Diablo Cody On ‘Tully’, Motherhood, and Her Collaboration With Jason Reitman

“There’s a darker side to [motherhood]. I know so many people who have suffered from postpartum depression.”
By  · Published on May 4th, 2018

“There’s a darker side to [motherhood]. I know so many people who have suffered from postpartum depression.”

In Tully, the third collaboration between Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody (and the second one to star Charlize Theron after Young Adult), we witness one of the most brutally honest representations of motherhood in American cinema. Sharply hilarious and graced with Cody’s biting wit at every turn, Tully follows Marlo (Theron), a middle-class mom fighting to maintain scrapes of sanity after she gives birth to her third child.

With financial struggles, a well-meaning but ultimately unhelpful husband (Roy Livingston) and a special-needs son, Marlo hits a wall of exhaustion until her affluent brother (Mark Duplass) and his wife give her the gift of nighttime childcare. Enter Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a youthful, eternally resourceful after-hours nanny, who declares, “I’m here to take care of you!” And she does exactly that.

During a recent conversation we had over the phone, Cody talked about the roots of her latest film, her own experiences with nighttime nannies, and the reflections of socioeconomic class on childcare. Below is an edited version of our largely spoiler-free conversation. 

FSR: At Sundance, you said you wrote this film after having your third child. Is it autobiographical in any way?

Diablo Cody: It’s definitely not autobiography, because my life is very different than Marlo’s. I work in Hollywood and I was fortunate enough to wind up doing something that I love. I have a big support system in my life as a working mom. Marlo does not have any of those things. She never really realized any of her dreams, and she’s kind of isolated, and her husband isn’t super available to her. My life doesn’t look like hers, and my marriage doesn’t look like hers, but the feelings of anxiety I felt when I became a mother, those were very real. I channeled all that into the movie. While the movie’s not autobiographical, it is deeply personal.

It’s hard to talk about Tully without giving away spoilers.

Yeah, I know. That’s been the challenge of talking about this movie. The less said the better.

Did you have any experience with night nannies yourself? This is the first time that I’ve heard of it.

Isn’t it fascinating?

Truly is. Such a great support for mothers, it looks like.

Yeah, it’s actually a brilliant idea. I had never heard of a night nanny either until I started working in LA. One night, I was at a cocktail party, and this was probably 10 years ago, and there was a woman there who was socializing, and looked fabulous, and was drinking champagne. She mentioned that she had a two-month-old baby at home. I said, “What? Why don’t you look completely bedraggled and exhausted?” She said, “Oh, we have a night nanny.” I said, “What is a night nanny?” She told me, and I was completely fascinated. Her husband was there, and he mentioned that he had never even met the night nanny, because she came in and out of the house in this very kind of stealth way. I thought, “Okay.” Certainly, at the time, I didn’t go, “I’m going to write a movie about this.”

Then, when I started having kids, I knew people in my social circle that had night nannies, but there was a part of me that judged it a little bit. I had a normal upbringing in the Midwest, where it’s just understood that you’re going to wake up with your own baby. Then, when I had my third child — at that point, I have two little kids, and I am working. I broke down, and I thought, “You know what? I’m going to give this a try.” It wound up being the most amazing experience ever. I thought, “God, every woman should have this kind of support.”

It definitely is a really inaccessibly bourgeois thing, but at the same time, it makes you realize, new moms need more support. We don’t really live in a tribal society anymore where you have a lot of other women around helping you. Moms are very isolated these days, so it’s like, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with needing that. It’s just, unfortunately, not available to most women

Sometimes I feel like we live in a culture that wants to shame women for needing that kind of support. 

Yeah, you really can’t [do it all]. I still grapple with a lot of guilt about my parenting, but I’m trying to be kinder to myself, because it is hard to do everything.

The relationship between Marlo and Tully is built so richly, and so dynamically. Can you talk about embellishing those characters a little bit and having them coexist in this strange kind of environment?

I feel like it’s been a long time since anybody asked Marlo anything about herself. You know, she’s been in a caretaker role, not only taking care of her kids, but taking care of her husband, and taking care of her home, and managing all of this stressful school stuff with a special-needs son. I think it’s been a long time since somebody sat down, and looked in her eyes, and asked her questions about herself, and her life, and her dreams, and where does she think she went wrong? Where did she go right? Tully comes in and penetrates her in a way, and cares for her, and shelters her. I think it’s just something she hasn’t experienced in a really long time. She’s got someone to cling to. Tully’s reliable, you know? She shows up at the same time every night.

