Interview: 'The Edge Of Seventeen' Director Kelly Fremon Craig & Producer James L. Brooks On Reinventing The Teen Movie

The Edge of Seventeen is the kind of movie that could change someone's life. Rarely has a "teen comedy" been so brutally honest and so agonizingly real, portraying the pain of being a young adult with empathy, immediacy, and a wicked sense of humor. In the lead role of Nadine Byrd, Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld crafts one of the great teen antiheroes – you're always on her side even when she's making the worst possible decision.

The is a combination of fresh and seasoned talent, with first-time writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig teaming up with veteran producer (and film and television legend) James L. Brooks. To interview them is to discover a duo who are on the same page in the best possible ways, artists concerned with telling honest stories about people who feel real. While the subject at hand is The Edge of Seventeen, we found time to talk about the importance of research, diversity in filmmaking, and the ongoing battle with depression. And yes, I managed to find a way to talk oh-so-briefly about Brooks' masterpiece Broadcast News.

It's so nice to see a great teen movie again. It's a genre that seems to fall into certain patterns and templates and rhythms over time. When you set out to make this movie, was the goal to make something that defied what you'd seen before? Or answered questions that you wanted answered? 

Craig: I really didn't think of it in the context of a long line of teen movies. I really was just thinking about this particular person, Nadine, and wanting to explore what she was going through in a way that was truthful. It was never... for me, it was never about, "Oh, let me make sure I avoid these particular teen tropes!" or whatever. It was just, here's my idea for this story and how do I tell it as honestly as possible? You know? And as specifically as possible.

[To Brooks] Was the honestly what won you over when you read it?

Brooks: Actually, what I was thinking about when you were saying that was... I used to be, well, I'm a little crazy. And when I was doing my first television series, somebody called it a sitcom and I would get– [starts pounding the table with mock anger]

Because a sitcom meant that there was a situation that was funny and we were all about the people and don't label me with that! And teen-com to me, with no offense to you, is a patronizing term. I mean, this is human beings! You're always writing about human beings! That's the game. Somehow, you're trying to do something with humanity, aren't you? Just, anytime you're out. Our conversation was always anti-genre, even though it's okay when people put you in a genre. I hope our genre is original, brand new, original filmmaker, great movie. [Laughs] I like that genre!

When you did read the screenplay and come on board, was role that of a mentor? Or did you let [Kelly] do her own thing?

Brooks: It was four years of chats. [Laughs] Kelly very much did her own thing. I believe in research. She did it remarkably well. We'd go over the tapes and we'd talk. We'd talk a lot. And then, after a couple of years, a second draft came in and it was just spectacular.

[To Craig] Was there something in those conversations that stands out? Something that helped make the story stick?

Craig: There were two big things. Number one. When we first sat down, Jim said "Go interview a bunch of teenagers and hang out at high schools and just make sure you're getting this world right." Just make sure the details are right. So I went off and did that for six months. I got more into it than I probably should have. I loved it. I just loved talking to different people this age and asking them questions and having follow-ups. It was just... It turned into great group therapy in a lot of ways for these kids and also for me. Because a lot of what they were saying was universal and true and I could it myself and it took me right back there. It just gave me a real sense of mission in terms of what I wanted to say. So that was a defining thing for me because it made me realize I would never ever write anything again without doing that research. So that was a huge gift to me.

And the other thing Jim said, and this was absolutely life-altering, was "The first and most important thing you have to answer is, what is this movie saying about life?" That's number one. That was such a big deal because I had spent plenty of time with producers who would say "Okay, what's happening on page 15 and then we need a set piece..." and doing that whole thing. To just have somebody say to me, "What do you care about?" That you want to write about? What matters to you that you want to say? It was "Oh my God, oh my God. Thank you! Thank you!" It sent me back to why I wanted to write in the first place. You can lose that over the course of... you can just have that beaten out of you in the industry. [Laughs] There are a lot of things pushing against that. It was never nice to go back there and I'll never approach a script again without that being the question echoing through my head from the get-go.

One of the things I found so refreshing about this movie, and this is evident in all of Mr. Brooks' films as well, is that there's empathy for every single character.

