Interview by Carla Sanchez Taylor
by Carla Sanchez Taylor (RiPple Puddle)
The lights dim. You sit down in your theatre seat maybe noticing the crunching sound of your neighbor anxiously chew-chew-chewing their popcorn. If you’re sitting in the movie theatre, it is because a variety of orchestrations have succeeded at getting you there.
It means the marketing, branding, trailer, originality of plot line, or person/people you care for hooked you into a 120 minute life commitment.
Here is another truth, one that might not be as interesting but pertinent to the point: the best pomegranate I’ve ever eaten in my life was an ugly, crusty, seemingly putrid brown fruit; a fruit I wouldn’t have picked had I not been assured of its deliciousness. The Edge of Seventeen, (starring Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson) opening in theatres Nov 18, is that delicious, unattractive fruit.
On the outside, the story is one we’ve all seen, and maybe even lived through, a teenage girl, growing up in suburban Oregon who experiences…yup, you guessed it, angst.
This is where most people drop the pomegranate to rot on the ground.
But the truth of this story lies sneakily out of sightline, ready to pounce on the viewer’s vulnerability. I sat down with first time writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig and Oscar and Emmy Award winning producer James L. Brooks to find out more about what inspired this impactful, refreshing work.
Carla: At first glance this movie appears like your typical teen angst film. But I was delighted to see the layers of the characters unfold. The story has universal tangibility. You were able to maintain a specific voice and integrity for each character. In that way, it felt like it was personal to the writer. Were you a teenage reject?
Kelly: Luckily this story was not autobiographical but I had friends that were like some of the characters. Friends that would easily fly under the radar but if you got to know them were such gems.
Certainly, everything Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) feels, I’ve felt. I think that I masked it and suppressed it more.
She just lets it all flood out, which was actually such a fun exercise.
Carla: Nadine has a subtle arch. As a viewer, you don’t realize you’ve reached the destination until you’re there….and for some reason that helped the message stick. Was this conscious intent? Or is this the byproduct of a movie made with heart?
Kelly: There was always the intention to have her learn by the end that she is not the center of the universe. And that there is actual real relief in knowing that you’re not the only one that’s going through something difficult. For me, when I have gone through rough times, it’s connecting with other people who’ve gone through the same thing that takes the sting out of the pain. So that was always the intention: to follow the journey in figuring out that you are not alone.
Carla: How did you arrive at this truth through your lead character?
Kelly: I interviewed 50-60 teenage girls. Asked them anything from, what was the most alone you’ve ever felt in your life to what do you wear to a party. From little details to more probing life questions.
Questions about who understands them and why. The really cool part of the experience was that they were glad someone was actually taking the time to ask these questions. So I felt like the information they gave me was precious. I wanted to do right by them and get the essence of their stories.
Carla: How did you keep the emotional intelligence of the project fresh and present during the translation from print to screen?
Kelly: With all the characters it was always about getting to the truth. The messy, messy truth. I think when you get into that, you realize that people are made up of antithetical things. It’s true about all of us. I think she’s a jerk sometimes and sometimes she’s a teddy bear; the softest most vulnerable thing in the world. She can switch between one and the other on a dime. And I think that’s true for most people.
I think that’s one of the incredible things about Hailee Steinfeld. We auditioned a thousand girls. She was the only one that could shift between things that were so incredibly difficult, like a really funny moment to a moment that just slays. She understood how those could all exist within seconds and she delivered it.
Carla: What ideas did you give the cast to prepare for the complexity of their roles?
Kelly: I love stream of consciousness writing as an exercise for an actor. Just to start to live and breathe in the character enough that you start to think in their voice. It’s incredible to witness a really talented person take a character and understand it enough to just play, to expand it, elevate it and make it better. There’s nothing more exciting than that and it happens so much in this movie. We got to watch Larry Moss who’s a brilliant acting coach, teach how much physicality plays a part in a character. I will never forget one of his questions, ‘as you get into a character, where is it that you feel the energy in your body?’ That might sound a little bit woo-woo but it was so right! It was interesting to see Hailee embrace that. Her physicality would change completely when Nadine came on, the way she moved, the way she held her face…it was wild.
Carla: James, has producing The Edge of Seventeen inspired you to direct a project again?
James: I’m working on a script. And I’m feeling two ways about directing it. My life is working right now. And in order to direct a movie, you have to be legally insane. I mean that so literally. You have to believe that this is the only thing on the earth, the vital thing. You lose all touch with the world you’re in and you take a vacation from all the people you’re close to. It’s a big price and I’m aware of the price. But I care enormously about the script I’m writing. I’ve been working on that for a while and I’m doing research on it again. You know, I couldn’t show up at a movie and say ‘look what they did to it.’ That I can’t do. But there might be another road.
Carla: Are there certain fundamental credos that you stick to in the creative process that you feel have served you well?
James: Let’s see…a huddle before the task is important. Being open to ideas that can come from any place. Getting the details right.
You know, there are things that you really control in a movie like.. Hailee’s outfit, which is an enormous amount of work. And even that thing that you can control will make you tear your hair out.
There were the sets we considered. If we had done a movie in any of those sets, the movie wouldn’t be as good. The idea of having that upstairs hallway be a character in the film turned out to be key.
But then there the things you don’t control. If Woody Harrelson hadn’t been coming through town or if Hailee Steinfeld had said, well I’m not gonna audition for this one. That’s why I’m saying you’re crazy if you don’t see the humility in it all. If we didn’t get the money, if the studio took a different attitude. All that stuff.
Carla: What do you want the viewer to take home after watching this movie?
Kelly: I really hope that they see themselves reflected in it and that there’s some relief in that. I hope they go, Oh man, I’ve so been there. I’ve so felt that! And that there’s something in it that makes you feel a little more ok as a human being moving through life.
James: And I also hope they say, it was SO funny.