Kelly Fremon Craig on her writing process, difficulties casting, and her Edge of Seventeen star Hailee Steinfeld.
“She’s a force of nature. First of all, I never would have made the film if she didn’t exist.” ‐ Kelly Fremon Craig on the film’s star, Hailee Steinfeld
Kelly Fremon Craig is the talented writer/director behind The Edge of Seventeen (a film that was selected as TIFF’s closing night gala presentation). The coming of age tale tells the story of Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), a cynical teenage girl whose world comes apart when her best friend starts dating her brother.
Amidst the height of TIFF’s festival madness, Craig was kind enough to take the time speak to FilmSchoolRejects. During our conversation we discussed writing authentic characters, working with the legendary James. L Brooks, and the golden piece of advice Brooks gave Craig that changed the way she writes.
Although we associate coming of age movies with youth (particularly high-school), Craig made an interesting point on why these films resonate with audiences of all ages. “I’ve always been interested in this particular age because it’s interesting to me, those times in your life when you’re shedding an old self and becoming a new version of yourself,” she told me. “I think it’s really at the crux of that. I feel like all throughout life you go through versions of that, kind of like you come of age on a loop throughout life as different circumstances change around you.”
If we never stop shedding our old selves, why focus on high school?
“It’s particularly interesting to me to explore how at this age it’s really easy to feel like everybody has life figured out except you, and how easy it is to romanticize other people’s lives and feel worse about your own,” she said. “I feel like that’s also a thing lately with social media. Where all you have to do is go online and see everyone else posting pictures of all the fun their having.” Craig chimes in with a chuckle as she adds, “It seems like everybody else is on vacation. Everybody else is having a much bigger, better life. Those voices in your head are particularly loud at this age when it’s really, really easy to feel like, ‘does anybody else feel like me?’ It’s real easy to feel sort of isolated and like nobody gets you.”
Screenwriters have a penchant for writing themselves into their scripts. I asked Craig which character she most related to. “I actually think that there’s pieces of me in all the characters,” she replied. “I think I was a little… I may on the outside look a little bit more like Darian (Blake Jenner), the brother character [the beautiful swan to Nadine’s ugly duckling], but on the inside, I was 100% a Nadine.”
The Edge of Seventeen went through a lengthy development period. Craig wrote the film’s spec script four years ago. Such a long duration leaves a lot of time to make changes. I asked Craig what kind of alterations she made to her script during the movie’s development. “After Jim [James L. Brooks] bought the spec and we started to develop it, one of the first things I did was start a period of research where I just talked to every teenager I could get my hands on to make sure that I was getting all the details right, that I was capturing accurately what was going on today,” Craig said.
Craig elaborated on her deep dive into the lives of highschool kids, “The thing that was so cool about that research is that you start to feel a real sense of mission. Because you talk to people who, this is their real life. Trying to just capture that accurately for them became a real commitment. And also, I think paying respect to the messiness of this age. It’s complicated, it’s messy, it’s absurd and it’s painful, and it’s beautiful. It’s a million things at once. I felt like I was trying to do right by them. And so that became a lot of the process,” Craig told me. After completing her extensive research, Craig wrote a second draft which is what they used for the casting process.
I asked Craig if her research turned up any drastic changes to teenage life since her time in high school. “I was struck more by how little has changed,” she replied. “It was the same feelings, the same insecurities, all the same, same, same, same. Obviously, technology has changed a ton, but all it’s doing is emphasizing the same things that were always there.”
Craig explained further, “I think high school, it’s always been a bit of a fishbowl where you know everything that’s going on in everybody’s life and it feels like there’s a lot of eyeballs on you and you feel judged and you’re judging everyone else. All that stuff is just online too, it’s all just happening through social media too, maybe even a little more heightened. I think in a way, probably serves to make kids feel even more isolated because it’s very easy to look at everybody else’s life online and go, they have it all together, look at all these photos their posting.”
The Edge of Seventeen’s main character, Nadine, is rather prickly. I questioned Craig about how she gets the audience to side with a difficult character. Craig said, “That was always a delicate balance and I think Hailee does that so beautifully. I think she’s able to be a jerk in one instance and then crack you up in another instance and then break your heart in another. She’s able to do all of those things, things that are antithetical, she’s able to do them all and turn on a dime.”
Craig continued to sing Steinfeld’s praises, “She’s a force of nature. First of all, I never would have made the film if she didn’t exist. I had auditioned a thousand girls, literally sat in front of a thousand girls and got to where I went, ‘We’re never going to be able to make this film. I think I’ve written a character nobody can play.’ You would hear the lines and go, ‘I hate this person.’ And then suddenly she [Steinfeld] came in and she could say them and you could see the pain underneath.
“You could empathize with her. When she was an asshole you saw the asshole in you. You know what I mean? You understood that it was masking something, some hurt underneath it. She just manages to be so lovable. Even when you’re screaming at her to do something different I think you get her. I think you get why she’s doing what she’s doing and relate on some level.”
Craig’s spec script caught the eye of legendary director/producer/screenwriter James L. Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Simpsons, Jerry Maguire). Brooks came on board as a producer and served as a mentor to Craig. Craig was over the moon to work with one of her idols. “The way it happened was when I wrote this spec, there’s nobody in the world that I had admired more, or have admired more than Jim. Literally nobody,” Craig said. “When I finished it, I knew it was an incredible long shot that I would ever get to work with him on it but he was the first long shot that I took thinking it would never ever, ever happen. And it ended up that he decided to buy it and then we developed it.”
Craig then added, “First of all, meeting him that first time was terrifying because it was just so weird and surreal to meet somebody whose work has really changed your life, has deeply changed your life in big periods. So it was really surreal to actually get to meet him and then over the past several years get to work so closely was just such an incredible experience. What I found is there is nobody in the world who works harder than he does, who cares more. He’s incredibly committed to telling the truth. To capturing life honestly. And that was just a big deal to have on the project. We would both just go nuts over making sure we were getting it right and really just trying to tell the truth about this age.”
One of many advantages to working with a legend is that you never know when they will drop a piece of invaluable knowledge. Craig said that Brooks shared a little gem that changed her writing process. “Early on when I sat down with Jim, something that he said changed my life forever as a writer. Absolutely, I’ll never write the same because of it.” Craig went on to recount, “When we sat down I kind of started to do the conversation about basics. On page seven, dah, dah, dah, and the second act crisis and talking about the script in these terms. We stopped and he said, ‘The most important thing that you have to figure out is what do you want to say about life in this story.’ And there was something about that which just made me completely rethink everything. I think part of the reason his films are so timeless and iconic is because they’re all doing that. They’re all knocking at that door. They’re all exploring something universal about life that we can all feel into. He made it clear to me. I suddenly understood why his films had meant so much to me.”
The Edge of Seventeen is the type of coming of age gem that will mean a lot to a new generation of moviegoers. Audiences around the country will have the opportunity to catch The Edge of Seventeen, when it opens on November 18, 2016.
Related Topics: Filmmaking