In the opening scene of The Edge of Seventeen, teenage outcast Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) sits down at the desk of her teacher, Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) and explains with equal parts anxiety and pragmatism her plans to kill herself, telling him that she thinks “an adult should know.” Mr. Bruner, who barely raises an eyebrow during her explanation, tells her that he was also planning on killing himself, and that Nadine was the primary reason.
The whole scene is unconventional, and a little uncomfortable. It’s also extremely funny and oddly warm. Such is the charm of The Edge of Seventeen, a coming-of-age tale written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, and produced by James L. Brooks. It’s Craig’s first time in the director’s chair, having written the script for Post Grad back in 2009. In teaming up with Brooks, a veteran writer and producer whose credits go back more than a half-century, they’ve crafted a funny, poignant, and heartfelt story about the everyday problems that come with being a teen.
Both Craig and Brooks were in town for the Austin Film Festival last month, and we got the chance to talk with the both of them about the film.
What was it that made you want to tell this story?
Kelly Fremon Craig: I really just wanted to try my best to capture this particular age and this particular girl as truthfully as I could. To just give snapshot of… let me back up. Part of the thing that was interesting to me [was] to explore is just this idea of feeling like everybody has life figured out except you, which I think is something that is a particularly big deal at that age. I think that’s just something you walk around with, and how lonely that is, to sort of feel like, “Oh my God, I’m the only one who feels this f*cked up. Everybody else has got it figured out.” I think, to a large extent, that feeling, never really goes away. Maybe there’s an ebb and a flow in life, and later you start to have a sense of the world outside yourself. I think it’s easy to fall into it at any point, you know. Part of it was really just trying to take a look at that and tease it out, and figure out what it’s about.
How’d you end up working together?
James L. Brooks: I guess, early. Was that early? I don’t think I’ve ever asked you that. You had just written it?
Craig: Yeah, I had just written it.
Brooks: I guess it started with me, and I was impressed by what Kelly was able to deliver in a first meeting. Not so much about her script or her ambitions, but her sense of mission, how hard she’s going to work. It just caught me and then we started. Four years later we made the movie. In that period of time, I think, she just burst as a writer, as a new voice. There’s nobody writing just like her. Nobody writes like Kelly. That happened to her. She had a baby, and that happened. She had, you know, her talent had a baby. I mean, it was like that, in that same period of time.
How much of this was drawn from your life?
Craig: Not in the sense that any of the things plot-wise have happened to me, but — she’s my inner teenager, you know? The one that just wants to say whatever the f*ck she wants. You know? Maybe she’s a little bit of that, but for the most part she was just a voice I was hearing. Maybe just, I think expressing some of the things, certainly that I’ve felt, but expressing it in her own specific way.
Brooks: Kelly wrote four male characters, that I think are memorable in this picture. That’s really unusual in terms of gender understanding.
Speaking of these male characters, you’ve got Woody Harrelson doing a dynamite almost-silent performance here.
Craig: I’m so glad you noticed that.
Did he bring that to the role or was that something that evolved during production?
Brooks: You should say you whipped it out of him.
Craig: Right, yes, it was all me. [Laughs] You know, the thing that was so cool about working with him, was he just got this guy. He just wrapped his mind around this guy, and then he could just play, and riff, and go on little adventures with him. That was really one of the most fun parts, was we’d get the scene and then at some point I’d say, “All right, have fun. Let’s just have fun with this. Let’s do a couple takes where it’s just whatever you want. You know this guy.”
Brooks: Major chemistry between the two of them.
Craig: Oh my God, that was instant. Woody and Hailee. They–
Brooks: They just loved being with each other.
Craig: They just fed off of each other in a way that was so dynamic and magical.
Did you have Steinfeld in mind when writing this character?
Craig: We actually auditioned a thousand actresses for almost a year of auditions. It was insane. It was insane! There’s so many reason why it’s such a hard character to nail. She’s so many different things. She’s a lot of different things on the spectrum, and so to find somebody who could do all of that, was really different.
Then Hailee came in and she could just nail every bit of it, then add more. I think that’s the most exciting part about working with talented people, is that they make your work better. They show you things, they get the character, and then expand on it. That’s so exciting to see that happen.
As a character, she really tests her limits with people.
Brooks: She crosses the line.
She gets very close to being unlikeable, but you can’t stop rooting for her.
Brooks: I think that’s the journey of the script. That, you can build a script to feed rooting interest. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just that everybody’s doing it. But just to let a character really breathe, and you start, you have that ride with her. [You think] I wish she hadn’t said that, I didn’t like that she said that, and you’re falling in love at the same time. Which is the trick, I think.
That’s made clear even in those scenes where she’s very young. Here’s this incredibly petulant kid, she gives her mom such a hard time, but you still end up charmed by her.
Craig: You know what, it’s such a testament to Hailee. She’s such an incredible actress that she should take you to the edge of that. Where you’re like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe she said that!” Then pull you back into where she’s still in your heart. You know? That’s really–
Brooks: No straw people. I mean, no straw people. Everybody had a point of view.
Craig: I also tend to have the belief that even if a character is truthful. If you’re getting at something that’s true, then I think you can take a lot on the ride. You know what I mean? You can take them doing a lot of stuff because you, if you see them clearly enough you can get it, you know? I think that’s what Hailee does in the role.
There’s an aspect of that to the character of her brother, Darian. From her perspective he’s just a foil, but as the movie progresses, you slowly realize he’s this fully-formed character.
Craig: Well, it was absolutely intentional that we saw Darian (Blake Jenner) through Nadine’s eyes. That we saw him as a guy who just didn’t have a problem in the world, and had it all together, and was a little bit of a dick about it. Then over the course of it she sees him differently and we do.
There’s a much different approach to the soundtrack here. It’s not really song-oriented, but much more atmospheric approach.
Brooks: Kelly kills herself over the music. I mean, really that was as much a job in our post-production as editing the film. It was down to the last minute. It was endless. 33 songs and each one of them, a whole story to put them in.
Craig: Less of a walking in slow motion into the scene.
Brooks: Right, yes, absolutely. That’s why it was hard to pick the song, was to not be that other thing.
Craig: Because it was also a thing where, a lot of times it’s something that somebody’s playing. Every song not only needed to be the right song with the right mood, but it needed to be something that this character would play. There’s a lot of requirements.
For a slice-of-life story, you’ve got some real gravity to these moments. From our perspective, they’re incidental teenage problems, but you still end up affected by them. How are you able to do that?
Brooks: I think the truth is, script, number one, number one, number one. The actors, number two, number two, number two. Being there for the actors. It [it] was so great I think for a woman to write from the male point of view so many times in this picture, from different male point of views. There’s a scene in the car, which could have been that scene in the car when that thing happens, which automatically switches sympathies. I think men feel represented in that scene, which is extraordinary. That scene in that car, for men to feel, “Yeah, my point was made,” is wild! I think maybe that’s one of the great accomplishments of the movie and I think that was always in the script. I think it’s a quiet accomplishment, but it’s massive. That he had a point of view and he had a side to make.
You’ve gotten a really tremendous response so far. What are your expectations going into the release?
Craig: You know, the most gratifying thing is when people watch it and say, “Oh my God, that’s me. Oh my God I’ve been there. I’ve been there.” For me there are certain movies in my life that have done that for me and they’ve meant so much in terms of making me feel okay as a human being, you know? I guess the big hope is that you could do that for somebody else.