From writer/director Diablo Cody, the charmingly sweet dramedy Paradise tells the story of a sheltered young woman named Lamb (Julianne Hough), who loses her faith after a plane crash that leaves much of her body severely burned. Setting out on a journey to Las Vegas to experience the wild side of life, Lamb meets unlikely companions Loray (Octavia Spencer) and William (Russell Brand), and they form a bond that will help each of them find their own salvation.
At the film’s press day, Diablo Cody spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about what inspired the film, how the main character ended up with the name Lamb, the challenges of casting, how the film ended up brighter and sweeter than she ever imagined it would be, that she was scared shitless, every single day that she was directing, and how she doesn’t think she’ll be any less nervous for the next film that she helms. She also talked about the TV show, Prodigy, that she’s currently developing for Fox with Josh Schwartz, and the status of her Sweet Valley High movie musical. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
DIABLO CODY: I think I had been intrigued with the idea of having a protagonist that came from an extreme background. At the time, I didn’t know it was gonna be an extreme religious background. There was something appealing to me about taking somebody who was very sheltered and putting them in the wildest environment that I could imagine. And then, it became an innocent in Las Vegas story. That appealed to me. It’s hard to say what this movie is even about because there’s a lot going on, and there are a few different stories intersecting. Lamb is a complicated person. She’s naive, but at the same time, she’s a know-it-all. She’s kind of sanctimonious, which is to be expected, considering she’s been raised to judge other people. She’s brave and a little cowardly, at the same time. She doesn’t think she needs people, and yet she does. She’s a complex character. It was an interesting journey, writing this character.
How did you decide on the name of Lamb for the character?
CODY: Even though Lamb isn’t Mormon, you hear some really interesting names out in LDS communities. You hear virtuous names. To me, there was just something great about the name Lamb. There used to be this neo-Nazi band, called Prussian Blue, and the girls were named Lynx and Lamb. They were totally fascinating, spewing hate. That was probably my inspiration, now that I think about it. The last I heard, they were not involved in the White Supremacist Movement anymore, which is pretty amazing. It is very interesting. I’ve always been interested in fringe societies. I love the show 19 Kids and Counting. It’s this reality show about these really religious people, and all the girls wear these long skirts and they have big hair. And I just thought, “What if one of those girls just said, ‘Fuck it!,’ one day and went to Las Vegas?” That’s what this movie is.
Was it difficult to find someone to embody this character, especially having spent so much time writing it and having certain ideas for it in your head? And what was it that sold you on Julianne Hough?
CODY: Yeah, it was. It was strange. I thought, “This is gonna be hard. The last thing I want is some girl in Hollywood who chain smokes and does pilates, and we’re just gonna plop a wig on her head and say that she’s an innocent from Montana.” I can pick up on that kind of bullshit in movies. I wanted somebody who I felt actually possessed a wholesome quality. That isn’t to say that Julianne is a super innocent, naive person because she’s not, at all. She’s very intelligent and really talented, but she had a quality that seemed authentically Christian and rural to me. That was how I knew she was the one.
Did you intentionally want to cast actors in the types of roles people aren’t used to seeing them in?
CODY: Yeah, I wanted to do that. Originally, the role of Loray was written to be a 20-something hipster chick who hands out in downtown Las Vegas. I don’t think anybody expected me to cast Octavia Spencer in that part, but she came in and just nailed it. I had fun being surprised. I thought that was better than just going with what people’s first guess might have been.
How close is the film now to what you originally envisioned for it?
CODY: I would say it’s very different. This movie actually changed a lot in post-production. When I was editing, I discovered that a lot of the scenes that I had intended to be melancholy or atmospheric or dramatic were actually goofy and sweet. And I realized that the movie itself was a lot sweeter than I had realized. I don’t think I fully embraced the sweetness while we were shooting. And then, when we started editing, I was like, “Okay, I see what this is.” You screen the movie for test audiences, and the things that they responded to were the more uplifting comedy elements, as opposed to the dramatic stuff. So, I decided to play with that. We started experimenting with the voice-over a little more, and the overall brightness of the movie.
I would say that it ended up being a brighter, sweeter movie than I would have imagined. I hope it works. Honestly, I have no way of knowing. I’m way too close to the canvas. I don’t understand how any filmmaker can assess their work in an impartial way because I can’t. I don’t even watch my other stuff because it’s an odd, alien experience. I couldn’t tell you if this is a good movie or not because I’m too close to it. I have no detachment. I’m just too close to it. So, I hope people like it, but I couldn’t begin to tell you what kind of movie it is. I do sense that it feels different, and I like that because I didn’t want to make something that people have seen before. I do think it’s its own weird animal, so I’m happy about that.
Seeing as this is the first movie you directed, did you have moments on set, with this cast, where you thought, “How do I lead these people”?
CODY: Oh, my god, I was scared shitless, every single day. I am not afraid to admit that. I was so intimidated and so scared. People ask, “How many days into this shoot did it take before you felt confident in that position?,” and I’m like, “All of them! I’m still not comfortable.” Especially with people like Holly Hunter, what could I possibly tell her about acting? Nothing! What could I tell her about anything pertaining to the craft of film? Nothing! She’s done it all. She’s worked with the Coen brothers. I was just thinking to myself, “What purpose am I going to serve today? All just call, ‘Action!’”
Having had this experience, do you feel like you’ll have more confidence going into the next film?
CODY: No. I think I would start all over again, having a heart attack. I really do. I don’t feel any more confident in my abilities than I did before. To me, it is such a tremendous responsibility to make a movie. So many people are working for you. So many people are relying on you. People’s careers are relying on the decisions you make. It is heavy. People who have the ability to treat it like play and who can relax on set, I envy them.
What made you decide to get back into television again and develop a TV show for Fox?
CODY: You know what? It’s a good job. I have two kids now, and television is really ideal for a mom. You can stay in Los Angeles and it’s a routine, and I need that. One thing I did learn from making this movie is that, at this particular time in my life, it’s not crazy practical to make films. You typically have to move to another state. There isn’t a lot of film production going on in L.A. right now. It’s just a lot of uprooting, and TV will keep me here. My fingers are crossed that I can make something like that work.
Did you want to do a TV show, so you came up with an idea for one, or did you have an idea that you thought would work better as a TV show?
CODY: I had heard through the grapevine that Fox was looking for their next teen franchise. They’ve done The O.C. and 90210, and there was a space that was open for something like that. So, I thought, “Do I have an idea like that?” I came up with the idea for Prodigy, and then I hooked up with Josh Schwartz, who’s the king of this genre. We took it over to Fox and they were enthusiastic about the idea, so we’re on our way. We honestly just started. That’s news to me, too.
Is anything more going on with Sweet Valley High yet?
CODY: I freakin’ wish! We just have to get a green light. We’re ready to go. We have all the music. We have the script. We actually have a director now, which is amazing, but I don’t think I’m allowed to say who it is. We have every component we need to make that movie. We just need Universal to give us the go-ahead. Let’s hope it happens, someday.
Paradise opens in theaters on October 18th.