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Diablo Cody on Ricki and the Flash, Sexism in Hollywood, and Her Sweet Valley High Movie

Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

If you’re used to Diablo Cody’s screenplays about the young and acerbic, you may be surprised by her new film, Ricki and the Flash. It follows a 60-something bar rocker (played by Meryl Streep) who’s so far outside pop culture’s cool mainstream that she cheerfully voted for George W. Bush — twice! But in her own way, Ricki is just as complicated as the heroines in Cody’s Juno and Young Adult, and she’s grappling with the family she left behind decades ago to pursue her rock dreams in California … dreams that have ostensibly led to little, since she still lives in a rundown apartment and plays her cover songs at a half-full bar deep in the San Fernando Valley. What did Cody see in Ricki, and how did the Oscar-winning writer channel some of her own frustrations into the character? Vulture sat down with her to find out.

Ricki has a potent monologue where she talks about all the kids Mick Jagger has had with separate mothers, and how men can get away with being an absentee parent in a way that women can’t. It feels like a double standard that’s been on your mind for a while.
That was me expressing my frustration not just as a mom, but as a writer. I feel like if it were Jack Nicholson in this role, people would find him lovable and funny and maybe not as provocative as they’re seeing Ricki, because there’s something about the idea of a woman who prioritizes her own creative passions that freaks people out. But at the same time, that scene is funny to me because she’s making a pretty insane comparison. She’s not Mick Jagger. She’s my queen, and she’s Mick Jagger to me, but her children do not perceive her as Mick Jagger. There’s a lot more going on there than her just being female — it’s also that she never brought in a penny from her music.

It reminded me of something your Jennifer’s Body director Karyn Kusama recently told us: that when she went in to meet with a potential cinematographer, he said, “How terrible for your child that you’re leaving him behind to direct this movie.”
I read that and I was horrified. I get asked stuff like that all the time, and the fact of the matter is that I do have to function differently as a woman. When I went to New York for this film, I brought my kids, whereas with a lot of guys, their kids would stay behind with their amazing stay-at-home wives who handle everything. I don’t have that. It’s definitely something I think about a lot, although I’m certainly not going to wallow in self-pity, because I have a cool job and a lot of support. But it’s tough. Guys are just expected to provide for their families, and if a woman is doing the exact same thing, it’s seen as a selfish lark as opposed to a decision that’s going to benefit them.

There are a lot of double standards in pop culture. When we write about you or Amy Schumer or Lena Dunham or Mindy Kaling, the comments are flooded with vitriol in a way that they’re not if we write about, say, Louis C.K.
Do you see a pattern? [Laughs.] It’s fascinating to me. It used to just depress me, and now I feel like I have some distance from it and observe it with fascination. But it’s sickening.

Did you read Jill Soloway’s recent speech about reclaiming the female gaze?
It was amazing. I worked with Jill, she was the showrunner for a single season of United States of Tara, and she’s one of my creative heroes. She scared the shit out of people because she’s so talented, so brilliant, and so outspoken about feminism, and when you put the two of us together, it was terrifying. They forcibly separated us.

It can be surprising for straight men when something isn’t made for them. So much of pop culture is conceived with them in mind.
That’s one of the reasons that, when writing this, it was important to me that Ricki was of a certain age. I didn’t write it about a mother of young children who was struggling to be a rock star. To me, there’s the amazing idea of the last fuckable day that Amy Schumer came up with, the idea that once a woman gets past a certain age and she’s still trying to speak and express [herself], it’s seen as pathetic and repulsive. That’s what’s playing out with Madonna right now. I think people feel like Madonna just should have shut up ten years ago, or vanished.

At what point did Meryl Streep come onboard Ricki? Were you selecting songs with her in mind?
Music and licensing is so complicated. When I was writing the script, I never thought Meryl was going to play the lead. I was in kind of a Searching for Debra Winger mind-set where I thought, Let’s find someone that we haven’t seen in a really long time, and they can come and play this role that is kinda juicy. But as I got closer to the end, I couldn’t stop thinking about Meryl Streep. I thought, Oh God, it would be such a dream if we could get her. Point being, I wasn’t putting songs in the script and saying, “Oh, Meryl would sound great singing this,” because I wasn’t that delusional. I was just picking songs that I loved, and then when Jonathan Demme came on to direct, that really changed the music-selection process quite a bit.

