Veteran writer/producer James L. Brooks knows talent when he sees it. After all, the man famously once backed then-unknowns Cameron Crowe and Wes Anderson and has now put his full support behind first time director Kelly Fremon Craig. The product of that nurturing working relationship is The Edge of Seventeen, a John Hughes-like coming of age tale that’s bound to become a modern day classic. The film was the Closing Night selection this past September at the Toronto International Film Festival and we, along with an elite group of local journalists, were lucky to sit down with Brooks and Craig just hours prior to its premiere. The following is an excerpt from that fascinating roundtable discussion. Warning: spoilers from the film included.
Kelly, were you always attached as director of the film? James, how did you know Kelly was the right person to direct the project?
James L. Brooks: I don’t remember the moment we decided she should direct the movie but Kelly remembered it because she was trying to find a way to say to me that she wanted to direct it.
Kelly Fremon Craig: That’s right. I was trying to find a way to pitch myself.
JLB: This is one of the great learning curves that I’ve been lucky to be a part of. She impressed me as a person first, initially. When we were talking about the first draft in a meeting and I was really agonizing over my involvement with the film, she turned around and said, “nobody will ever work as hard as me”. It was unusual, and it was an instinct in her, and it was the truth.
KFC: When I first met James, it was a relief and it was also discombobulating because he was a person who, instead of saying “we’re all on this page” or “the second act crisis needs to be more like this” or whatever, one of the first things he said to me was- “the most important thing you need to figure out, Kelly, is what do you want to say about life in this film?”, and it was the first time a producer had ever said something to me that was actually life altering. I will never, ever, ever approach anything I write ever again without hearing that, without starting there.
Out of curiosity, I had read that the original ending was different than the one now in the final cut of the film. What was the original ending of the film?
KFC: It’s interesting because the original ending is not really that different – the dialogue is the same. We went back for one last moment, one last shot with Hailee, the one that pushes in to her and just makes that last moment hers. That was really what we went back for. The intention was really for two different reasons. Firstly, Hayden (Szeto), as Irwin, killed in our test screenings to such an extent that part of it was just to give them a little more romance in the end. The original ending was romantic but it was a little ambiguous because you didn’t know whether people would really hook into their relationship or not. But people loved him and them together and their energy together so much that we just wanted to give them and her more of a moment in the end.
For Hayden, the really important thing was just getting out of his way and giving him license to play. He has such a lightning fast mind and he’s a great improviser. I would just constantly tell him, “play, do your thing, have fun, try stuff, be bold”, and he would give me something incredible and original and off the top of his head all the time. It was just really about playing to his strengths and thinking of things off the top of his head wildly fast.
JLB: One of the assets everybody had in the picture was Hailee because she was just masterful and didn’t know how generous she was being. For an actor to be in the scene with her, you were with that character. With Hayden, she just did her thing as the character would. I think, for me, it’s one of the most brilliant performances I’ve ever been around. I’m just in awe by it.
KFC: For all the days and nights I spent on set it was like witnessing magic with Hailee. So often I would just lean back in the chair with my mouth open; I just couldn’t believe it and I couldn’t believe the effortlessness of it. Her talent is just so inside her that it’s just like breathing for her. I’ve never seen anything like that in my whole life.
What are you hoping people take away from the film?
KFC: There’s a quote that Jim says that I love, and that’s “the purpose of film, and of art generally, is to make you know that you’re not alone”, and I hope that’s what the film does.
The Edge of Seventeen opens in theatres everywhere on November 18, 2016.