also talked about why she decided to make her directorial debut with Paradise (she’s 99% sure that’s the title now) and what made Julianne Hough her leading lady, and said she was still working on the Sweet Valley High movie (based on the books by Francine Pascal), that it’s a musical with songs written by Tony Award winners Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, and how she saw that project as a great opportunity to tell those stories and appeal to the people who grew up with them, but also subvert them and make it really funny. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
DIABLO CODY: It’s cool. It’s my second year working with them and I wish more people knew about it, so that’s part of the plan. This festival is a celebration of women in film and women’s leadership in film. Some people might hear that and think it’s a turn-off, or they think, “Why do women need their own film festival?,” but the fact of the matter is, if you look at, for instance, the recent Oscar nominations, there are 12 writers nominated this year for Best Screenplay, and one of the 12 is female. And then, in the Best Director category, we have absolutely zero women. So, I think it’s pretty obvious that women’s stories are not necessarily being told in Hollywood and women are not necessarily being put in the leadership positions they deserve in mainstream film. I feel like this is important because it showcases the women that are in these leadership positions and it inspires other women to fight harder for those positions, and it showcases smaller films that have been written and directed by women. To me, it’s just totally necessary.
And how cool is it that it takes place in the most sought-after women’s college in the nation?
CODY: It’s really cool! I never could have gotten into Barnard, so this is my way in, to be on campus. These ladies are way smarter than me. They’re going to be slumming it with me on February 7th, and I’m excited about that.
What does being a co-chair mean, as far as your duties for the festival go?
CODY: At first, I wasn’t sure. When I did it last year, I was asking myself, “Okay, co-chair, what does this mean?” Sometimes it’s in name alone. In this case, I find myself working with them during the year and just talking a little bit about programming and helping to make some decisions. Mostly, I just try to be an outspoken supporter, in case something like Collider wants to talk to me. I can get the message out, which I feel very blessed to be offered the opportunity to do that. I’m happy to be their spokesperson.
Are there female writers or directors whose work you admire?
CODY: For me, I am a huge fan of Sofia Coppola and Lynn Shelton. I love Lena Dunham, like everybody else. I love Kathryn Bigelow. I love Jill Soloway, who just won Best Director at Sundance (for Afternoon Delight), which is great. One nice thing about being a woman in Hollywood is that the women tend to be very close-knit. All of us writers and directors know each other and cling to each other for safety and support, and it’s really a completely different vibe than the men experience out here, where they’re all trying to murder each other. It really is a nice thing. I have to say, Sofia [Coppola] is probably my hero. She is so cool, man! Talk about not even having to try. Doesn’t it just seem like she’s just effortlessly brilliant? I love that! I’m the biggest try-hard.
CODY: I do, and it’s huge! I tend to forget about that because I’m behind the camera and I work in a bubble. Even though I am in this weird position of being a semi-recognizable screenwriter, which isn’t that common, at the same time, I’m not an actress. I’m pretty isolated. So, when I do encounter young women or aspiring filmmakers who tell me that I’ve inspired them or that my work means something to them, that’s amazing. That’s really exciting! I’m looking forward to hopefully talking to some ladies at Barnard and getting my ego stroked. No, I’m just kidding! I don’t think I was fully appreciative of that position, a few years ago. Now, I’m like, “Wow, that’s a really cool thing to know that you could be influencing other people to create art or to get into movies.”
I recently spoke to Julianne Hough and she was really excited about you giving her the chance to really show a different side of herself with the character that she’s playing in your directorial debut. What was it about that script that made you decide to direct it, and what was it about her that made her the right actress to bring the character to life?
CODY: When people see that movie, they’re going to realize that it’s extremely personal and it’s extremely sweet and very feminine, in a strange kind of traditional, yet off-beat way. I just felt this was a story I had to tell with my whole self and I couldn’t outsource any of it to someone else. And then, having the freedom to cast Julianne was so cool. She is someone who, in the past, has always played a perky little blonde who dances well. For her, it was really exciting to play a damaged person who had a lot of complicated stuff going on and who had burn prosthetics on, every day. We were both totally out of our comfort zone, which was a lot of fun.
How was the experience of being the one in charge and really ensuring that every word of your script would make it to the screen, if that’s what you chose to do?
CODY: That wasn’t a priority of mine, and that actually never has been. I’m not precious about my scripts. I’m in the service of the story and the actors, and if lines have to die because they’re not working or they sound weird, then lines have to die. So, I was there as a director, not as a screenwriter. I was not just sitting there, trying to protect my script. I really wanted everybody involved to have the best possible experience and to just get the story told.
CODY: Yeah, it’s called Paradise. I don’t think, in the history of filmmaking, there has been more of a struggle to get a movie titled. It was one thing after another. I’m 99% sure the movie is going to be called Paradise and that it will be released in 2013, so let’s keep our fingers crossed.
Are you still working on developing the Sweet Valley High film, as well?
CODY: Yes! I feel like, anytime somebody asks me about this, I keep saying, “Oh, we’re getting really close,” but I’m not lying! Progress is being made on the movie, all the time. It’s just taking longer than usual in the development process because of the songs. It’s a musical, and we hired these two incredible Tony-winning, Pulitzer-winning songwriters, Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt, to write the music. So, they’ve been working on that and we’ve been getting the script out to directors, and that’s been fun.
CODY: Yeah, I grew up reading those Sweet Valley High books and feeling completely inferior. I’m from Illinois and I was a dumpy little girl with brown hair and glasses, reading about these perfect blonde twins who lived in California. It just seemed like the dream. It was fantasy reading for me. When I came to L.A. and started seeing opportunities to write stuff and work on stuff, they asked me, after I won the Oscar, which was crazy, “If you could do anything you wanted to do right now, what would you want to do?” And I said, “Sweet Valley High is my Star Wars. I want to do Sweet Valley High.” It was epic for me. It was like The Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t even a reality. I think it’s a great opportunity to tell those stories and appeal to the people who grew up with them, but also subvert them and make it really funny. So, that’s what we’re trying to do.
Juno was something that was so specific and I would imagine people started to expect nothing but that from you, after the success of that film. Do you feel like, now that your work is all over the map and you’re working in various different genres, people really have a good sense of what you’re capable of?
CODY: I don’t know. I hope so! It’s always my hope that people go, “Diablo Cody has had an interesting and diverse career.” That’s what I hope people say ‘cause that’s what I’ve tried to do and I appreciate you saying that. That’s exactly how I would like to be perceived. You make a first impression and people never forget it. If people want to think of me as the wacky Juno lady forever, I could think of worse ways to be labeled.
The Athena Film Festival takes place at Barnard College in New York from February 7th – 10th.