It’s remarkably tough to make an authentic teen comedy. It’s all too easy for a filmmaker to fall into a trap where it feels like everything is written from an adult perspective, not an actual teenager’s . It’s a subtle line between the two, and knowing how to walk it is what made John Hughes the king of the teen comedy in the ’80s. And knowing how to walk that line is what makes The Edge of Seventeen not just one of the best teen comedies in years, but one of the best films of 2016, full stop.
Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, The Edge of Seventeen is about Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), whose already angry relationship with the world grows all the more bitter when her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating her brother (Blake Jenner). And while that may not sound like a big deal, what Edge of Seventeen does so well is communicate just how meaningful this teen minutia – and so much more – is to a young mind that’s really starting to figure out the world and how they’re expected to fit in it.
We spoke to Craig about how she came to work on the film with legendary The Simpsons producer James L. Brooks, how she got in to the heads of teenagers, and more. Check it out.
Movies.com: Being a first time filmmaker is never easy, but I imagine having James L. Brooks and Gracie Films on your side helps. How did that relationship come about?
Kelly Fremon Craig: I wrote the script. Jim had always been the person I admired creatively more than anyone else on the whole planet. I sat down with my reps and said, ‘Let’s take a hail Mary pass at him, even though it will probably never work.’ It turned out he took on the project and we began the process of developing it. And that was a four-year, intensive, life-changing process.
The first step of it was a lot of research. Of making sure the details were right, that we were doing this age right. That changed everything. Just sitting down with a ton of teenagers, talking to them for hours. It made me go, ‘Oh, man, this is complicated. This is a mess.’ And so it was about finding a way to communicate that mess.
Movies.com: Who were these teens? Did you go to malls? Did you hold focus groups?
Craig: I emailed everyone I knew asking if they had a teenager I could talk to. Once I talked to them, I was like, ‘Can I talk to your friends?’ and it would just mushroom out.
James L. Brooks: It was often heartrending, the stuff they had to say. It would give you a sense of purpose. You knew you didn’t want to mess around with people going through this.
Craig: What was beautiful about the process was finding so many teenagers who were happy to have someone asking them how they felt for once. When they do open up, you feel like that information is precious and you don’t want to f—k it up.
Movies.com: James, do you remember what it was about Kelly’s specific pitch that made you want to get on board?
Brooks: I keep coming back to one moment. I was going through shit back then, and I had this meeting and it wasn’t impacting me, and I was cranky. So she left, and there are two steps out of my office. She turned around – the meeting was over – and she said ‘No one will ever work as hard as I do.’
And that made me feel a lot better about getting involved. And she was wildly true to her word.
Movies.com: How much of a challenge is it to make a non-John Hughes teen film? How do you meet those expectations without copying him?
Craig: That’s such a good question because for me it was really about how those movies made me feel. Those movies made me feel seen. They made me feel, ‘Oh, gosh, I’ve felt that.’ So that’s the only thing I took from those films. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, what did they do in Weird Science?’ It wasn’t conscious like that. It was all about the feeling and hoping I could give that feeling to other people.
Brooks: We always talked anti-genre. If genre started to poke in, we shoved it out. We were just doing a screenplay about these characters. Keeping that out was part of what went on. We talked a lot about not wanting to do that. The job so often is keeping bad out rather than being good.
Craig: It’s really just trying to tell the truth. It’s beyond ‘What’s been done?’ or any consciousness about what already exists. It’s all about if we’re being as honest as possible about this teenager in this moment, and if we let her be our beacon, it’ll work.
Brooks: This is a comedy. We are clocking laughs, but the conversations were damn serious.
Movies.com: When does the movie first truly come alive for you? On the page? Or on the set?
Brooks: That’s a great question.
Craig: It is. Because I’m a writer first, and I always write, write, write, it was important to have it on the page before we ever got to the set. That these felt like real people saying real things and going through real emotions. I think I would have been terrified to jump into anything without actors without feeling like everything is there. And the great thing is when you work with really talented people, they then further expand from that.
Brooks: Here’s a true story that I don’t think we’ve talked about yet. We had the picture. We had very good previews, but we weren’t happy. They were very good previews, the kind where the studio is like, ‘What are you talking about?’ and we went back and filmed for three days. Kelly came in with the speech the mother gives in the car, the ‘here’s what you do in life’ speech, which really delivers the mom for me. And then Kelly came up with the final shot of the movie, and the movie wasn’t resolved until that moment. Nobody shoves it down your throat, but you get it. I love when you feel like you’re the only one getting it, even when you’re not. I love that feeling. That was great because they let us do it. I think those three days gave you the movie.
Movies.com: Did you have any teen moments that were as dramatic as Nadine’s are?
Craig: None of what actually happens to her is autobiographical at all, and I’m very different from her, but I think to some extent to write any voice it has to live somewhere in you. I think maybe she’s my id. She’s the part of me that wants to say it all and ‘f—k it!’ She’s that tantrum two-year-old in a way.
Movies.com: Do you have any characters, or moments, you latch on to on different rewatches?
Brooks: The quintessential moment is her on the toilet. That’s a quintessential moment of touching bottom.
Craig: The moment, and I’ve watched it 400 times and it still makes me laugh, is Woody reading her note. I can’t not laugh. That to me is always a defining moment. It exemplifies the humiliation of this age.
Brooks: I think it was the second preview we did, we were sitting in front of three teen girls, and early on they kept going ‘Don’t send it! Don’t send it!’
Craig: ‘Oh, girl! Oh, girl! Don’t do it!’ And then there’s a huge gasp when she does. It’s always fun for me to get to that point in the movie.
The Edge of Seventeen is in theaters now. We highly, highly recommend you see it.