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“I would’ve never thought to put Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, and Octavia Spencer in the same movie”…. That’s what everyone in writer/producer Diablo Cody’s life told the Oscar Winner when they learned who she had cast as the leads in her directorial debut. But you don’t blaze a singular trail through film (Juno – which  won Ms. Cody her Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2007, Jennifer’s Body, Young Adult) and television (The United States Of Tara) by thinking like the rest of the pack.

Nor do you do so by refusing to chart new waters…. Making her directorial debut, Cody presents Paradise (available on iTunes and On Demand as well as in theaters today) the charmingly off-kilter tale of one Lamb Mannerheim (former Dancing With The Stars pro-turned-actress Hough), a sweetly naïve Christian burn survivor whose search for some of life’s biggest answers leads her to Sin City, and a motley crew (played by Spencer and Brand) that just might be able to help.

Of course, though she’s trying on a new hat, Paradise is still based on a Diablo Cody-penned script, so that same singular, wickedly twisted – and insightful – way of seeing the world that fans have come to know and love is all over this thing. Recently, the charismatic scribe, along with two thirds of her inspired trio of leading actors (Hough and Spencer) sat down to discuss their surprisingly spiritual new film…

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Diablo, what made you realize that this was the right time for you to direct your first film?

“A lot of people in my life have encouraged me to try and I really felt that at this point what was holding me back was just garden variety fear, and that’s not a good reason to avoid doing something.”

Did you encounter many surprises throughout the process?

“I had never directed anything before: a commercial, a video, a short, a Funny or Die… nothing. I’d logged many set hours as a writer and producer so it wasn’t like I didn’t understand how things worked, but honestly, there were so many surprises…”

“I think you have this idea as a writer that when you direct you’re gonna be able to translate everything from the page directly into this film and it’s like No. There are budget constraints, there’s time constraints, there’s lighting constraints – sometimes you can’t shut down the part of the casino you need to shut down to get the shot.  So for me, that was the big surprise. You’re gonna have to make compromises all the time no matter what, even when you are the director… unless you have a 200 million dollar budget… and I imagine there’s compromises even there too.”

When you write,  do you envision certain actors inhabiting each role?

Cody: “I’m never optimistic enough to think about specific actors. I always assume that no one is gonna wanna be in the movie, nobody’s gonna give me the money for it, nobody’s gonna wanna make it, and I just try to approach it from a purely creative standpoint of doing something because it’s fun.”

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Julianne did you relate at all  to Lamb’s sheltered, religiously-controlled childhood?

“I grew up Mormon in Utah, and you go anywhere and it’s 99.9% LDS. So when I first left and went to London (Hough and her brother, Derek, were sent there to study dance when she was 10 and he was 13) it was like, What is Going On??!! I didn’t even know you could do this!! And it’s the same for Lamb… like, You can do this stuff?!! That’s crazy!!

“But the thing that’s stuck with me is that because I was raised that way, I (still carry with me) the same morals and standards, So as much as I want to sin – and I drink now and do certain things – I just can’t do it. There’s something in me that won’t allow me to go that far. I feel like (it’s) a really good balance of where I came from and where Hell is… which is LA.

after general laughter….

Did you enjoy zip-lining, Octavia (for an important scene in the film)?

Spencer: “Well, I’m a afraid of everything… I’m neurotic, so I was totally freaking out. (The company that operates the zip-line) sends a person up there, and I’m like, How safe is this? And they’re like, It’s totally safe! It’s totally safe! But then they hand you this form that basically says if you die, we’re not responsible, and I’m like, I’m gonna die?!! What’s happening?!!

“Then I thought you know what, that’s what this movie is about – living on the edge. I need to live on the edge! But I was really happy when the edge landed on that platform.”

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Diablo, speaking of living on the edge… Is it Lamb’s rebellious side that you most relate to?

