'Tag-Teaming It': James L. Brooks, Kelly Fremon Craig, and Co. Talk 'The Edge of Seventeen'

Kelly Fremon Craig and James L. Brooks on the shoot for The Edge of Seventeen.
Courtesy VVS Films.
“The great thing about being in Toronto,” says producer James L. Brooks, “is that every film you see is somebody who is not being stereotypical. Everybody is marching to the beat of their own drum and that is so great to see.”

James L. Brooks and Kelly Fremon Craig at the TIFF Closing Night Gala of The Edge of Seventeen.
Courtesy VVS Films
It’s the second Saturday of the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and the three-time Academy Award winner behind films such as Terms of Endearment and As Good As It Gets and 20-time Emmy-winner for TV hits like The Simpsons and The Mary Tyler Moore Show  is doing press for TIFF’s Closing Night Gala The Edge of Seventeen. The film sounds like just another teen movie on the surface—bratty girl Nadine (Hailey Steinfeld) freaks out when her brother Darian (Blake Jenner) hooks up with her best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson)—but it provides a refreshing surprise. Brooks’s latest film goes beyond the high school years and speaks to audiences who have survived Nadine’s experience and are ready to look back at this shaky time in their lives. The festival saves one of its best for last by introducing the aforementioned authentic voice of writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig, who is at Brooks’s side with some of the cast members to discuss their film during the junket at the Fairmont Royal York just hours before its big premiere.

Fremon Craig and Brooks recall the moment in which they realised that the debut filmmaker was the right person to direct The Edge of Seventeen. “I was ready to make a pitch for myself and Jim said ‘The voice is very specific to you, so I think you should direct it.’ And I was just shocked and asked him to put that in writing,” laughs Fremon Craig about making the jump to direct her own script.

One can’t help but notice the value in closing the Festival by spotlighting such a strong new voice at a time when the industry is overwhelmingly asking for more opportunities for underrepresented talents, particularly female filmmakers. Part of this responsibility falls on established producers like Brooks, who has nurtured directors like Noah Baumbach and Cameron Crowe, to take a risk on talents who traditionally don’t get the job in the old boys club of Hollywood.

For Brooks, encouraging Fremon Craig to take the director’s seat marks a step in his own ever-growing journey as a filmmaker. “This is one of the great learning curves I’ve seen. Kelly impressed me as a person initially,” Brooks explains. “When we were going over the first draft and I was agonising over my own involvement, she turned around and said, ‘Nobody will ever work harder than me.’ It was unusual, it was an instinct in her, and it was the truth. It was the truth with an enormous amount of talent that I’m not sure she really had any inkling of herself at the time.”

The combination of the veteran producer and the up-and-coming director creates a dynamic duo as The Edge of Seventeen delivers one of the year’s best comedies thanks to the mix of Brooks’ experience and Fremon Craig’s fresh vision. “Every day felt like an awesome time on set just having them both there tag-teaming it,” reflects Blake Jenner (Everybody Wants Some!!), who plays Darian, Nadine’s popular brother. “Kelly is the driving force. This is her script and Jim was there supporting her with a helping hand and everyone felt very well taken care of with both of them tag-teaming on set.”
Blake Jenner and Haley Lu Richardson star in The Edge of Seventeen.
Courtesy VVS Films.

“It didn’t feel like I was watching them learn things,” adds co-star Haley Lu Richardson, who plays Krista, Nadine’s BFF. “Kelly was very confident, very specific, and she has everything worked out in her head already. She’s positive and energetic. She really knew what she’s doing. She’s always smiling. It didn’t feel like it was something new for her.”

Fremon Craig elaborates upon Brooks’s mentorship by recalling his suggestion to take a journalistic approach and interview high school students to fine-tune the behaviour and vernacular of teens for her screenplay. “I’ll never write another film without doing an intense amount of research because that’s what happened between the first draft and the second draft,” reflects Fremon Craig. “I was talking with a bunch of teenagers across the states for hours and hours, sitting with them, going to high schools, and being a fly on the wall. So many beautiful little details come out of those experiences that you can’t make up. It also reinforces a responsibility to get it right.”

Kelly Fremon Craig
Courtesy VVS Films
Craig’s screenplay tackles the responsibility of friendship at any age in a person’s journey whether he or she is a teen at school or a parent at home. “There’s a quote that Jim says that I love,” Craig explains, “which is ‘The purpose of film and of art generally is to make you know you’re not alone.’ I hope that is what the film does. That people watch it, see themselves reflected in it, and it brings them home to themselves.”

The Edge of Seventeen draws fair comparisons to the John Hughes comedies of the 1980s in this regard, and the continuity in movieland high schools seems appropriate. Brooks adds that one marvel of Craig’s research is seeing how little changes between the high school experiences of each generation. Craig agrees and shares Brooks’ sentiment that this universal experience is comforting, saying, “There’s something about that that takes the sting out of your own painful experience.”