Brooks: Interesting.

Like the jock older brother, who you keep expecting to be a character he never is. He actually reminded me of William Hurt in Broadcast News, a character who looks like a one-note dummy when you first meet him but turns out to be a dummy with a so much soul. What's the process in making characters like this not be walking cartoons?

Brooks: You know, it's funny you mention Bill Hurt. That's probably the greatest lesson I ever got because I was doing the research on that and I was doing the pretty boy jerk who was succeeding in news. And I interviewed somebody I thought was a pretty boy jerk in news. And the pretty boy jerk knew people talked about him like he was a pretty boy jerk. And I felt like a shitheel because of his vulnerability as it was. I guess that's the best thing that ever happened to me. That moment that informed the writing of that character, once I got that pie in the face, was everything.

So it all comes back to research again.

Brooks: Yeah. Sometimes, it's not even what they say. I've researched 50-year-old women of a certain economic thing, which sounds like a funny thing to research. But when you're sitting with them, and it was in Texas, and you're interviewing them and the sun starts to set and you see that once you leave them alone in that house... that feeling informs the writing. It was nothing that was said, but that gives you a sense of responsibility, a sense of insight.

[To Craig] Before we move on, I want to get your perspective on this. We initially don't like the older brother because we're seeing him through Nadine's eyes. How do you go about revealing his real self to both her and the audience?

Craig: I really wanted us to see him through her eyes and see him the way she sees him at first and reveal him through her eyes, too. The whole movie is through her perspective. She thinks she knows one thing. She thinks she has the world nailed down and knows everything and then realizes that there's a whole lot she doesn't. And thank God. You know? Thank God!

Brooks: And what I love about it, and there were a lot of discussions about this, we always talked about what a surprise it was when he finally unloaded and said what he had to say. That was always supposed to be "now you get it." But a lot of the steps were just so important and I think Blake [Jenner, who plays Darian] did a great job. I just think, if you look back at the movie, all the indications that lead to the monologue are in his movie.

Craig: Yes! I was just going to say that. I was just going to say there are all these little plants you could miss.

Brooks: And some you can't miss! Like "I'm so glad I have you."

Craig: Yes!

Brooks: You're getting information and it's the most gorgeous piece of exposition you could possibly have.

Let's talk about Hailee Steinfeld, who's the center of the movie. I knew her from other movies like True Grit, but this feels like a real star-marking performance. This is something that people will remember. As much as I love [The Edge of Seventeen] right now, if I had seen this movie as a teenager, if I had seen it when I was in her shoes, it could have profoundly changed my life. She captures so much of the teenage experience in such an honest way. 

Brooks: Oh, wow.

How did you cast her? How did she influence the movie?

Craig: First of all, if she didn't exist, the movie wouldn't exist. We went through such an insane casting process. A year of casting, of reading every girl under the sun for the role. It just wasn't happening. It wasn't happening. Because it's such a tough role. You have to stay with her when she's a shit! You've still got to be on her team or weather that. Even if you don't like her for a second, she has to be able to bring you back. After having read that many girls and feeling that she doesn't exist, it's not going to happen... and then Hailee walked in and it was oh my god... that's the voice! That's her! Not only that, but Hailee was putting in all of these other little details I didn't even imagine. She's riffing. She's taking the character and growing her. It was awe-inspiring and I felt that way throughout the entire making of the film. She got who this person was so much that she could just play.

Brooks: And how elegant her comedy is. Last night [at the screening], I saw her just deliver a joke just that–

[Both Craig and Brooks erupt into laughter over this undisclosed moment]

Craig: Yes! Yes! Yes!

Brooks: That's big time. She's everything we're saying and she has comedy chops.

the edge of seventeen interview

There are so many moments in the movie that connected with me and feel so familiar. What stuck with me the most, and I'm going to paraphrase two lines of dialogue, was Nadine talking about waking up and realizing you have to spend the rest of your life with yourself and later, her talking about being outside of your body and hating everything you can see about yourself. I feel like those two moments are some of the best encapsulations of depression I've seen in any movie.

