Shaping a perfect teen comedy with ‘THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN’ writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig

IMG_5040Courtney Howard // Film Critic

I have such a fetish for realism. I love the messy truth of people.

The protagonist at the center of writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig’s hilarious and heartfelt THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN has a lot to learn about life – specifically that it’s not all about her. For her, the journey is hell, but for the audience, it’s the perfect cinematic teenage dream.

Hailee Steinfeld plays dramatic sixteen-year-old Nadine, whose family is still reeling from the death of the patriarch years prior. As she navigates the perils and pitfalls of high school life, Nadine’s safety net of a friendship crumbles when bestie Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) begins dating Nadine’s older, perfect brother, Darian (Blake Jenner).

At the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, the affable filmmaker shared everything from the film’s subtle nod to SIXTEEN CANDLES, to if she tried to get the rights to the Stevie Nicks song, to the importance of creating genuine characters.

You wrote this on spec. What was the jump like for you from spec to when it starts getting buzz around town?

It didn’t quite go like that. I’d written it on spec and then decided that Jim [Brooks] would be the first person we’d send it to, thinking, ‘There’s no way in Hell this can happen, but he’s my biggest hero. Let’s just try.’ And then he ended up buying it. It was really just Jim saying, ‘Take a journalistic approach and go and do this research.’ So then it was me going off and doing research and writing a new draft. When I came back with that second draft, there wasn’t a single line that was the same. It was a whole different deal and that was the script that was made. I feel like we’ve been in this little cocoon.

What character was the hardest to write?

On some level, Nadine, because I was really just trying to capture her and say, ‘This is her internal life. Sometimes it’s ugly. Sometimes it’s hard and sometimes it’s soft. It’s a lot of different things.’ The challenge, but also the freeing thing, is to be able to say, ‘Here is everything. I’m not going to try to pretty anything up for you. This is it.’

I thought it was really healthy that Krista backed off from Nadine, letting her take her time to deal with her issues, after they had the big argument in the hall. Was that always the case or was there stuff that was cut?

No. That was always the case. The film has always been about what happens when that one comfort she has is taken away, she’s left alone and has to figure things out. Any time you are left alone to just deal with yourself and figure out who you are and where you belong, it’s a tough road. But that was important to me to show.

Darian’s hiding of his true feelings is handled so well. We are all so busy empathizing with Nadine that we don’t think about him and what he’s going through. That’s where I wept. ‘Yes, this is how it is for the eldest child!’

We’re all fucked up! It was important to lay that groundwork for when he gets to that speech, you go, ‘Oh, yes! I do remember this.’ These little things that you could miss by themselves. It was important that you saw everybody through her eyes and you saw them reveal themselves through her eyes too.

 The SIXTEEN CANDLES fan inside me squealed that you used Spandau Ballet’s “True.” Was that a conscious decision on your part to use it in a similar context?

Those films were really informative for me – THE BREAKFAST CLUB and SIXTEEN CANDLES. I grew up on those films. That was my one little, tiny nugget. I’m so glad you mentioned it. It’s real low in the background and it’s just a fragment, but I just wanted that one little thing. Those films captured the feeling of the age really well. I think, tonally this film is different. But I just wanted to do that. That’s my little nod.

We’ve all grown up with those John Hughes movies and yours seems to unpack that “Jake Ryan myth.” Did this character even exist in real life or was this fantasy sold to us by Hollywood?

Right! Yes.

For modern teens, I don’t think this guy really exists anymore.

Yes. Is that guy a real guy? I think no. I think that guy, Jake Ryan, is just as fucked up as everyone else, but we just don’t know because we haven’t spent any time with him. That scene in the car with him, it was important to me that you saw his side. This is a guy who’s gotten this text and then he’s confused. And how confused she is! All she wants is emotional connection and she’s confusing it with sexual connection.

The difference too with Hughes’ movies is that the characters are more pushed than realistic. I think you do a great job making your characters more true-to-life.

That was also important to me. I have such a fetish for realism. I love the messy truth of people. I love that people are a lot of things at once and a lot of times, those things are antithetical to each other. In a lot of ways, it was trying to capture that.

Did you ever try to get the rights to the Stevie Nicks song?

No.

Where did the title come from?

A couple different places; I felt it was so fitting because [Stevie] is this great ballsy icon. It also made sense because Nadine’s on the precipice of something. She’s shedding an old self and becoming new. It felt right in that way. I did try to look for a moment to place the song, but nothing felt just quite right. I never wanted it to be, ‘There’s the movie title!’ It was so important to me that you’re immersed in it and not have a filmmaker say, ‘Here’s the movie title,’ and take you out of it.

Did you ever have a teacher like Mr. Bruner?

I had a couple of teachers. I had my drama teacher and my student government teacher. The thing about both of them were they were no bullshit. They told you how it was. At that age, it’s so important to have somebody like that in your life, who tells you the hard truth. So when they tell you the hard truth, you believe it, and when you’re out of line, you believe it. There’s so much bullshit at that age that you can’t tell what’s real and what’s not. To have a string adult to look you in the eye and tell you the truth is really a big deal.

Ultimately I loved that Nadine’s lesson is, ‘it’s not all about you.’ This is important for teens but also for adults. I was just having that conversation with someone the other day.

Yes! Absolutely. It’s so easy to take things personally, but the truth is we’re all just worried about ourselves.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN opens on November 18.

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