If you aren’t a teenage girl, you might not think that Kelly Fremon Craig’s debut, the coming of age movie The Edge of Seventeen, is for you, but in fact, the characters and situations are surprisingly relatable regardless of your age or gender.
Her movie stars Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) as Nadine, a teen outcast who only has one friend at high school, Haley Lu Richardson’s Krista. Nadine neither gets along with her widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick) nor her perfect older brother Darien (Blake Jenner), so when Krista starts dating Darien, it only causes more anxiety for Nadine, so she turns to her history teacher (Woody Harrelson) for advice, although he wants nothing to do with it.
It seems like a simple enough plot, but Nadine’s dialogue and how it’s delivered by Steinfeld is spot-on, and her interaction with the cast around her (particularly Harrelson), leads to lots of laughs as well as a well-earned emotional ending. Either way, it’s clear that Kelly Fremon Craig is an immense filmmaking talent that hopefully we’ll see more from in the near future.
LRM spoke with Craig on the phone a few weeks back, and if I got a little gushy, that’s because this was a movie that I really, really felt like totally got after seeing it twice.
LRM: When I first heard about this movie when it played Toronto, I read the description and decided it probably wasn’t for me. I’ve seen it twice now and it’s one of my favorite movies of the year. I was really able to connect with the characters.
Kelly Fremon Craig: Thank you so much. I’m so glad to hear that.
LRM: When I saw the movie I decided that either you were actually seventeen year old or this was a script you’ve been writing since you were seventeen that you’ve been trying to get made ever since. I’m not sure how much of this is stuff that happened to you, if at all, so what’s the story behind it?
Craig: Fortunately, what happened in the script didn't happen to me. I think what allowed me to write it and allowed me to feel into it was just having experienced a lot of what this character goes though. That general feeling like everybody has it figured out, except you. That's the feeling, I don't know if it ever quite goes away. I think it's easy at various points in your life to romanticize other peoples’ lives, maybe even now more with social media and everything where It's really to believe the filtered pictures. So yeah, in a lot of ways it was just about trying to capture that particular age truthfully and saying something about what it feels to be seventeen.
LRM: My other theory was that this was analogy for trying to pitch a script in Hollywood. You work on this script that’s a very personal thing and then you’re going to studios trying to get money to make it. Was it very hard to get this made?
Craig: It's interesting, I wrote the script as a spec, then sat down with my representatives. Jim Brooks is a writer and director that I had admired more than anybody else on the planet. His films were the films that made me want to make films. We talked about, let's see if there any chance he'll do it, knowing it was a just complete hail Mary pass that could 99.9 percent not work, and it ended up that he decided to take on the project, and then just began the process of working with him. Yeah, that was four years ago now.
LRM: I was curious about that, because he doesn't produce a lot of things, especially first time directors, so what were some of the things he brought to it? What was one of the big tips he gave you?
Craig: One of the really two great things that he said—well, a million great things, but two that changed me forever: One of them was at the very outset, he said let’s take a journalistic approach. Just go and interview a bunch of teenagers and make sure that you're getting the details right. I started that process, then quickly I became totally obsessed with it. I just loved interviewing people. I loved hanging out and being a fly on the wall, watching and observing and noticing little nuances. So I ended up doing it for about six months. The amazing thing is that, first of there's so many details that you just cant make up. There's so many details that come out of those interview sessions that turn into therapy sessions, in a way, that you just can't pull off the top of your head. In a lot of ways, I felt like it gave the script a sense of mission because suddenly you had faces. You had real people with real stores. Suddenly, I felt incredibly committed to getting their experience right, even though I wasn't telling their specific story, to get the essence of their experience at this age right. That's something I'll never not do. Any other project I'll always have a period of research. Actually after I did it, I went back to Jim and I said, "I have to throw everything away and start over."
LRM: Oh wow, okay.
Craig: I went and not a single line remains. Then there was a second draft, so I went back and I wrote that for another maybe six months or maybe longer. Then turned that one in, and that was the script that we made that you see.
LRM: Were you always planning on directing this from the very beginning?
Craig: I absolutely knew I wanted to direct it. I didn't know if I was going to be able to. On the first meeting that I sat down with Jim, I was so ready to make a pitch for myself as a director. When I sat down with him, one of the first things he said was, "I think the voice is so specific to you that I think you're the only person to direct it." I just fell out of my chair and then I was like, "Can you please put that in writing like right now?"
LRM: That's a vote of confidence. When James Brooks tell you that you should direct a movie, you don't say, "No," I imagine.
Craig: Right, yeah. (laughs) Yeah, I still don't know how those stars aligned quite…
LRM: The cast is obviously perfect and I think it’s one of the best things Hailee has done. In other movies, she always plays more adult roles and in this, she plays someone closer to her own age. How did you end up with her playing Nadine?
Craig: One of the biggest challenges on the film was finding Nadine. I auditioned over 1,000 girls, it was a year-long process. At some point, you’ve heard the lines so many times and you've heard them badly, you think, "Oh God, I don't know if anyone's ever going to walk through the door." For one reason or another we hadn't read Hailee, because she seems like an obvious person to bring in from the get-go, but for various reasons, it hadn't happened. Then She came in, and it felt miraculous. It felt like the skies opened up and the angels came in. First of all, the character has to be many different things. She's got to be able to nail the comedy, then she's going to be able to be vulnerable enough to just reach in and grab you by the heart. She could do both, in a way that nobody could. She's also I think she's so staggering about her as an actress is that she's just alive in every moment. Just the little nuances, the little things she does that are either funny or heart-breaking, are just stunning to me. Really, watching her, I felt in constant awe of her talent and the effortlessness of it, and the seamlessness of it. I don't know, she got the character so completely. It was throughout her whole body, it was the way she crossed her legs and held her arms and held her face, everything changed when she became Nadine. She just got who this person was from head to toe, which was cool.
