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Kelly Craig's big break with 'The Edge of Seventeen'

Kelly Fremon Craig and James L. Brooks on the set of
Kelly Fremon Craig and James L. Brooks on the set of "The Edge of Seventeen."
Murray Close
Kelly Fremon Craig and James L. Brooks on the set of
Blake Jenner and Haley Lu Richardson in "The Edge of Seventeen."
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Writer Kelly Fremon Craig makes her directorial debut with “The Edge of Seventeen” — a sometimes brutally honest coming-of-age comedy that’s being compared to classic John Hughes movies of the 1980s.

Craig sent a first draft of her script to one of her filmmaking heroes, James L. Brooks, the director of “Broadcast News” and “Terms of Endearment,” and longtime executive producer of “The Simpsons.” To her surprise, he backed the project and came on as a producer.

When The Frame host John Horn recently spoke with Craig and Brooks, she said his first bit of advice was to abandon her early draft and do some field research.

Interview Highlights:

On how the script began taking shape:

Craig: When Jim and I first sat down, he said, Take some time, interview some teenagers and just make sure that you're getting the details right. So I started doing that and I entered into a period of research that lasted about six months. I loved being a fly on the wall. I went and hung out at high schools. I went to a high school dance, just getting a sense of what was going on right now. That was really what changed the direction so dramatically. I just found, after having so many of those conversations, how complicated this age is. The first draft was really just more joke, joke, joke. It was more glib and ironic and heightened. Then having spent this long period of time with kids this age, I just recognized how messy it was, and then the next draft was really about capturing that as honestly as I could.

Hailee Steinfeld and Hayden Szeto in
Hailee Steinfeld and Hayden Szeto in "The Edge of Seventeen."
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On how many teenagers feel isolated today:

Craig: I definitely found that everybody at some point — no matter who they were, no matter whether they were a real popular kid or more of an outcast — had gone through a period of feeling all alone, like they're the only ones that feel this bad. And everybody else is doing great. How you pull through those periods was interesting to me. 

On how Kelly and Jim's sensibilities lined up artistically:

Brooks: When that [script] draft came in, my job was just to support what was happening. This was the third time I've done this and each process is different because there's a different first-time writer/director. We saw each other today and it's like people coming out of a fallout shelter. It's been very intense!

I think it's a Lenny Bruce quote: "If you're going to tell the truth, make them laugh or they'll kill you." I think one of the most significant things to me about this picture is that it's hilarious. The stuff we're talking about is at its heart and it does have a soul. The great thing is when comedy can be like that. 

Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson in
Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson in "The Edge of Seventeen."
Murray Close

How Kelly became a director:

Craig: When I first wrote that script, I knew that I wanted to direct it. I knew that at some point I would make a big pitch for myself. But it turned out that when I sat down with Jim for that first meeting, he said, I think the voice is really specific and so I think you should direct it. So I just immediately called my people and said, I'll just sign it! Whatever we need to do! Write it down and lock it up. I couldn't believe it and from then on I was just determined to actually make it happen. 

On whether men need to give more directing jobs to women:

Brooks: These are days of tentpoles and sequels. We went through four or five meetings where we went in saying that people loved the script, it was a pro forma meeting. We walked in, I talked, Kelly talked, we walked out. There was no movie forthcoming. I began to wonder: if Kelly were not an attractive young woman, if she looked like some cartoon version of a filmmaker who's come through all the normal routes, whether it would have been different. It did occur to me. It's rough to believe — a lot of the people who interviewed us were women. But it did occur to me and it would be dishonest to say otherwise. 

Craig: I don't think that has anything to do with it. I walk out of those meetings and if it doesn't go right I'm like, Alright I didn't sell it hard enough. There's some way I need to go back in and do better. So that's all I walk out of there with. I think that's the truth.

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