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November 27, 2007

Juno finds the fun in teen pregnancy

Very few films came out of the Toronto International Film Festival with quite as much hype as Juno. A quirky indie comedy directed by Jason Reitman (Thank You For Smoking), the film stars Ellen Page (Hard Candy, X3) as the title character, a free-spirited teenager whose life takes a new direction after she’s knocked up by her best friend/boyfriend Paulie (Michael Cera). While her father (J.K. Simmons) and stepmom (Allison Janney) are surprisingly understanding, she decides to give the baby to Mark and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner), a wealthy, attractive young couple looking to adopt. In the process, Mark becomes a punk-rock and horror-film mentor to Juno, and as their relationship gets weird, Juno starts to grasp the magnitude of her decision. The movie features a vibrant screenplay by Diablo Cody, a film student–turned-stripper who got a book deal for her memoir as a result of her blog. I met up with Page and Cody during their round of Chicago interviews.

Ethan Stanislawski: How’re the interviews going today?

Ellen Page: It’s going good.

Diablo Cody: Living the dream!

ES: Can you talk about growing up in Chicago and how it may have inspired you to take the path you did?

DC: You know, I’m straight-up Midwestern all the way. I grew up in the southwest suburbs, went to Catholic school, lived in a Polish community, you know, hardcore Chicago upbringing. I watched Bozo every day…. I would say that even though the film was set in Minnesota, the Midwestern sensibility permeates through every sense of the film. In L.A. they actually love that, because they get so many scripts about New York and L.A. When I came in with a Midwestern script, they were like, “We love you guys! We love Alexander Payne!”

ES: Ellen, Diablo’s dialogue is so unlike what you normally see in scripts, and that’s not something that you get as an actor that often. How’d you make it translate to the screen?

EP: When I first read the script I was just floored, it was like, one of the greatest things I’ve ever read.

DC: Aww. [Laughs]

EP: And one of the things I liked was the dialogue, because it was extremely unique, obviously, and it just slapped me off of the page. It was really rhythmic and fluid and felt really organic, you know, because I didn’t speak the same as Juno when I was 16, but I definitely had my own language with my friends, which was different from how I spoke to my parents and work, and so on and so forth. So to me it just reflected, you know, now. How people speak, with their individual way of communicating. It was just about making it my own, without forcing it, and being easy with it.

ES: You and Michael Cera are about the cutest couple I’ve ever seen on screen, and you have such great chemistry. What was it like working with him?

EP: It was awesome. He’s not just ridiculously talented, but he’s one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. He’s just extremely genuine and sincere, and there’s just nothing but goodness in Michael Cera.

DC: And you just so want that to be the case, too. I was so pleased that everything I had believed about Michael Cera was true. [Laughs]

EP: And even more so. Everything you think and even more. He’s that spectacular. So I just feel really lucky that I got to work with him.

ES: Your relationship with Jason Bateman was very interesting because it was a reversal of what’s normally expected of you two. People think of you from Hard Candy, and they think of Jason from Arrested Development, so it seemed like a new direction for both of you.

EP: Yeah, it was a lot easier for me. I’m just playing a character who thinks this guy is cool, and as [Juno] says, “I just like being a piece of furniture in your weird life,” and is thrust into this situation where she’s forced to be more mature. And she’s kinda naïve to this whole new portion of the relationship. I think it was Jason Bateman who kinda had the more difficult job of achieving balance and achieving a specific tone. It had a lot to do not just with how [he] and I related in the film, but how Jason Reitman portrayed him.

ES: Teen pregnancy is a subject that is usually very heavy-handed and is portrayed in a Lifetime movie situation. What made you decide to write the story as a comedy?

DC: I have trouble treating any situation with gravity. I’ll write a comedy about drug mules. I always love dark comedies, like Election and Ghost World and movies with a little bite to them. I went into it thinking, “I’m going to write a movie like that. I’m going to write something really bratty.” When I thought of teen pregnancy, I realized it is kinda heavy, and I thought if I treated it kinda flippantly and make it kinda funny, that could be something new. But then, as I started writing, as it went along the movie started to get a lot more sentimental and a lot more cynical than I imagined it would. It kinda just took on a life of its own and started to become this uplifting story, which I think ultimately it is. And when Jason Reitman came on, it was like all over. He has such a big heart and is always looking for the heart of the story. So it ended up being a bright movie, not what I had originally pictured, and I’m glad for that.

ES: What was so refreshing about Juno was that it was so non-judgmental of its characters, and doesn’t seem to put any stereotypical name on them. Did this film intentionally try to break any stereotypes for teenage girls?

