Diablo Cody’s worlds are for the outsiders. The Oscar-winning screenwriter has taken us from a satanic ritual in Jennifer’s Body to a high-school track field in Juno, but none of her settings is as technicolor as Lisa Frankenstein, the Zelda Williams-directed film hitting theaters Feb. 9. A retelling of the Mary Shelley novel, the movie is a vibrant mashup of big hair and Pixies needle drops that would make maximalists like Pedro Almodóvar proud.
The film follows 17-year-old misfit Lisa Swallows (Katherine Newton), whose mother has just been brutally killed by an axe murderer. Sent to live with her dad, new stepmom, and stepsister, Lisa spends most of her time in a haunted cemetery ogling the bust of a man who died hundreds of years prior. Thanks to a malfunctioning tanning bed, he is brought back to life one stormy night in the form of a semi-mute creature (an unrecognizable Cole Sprouse). What follows is a gothic love story in the tradition of what Cody calls “build-a-b*tch” narratives, where men have built “the perfect woman” in films like Weird Science. (Cue Bella Poarch!) Cody subverts the genre, having Lisa construct the perfect man-creature, who protects her from forces of evil like volatile stepmothers and teenage assaulters, all while wearing a Violent Femmes band tee.
NYLON caught up with Cody ahead of the film’s release to chat about her return to the horror genre, a potential Jennifer’s Body sequel, and the screenwriting rules she broke for Lisa Frankenstein.
When did you first get the idea and when did you start writing it?
I had this idea of a love story between a living girl and a dead guy germinating in my mind. I think I envisioned it as a Twilight-type melodrama, and then when I actually sat down and started writing it in 2020, I quickly realized it was definitely going to have more comedy and camp elements to it. I was really trying to create a colorful world. The process itself was pretty quick, but then I was left with this kind of square peg of a script and thought, “Who's going to make this?” It's not easy these days to get films like this made, and particularly not in theaters.
Can you talk about the “build-a-b*tch”concept and why you wanted to transpose that?
I feel like we've had stories in the culture about men envisioning the perfect woman, even down to the old Pygmalion stories. When I was growing up in the ‘80s, I was a big John Hughes fan. There was this movie Weird Science, which was about these two dudes creating the perfect woman, and they're literally sitting at their big ’80s computer adjusting the size of her boobs on screen. I think it was really impactful on me as a kid. I remember thinking, “Oh, we have these narratives out there about what men want and what would this look like if we flipped the script?”
I love that in the film, the object of the young female gaze is just someone who listens to you.
She has him fully friend-zoned for a lot of the movie, but like you said, he has the ear to listen. She's able to repurpose the hand of her assaulter and he uses it as a tool of pleasure, which we don't really get to see. I just said “a tool of pleasure.” That's so cringe. God, stop me. This is what happens when you're 45. You just start to humiliate yourself. He is the ultimate listener and he's gentle and I think that it's not what everyone wants, but I think it's an expression of what some women want … It was what I wanted when I was Lisa's age.
What about the ‘80s were you interested in? Why did you want to set it then?
I have a very strong nostalgia connection to the ‘80s because that was when I grew up. This movie is set in 1989, and I was 11 then, so I wasn't quite Lisa's age, but I was completely obsessed with teenagers. The girls had big hair and harsh eyeliner and it was, aesthetically, a really extra decade, and so obviously that lends itself to cinema. Zelda had a lot of fun with that. Plus, I was going to reanimate this guy with a tanning bed, so it had to be the ‘80s.
Did you have any of those big needle-drop musical moments in mind while writing?
They always tell you as a screenwriter that you should not put specific songs in your scripts because first of all, it tends to be a turnoff for attaching directors. But I'm never able to control myself, and luckily Zelda is such a great collaborator. She saw those songs and was like, “I want to get as many of those as I can for you.” She immediately understood the vibe. There's this very specific subgenre of late ‘80s goth music right on the verge of punk breaking in the ‘90s. I'm thrilled that we got a Pixies song and of course we have the ‘80s pop, like REO Speedwagon. But I was like, if I can use this movie to spoon-feed Galaxie 500 to Gen Z, I will.
This is your first horror film since Jennifer's Body. What was your approach to this horror story versus that one?
They're different, but I think they're cousins. When I was writing Jennifer's Body, I was so energized because that was the genre I had always wanted to work in, and suddenly I was being given the opportunity. I was in a really good place in my career at that time because I had just come off winning an Oscar. When that happens, there's this very short window of time where people come to you and say, “You can do whatever you want. Here's the financing.” So I said, “I know exactly what I want to do. It's this teenage-girl cannibal movie.” Somehow, we were actually able to make that movie, and I loved it so much, and the director loved it, and we were so proud of it.
And then it was an absolute catastrophic flop. It wasn't just a failure at the box office. There was just such incredibly mean dialogue around the movie, because I guess Megan [Fox] had the audacity to say some true things in an interview. The cultural attitude was, “You should just be grateful to be in show business.” That was a rough time.
Suddenly over the last couple of years, there's been this renewed appreciation for the movie and it's found a new audience. If that hadn't happened, I would've never had the confidence to go back into this genre because I had just internalized a long time ago that nobody wanted a horror comedy from me. Now that I realize the audience is actually there for that now, I was so excited. It was healing. It was something I never dreamed would happen.
You recently said that you want to do a sequel to Jennifer's Body. Can you talk about that?
I think that was always my dream, but I certainly didn't think it would be realistic. People rarely want to make sequels to films that don't perform. Now I feel like it could be a possibility. Although I've been saying all along, to my knowledge, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie was not a hit in its time, and yet the TV show was super successful, so that's the comparison I keep using as I desperately try to pitch this project around town. I’m ready to go. I just need to assemble the right team that believes in me.
What would the sequel look like?
I have no idea, because I thought to myself, “You could do a sequel where Jennifer and Needy are adults now. We can bring Jennifer back.” We can do anything we want in this world. I could do a prequel, we could do a musical. The possibilities are endless.
Have you and Megan Fox or Amanda Seyfried ever talked about the Jennifer’s Body backlash?
I've talked to Amanda since then. We've never really had a serious conversation about what happened with Jennifer's Body. However, Megan and I have on several occasions, and because Amanda kind of emerged from that unscathed — obviously it was painful for her to be in a movie that was dragged to hell — but it was really Megan who took the brunt of the criticism at that time. It traumatized her for sure, and it sucked for me as well. We have talked about it, and I think we do feel vindicated now, but at the same time, it would've been nice if that hadn't happened at all. That would've been ideal.
Are there any other projects you're really excited about or genres you want to step into?
I started my career writing comedy, and I would like to do that again because the last movie I did before this was Tully, which was semi-autobiographical and really serious about postpartum depression. To be in Lisa Frankenstein land, which feels a lot brighter, I just keep thinking, “All right, next one, I just want to write something really funny.” I want to write another comedy like Juno. It's been a long time since I did that.
What is something you haven’t been asked yet about this film?
Not that many people have really asked me what the movie means emotionally. It’s really about the fact that a culture wants us to move on from traumatic events. It's in the best interest of the culture that we move on and just start working and buying things again. I think that the Victorians had a different attitude toward grief, and in this movie, Lisa is allowed to have a full grieving process for the loss of her mother and literally embrace death in the form of this creature. And for me, that was a really important core theme.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.