Brooks adds to Craig’s take on the film by revisiting a standout scene in which Nadine’s mother, Mona, (Kyra Sedgwick) writes and revises a text message to her daughter. “In movies,” the producer explains, “they talk about older people as older than twenty-five, and so with ‘older people’ seeing themselves and revisiting themselves, that is like having a resonant experience. There’s a scene that I think is so great when the mother figures out her text to her daughter and the world changes with her figuring that out.” It resonates with anyone, really, who’s ever navigated the fine art of text messaging, just like the film shows with a poorly timed (and totally awkward) instant message that Nadine sends to her crush instead of hitting the ‘delete’ button. (We’ve all been there.­čś▒)

Moments like this Mona’s text help The Edge of Seventeen stand out at the end of a Festival crammed with 300 films and in multiplexes serving cookie cutter characters hanging over from summer movies. The film challenges audiences with its difficult (if relatable) protagonist alongside a cast of fully fleshed-out secondary characters. “Even the supporting roles were written well,” Richardson observes on Fremon Craig’s screenplay. “They weren’t half-assed.”

Jenner agrees and adds that audiences approaching The Edge of Seventeen expecting to find typical high school clich├ęs like The Jock, The Geek, The Goth, and The Preppy Cheerleader won’t find them. “These characters all have a brand,” Jenner explains. “It was fun to take that and strip it away, and make them out to be real people.”
Hailee Steinfeld and Haley Lu Richardson in The Edge of Seventeen.
  Courtesy VVS Films.
“You have your own challenges playing a supporting role,” says Richardson, reflecting on how she and Fremon Craig worked together to make Krista more than just arm candy to Nadine or Darian. “Anyone can phone in a performance and be this thing that everyone’s done, like the stereotypical character we’ve seen before rather than a real person.”

Equal parts writing, directing, and acting make great characters out of few scenes and even fewer lines. “When I first read the script,” adds Richardson, “I thought I was more like Nadine than Krista in real life with my friendships. I think Krista was such a rock to Nadine at the beginning. I think that selflessness is what a real friendship is.” Like writing, interpreting the character means relating to her, which is tricky unless the filmmaker gives the actor some substance.

Perhaps the best example of The Edge of Seventeen breaking the mould with a character comes in Nadine’s awkward friend and not-so-secret admirer Erwin, played by Vancouver-born newcomer Hayden Szeto. Szeto’s a scene-stealer, partly because Erwin isn’t the math club loving poindexter one usually sees with high-school-set Asian characters. But much of Erwin’s charm comes from Szeto’s fun, freewheeling energy that complements Steinfeld’s moody storm cloud. “The thing with Erwin is taking the classic nerd and not playing him like the geeky awkward character,” explains Szeto. Erwin is Szeto’s first major role in a feature film, so his status as the newbie let Fremon Craig play the mentor role herself.

“They really knew how to talk to actors and get the most out of us,” Szeto says of the Brooks/Fremon Craig team. “There were days where I knew I was sucking and just felt it, but they were really nice about it, saying, ‘Try it like this.’

“Oh, you mean suck less?” he mocks in recollection. “It’s the way they say it.” The comment draws an improvised game of putting the wrong emphasis on the wrong syllable as Szeto, Richardson, and Jenner take turns directing the art of sucking less and less.
Hailee Steinfeld and Hayden Szeto in The Edge of Seventeen.
Courtesy VVS Films.

“For Hayden,” Fremon Craig adds, offering the perspective from the director’s seat, “the important thing was getting out of his was and giving him license to play. He’s a great improviser, so you just give him room to play. I would just constantly tell him, ‘Play. Have fun. Do Your Thing. Try stuff. Be bold.’”

“Kelly and I had some conversations about how many layers we could add to him—how he feels, his inner dialogue and all that,” says Szeto. “She would tell me, ‘Do it like that, but sexier.’ It’s a good thing having a female director telling you what is sexier and what is not.” Awkward as it sounds, this direction is pretty great if one considers that virtually no comedies or films whatsoever let Asian characters play the hunk. 

Szeto recalls one scene featuring Nadine and Erwin at a pool where the geek takes off his shirt before his crush and reveals a side that she doesn’t expect. “Can you pull it over your head?” he recalls Fremon Craig’s direction on how to suck less and avoid making Erwin and Nadine’s first moment a pool party ├á la Showgirls. “More sex, suck less. That really took the nerd character to another, level making him sexy,” laughs Szeto.
Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson in The Edge of Seventeen.
Courtesy VVS Films.

Brooks adds that the secret ingredient to the energy in the film is star Hailee Steinfeld. “One of the assets that everybody had in the film was Hailee,” he says. “She was masterful and didn’t know how generous she was being. And where Hayden went, she went with him. I think it’s one of the best performances that I’ve been around.”

The Edge of Seventeen sees Nadine grow under the guidance of her history teacher Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) and one can’t help but notice that the same student/mentor relationship in the easy rapport between Brooks and Fremon Craig both in the relaxed chemistry of the film. The director adds that some early advice from Brooks took The Edge of Seventeen to another level by entrusting her with a responsibility that all good filmmakers need to confront. “One of the first things he said to me was ‘The most important thing you’ve got to figure out, Kelly, is what you want to say about life in this film.’ It was the first time that a producer had said something like that to me that was actually life altering,” says Craig. “I will never approach anything I write again without hearing that that question about what is churning in me with the need to explore.” As audiences walk down the hallways of their adolescence, they inevitably leave the theatre embracing that same challenge.

The Edge of Seventeen opens in theatres Friday, Nov. 18 from VVS Films.
Read the Cinemablographer review of The Edge of Seventeen here.