Craig: Oh, man. That's...

How do you explore that kind of uncontrollable and irrational self-loathing? Teenager or not, a lot of people know those feelings well.

Brooks: That's got to be the best take on the picture we've ever heard.

Craig: It's absolutely something I've dealt with and still deal with. Some days it's better and some days it's worse. It was important for me to have that particular speech at the end. It was such an important thing for me to say. When you talk about certain things, the thing that's gnawing at you, that you feel like you have to write, trying to describe that feeling was a big deal to me. I wonder if it's almost like, in a way trying to say, "Anyone else out there feel this?!" You know? The really beautiful thing is meeting people who say, "Oh my God, I felt that same fucked-up thing so many times." In some ways, that takes the sting out of it.

Brooks: I almost want to show you, if one of us can find it. Kelly saw online a [girl like] Nadine, having seen the picture, and doing this string of tweets right after she saw it and it was so much what you're talking about. Let me see if I can find it. [Brooks takes out his phone and starts searching] You emailed it to me, I think.

Craig: I think so.

While he looks for that, I'll ask about Woody Harrelson. I have this sickness where I empathize with the principals and teachers in high school movies. I quietly root on the principal in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

[Everyone laughs]

But I like Mr. Bruner because he's just battered and beaten down enough to feel like a real teacher but just inspirational enough for you to understand why he keeps on teaching. 

Craig: You know, it's interesting how he came about. When I wrote the first scene, where she walks into his classroom and says "I'm going to kill myself," I didn't know who... I knew she was talking to somebody and I had her say it. All of a sudden, I was faced with "What does he say?" And then I got the idea of him saying "I've written my own suicide note." It was suddenly, in that moment, that I could see who he was. It's weird how characters come about like that. It's just a line where you can say "I get who this person is." And suddenly it's just off and running. Woody was just...nobody else could have done it. His comic timing is so precise, so good. I'm in awe of him. And [Mr. Bruner] is so cool! He's like an antihero. You want to be that guy. That's also Woody Harrelson in life.

Brooks: He's a mysterious character, even as he's enormously accessible. It's like a magic trick. Here's what I was talking about. [Brooks hands me his phone and I read a string of exuberant tweets from a girl who really, really loved The Edge of Seventeen]

That's how I felt last night.

[Everyone laughs]

And since she brought this up in this string of tweets, I'm going to bring it up. At /Film, one of my editors is Asian-American and she's always so rightfully angry about the lack of good roles for Asian actors.

Craig: Yes!

And this movie has this charming romantic hero who just so happens to be Asian. The movie never pauses to pat itself on the back. This is the world. Go for it. Was that in the script? Or did you cast Hayden Szeto first?

Craig: That was always in the script and it was always important to me that it wasn't a big deal. It wasn't really mentioned. There's one little passing mention when she's on the Ferris Wheel.

Brooks: And one great joke.

Craig: Exactly. Because that was how I grew up. I think that's how we all grow up. There's no sense of... It bothers me that, a lot of times in film and television, it's a deal. This is the Asian character! And this is the back character! It was important to me that it was just "This is a person."

Brooks: But a lot of Asians have reacted to the character. One guy in a preview audience, an Asian guy, said, "Finally, an Asian nerd gets the girl!"

There's a universality to the movie. I think so many people from so many backgrounds and lifestyles will find something in it that is recognizable to them. But so much of what happens feels so incredibly specific, like it had happened to you or someone you know. How do you develop something so personal?

Brooks: I think there are three things. One is you feel it and you hope to God you're not alone in feeling it. The other is that if you hear something three times in research, it's universal. And I think specifics lead to universality. I think with general, you get lost. But you know a specific. A precise fact can turn out to be universal. I think those three things?

[To Craig] Is there anything in the movie that is drawn from your life specifically?

Craig: Nothing in the plot, but definitely the things the characters feel and go through I have felt and gone through. I feel the exact same about specificity. The more general something is, the more distant I feel from it. Specificity pulls me into [a story] in a way that makes it feel real.

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The Edge of Seventeen is in theaters this Friday.