Ronald Harwood and Diablo Cody couldn’t be more different. But in the craziness of awards season, the two screenwriters could well be on parallel tracks. While he’s a master of adaptation, she’s a total original.
Harwood, 73, and Cody, 29, are behind two of this year’s left-field screenplay contenders, the Cannes-prize-winning “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” and “Juno,” which grabbed the top prize at the Rome Film Fest.
Harwood, the London playwright (“The Dresser”) and Oscar winner (“The Pianist”), has seen it all before. Having started his career in 1960, filmmakers bring him the trickiest of literary adaptations, like “Diving Bell,” which Harwood adapted from the late Elle magazine editor Jean-Dominique Bauby’s 1996 memoir, and “Love in the Time of Cholera,” based on the sprawling Gabriel Garcia Marquez romantic novel. Coming up in 2008 is Baz Luhrmann’s period epic “Australia,” which just wrapped principal photography Down Under.
Cody, on the other hand, is an ex-stripper and blogger who hails from the Midwest and boasts one published book to her credit, 1995’s “Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper.” A sequel is in the works. Her first spec screenplay, “Juno” — a non-traditional family comedy — showcases Cody’s ear for witty and edgily contemporary dialogue.
The story of a bright teen (Ellen Page) who gets pregnant by her new boyfriend (Michael Cera) and decides to give the baby up for adoption to a yuppie couple (Jennifer Garner and Jason Bateman), plays like a comedy but packs an unexpected emotional wallop. The script lured financier Mandate Pictures, director Jason Reitman (“Thank You for Smoking”) and distributor Fox Searchlight, which has already taken the pic to the Telluride, Toronto and Rome film festivals.
Harwood specializes in tough assignments like Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” which told the story of a solitary Warsaw ghetto survivor entirely from his point of view, with no narration. But Harwood says even he panicked when producer Kathleen Kennedy presented him with the challenge of adapting “Diving Bell,” the true story of a quadriplegic who writes his deathbed memoir by blinking one eyelid.
“I couldn’t think that the audience would look at scene after scene of a man paralyzed through the whole movie,” he says. “What’s fascinating in the book is the inner life of the man.”
Blocked for months, Harwood was ready to pack it in when he had his eureka insight to borrow a leaf from “The Pianist” and tell the story entirely through the stricken editor’s eyes, with voiceover.
Bauby is alert and conscious, but he is locked in. He can see, hear and recall his former life in flashbacks, but no one can hear him speak. While he is depressed at his state, things look up when two gorgeous women arrive to help him to communicate via alphabet cards and repeated blinks.
Harwood interviewed one of the women at her Paris flat. “How wonderful if I opened my eyes after a stroke and saw her,” he says. “She had a crush on him. There was something about him. He was attractive with or without the stroke.”
Unlike last year’s rookie wonder Michael Arndt, whose Oscar-winning “Little Miss Sunshine” was the result of years of serious study of the art of the screenplay, “Juno’s” Cody never took a film course, never cracked a screenwriting primer. When she took a high-level undergrad writing class at the U. of Iowa, she was miserable, she says, with “all these kids in fishermen’s sweaters talking about Kafka.”
While Cody’s post-grad resume encompasses everything from advertising copywriter to pole and lap dancer to peepshow stripper, she finally found her wickedly funny writer’s voice via her blog, dubbed the Pussy Ranch. That launched her career as a journalist and TV critic, and thanks to the urgings of BenderSpink talent manager Mason Novick, author and screenwriter.
Cody can’t imagine where she’d be without blogging. “It takes away the sting of rejection,” she says, “the aspects of publishing that frighten writers. It’s self-publishing. You don’t have to worry about some donkey in New York sending a letter: ‘This doesn’t serve our needs at this time.’ Instead you start getting fans, validation and the next thing you know, you have a book deal. I never received a rejection letter, never submitted anything in my life.”
To learn how to format a screenplay, Cody picked up a shooting script for Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World” at a local bookstore. She was going to write the script in Microsoft Word, but her manager insisted she plunk down $250 for Final Draft. “I was pissed off,” she recalls. “I said, ‘this had better be worth it.’ I had no money. I’m really glad I bought it.”