Cody: “The way I relate to Lamb isn’t so much in an I’m going to rebel way – although I’ve done my share of that in my life. For me, I relate to the idea that we go through these experiences in our lives that are sometimes really crazy and really traumatic, and you feel like your molecules have been completely rearranged afterwards, and you wonder Can I ever get back to the person I was before? Can I ever get that innocence back?

“I want to believe that you can. I wanna believe that despite all of the things that I’ve done, all the stupid things that I’ve said in my life, any sin I’ve committed, I want to think I can get back to the person I was in kindergarten. I want to believe that the essential self doesn’t change.”

With that thought in mind, was it important  to show that rebelling from religion doesn’t always have to end in apostasy?

Cody: “I think people might hear the logline (of this film) and say, oh this going to be a movie that is anti-religion or anti-spirituality or, she abandons her church and goes and has fun for the first time in her life. But if you see the movie, you know that’s not what it’s about.”

“I’m actually a very spiritual person and I think that you sometimes have to find your own spirituality above the din of human voices, and that’s what this (movie) is about. (A sheltered girl) finding her own way and her own moral compass, maybe outside of the more conservative structure of her church.”

Julianne, as a trained dancer, was it difficult to portray Lamb’s limited mobility?

“In general, I’m always very animated, and the past three films that (I had done) before this were all singing and dancing movies (Burlesque, Footloose, Rock Of Ages); So what was cool about (the experience) was that all of that energy that I usually use that is so animated, I (was forced) to completely contain, and somehow I think that’s how it is for Lamb – who used to be a performer (prior to her accident).”

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Was there ever any talk of putting burn scars on Lamb’s face?

Cody: “Absolutely. Honestly, if I’d had my druthers, they would be. But how do I put this?… There are a lot of people who are more interested in making a commercial film, and it’s hard to put a girl on a poster who is disfigured.”

Hough: “(Diablo and I) both were like let’s do more!, let’s do more! And I remember during the (screen) test we did less and then once shooting started we brought it up a bit more.”

Cody: “Even during the color correction process (in post-production), it was (still) a conversation and sometimes even an argument because I wanted to take it far as I could.”

Octavia, how has your life changed after winning all those awards? (In addition to the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Spencer won the 2012 Golden Globe, BAFTA, and a slew of other statuettes for playing The Help‘s ever-resourceful Minnie Jackson.)

I love those awards… My life is, thank God, very much the same, but my career – I get to work with the best of the best and I get to have an opinion about the things I get to do and let me tell you that is great to have your voice heard so I wouldn’t trade any of it, and I won’t give em back.

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What’s it like to work with Russell?

Spencer: “He’s hysterical”.

Hough: “He’s like another form of human. I felt like I got along with him great because I would be like Russell, I don’t understand anything you are saying! You need to have one topic because I am so far behind!” And then he would reign it in a bit.”

Cody: “He’ really is from another planet. He’s a lot of fun. He has a really good heart and is extremely intelligent, which I think a lot of people are aware of…  And he was very dedicated to the part… but he can also be hard to corral: all that energy, you didn’t know where it was going sometimes.”

Octavia and Julianne, do you improvise at all when you work with a writer like Diablo?

“My job as an actor is to do what’s written and to offer ideas if I can’t get to what (the writer’s or director’s) intention for the character is. But the beauty of getting to work with Diablo Cody is getting to say her words. C’mon why would I want to get up there and try to make up something?”

Hough: “Exactly! I wanted to do this movie so I could work with Diablo!”

Cody: “I do like to collaborate with them though. I like to collaborate with actors.  If somebody asks me to change a line, I will do it. I don’t feel like I’m 100% married to the script.”

Did you get to have a girl’s night in Vegas during filming?

Hough: By “girls night” you mean taking a bath and going to bed? Definitely!  We were shooting nights so we would get in when the sun came up – actually when everybody else was going to bed.

Cody: “We had a lot of fun on set and then would just collapse when we got home.”

Spencer: “Every night was girl’s night… plus Russell!”