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Suburban writer poised for Oscar 'miracle' for 'Juno' screenplay
By Justin Kmitch | Daily Herald Staff

Diablo Cody, who penned "Juno," hopes to win an Oscar tonight for Best Original Screenplay. But the Lemont native first began attracting serious attention for her writing when she was a student at Benet Academy in Lisle.

 

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Published: 2/24/2008 12:26 AM | Updated: 2/24/2008 6:53 AM

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As proud as she was to be named the 1996 Benet Academy student "most likely to use her writing skills beyond school," Brooke Busey had her sights set a notch higher.

Tonight, the Oscar-nominated writer of the holiday season's breakout film "Juno" -- she's now known as Diablo Cody -- hopes to complete her "Hollywood miracle."

The film, which she never expected to be made, has surpassed the $125 million mark and landed Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.

Cody spoke to the Daily Herald on Wednesday from the comfort of the small Hollywood Hills home she calls her "unibomber cottage" because of its seclusion. She said she was lounging in her sweatpants and petting her dog Barnabus.

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"I have to be honest with you and tell you it is incredible. There have been things that have happened on this crazy ride that were difficult and I didn't enjoy as much as I could have or should have," she said. "I was freaked out about this massive transformation in my life, and now, all of a sudden, I'm starting to enjoy it.

"I'm starting to realize this is so cool. It's just astonishing that this is happening on my first film."

Distinguished alum

Cody, who claims she'll never lose her suburban Chicago accent, said she visits family in Lemont several times a year. While in town, she catches up with friends and Benet classmates.

"Those people wound up being some of the best friends I would ever have in my life. I still talk to people from Benet. I keep up with their weddings, their babies."

Being one of a handful of Lemont students to attend the Lisle school was difficult for a teen forced to leave her friends and comfort zone.

"Once I got there, I wound up really blossoming because it was such a challenging environment academically and because suddenly I was surrounded by other nerds, and I wound up having the time of my life," she said. "I actually felt like college was a disappointment after Benet."

Creative writing teacher Lisa DiMarco nominated her in 1996 for the English department's highest honor, the Tim White English Award. It's presented annually to the graduating senior who exhibits the same joy in literature, writing and language that White brought to his classroom every day.

DiMarco said she was "not at all surprised" at the Oscar nomination bestowed on her poetry-loving former pupil.

"Brooke came alive in her writing," DiMarco said. "She was a wonderful pleasure in class, unique and respectful."

Cody knew her first foray into writing, a 2006 memoir detailing her yearlong stint as a "stripper for sport," wasn't what her Catholic school literature teachers had in mind. But it was a story she felt she had to tell.

"The first thing I did to gain any notoriety was writing 'Candy Girl,' so that obviously wasn't going to endear me to the faculty," she said.

"After that, they didn't really want to identify me as an alumnus. That said, I find it very interesting that all of a sudden they're proud of me now that I'm an Oscar-nominated alumnus."

But she gets it.

"Despite that, I have heard from a lot of people, and that's cool, you know?" she chuckled. "Because now it makes me very happy when I look up Benet on Wikipedia and see myself listed as a distinguished alumnus. I don't think they saw that coming."

Kitchen miracle

While she was stripping and working on her book, Cody also kept an X-rated blog in which she sarcastically detailed the "life of a geeky, intellectual woman working in the sex industry."

What came next is motion picture history created on a kitchen table in Minneapolis. And it unfolds in a story so outrageous, she swears it has to be true.

"One day I get an e-mail from this guy, Mason Novick, who says 'I am a manager/producer in Hollywood, and I think you are really funny. You should try writing a screenplay,' " she said.

She ignored him for quite some time, fearful he was another disingenuous person like all the others attempting to "save" her from the strip club. But after finding Novick's credits on a Web site, she knew he was for real.

So she sat down and began writing.

"I remember the night I thought of 'Juno.' I was sitting at my kitchen table in Minnesota, and my now ex-husband (John Hunt) was outside smoking," she said.

She proceeded to tell him a story about a teenage girl who gets pregnant and has an affair with the guy who's going to adopt the baby with his wife.

Hunt told her she had "hatched a good one."

"That was my first idea, so I started to outline it. The more I thought about it, the story got sweeter and sweeter in my mind, so I dropped the (affair) idea," she said. "What if she just has this strange friendship with this guy? Then 'Juno' came together, and I just wrote it."

She understands this may never happen again.

"That (stuff) never happens. It is one in a million; a Hollywood miracle."

Living the dream

She says she's always had a low-maintenance lifestyle, and it hasn't been changed by Hollywood.

"Growing up in Lemont, I was never aware there were people who actually got to live their dreams because I didn't know any," she said. "When you come from a normal working-class background, you don't know a lot of Oscar nominees. You don't know a lot of people who vacation in St. Tropez or get to meet Steven Spielberg."

Although she can do those things now, Cody said her greatest pleasures in life remain simple. All she wants to do is wake up without an alarm clock, lounge around in her sweatpants and bang out a few screenplays.

"To me, that is the life. That is the greatest luxury that could ever be afforded me. That's greater than anything I could ever buy," she said. "It's not having to go back to the grind, which is something I did for a few years back in my 20s, literally, and I was pretty miserable."

It's me. I swear.

Now that she's "made it," Cody said she's quickly grown weary of having to defend her outlandish attire and "say anything" attitude.

"People want to accuse me of having invented some persona in order to succeed, which is strange," she said. "I don't know if it's about my name or what. But Tom Cruise isn't his real name, either, yet people don't say, 'Hey Tom Cruise, you've invented this persona.' "

In fact, she says she's never felt more comfortable with herself.

"Anyone who knew me in high school will tell you I've been wearing leopard skin for many years," she said. "I've always been a flamboyant dresser, and I've always been a vocal person."

What to say?

As of Wednesday afternoon, Cody knew her weekend would consist of celebrating the nomination and a possible Oscar win with family and friends. She did not, however, know what she would wear to the show and, more importantly, what she would say if she won.

On Feb. 10, she won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts award and had nothing prepared. She has no plans of repeating that tonight.

"Someone told me the odds of my winning (the BAFTA award) were very low, and all I had to do was show up," she said. "And then I won and went up there and had to make something up really fast. So Sunday I want to be prepared, if it happens."

The support she has received still surprises Cody because she's not as confident as many of her fans. She wants to win but won't consider it a failure if she doesn't.

"Saying 'Oscar nominee' is so cool that it doesn't really matter if you win or not," she said. "Getting the nomination was one of the best days of my life, and I can carry that with me forever, regardless of what happens on Sunday."

Coming attractions

Cody and "Juno" director Jason Reitman soon will head to Vancouver, B.C., to begin filming her next film, "Jennifer's Body."

The horror flick, starring Megan Fox from "Transformers," is a tale about a cannibalistic high school "sex bomb" whose boyfriends vanish.

"It's going to surprise people because even though it's me and Jason Reitman again, this is definitely not a gunning-for-an-Oscar type of movie. This is a fun, go get scared, get your Junior Mints and popcorn and have a blast movie. Not that 'Juno' wasn't fun, but this is extra super-duper fun."

In April, shooting will begin for the Showtime television series "The United States of Tara," a comedy she helped write starring Toni Collette as a mother with multiple personality disorder.

"People are going to love the TV show, and we're working with an awesome lead actress," Cody said. "The writing is different than what people would expect from me."

The show was created by Steven Spielberg and produced by his DreamWorks production company.

"I'm going to be shooting pretty much all spring, which is very cool," she said. "Feature films you can write in your pajamas, but TV is a real job that you actually have to show up to and work.

"Whatever. It's all cool."