From Creator To Leader: Lessons From Diablo Cody, First-Time Director

“I’ve always been a person who’s more comfortable riding shotgun,” Diablo Cody tells Co.Create–but through her directorial debut, she learned to lead regardless.

From Creator To Leader: Lessons From Diablo Cody, First-Time Director

The celebrity screenwriter is something of a rare creature–it’s the actors and directors who tend to hog the spotlight–but since penning 2007’s Juno, which won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, Diablo Cody has been just that. A TV series produced by Steven Spielberg (The United States of Tara), further screenplays developed into films (Jennifer’s Body and Young Adult), even a New York Times profile detailing her work habits and seven-figure writing deals all followed.


Yet despite her meteoric ascent, Cody had managed to avoid planting that feather in the cap of Hollywood royalty: a director’s credit. That’s poised to change with her as-yet-untitled feature about a plane crash survivor; the Cody-directed picture, which stars Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, and Holly Hunter, should debut in 2013. Co.Create caught up with Cody the week she was locking an edit of the film to learn more about what it’s like to suddenly become the boss, when your personality much more easily lends itself to being behind the scenes.

Co.Create: What has it been like transitioning from screenwriter to director?

Diablo Cody: For me it was something I had resisted for a long time. I didn’t know I wanted to direct until I wrote this particular script. For some reason, there was something about this script that felt so personal that I felt compelled to take on the whole thing. I like directing. I still think of myself as a writer first and foremost, though.


In the run-up to shooting, you told Jason Reitman, who directed Juno and Young Adult, that you felt like an impostor. Did you get over that feeling?

I do feel like that. I still haven’t gotten over it. I really think you have to be a leader above all else to be an efficient director, you need to have leadership qualities. I’ve always been a person who’s more comfortable riding shotgun. I do feel like more of an observer than a leader. I had a reason to be apprehensive. It was a really difficult job, and it continues to be as we finish the film. It was also really gratifying and fun. I had an incredible crew–I know everybody always says they had an incredible crew, nobody ever says, “I had a crew full of fuck-ups”–but in my case I really did have an incredible crew and a wonderful cast. It was very enjoyable, but also very stressful.


How was your first day on set?

I was sick with worry. It was actually a pretty basic setup, which was good. We had an airplane set, and we were shooting a conversation that takes place on a plane. There’s only so many camera setups you can do on a plane, so that was probably a good place to start. And yet when I look back on dailies from the first day, I think it’s evident it was my first time directing ever, that day. Now I can look back and say, I wish I had done this with that performance, or set that up differently. That’s the thing about learning on the job, it’s exactly that.

Reitman said your skills as a people person would suit you on set. But is there a difference between being a people person and a leader?

There is a difference. There’s a big difference between being a person everyone wants to have a beer with and being a person people want to listen to.

And yet that’s what people say they want out of a president: Would I have a beer with this person?

That’s true, and I hope I was well liked by my team. We definitely had a good time, there was laughter every day. I grew into the position of leader. I definitely think I have developed some leadership qualities as a result of this experience. When I hear about directors doing these projects that are much bigger in scope, epic movies with 100-million-dollar budgets, I cannot even fathom that. I felt comfortable in the indie space, and I don’t think I’d feel comfortable outside of that space.

Young Adult

Was there a moment where you had to put your foot down, and semi-reluctantly be the person who bosses people around?

I can name a lot of times when I had to give in, which is the opposite of the question you just asked. Right now I’m seeing a montage of all the times I transformed into a total doormat. I don’t know. We had a 26-day shooting schedule, a tight schedule, and there were times when people were late or not moving as quickly as I would have liked, and I had to lay the smackdown, but that didn’t happen very often. I have an avoidant personality, and do not seek out conflict.

Did you try to channel Jason Reitman on set?

If I could channel Jason Reitman I’d be very successful. I can’t. I did ask for lots of advice over the last few years, and kept that stuff in mind. I’m in the rarefied position of having been able to ask Steven Spielberg [who executive-produced the Diablo Cody-created United States of Tara Showtime series] for advice. A lot of the time, the advice I got from the most experienced people is the simplest stuff. Mainly just to visualize what you want and shoot it. I remember Steven Spielberg told me not to shoot too many close-ups, which was actually really good advice. If you shoot too many close-ups it starts to look like TV.

The United States of Tara

Any other stories to impart about your growth as a leader?

The best advice I’ve ever received is from my father: “Act as if.” If you comport yourself as though you can do something, you might just find yourself doing it, and doing it well. For me, getting over the intimidation, a lot of it was just walking in every day and not letting on to anyone in the vicinity that I was frightened. If you do that, you really lose your power.


You’ve said that you have some sort of oppositional-defiant disorder. Is it tough to have that when you’re the boss?

Yes! It’s terrible. My entire life, and I don’t know why, but I’ve had serious issues with authority figures. And becoming one is so weird, because I don’t want to be an authority figure. I want to be the friend that you sneak behind the gym to smoke cigarettes with. As a parent, that’s challenging too, because now I have to be an authority figure, and not just a buddy. Yeah, it’s just an essential part of my personality I’ve been working on in the last couple years. I think that I have grown up a lot in that regard. Now I look back at some of the people I’ve defied and think, “Eh, I should call them and apologize.”

[Diablo Cody Image: Getty Images]


About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal