Director Kelly Fremon Craig | The Backlot Podcast | NYFA 

Tova: Hi and welcome to The Backlot. I’m Tova Laiter, moderator and director of the New York Film Academy guest lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about her experience in the entertainment industry. And now Eric Conner will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.

Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy. And in this episode, we revisit the coming of age tale,The Edge of Seventeen, previously featured in our episode with actor Hayden Szeto. If you haven’t seen the film, well, you should. It’s great, but that’s OK. Here’s the trailer.

Clip: There are two types of people in the world. The people who radiate confidence and naturally excel at life.

Goldenboy.

What’s up.

And the people who hope all those people die in a big explosion.

Life isn’t fair sometimes Nadine OK? You got to get over it.

My life isn’t perfect either. The one person who makes me happy I can’t have without completely destroying you.

Life’s about taking risks. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.

Nick, I like you.

Eric: This time, we bring you the film’s writer director whose directorial debut attracted none less than James L. Brooks as a producer, a writer whose first screenplay got turned into a feature starring Alexis Bledel, Michael Keaton and Carol Burnett. And who will soon be bringing the beloved novel, Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret to the screen. We are talking about Kelly Fremon Craig in The Edge of Seventeen. Ms. Fremon Craig captured the teenage voice with remarkable precision and gave herself a chance to revisit all the heightened emotions that come with being a highschooler.

Kelly Fremon Craig: There’s something about this age that has always really interested me because I remember the feeling of it so vividly. Like the other day I was driving along with my husband and a song came on the radio that was very popular when I was in high school. And it was like, I mean, it just knocked me over. I felt like I was going to die. It was just so just lonely and awful. And also, like, you experience the lowest lows, but also the highest highs. Like I remember other moments of that age where I felt euphoric. It felt like anything was possible. I love, I guess, the drama of this age. Like I feel like in some ways you’re never quite so alive as you are this age when everything feels like life and death because you really don’t know. You haven’t had enough life experience yet to know like when something bad happens to you, you’ll live. Like it’s OK. It’s going to go away eventually and you’ll get back on your feet like you really think it’s the end of the world. And that’s just interesting to me.

Eric: It also brought her back to the time when she first gravitated towards her eventual career.

Kelly Fremon Craig: When I was like 13 or 14, there was, I don’t think like these even really exist anymore, but like the thing was music videos on MTV. So you’d be, like, really bored all summer. And all you’d do is sit in front of the TV and watch music videos. And so I feel like I kind of got indoctrinated to the idea of like images and music. And it just, it was cool filmmaking. It was like they were little short films. And so around then I started to make a little music videos with my friends. But interestingly, like, I never thought I could do this as a career. It was just it was fun. And then later when I started to write, I realized that film is really such a director’s medium. That’s sort of when I came back to, hey, you know, I’ve always thought this way and I write very visually. Like as I’m writing I’m seeing shots a lot of times.

Eric: Long before there was YouTube or TikTok, music videos cornered the market on inventive short films. Similarly, years before Kelly Fremon Craig wrote a feature, she created a series of shorter projects. Until her passion for storytelling, took her into a new medium.

Kelly Fremon Craig: At the time, I was actually writing like spoken word poetry, like slam poetry, which is. Yeah, and I’m now like, it’s a totally different side of myself. It’s hard to imagine I did it. So anyway, I was writing essentially like monologues, you know, little characters. And then I read my first script and I was like, oh, this is so, you can make these different characters talk to each other. And that was exciting to me. Cause I really didn’t know what I was going to do with my life writing these little monologues, essentially. And then basically I got really good advice right off. And I really think this is true. Somebody said to me at the very, very beginning when I was twenty one or twenty two, they said, if you write a screenplay that’s good enough, you can throw it off the side of the 405 and somebody will find it and they will make it. And I loved that that like gave the power to the writer. Like, there’s so many things you can’t control. But if you really can focus on writing something good, the right things will happen.

Eric: Part of giving her script the best chance to succeed was not showing it to the entire town until it was ready to be seen.

Kelly Fremon Craig: First of all, I think it’s so important that, especially when you’re at the beginning stages where your your idea is just a little seed of an idea. It’s just like a little sprout. You know, it’s very fragile. Let only very select people in. People that you feel like are going to nurture it and not squash it. And I think that’s so important because you’re at a stage where you’re not confident in it yet because it’s just a little thing and you’re not sure and who knows if it’ll grow into a tree. And I’m just trying to get this thing to work, you know? So it’s, I think it’s really important who you choose. Producers essentially, like that’s their job to be kind of the person going, yeah, it looks good, it’s growing. It’s doing the right thing, you know. And then once you kind of get it on its feet more than you can go, OK, I feel a little more confident about this. I can kind of send it out to a few more people and get feedback and sort of let your team grow from there.

Eric: Ms. Fremon Craig went on to write her first feature script, which had that magical Hollywood journey. It got her representation and it was produced as a feature film, albeit one that she is less than a fan of.

Kelly Fremon Craig: I finished my first script and then like I did the thing where you give it to everybody you’ve ever met and asked them to pass it along if they like it. And it somehow through that chain ended up in the hands of like a real young agent at APA, who had just like gone from being an assistant to an agent, and she took the script out and then I ended up getting work off that script and then basically, like, as soon as that happens, you know, you go on a million general meetings and you meet sort of everybody. And then that film was produced into, like it was turned into a movie that I just hated, like, desperately. So everything was great. And then it was just like the rug was ripped out. But yeah. That was the thing. I actually think, like, you have to get beaten down a little bit.

So anyway, that experience just made me want to direct. You know, made me want to hold onto the material. So then I sort of was at this juncture where I was so upset about the movie going so badly on the first one that I sort of went, OK, I’m either gonna move and just be done with this or I’m going to go back to write something I really care about. Because at the time I was also, once you sort of get a script out there and get the meetings, then you start doing little rewrites and stuff like that. You start doing paid gigs. But that’s really, you’re always writing for somebody else when you’re doing that type of work. So anyway, so I said, all right, I’m going to give it one more shot. And that was this film. And so I got together with my same agent and I said, there’s nobody in the world I love more than Jim Brooks. Like he is the reason I wanted to be a filmmaker. And she said, well, we’ll send it over there. It’s a black hole. It’ll never happen. But you know, we’ll send it. And it turned out that it was just, it was luck, I guess. You know, he was between movies and he was in his office long enough to actually read it. And then one of the producers, Julianne Sell, was she was a great champion of it.

Eric: Jim Brooks, also known as James L. Brooks, has had a hand in at least one film or show that you love. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Terms of Endearment, The Simpsons, As Good As It Gets, just to name a few. His name as a producer ensured the movie would get made, but it was his mentorship and guidance that ensured the movie would be done right.

Kelly Fremon Craig: Two things he said to me that changed everything forever. The first thing is when I sat down with him and we first started to go over the script, I started to go into this, sort of this thing that you do as a writer where you go, OK so the second act crisis is here and. But, you know, and talking all this sort of like screenwriter speak and he sort of stopped me and he said, the first and most important thing you have to do is figure out, what are you saying about life in this story? And it was the first time a producer, someone in Hollywood, had said something like that. Something with weight like that to me. You know, usually everyone’s like, but what’s the trailer moment, you know? And so it was really, it was such a gift to me because it was just, it was essentially, what’s the point? What’s the point? Why do we go to this movie, you know? And so I sort of took some time and then figured out what that was for me and then started writing again.

So that was the first piece of advice. And the second was always do research, like always do interviews. So I went and I like I hung out at high schools and every teenager I can possibly get my hands on, like I’d be like, can you talk to me? I would just ask them a bunch of questions and ask if I could kind of be a fly on the wall and just hang out. And it was, um. I mean, it’s amazing cause there’s so many little details that you get out of that that you can’t make up. And for me, it just changed my sense of of what I wanted to do because I started out and I was, the tone of the script initially was just, the comedy was broader. It was laugh every other line. It was really pushing into the comedy. And then when I sat down with all these different teenagers, I found that it was also really painful and heartbreaking and funny, but also heartbreaking. So I felt like I wanted to go back to the drawing board and get both those pieces.

Eric: Part of creating the right tone for the script was finding the voice for its lead character played to perfection by the Oscar nominated Hailee Steinfeld, which meant capturing even her less than sympathetic moments.

Kelly Fremon Craig: That was always the biggest challenge of the film and of the writing because I really wanted to allow her to be every shade, you know, and for when she was in those moments where she’s a jerk, for you to be able to forgive her because you see another moment where she is in a lot of pain and you see why she was a jerk, you know? Those are my favorite characters. You know, it was interesting.

So in the writing, I was always sort of aware of the moments, the moments we feel for her and the moments we go, oh too much. You know, I’ve been trying to kind of do this push pull thing the whole time. And then in the actual shooting of it, it was always in the back of my mind, how do we keep this really delicate balance? Because it felt like in some moments a high wire act. And by the way, so much of the credit for why I think she works is Hailee, because she can seamlessly move between those moments where she’s a jerk and then those moments where she’s just heartbreaking and soft and in a lot of pain.