She started off with one scene, in which the accidentally pregnant teenager and her father show up at the well-appointed home of the handsome thirtysomething young couple who hope to adopt her baby. “I didn’t envision it as hilariously funny at the time,” says Cody. “That scene came out funnier than I thought. It’s the turning point of the movie.”
Cody, who is stepmother to the daughter of her graphic-designer husband of three years, has never been pregnant, and practiced triple birth-control during her sexually active but paranoid teen years. She did no research beyond listening to “all my hen friends yak about their pregnancies,” she says. “I hear all these war stories about ultrasound goo and vaginal wands and contractions. I just kept my ears open all these years.”
Once finished, both Cody and Harwood’s screenplays were swiftly acquired.
But “Diving Bell” took longer to find its final form as a low-budget French film. At first Universal Pictures attached Johnny Depp and director Julian Schnabel. But, recalls Harwood, when he met Depp on the set of “Finding Neverland,” and Depp told him “Diving Bell” was one of the greatest screenplays he had ever read, “I knew he wasn’t going to do it.”
Sure enough, Depp fell out.
Finally, Kennedy, Schnabel and producer Jon Kilik reassembled the film as a Pathe production with “Munich” star Mathieu Amalric in the lead. Harwood “wasn’t thrilled” that his adaptation of the English translation of Bauby’s memoir was turned back into French, but Schnabel stuck close to the script, while adding striking visuals of ice breaking and close-up insects and a man in a wheelchair on a rock and having Bauby see his own reflection much earlier than Harwood had intended.
Cody, too, says there is just about “no discrepancy” between her script and Reitman’s movie, except for a very different soundtrack than she imagined and a few added jokes and scenes. “It startled and frightened me how true to the film in my mind’s eye the finished film is,” she says. “He didn’t do a polish. He asked me for changes. Jason is special to me. We were connected.”
While Cody hovered on the “Juno” set 75% of the time, Harwood says he tries to avoid having “to see an actor open a door 17 times.”
And whereas Harwood believes that for an English writer, “it’s a fatality to go to Hollywood,” Cody went native, abandoning her beloved Minneapolis for L.A.’s Hancock Park.
After adapting the 131-page “Diving Bell,” Harwood dove into Garcia Marquez’s 370-page tome “Love in the Time of Cholera,” which demanded much condensing and pruning and a simplified framing device in the present, instead of Marquez’s constant cross-cutting across time. “It was hellish,” Harwood says. “I had to decide what it was about. It was the most remarkable love story.” An ensemble of English-speaking Spanish actors, led by Javier Bardem, enacted his script under the direction of Mike Newell.
Next up in 2008 is Baz Luhrmann’s historic pre-World War II romantic epic “Australia,” which Harwood describes as ” ‘Dr. Zhivago in Australia.’ ” Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman star as a widow and the drover who helps to herd her cattle across the Australian outback. “It was a hell of a chaotic adventure and it took a hideously long time,” says Harwood.
Cody has some spec scripts still in a drawer; others she sold to the likes of Groundswell, Warners, Universal, and DreamWorks TV. Steven Spielberg is producing Cody’s Showtime pilot about a suburban mom with multiple personality disorder, “The United States of Tara,” starring Toni Collette. Oblivious to the impending writers strike, Cody admits she owes Sony another TV pilot. “I need to hit the laptop a little harder,” she says.
Her next movie going into production is Fox Atomic’s “Jennifer’s Body,” inspired by her high school hatred of a girl who kept stealing her boyfriends. “A sick hormonal young vengeful female could be the scariest thing ever,” she says. “What if hell hath no fury? I want to trick boys into seeing this feminist horror flick. I don’t think people have tapped into female terror. I hope it’s a burgeoning genre.”
In the prime of his writing life, Harwood is feeling his oats. But neophyte Cody still feels like it could all be snatched away at any moment. She won’t feel like a bona fide member of the Hollywood screenwriters’ club until “Juno” “has completely crashed on the planet,” she says. “It doesn’t feel real. Louise Brooks worked at the glove counter at Bloomingdale’s at 80.”
If the movie gods are smiling, not only will Harwood and Cody run into each other on this year’s awards season circuit, but 50 years from now, Cody will be the seasoned, Oscar-winning screenwriting master.