The LRM Interview: Producer James L. Brooks on Making The Edge of Seventeen

– by Edward Douglas

Opening today is Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut The Edge of Seventeen, and it is an impressive debut that works as a coming-of-age high school comedy in a way few others have

There’s a reason why it’s being compared to everything from Juno to Clueless to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and much of that has to do with the central character, 17-year-old Nadine, as played by Hailee Steinfeld. She’s a bit of an outcast, sure, but the words that come out of her mouth, as written by Craig, makes her an immediately compelling character, as we see her face all sorts of adversity from the death of her father to other more mundane teenage angst with such a wry sense of humor.

Craig had a great mentor-of-sorts in James L. Brooks, who signed on as a producer fairly early on in order to get the movie made. Brooks won three Oscars for his 1984 film Terms of Endearment, and went on to receive more nominations for producing and writing films like As Good as It Gets and Cameriewon Crowe’s Jerry Maguire. And as he reminded us, he also produced Cameron Crowe’s very first movie Say Anything… in 1989, and that was also a high school comedy that’s been cited in the decades since then.

LRM got on the phone with Brooks a few weeks back, shortly after speaking with Craig (an interview you can read here). 

LRM: We haven’t spoken for some time, but it’s nice to talk with you about a movie you produced. I already spoke to Kelly and she’s amazing, the movie is amazing, and I’m glad she found you or you found her to get this movie made. It was also nice to see the “Gracie Films” logo at the start of the movie because that’s something we haven’t seen in theaters for a while.

James L. Brooks:
(laughs) One of my most fun things is we had several previews and then we had previews where we put the logos on, and there was a little stir when the Gracie thing came up in its retro manner against all these super-now new companies buying their logo and our dumpy little logo comes up and there was a stir in the crowd. It’s the most fun I had in a long time.

LRM: It was also very comforting because you’re used to seeing it on TV late at night and it was comforting to see it in front of a movie for the first time in a while.

Brooks: Oh, that’s great, man! Thank you.

LRM: You haven’t produced other directors except for Cameron Crowe back in his early days…

And Wes Anderson… and Penny Marshall’s second film.

LRM: Wes Anderson, that’s right, so how did you end up finding Kelly or vice versa?

She found me. She sent in a script. I met her, and it wasn’t the script, it was her. She really impacted me. Then we began hanging out for four years, and she came in about two and a half yearsinto that process with a new script that her voice was full, it was a thrilling writer, and we took it from there.

LRM: Was the relationship at all like Nadine and her teacher at the beginning of the movie?

I don’t remember, and Kelly told me the other day that there wasn’t a word the same.  Julianne Cel, who I work with, said there were things the same, and I haven’t gone back and Kelly hasn’t gone back. Kelly recalls that there isn’t a line that’s the same.

LRM: I don’t think you’ve produced and directed anything that was necessarily a coming-of-age story. In “Spanglish” you had Adam Sandler’s daughter.

Brooks: Well, Say Anything was…and Wes’ movie Bottle Rocket was to an extent. 

LRM: Yeah, “Say Anything” definitely…

But this specific age, the specificity of this age I’d never done. I’m trying to think… I’ve written younger kids as characters, but not this age, and this age is very specific, but I do think that almost every movie is about coming of age in some way. Somebody learns something, somebody goes from A to B. The thing about this age is that if your whole life is on the line, and I think you feel that way in other movie stories, too, but it’s true of this time in all our lives. At this time in all our lives, it’s sort of now and never, and the idea of the future is more lucid and the present is everything, and there is a lot on the line, and you can screw yourself up forever. I think that’s generally true. Apparently, it’s true enough for people to really relate to this picture.

LRM: I definitely did and I don’t have a daughter, and I’m not a teenage girl, and I related to it on a different level than I normally would these movies. One thing I was speaking with Kelly about was Nadine’s emotional arc. You’ve done that quite brilliantly over the years, mixing comedy and drama, and having characters you like one moment but hate the next and vice versa. Can you talk about how you do those tonal shifts that are so hard?

Brooks: Yeah, I think the question is very well put, because first of all, I think that what comedy needs as a foundation is that you believe every moment on the picture that it’s real. This kind of comedy needs that, and so getting it right, telling the truth and making every little detail, believing it. The comedy depends on believing it, and that’s what makes a good picture, I think. 

LRM: In the case of Nadine, it seems like Kelly makes you deliberately not like her just so you have a reason to like her again later.

There’s no winks at the camera. There’s no pat thing. It’s not predictable, and how about that? It’s not predictable. You sit there not knowing where it’s heading. You sit there having an experience like hers you wouldn’t like. Hey, take it easy, you’re hard to take, but suddenly, from her rigorously doing the truth and the script creating the truth, you go on the ride with a character that’s tough to be around. By the way, it’s almost similar to As Good As It Gets in Jack (Nicholson’s) character. 

LRM: Absolutely… absolutely… and that’s what’s so interesting about the movie. I hope more people, not the typical target of teen girls, go to see the movie, as they may be able to relate to this movie in the same way.

Yeah, and that’s proving true of our previews. I mean, we’ve been through so many previews and so many screenings. Nobody has ever said the words “chick flick”.. nobody. Nobody ever, which is very unusual, but it’s about that specific age, but everybody, either you remember it or it brings you back or you relate to it in some way in a way we didn’t anticipate, that seems to be happening.

LRM: Have you always been a fan of doing test screenings for your movies?

Well, I wouldn’t use the word “fan.”  I’ve always done it extensively. It’s the roughest experience you have, but at a certain point, it’s crucial to editing a film.  

LRM: I spoke to Kelly earlier about casting Hailee and Woody, but I wanted to ask about casting Hayden Szeto as Erwin Kim, because I think he’s just an amazing acting find…

That’s been one of the great rides. This is his first thing, and he’s breakout, and he’s singular, and he’s massively talented. He’d been kicked around a little bit, wanting to be an actor, and he’d come close on a couple parts and then had the heartbreak of not getting them. He’s not only a terrific actor, he’s a brilliant improvisatory comic guy, which we used in this picture, and then he did this picture and then we all go away, and about a year later, we had the picture finished, something like that. And we’re at the Toronto Film Festival and he sees himself for the first time and he hears the audience go nuts over him. I swear to you, man, nobody in my life has scored with an audience quicker than he does in that first classroom scene when he says two fragments of a sentence, you can feel the audience say “I love this guy.” Now, he’s sitting there, first picture, kicked around, and afterwards, he was sobbing. 

LRM: That’s a great story. How are things going on your own films? Have you been writing something new to direct? It’s been a while since “How Do You Know,” a good five or six years I think.

Yeah, I’ve been working steady and a lot of it on a script, which is now, I’m beginning the fourth draft, and that’s what I’m doing aside from my other jobs. I dropped the script for the intensity of work on this movie, and I went back to it, the minute we were finished with the editing, the second, and I’m glad to have returned to it. We’ve had an important year on The Simpsons, too. 

You can read what else Brooks had to say about another Simpsons movie and possibly the return of The Critic below:

James L. Brooks on a 2nd Simpsons Movie and the Future of the Show

Featured, Film, Interviews, LRM Exclusives James L. Brooks, The Edge of Seventeen, Interview