Heartbreak High

Kelly Fremon Craig shares how she captured the voice of real teens and a bit of John Hughes-like magic in her heartfelt directorial debut The Edge of Seventeen.

©2016 STX Productions
Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson in The Edge of Seventeen.
November 18, 2016 Written by Dylan Callaghan
Eric Charbonneau/Invision for STX Entertainment/AP Images Kelly Fremon Craig

I never felt myself asking the question, ‘How do I push the envelope, be edgier?’ I really just always ask myself, ‘How can I be more honest?’

Screenwriter Kelly Fremon Craig is not John Hughes. She’s not aiming to be. But in her directorial debut, The Edge of Seventeen, Craig naturally channels the same humanity that made the late, great writer-director’s films magic. Like Hughes, Fremon Craig writes characters that sound like actual teenagers, not a screenwriter’s clever caricature. They are unremarkably remarkable, and they don’t just show heart, their hearts run the show.

Seventeen centers on Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine—a smart, alienated high school junior whose father died a few years earlier and is disconnected from her mother. She’s nearly knocked off an already precarious edge when her best friend starts dating her older brother, a “golden boy” who makes her social struggles seem like an obscure genetic defect she alone possesses. Nadine has echoes of Molly Ringwald's Samantha in Sixteen Candles, and Thora Birch in the edgier Ghost World, but mostly, she just feels like her own, endearingly flawed hot mess.

Help comes from unexpected places, including Woody Harrelson as Mr. Bruner, Nadine’s disenchanted, student-weary history teacher. He’s Nadine’s reluctant mentor and sounding board, and, wouldn’t you know, beneath his seemingly callous indifference, beats a wise, empathetic heart.

That same heart beats in Fremon Craig, who brought her empathetic ear to a brief stint as a social worker in children’s group homes. “It was so painfully sad, and I felt like I couldn’t really fix it,” she says. “I also couldn’t not take it home with me, like some people could.” For this script, she put some of her experience to therapeutic work, interviewing some 50 teenagers from around the country, even attending a few school dances, to hear their natural tone.

Fremon Craig spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about the Jedi-like guidance of the film’s producer James L. Brooks, why social media has made us lonelier, and how those 50 American teenagers responded when asked to name a movie that represented their lives.

Can you tell me about inspiration for this story?

A couple things have always interested me—those periods in life when your comforts or emotional crutches are stripped away and you’re just left with yourself and having to take a look at yourself and what questions that brings up. That was really interesting to me. The other thing that’s interesting to me is our sense of ourselves compared to other people, how we see ourselves compared to other people and the ways we romanticize other peoples’ lives and, in turn, feel worse about our own and how that leads to a feeling of isolation. That’s so prevalent in high school, but it’s also something that’s just a thing today maybe even more than it’s ever been because of social media. All you have to do is get online for two seconds and you’ll be hit with a barrage of perfectly filtered pictures of people having more fun then you are. On some level, that’s fucking all of us up, and that makes everyone feel a little bit lonelier everyday. So it was just really trying to parse out that feeling of, everyone’s okay except me, which is such a feeling you have at that age, when your coming of age, where you’re in that in-between stage, not quite knowing who you are or where you belong or if anyone will ever understand you.

So was the inception here more about these concepts than it was a character, say, like, Nadine?

Yeah, they kind of start to happen in tandem for me. It’s weird, I’ll start to hear a voice, and I’ll start to write it, and then as I go along I start to figure out what it is that voice is trying to say… What was so cool about working with Jim [Brooks] was when I first sat down with him, I went automatically into a mode of script mechanics and….

Structure, pacing, that kind of thing?

Exactly, yes. He stopped and said, “The first and biggest question you have to answer is, what are you saying about life?” That just changed everything for me. It changed everything because I had felt that in myself always, as I was writing and trying to find something, but I had never really articulated it until he said that and I will never write anything the same ever again because of that.

When he asked you that, were you stumped, or did you immediately know what the answer was?

The story I was writing gave me a…it actually physically hurt. I always feel like I’m onto the right thing I have to write, if, when I digest it, it hurts a little bit. I’m like, Oh, okay, that’s something for me to explore. At that point, I had this thing that was just uncomfortable inside me that I couldn’t quite name. I couldn’t quite name what I was after. When he said that, it made me [think], Okay, you must name this. What is this thing you’re trying to explore here? That’s when I started to [realize] I’m really looking at that feeling [when] you’re all alone in your pain, that’s what I’m exploring. But it took a second to articulate it from just a feeling.

Woody Harrelson’s character here is such as great antidote to despair, in his rough way. Tell me about the genesis of him and how important that was.

Dealing with all of these issues, I always had two different takes on them. One is Nadine’s—she’s just a big open wound, feeling everything so fucking deeply. Then the other side of it is how absurd it all is—how seriously we take ourselves and how ridiculous that is sometimes and how myopic we can become. So it’s like Woody became that voice in my head. If I’m going down a rabbit hole with Nadine’s emotions and Nadine is imploding in on herself, he would bring everything back to reality.

