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With a shift in focus, writer Kelly Fremon Craig finds the heart of ‘Edge of Seventeen’

Writer Kelly Fremon Craig
Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig says she received some key advice about her writing from producer James L. Brooks: “The most important thing you have to figure out is what you want to say about life.”
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

There are only two drafts of “The Edge of Seventeen,” but the second one is so wildly different from the first you’d have a hard time believing they’re even the same project.

My first draft was slick, heightened, ironic, each scene squeezed for every last joke I could wring out of it. I was proud of that script, and I was proud of those jokes. I was even prouder when we sent it to my comedy idol, Jim Brooks, and he agreed to produce it and let me direct.

I had no idea that when we sat down for one of our first meetings, he would give me a piece of advice that would so radically, permanently change my perspective as a writer I’d want to chuck everything I’d ever written into the ocean and start over from scratch. 

Here’s what he said to me:

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“The most important thing you have to figure out is what you want to say about life in this story.”

It was simple and maybe even obvious, but it rearranged my entire universe.

Here’s what I knew he was saying: It’s not about laughs, Kelly. Write what matters to you, write what gnaws at you at night, write what you’re scared of, write what hurts.

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In an instant, I understood why each of his films has drilled straight into my heart and never, ever left. The laughs always land, and they are brilliant and biting and wholly original, but it’s never about them.

I spent the next few weeks writing long, rambling stream-of-consciousness journals in an effort to find the answer to his question. What did I want to say about life? About life. It felt so enormous. It felt so ambitious. Who was I? I’d become so accustomed to crafting setups and punchlines, I was scared to death to try for an earnest moment. What if I missed? What if, while aiming for sincerity, I ended up with the worst thing of all … melodrama?

The discovery wasn’t original, just deeply, painfully true: How desperately alone I often felt at that age.”
Kelly Fremon Craig

I kept journaling though, reaching back in my memory to all those churning emotions of my adolescence, when late one night I came upon a line of thought that caused an ache in the very center of myself, an actual physical hurt. The discovery wasn’t original, just deeply, painfully true: How desperately alone I often felt at that age. How disappointed I was in my own inadequate self and how terrifying it was to realize I was going to be stuck with her — with me — for the rest of my life.

I opened a blank page and started typing from that feeling. One day, several months later, I had a new script with a heroine named Nadine giving a voice to that ache I felt. She was self-confident and self-loathing, tough as nails and fragile as glass.  She was, in short, a humongous, complicated mess.  Like I was at that age. Maybe like all of us.

I sent the new script to Jim, exhilarated. And then, about 10 minutes later, absolutely petrified. At dinner that night with my husband, I nervously gulped down a glass of wine. I told myself we could always move to Montana.

Soon enough, “The Edge of Seventeen” came out in theaters. Hailee Steinfeld gives a performance so full-hearted and arresting and raw that watching her feels like witnessing some sort of magic. Also, I can’t deny it: Hearing the audience laugh is one of the coolest experiences on Earth. But even better than that? The echoes of people leaving the theater saying, “I’ve felt that.”

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