So I would a lot of times, do the takes on a spectrum. So essentially, I would say, OK, let’s push it real into the asshole zone. And now let’s pull you back so you’re softer, you know? You know, one of the greatest pieces of advice that I got from Jim Brooks and that I always pass along is to get choices when you’re shooting because you think as a writer, you think, you know, well no it’s this. This is the delivery. I know. I’ve heard it in my head a million times. I know this will work. But the truth is, until you get into the edit, you don’t really know. And you want to be able to have a lot of different options to be able to shape the movie and feel it and go, this is, it’s getting to be a little too much here. We need to pull it back or we need we can go further here. Let’s see what else we’ve got.

Eric: So much of the research into the teenage world goes back to Ms. Fremon Craig’s main goal with her writing. Do the characters’ moments actually feel real?

Kelly Fremon Craig: Whenever I sit down to write I’m always, there’s always this voice in the back of my head saying, but is this as true as it can possibly be? Sometimes you’ll have somebody say a line or there’ll be a moment and sometimes you’re like, Am I writing this because I’ve seen that somewhere? I’ve seen that in a movie or I think that’s what they should say. But if I really, like, jump into this person’s body and imagine myself there, how do I feel? What do I want to do? What’s the truest thing that would happen here? Like, that’s a thing I’m constantly trying to do. And I’m always also trying to go, like if I have an instinct to push a character one direction, then I will always go, OK but what’s the opposite of that that we don’t see? You know what I mean, if publicly they’re, you know, like Mr. Bruner seems like he doesn’t give a s**t about life or anything, you know? And then I liked the idea that you found out that privately he has this really sort of warm, great life that he cares a lot about, you know, that he actually does have a big heart. So I’m always, I guess, looking for those things that feel antithetical to each other, because I think somewhere in there, that’s where the truth is, that we’re constantly like opposites all the time. We’re just, we’re contradictions all the time. And that always feels true to me.

Eric: With the Edge of Seventeen, Ms. Fremon Craig put a lot of herself into the story, though she is very quick to say it is not an autobiography.

Kelly Fremon Craig: You know, I think as a writer in some ways, like every moment you’re writing, it’s coming from somewhere, you know what I mean? You’ve got to be able to feel into it, you know, and little moments and they’re all coming from a personal place at some point. The beautiful thing about writing is that you get to make up the ending. You know what I mean? You get to make up the parts that weren’t that great in life, you know? And there’s this great Nora Ephron thing. She’d always say everything is copy. And by that, she meant like every bad, humiliating, awful thing that happens to you, the great thing is, it’s material, you know? And she talks about how if you slip on a banana peel, everybody laughs at you. But if you tell the story of yourself slipping on a banana peel, suddenly they’re laughing with you and you own the story and you’re in control of it. And I think that’s one of the most wonderful things about writing, is that you are able to truly make lemons into lemonade. Like in high school, I was probably more, I think I presented myself probably more like Darian, like I had it together, but inside I was totally Nadine. So I related to both of them. And she was really therapeutic to write because she’s just got to say anything. She’s just letting it all hang out, which was which was nice.

Eric: And once the therapy of writing the script was done and the characters were created, Ms. Fremon Craig had the challenge of finding the actors to bring her characters to three dimensional life.

Kelly Fremon Craig: Really every role in this, there was no second place. There was no like, okay, this person, but then this person could work. It was like the character that we cast and then everybody else was just miles away. And, you know, in a lot of ways it’s subtlety, it’s the listening, you know. It’s the moments in between the lines that I’m always watching, you know, sort of what’s happening behind somebodies eyes sort of being alive and every moment, which I think the actors do so well. Particularly, I think um, I mean everybody but Haley Lu Richardson who plays Krista, you know, she has less lines, but she’s, a lot happens on her face. It’s not like she’s stealing the show, but like exactly what should happen on her face happens.

Eric: In fact, one of the first people cast was New York Film Academy alum, and recent podcast subject, Hayden Szeto, who was no stranger to auditions but knew this one was big when he saw who was in the room.

Hayden Szeto: In the room was Kelly the director and three producers at the back. I knew they were producers because they’re older and they’re judging me. And so I went in and I did the scene again with Kelly. And she laughed and she looked at me for a second and she’s like, OK. Thank you. Thank you very much. And at that time, my visa was about to expire. So I had bigger things to worry about, like going back to my own country, Canada. And they called me. They’re like, hey, you’re the choice. Like, what? What, what? What does that mean? I’m the choice. What do you mean? What does that? What does that mean? That I have the job? Like what? What does the choice mean? What’s choice? What’s choice? And they’re like, yeah, well see, you’re like the first person to be cast. We don’t even have a DP yet. We don’t even have any money yet. But we really like you.