I love that she has this quirky quality of having random bits of information about random things. And she just drops them when the timing is perfect. That was such a beautiful detail.

Thank you. [Laughs] Like you said, it’s hard to talk about the movie [spoiler-free]. But a lot of what Tully talks about feels random, and all of a sudden we find out that it’s not.

I really believe this film will make mothers everywhere feel a little less alone. You don’t sugar coat or glamorize what goes into parenting. You’re very honest about it all. And also for someone like me, who is in her forties, and who is not a mother by choice, it offers a refreshing point of view. I thought, “Okay, so what I imagined about parenting is actually real.”

I really appreciate that, because I definitely didn’t just write this movie for parents. I felt like in the last 10 years or so, we were starting to see more realistic portrayals of motherhood, but it was usually done in a comedic way. Like, “Oh, mommy needs wine.” That kind of humorous, “Oh my goodness. I’m so overwhelmed. Isn’t that hilarious?” There’s a darker side to it. I know so many people who have suffered from postpartum depression, and I know so many people who struggled with feeling more exhausted than grateful in those early days, when all you want to do is feel gratitude and joy. I feel like there’s so many movies about disaffected men and their problems, and this is a really, really common female experience, female challenge, that I had never … Well, I’m sure there are films about it that exist, and I’m in no way dismissing those. But I personally haven’t seen one. They can’t be all that common.

They really aren’t. I obviously cherish and respect motherhood. But this is probably the first time I didn’t feel somewhat judged by a movie about motherhood. The difficulty you’ll experience, if you can’t afford some kind of a support system, is real. And on that note, I love how you contrasted the two families: Marlo vs. her brother, who has access to all the comforts.

It was really important for me to show what a difference class makes, when it comes to the experience you can have as a parent. You meet a lot of very relaxed, attractive, laid back mommies in Los Angeles, and the reason they appear to be winning at everything is because they have money. It’s not because they are superior moms, or because they have it all figured out. It’s because they can afford to [hire help]. There’s a big difference between raising your children in comfort and struggling financially to provide for them. That’s another thing we haven’t really seen depicted in movies. You know, when Marlo and her husband go over to the brother’s house for the dinner party, there’s this nanny who just freaking whisks all the kids away, so that the adults can relax and have dinner. That’s a scenario that I’d see a lot in Hollywood with rich families. I’m actually not judging them. I’m just saying, I don’t think a lot of people realize how much privilege informs their experience as a parent and cushions them from the difficulties of being a parent.

Something as simple as if one of my kids has an issue, I can take them to an occupational therapist, and I can pay for it out of pocket. Some people have to sit and wait for that treatment to be approved, and they can wait years, and then their kid doesn’t get the services he/she needs in time. That shit is heavy. That’s the kind of thing that Marlo’s going through with her son, and I’ve heard some stories from so many people in my life.

I want to come to your partnership with Jason Reitman. For Tully, your third collaboration with him, did you already have a script before you went to him, or did he come to you? How does that dynamic usually play out?

Weirdly enough, Jason and I, we’ve made two other movies together, and this time, I had just had my third baby, and Jason invited me to come to his office to record some kind of video for a contest winner. It was something that was totally unrelated to our creative collaboration, and I came in, and we did the video together, and then when we finished, he said, “So, what are we doing next? Do you have any ideas for a movie?” I said, “Yes, I do, actually.” The idea for Tully had been circulating in my mind. I pitched him the entire thing, including the ending, and he said, “Great. When can I see that script?” I was able to send it to him about six weeks later. Then he was like, “We need to do this with Charlize,” and the ball just started rolling. We had all worked together before, and we had that trust. It was an easy project to put together. It didn’t languish in development hell.

I loved seeing Charlize Theron in this. Young Adult is one of my favorite films. I know that I’m not really supposed to love Mavis [Theron’s Young Adult character], because she does a lot of despicable things, but I do love her.

Thank you. I love when people love her. I love her, too. I know she’s difficult, and she’s prickly, and she’s a little bit evil, but for whatever reason, people really connected to that character, and it makes me so happy.

I understood where she was coming from. We all have an ugly side to us.

Oh, yeah, [we do]!

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.