DC: Absolutely. All you have to do is look at [Juno’s] clothing, or the kind of music she listens to. That’s not to say that it’s an anomaly for a teenage girl in real life; it’s not at all. There are tons of teenage girls who are articulate and eccentric and witty. It’s just that in film you don’t see that frequently. She has a good relationship with her parents so you don’t have that typical [whining] “I hate you” hormonal screeching.

EP: [Whining] What do you mean I can’t go to the dance with…Jason…McGubin. [Laughter]

DC: Although in The 40-Year-Old Virgin they played the psychotic teenage girl very well for laughs, so it’s occasionally done well, but in our case, I wanted to have a teenage girl who was allowed to be multidimensional, and not this…wire monkey. [Laughter all around] We’re at the end of the longest trip.

ES: Well, wire monkey makes sense.

DC: You know how in animal experiments you have a wire monkey you see nourishing milk from the teats?

EP: [Laughing] Did you just use the word “teats” in an interview?

DC: Yes. Well I feel like the teenage girl is usually just there to serve a purpose in the framework of a family and is never herself a fully realized character. She’s…[sees everyone’s still laughing], she’s like the condor puppet. [Everyone laughs loudly]

ES: Ellen, was there any particular scene when you read the script that grabbed you and made you want to do it, or anything that you personally connected to?

EP: I personally connected to how grateful I was that a character like Juno would be in the world. Because I’ve always been the stereotypical “girl” from elementary school until now. It gets so frustrating when you get that pressure from the media to tell you what to like, and what music to listen to. I remember falling in love with music in junior high school and it was not the typical music for a girl, and being judged for it, or being judged for playing sports, or maybe not dressing like a ho-bag. [Laughter.] So I think I was connected to how brave Juno was.

ES: Diablo, obviously not a lot’s going on right now in Hollywood. Do you see your book getting picked up for a movie?

DC: I have a lot of stuff going on right now. I always say I’ll go back to that some other day when I’ve got nothing better to do.

EP: You’re a really busy goose.

DC: Busy goose? I don’t think geese are really that busy, are they?

EP: I feel like all nature’s busy. [Laughter.]

DC: You’re an animist.

EP: I am a bit of an animist. It’s a Diane Ackerman thing. You know Diane Ackerman?

ES: Yes.

EP: Oh nice! [To Diablo] She’s an awesome author. She wrote A Natural History of the Senses. You should read it.

DC: We have conversations like this all the time. Ellen’ll ask “Have you read Kafka on the Shore?” and I’ll say “No, have you seen I Love New York?” And the answer to both is no. [Laughter.] What were we talking about?

ES: Future plans.

DC: Oh no. I would adapt the book, but it’d be ridiculous. Can you imagine writing yourself as a character? I’d just exaggerate every quality I have in a positive sense and turn myself into an awesome rock star.

ES: What’s next for both of you?

EP: I’ll hopefully be shooting a film this spring called Jack and Diane, which has been in my life for a while. Hopefully that will happen because it’s a beautiful script, and there’re no car explosions, so I can’t imagine we’ll be widely distributed. Hopefully I’ll be shooting a short film in February, and I have a film lined up for the summer, which unfortunately I can’t talk about. But right now I’m just reading scripts and taking it one step at a time. This girl here’s out of control.

DC: It’s so hard to get a movie made you feel that if you do you better fuckin’ grab that opportunity by the nutsack and squeeze. I’ve been writing a lot since Juno. I have a horror movie that’ll hopefully go up, and I have a series on Showtime that Toni Collette just signed on to do, and then I’m writing a kind of college sex comedy from the female perspective. I saw Superbad and I started writing that night because I absolutely adore this movie, and I want to tell it from the ladies’ side.

ES: You’re like the female Judd Apatow.

DC: Thank you, I met Judd recently and I was so excited.

ES: Did you get along?

DC: Totally. And the funny thing was I had said in like five interviews, “I gotta meet Judd Apatow,” and I started to get really melodramatic about it, like, “I’m going to slit my wrists if I don’t meet him.” And then one day I get this e-mail that’s like, “I heard you might be wanting to meet with me.” I liked that he phrased it so subtly and not “Hey psycho.”

EP: “There’s more that life has to offer. Don’t slit your wrists!”

DC: The best part was it was late at night, and I was at the Austin Film Festival. I was getting into a bubble bath, and my Blackberry goes “ping” and it’s fuckin’ Judd Apatow. I got out of the tub and screamed, “YEEEEAH! THIS IS AS GOOD AS IT GETS! I’m in the bathtub and Judd Apatow just texted me.”

EP: Did you have phone sex?

DC: [Sarcastically] Yeah, I had phone sex with Judd Apatow. This kid’s on the line, I tell you.