Ricki gigs at a Valley bar in Tarzana, which feels like a very specific choice. I know you live in the Valley now. Why’d you pick Tarzana?
Well, there’s this bar out in Tarzana called the Maui Sugar Mill Saloon that I love. It has a very specific vibe, as do many of the bars in the Encino/Tarzana area, and I just thought to myself, This is where the Flash plays. Like, this is their circuit. The thing I love about the Valley is that it’s Hollywood-adjacent, so you’re so close to the dream … but you’re over the hill. So it’s like a literal geographic expression of who Ricki is.

Is it also a way of exploring an alternate timeline where you moved to Hollywood and things went badly for you?
I mean, I feel like that could still happen! Ricki definitely feels like the Ghost of Christmas Future to me, in some ways. I guess I never had the stereotypical experience of coming out here and being a waitress and having to knock on a million doors, but the other side of things has always been intriguing to me. I’m not beginning to compare myself to this man, but it’s why I’m so obsessed with P.T. Anderson’s movies. He’s just a master at conveying that sense of emptiness that you sometimes feel when you’re driving down Ventura at night.

It was recently announced that you’re writing a pilot with Tig Notaro and Louis C.K. that’s set to star Tig.
I cannot believe how long that situation was kept under wraps, because we wrote that script last summer and it starts shooting in a couple weeks. I was originally contacted by Tig and Louis, much to my surprise, because I really do not see myself as part of that circle of coolness that they belong to. I was like, “Really, you guys want to work with me? Okay.” As a writer, it’s kind of a freebie to write for Tig because she has such a specific voice. It’s like, “You’re the greatest character ever and I didn’t even have to create you.”

What about some of the other announced projects you’ve been working on for a while? There’s your talk show with TBS …
I thought you were gonna ask me about Sweet Valley High. I was so excited to go on a rant about that.

Oh, we’ll get to that. But first, what happened to that talk show, which the network announced last year?
I shot a pilot for it and it didn’t go forward. That sucked, but it was so much fun. It was so campy, it was like Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Perhaps it would have been a better project for another network. It was really off-the-wall, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it another way. My issue is that I’m actually not that great on camera but I love sitting down with celebrities and picking their brains about weird shit, so I was hoping that I’d get an opportunity to do that for a bigger audience. But nobody wants to see my ass, so it’s not happening.

Okay, so, Sweet Valley High. You’ve been attached to it forever, and it’s based on a huge book series. Why has this movie not been made?
From your lips to God’s ears! I get asked about Sweet Valley High more than anything else, and it’s interesting that a project that didn’t go forward would get that many questions. That shows there’s a huge appetite out there for a Sweet Valley High movie. I just can’t get the fucking thing made!

It’s my understanding that this is meant to be a musical, right?
Yes! The Next to Normal guys wrote the songs. They’re Pulitzer Prize–winners!

So in a universe where Pitch Perfect is one of the biggest female-fronted franchises out there, another movie aimed at young girls featuring strong musical elements is still in development hell?
I know! I’m gonna take another swing at the script because I wrote it in 2009. I’m gonna rewrite it and just keep pushing forward, because it would make me so happy to see that movie go. But making big studio movies is hard. They get stalled a lot. With something like Ricki and the Flash, I assure you, it would still be languishing somewhere if Meryl Streep hadn’t specifically come on and said, “I want to do this.” You always need that wild-card element who actually gets things moving. Maybe if Jennifer Lawrence said tomorrow that she wants to play Elizabeth and Jessica, the movie gets made.

Should we put that out there?
Please. Jennifer Lawrence, you can get me an automatic green-light for Sweet Valley High. Let’s do this!

What’s your own personal ratio of Jessica and Elizabeth? Are you more like the bad-girl twin, or the good one?
It’s so hard to say. Everyone likes Jessica more, even though she’s a beast.

It’s the same thing with Anna and Elsa in Frozen. Little girls don’t really give a shit about Anna, do they?
Every girl likes Elsa, although I have a theory about that! I just feel that as a society, there’s just this deeply ingrained, weird, racist obsession with platinum blondes. Little girls just like the hair. [Laughs.] I would love to have seen how that might have played out differently with a hair-color swap. Maybe I’m wrong! Wait, where was I?

I was asking you whether you’re the Elizabeth or the Jessica.
I’ve never been responsible or type-A like Elizabeth, but I’m also not an awesome dick like Jessica. I’m probably the Enid Rollins.

Diablo Cody on Ricki and the Flash, Sexism