Screenwriters follow different paths
Harwood, Cody both left-field contenders
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."