LRM: I feel like I was sold right from that opening scene with Woody. It’s one of those great scenes that just clicked. I’m not sure at what point in filming you did that scene, but it’s just such a great scene.
Craig: It's interesting that you say that because that was before I ever knew who Nadine was or what I was writing. I just wrote that scene and I saw this girl come in and say this. I didn't know who it was, I didn't know where she was going. I didn't know what was happening, I didn't know why she was going to kill herself. I had no idea, I had no idea what the teacher was going to say either. Suddenly, at the end of that scene, I had two characters. I knew who they were just through that one scene. Then all of a sudden it was the whole thing developed off of it. It's interesting you say that. For me, the creative process was actually ... I understood who I was writing suddenly.
LRM: I have a quote on the poster saying that Woody is a “national treasure” and I stand by that quote.
Craig: (laughs) Oh, was that you? Oh, great!
LRM: It’s probably already a well-known fact that Woody’s a national treasure, but was that one of those characters that really came to life when Woody played him?
Craig: You know what? He so got who this guy was. He got so into it, he got into everything, what he's reading, what his shoes are, what his story with his wife is. He really got so into it. One of the really, really great things about working with incredibly talented people is, when they elevate your work. That was my experience with the whole cast, but certainly with Woody, he just got this guy. Then he could just keep riffing and playing and throwing out other lines, because he knew how he would sound, he knew what he would say, he just knew him.
LRM: I could probably talk to you about the music for my full fifteen minutes, because the musical choices were pretty much perfect. Very current and modern-day, and you use a Pixies song but it’s a new song of theirs, and then you only use the B-section of Spandau Ballet’s “True” which was amazing. The second time I saw the movie and realized you were going to cut just before you get to that big chorus everyone loves, that was amazing! How did you work with the music people to make that happen?
Craig: First of all, thank you so much for saying that. That was something I killed myself over. That's such an important thing to me. The sound has such a bearing on the tone of the film. Getting that right was so important to me. Also, in a lot of ways, you're hearing things that are source music that somebody is actually playing. Figuring out what would not only suite the tone of the scene but would be something someone was playing was its own challenge. I'm trying to think of what does this song say about this character that they're playing it at this particular time. It had to fit a lot of criteria, each song did. Another thing that was important to me is, I remember at that age, there was never not music. Wherever you would be with your friends or in your car, in your room, you're always playing something to reflect how you felt. That was really important to me, to kind of always have it in the background. Our score I’m so in love with. That happened really late in the game, and our r composer, Atli Örvarsson just came in ... One of my most treasured experiences on the whole thing was seeing him interpret the movie, and then be able to put that into a sound. To create a scene that felt distinctly her. That felt like witnessing some sort of magic trick. I don't know how a person creates music at all, I have no idea. I see somebody go, "I get this person and here's what they sound like," and for you to go, "Holy sh*t, yes, that's it! That's it!” was just miraculous.
LRM: You mentioned earlier how Nadine has to go through so many things. One of the things I noticed on a second viewing is that we always talk about character arc, but you created this emotional arc for the viewer where there’s points where we don’t really like Nadine at all. It's really interesting how you, in a good way manipulate our emotions where you really like her one moment and then maybe not as much now. Can you talk about that? Is that something that you discovered during the process that you could do that?
Craig: My center of everything was always a desire to really just tell the truth about this person’s internal life and how they're dealing with real things. Whether that was lovable or ugly or whatever it was, I was just was trying to be honest. I had this faith--and maybe this was something I think about life—that if you can capture it honestly enough, even if it's ugly, you can stay with the person. Because on some level, you can recognize something about that ugliness that lives in you. If it's truthful enough, if you can see why a person would do that, then I think you can stay with them. It was also important to me to just show every facet, to pull the curtain back and say, "This is who she is, warts and all. Love her or hate her." Because I also think that's how we all are. I think we all sometimes we're a$$holes. Sometimes we're petty. Sometimes we're faking being tough when we're really vulnerable. All of those things I've experienced, so it allowed me to have compassion for her even when she acts in a way that I wanted to just slap her around.
LRM: There’s an honesty to that. As you say, we all have that in us, but we try to hide it or deny it in some ways. Filmmakers also sometimes do that with their characters. If they have a nasty character, they try to give them some redemption, have them win you over and it doesn’t always work. But it worked so well in this movie, and I feel like your movie should be studied by filmmakers and film writers to see why it works so well.
Craig: Oh, what an incredible compliment. Thank you. I will never forget that, thank you.
LRM: Okay, no problem. I think our time is up but I’m really excited to see what you do next. I saw “Post Grad” and it was okay, but I think when a writer directs their own material, it almost always comes out better, if that’s an option.
Craig: Yeah, yeah. No, that was one of those experiences that I think most writers have where you write something and then it grows legs and runs away and you barely recognize it.
The Edge of Seventeen opens nationwide on Friday, November 18. Look for our interview with producer James L. Brooks soon.