Kelly Fremon Craig: He’s so lovable. He’s so lovable. And he is in real life, too. And he was, you know interestingly, like he was one of the first people we cast before we ever cast Hailee or Woody or anybody. And, you know, we were sure we were going to have to search forever to find him. And he was like a third guy who walked in the door. And you’re like, thank you, God. Yeah.

Eric: Steven Spielberg himself stressed that once he casts a film correctly, most of his work is complete. For Kelly Fremon Craig, casting meant bringing in people who could show her countless new possibilities for her own material.

Kelly Fremon Craig: The best part is that you have these incredibly talented people and they are all coming with their own ideas, you know? And my favorite thing was to show up and have an actor come with an idea that I never thought of. And you’re just like, wow, that is so much better than what I thought. Thank you. That’s the best day. That’s the best day when you show up. And it’s it’s something you didn’t even think up. And there are a million cases. Hayden, who plays Irwin. He’s such a talented improviser. And so, you know, I was constantly just sort of giving him room to play and try things. And so a lot of his stuff, like where he yells off the Ferris wheel, like, can we get off the f**king ride? That’s just him improvising because he was just, like, sick of going around the Ferris wheel.

Clip: Hey. Excuse me. Can we be let off?

Irwin.

Can we please? Can we stop the f**king ride? Can we just stop it? I’m sorry for, I didn’t mean to raise my voice.

Oh, my God, Irwin.

Kelly Fremon Craig: And then she laughs and that was her real laugh and you know, we ended up using it. So he was just so wonderful because of all these great little in-between moments, his little asides, like, I would just let the camera roll. Like, I would just let it roll, like, way past when the scene was over because he’d just be really uncomfortable and trying to think about new things to say, which was perfect for the character.

Eric: The film was cast, financed, and had the Oscar winning James L. Brooks behind the scenes. But now came the potential biggest obstacle for a first time director. Self doubt.

Kelly Fremon Craig: I will say this. Like if anybody says that they’re not experiencing that, they’re lying or they’re not doing very good work because that’s part of it. It’s, it’s torturous. And sometimes you hate yourself and that is part of it. So, know that’s just par for the course. Like hourly. I mean, really, like, that’s so much of the job is getting out of your own way. Like getting away from that voice that’s like, this is terrible. You suck. And so, you know what I mean, like, you have to somehow tie that little person up and throw them in the closet, you know? Yeah. I mean. Absolutely. All the time. And writing, especially because it’s such a solitary activity – you can go to the dark place really easily, you know. But yeah, I mean, I think so much of it is just showing up the next day to do the work. Just showing up. Just saying, I said at 9:00 I’m gonna start. I’m gonna start. I don’t know where I’m going to go. I’m a little scared, but I’m gonna show up. Not waiting for the inspiration. Not waiting for the mean voices in your head to go away. You know, if you wait for that, you’ll never do it. So you sort of just have to. Just show up.

Eric: A first time director might not have all the answers, but they still need to answer all the questions they’re going to get every hour of every day on set.

Kelly Fremon Craig: I hope these people don’t know, like, I don’t know what I’m doing. You know, you just, you show up and you fake it. The great thing is, you figure it out pretty quickly. The hard part about being a first time director, for me is, I came from writing, so I like was on a set maybe one time ever. So for me, it was like, OK, so this guy does that and, you know, like it was all new for me, but it only takes a couple days to know, like, OK, I get how everything works, how sort of all the machinery works. And then the great thing is, once you get past those first day jitters, you are just like, you’re in a sprint. So you do not have time to have any self-consciousness. Like, in fact, I feel like I entered like a weird Zen state because I was so busy that I was like, I had no concept of myself. It’s just you’re just serving the film and you’re you’re just trying to keep the ball rolling, you know?

Eric: So what did Ms. Fremon Craig learn as a first time director?

Kelly Fremon Craig: I always kind of go back and I think, how could I have been a better communicator as a director? How could I have empowered people more? How could I have gotten the best out of people? Because that’s so much of what the job is, too. It’s about getting the best out of the people that are around you, you know. And that’s a specific skill in a way, like I think writing and editing are very similar. Directing is very different than those two things, because it’s much more about drawing people out of themselves, like setting the stage so that people can do their best work. It’s more managerial. It’s more nurturing. It’s a different skill set. So I feel like I’m always trying to improve that.

Eric: All of which makes me look even more forward to seeing what she does with Are you there? God, it’s me, Margaret. We want to thank Kelly Fremon Craig for casting one of our alumni and for sharing her experiences with our current students. And, of course, thanks to all of you for listening.

This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see or other Q&A’s, check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon and myself. Executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.

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