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With her new movie 'Tully,' Diablo Cody delves into the dark side of parenting

Mackenzie Davis, left, plays a night nanny hired by Charlize Theron's Marlo in "Tully."

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By MICHAEL O’SULLIVAN | The Washington Post | Published: May 5, 2018

Who is Brook Busey-Maurio, and what did she do with Diablo Cody?

The distinctive pen name of the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Juno" -- which sounds like the moniker of a gunslinger in a spaghetti Western -- is never mentioned during a phone interview with the writer, who introduces herself by her legal name. (Born Brook Busey, Cody has been married to the actor and producer Dan Maurio since 2009.)

The tattooed wunderkind burst onto the movie scene 11 years ago with the tale of a smack-talking pregnant teenager -- and a resume that included a stint as a stripper. Now 39 and the mother of three young boys, Cody is making the interview rounds to discuss "Tully," her third collaboration with "Juno" director Jason Reitman and the duo’s second film starring Charlize Theron (the first was "Young Adult," in which the actress played an immature 30-something).

In the new movie, Theron plays Marlo, a 40-ish mother of two who decides, after the birth of her third child, to hire a "night nanny": a child-care worker who watches the baby while the parents sleep, waking Mommy only for periodic feedings. In the case of "Tully," she also cleans the house and bakes cupcakes, like a workaholic elf.

Written 2 1/2 years ago, in what Cody describes as a "postpartum fog," the movie arose out of the writer’s personal experience. After shunning what Cody calls the "ridiculous, bougie, L.A. concept" of a night nanny, she gave in after her third child, explaining that "with three boys under the age of 5, I had truly bitten off more than I could chew." Mackenzie Davis plays the 23-year-old title character, a hipster with the skills of a lactation expert and sleep coach who becomes, over the course of the film, Marlo’s best friend and mentor, ultimately leading her on a path to reconnect -- dangerously -- with her lost youth.

We spoke with Cody about the movie’s semi-autobiographical aspects, and its darker themes.

The Washington Post: You seem like you might be the "cool mom" at the PTA meetings. Am I wrong?
Cody:
That was what I wanted to be. I had originally imagined myself as the cool mom. The reality, however, as the mother of three boys, is that they need a lot of structure They crave rules, and they crave discipline. So I’m not as cool as I thought I was going to be. I mean, I do drive a cool car: a yellow muscle car.

What make?
It’s a Dodge Challenger. It’s the only cool thing I have left.

How does this movie fit into the continuum of your work with Jason Reitman, which seem to share a theme of growing up, perhaps reluctantly?
It’s funny, we didn’t really realize that these three films were of a piece until "Tully" was finished. Then it became shockingly obvious to us that we had somehow unwittingly made this coherent trilogy. I think it’s because I’m obsessed with the idea of transformation, honestly, and not just the projects I’ve done with Jason. I’m really interested in exploring how we stay connected to who we once were. For me, one of the most powerful images in "Juno" is actually at the very end of the movie, after she’s had the baby and made that decision, and she goes and has this really sweet, adolescent moment with her boyfriend, where they sing to each other. It shows that, even after everything she’s been through, she’s still a kid. In "Tully," I was exploring the same thing in the bar scene, where Marlo and Tully are sitting together, and Tully brings up the riddle of the ship: If you slowly replace every board in a ship -- one by one -- at the end, do you still have the old ship -- repaired -- or a brand-new ship? I feel, as an adult, like a new ship. I feel like every board in me has been replaced. And yet somehow, I am the same person I was in kindergarten.

There is this sense that, when we lose some aspect of our former selves -- when we age -- we have somehow become less than we were before. But isn’t the growth process a feature, rather than a glitch, of being human?
In a lot of ways, I do feel like my 40-year-old self is a massive improvement over my 25-year-old self. But society and pop culture are telling me otherwise. I’m aging out of important demographics. I’m not "hot" anymore. It’s interesting, I feel like I’m being rejected by society when I have more to offer than I ever have.

Your follow-up to "Juno" was the 2009 film "Jennifer’s Body," which our reviewer called "a fem-rage take on campy horror comedy," and which utilized Megan Fox’s body to comment on society’s obsession with appearance. At a time when the Twitterverse is abuzz with the "I Feel Pretty" backlash and discussion of Charlize Theron’s 50-pound weight gain for "Tully," I suspect you may have some thoughts about the subject.
Constantly.

Such as?
I haven’t seen "I Feel Pretty" yet. With that said, even having not seen it, I disagree with the backlash. I feel like when a powerful woman is having a big moment, people like to pile on. As for "Tully," I shouldn’t be surprised that so many people are talking about Charlize’s weight gain, and yet I was. This movie is dealing with all these difficult themes, and it’s starting a dialogue about postpartum depression, which is really common. And yet the thing people are most interested in is this: A hot woman gains 50 pounds, on purpose. When I watch the movie, I still see a completely beautiful woman.

You mentioned this film’s difficult themes. In your earlier work -- "Juno," "Young Adult" -- your signature is a sarcastic voice. Sarcasm often is used to mask something painful.
Oh, for sure.

With "Tully," I feel like you’ve dropped the sarcasm. Is it coming from a place that’s more vulnerable, more honest, less guarded?
I do think the movie is more sincere and open, if that’s what you mean. Marlo uses sarcasm as a defense mechanism, but we, as viewers, keep getting a peek behind that mask, repeatedly. Maybe I was writing from a more emotional place.

Was that intentional?
No. I wish I had the discipline to sit and down and say, "This time, I’m going to try and write something more sincere." I really am at the mercy of my instincts, at all times. I’m always just writing from my gut. What comes out comes out.

You paint a picture of harried parenthood and a sexless marriage. Isn’t that a little cliche?
Here’s the deal. The reason I have images of parenthood being difficult and of mature marriages being unexciting is that it’s reality for most people. It’s a cliche for a reason. I do feel that this movie does something that perhaps other representations of exhausted parenthood do not do. I always feel that there’s almost this sitcom approach to showing the difficulties of parenthood. It’s like one of those coffee mugs that says, "Mommy needs wine." You’re supposed to laugh at it. But we went to a darker place here. It’s not "Mommy needs wine." It’s "Mommy might kill herself." I think we went somewhere familiar, and then dug a trench under that familiar thing and went straight down.

Do you see "Tully" as connected in any way to your Showtime series "United States of Tara," which is also, in a different way, about the strains of motherhood?
Yes. I love that you ask that. They’re thematically the same. There are so many hats that we’re expected to wear as adults: Be a good parent, a good partner, a good employee, a good provider -- fit, healthy, sexy. It’s exhausting. Sometimes, you wish you had an army of stand-ins to help you achieve those things. It used to be just about survival. Now it’s also about "Do you have a six-pack ab?" I don’t have time for that s---.

"Tully" writer and producer Diablo Cody at the movie's April 18 premiere.
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