He just kind of lances that balloon of self-seriousness?

Yes! Exactly. Where you could just become so self-involved and self-hating and everything is shit. He’s voicing the absurdity of it all and doesn’t let her wallow. You know? It was important to me to point it out; this age is painful and messy, but it’s also absurd.

John Hughes is referenced in some of the descriptions of the film. I’m curious how much inspiration those films were, going into the writing of this?

Only in that they gave me a feeling at that age that I hoped that I could convey in this film. Those films—The Breakfast Club, Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything, Swingers—I felt my life reflected in those types of films and there was some release in that. Like the, there’s-someone-who-gets-me! thing.

Like they put a mirror to loneliness and being a weirdo?

Yeah, they did that for me. I hope that this film can do that for people. So I guess it’s the feeling that it gave me that I hope this gives others.

Times have changed since John Hughes. In the streaming, Internet generation, or whatever you want to call it, how much more brutally honest, how much edgier do you feel you have to be, not only to relate to audiences, but to just be true to the modern reality in this genre today?

I never felt myself asking the question, "How do I push the envelope, be edgier?" I really just always ask myself, "How can I be more honest? How can I accurately capture this age with a ferocious honesty?" I guess I would worry if I was consciously trying to be edgier or provocative, I would feel like somehow there would be less honesty in that.

Conversely, did you come up against moments of honesty in the script that you worried were too honest?

I did a ton of research before I wrote this. I interviewed a ton of teenagers from across the nation, and talked to 50 of them at length.

How did you arrange that?

I just asked everyone I knew, “If you have a teenager, can I talk to them?” When I talked to them, I’d ask if I could talk to their friends. I’ll just kind of branch out like that.

That is like the 21 Jump Street of scripting.

Exactly. The details that came out of those sessions were so great and so specific and so messy and complicated. Because I heard so much, I had a sense if I was getting it right.

Were most of these by phone or in person?

Some in person, a lot by phone.

What a journey. Fifty teenagers!

Oh yeah. I went and hung out at high schools, I went to a high school dance—I really wanted to make sure I was getting it right. The other thing that’s so interesting, is with every single kid I asked the same question: “What movies do you feel accurately represent your life at this age?” And every single one of them said there aren’t any. That just felt so staggering and sad. This was four years ago so maybe that’s changed since then. In a way they turn into a little…you feel like you really want to do right by them.

At the end of the day, with this extensive research, how much is this Kelly summoning her own autobiographical experiences, in a fictional way, and how much of this is a fictional reportage of this experience of talking to 50 kids? Where does the balance fall?

In a lot of ways, probably all of the interviews and all of the talks had gone into my unconscious, and then I just started to write. So it wasn’t necessarily taking specific details from people’s lives that I’ve interviewed or anything.

You didn’t utilize any specific anecdotes?

No. It was more just a general sense of what everybody was going through emotionally.

When, where and how do you write? What’s your ritual if you can give me a description?

I usually try to keep a normal nine-to-seven schedule writing. I actually try to treat it like a thing where I’m going in somewhere and doing it and then going home and having a normal life. Sometimes I’m working until the wee hours or whatever. But I try and really get up and do it that way. Lately I have to go to my office and get out because I have a three-year-old little guy. He’ll come in the room and knock 4,000 times, and I can’t resist him.

Do you listen to music? Are you a big outliner? Or are you just kind of a stream of consciousness writer?

I do listen to music sometimes, particularly if I need a scene and I can feel what it feels like and there’s a particular song that has that feeling. I’ll put it on repeat and work on that scene. But generally I can’t have Pandora playing and still write, because the song might not quite work. So I feel like I’m very specific about that. I generally have to have a sense of where I’m going. Sometimes a scene will tell me, and sometimes you don’t know where you’re going and you just start making [the characters] talk, and then suddenly you do know. But generally I feel like I have to have at least a direction in order to write towards something.

For a lot of the writers I talk to, the big theme is that the writing occurs when you’re not writing, and when you’re actually sitting in front of the computer is more of the dictation of what has been stewing or percolating. Is that true of you?

Yeah. Sometimes it’s like the great idea strikes you in the shower, but for me personally, the other might be more true. I’ve always felt something as soon as my fingers are on the keyboard—something different clicks in for me. Suddenly I start to figure out what I need to say. Whereas sometime just moving through life, the answers don’t come to me. I don’t even know why it is, I have no idea. I may have created some type of weird synapse connection where the brain can’t work until I have my fingertips on a keyboard.

So you got to have a laptop in front of you?

Yeah, I do. Sometimes I try to do voice dictation, and I can’t do it, I can’t write. One of the things that’s so cool and wild about Jim is that he can write out loud off the top of his head, and it comes out fully formed and punctuated and perfect and beautiful. It’s just out of his mouth. I have no idea how he does that. I don’t have any clue. It’s like witnessing some type of magic.

© 2016 Writers Guild of America West

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