TORONTO (AP) — About five years ago, screenwriter Kelly Fremon Craig was on her way out of a meeting with James L. Brooks about a script she had written. Before she left, she turned around and said, “Nobody will ever work harder than I will.”
Brooks, whose credits run from “Taxi” to “Terms of Endearment,” ”Broadcast News” to “The Simpsons,” was struck by the moment. As he had for Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe, he decided to mentor Craig. And they eventually turned that script into the Toronto International Film Festival’s closing night movie, “Edge of Seventeen.”
It’s a coming-of-age comedy with a head-turning lead performance by Hailee Steinfeld (“True Grit”) as a high-schooler plagued by a series of embarrassments, including her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson) dating her older brother (Blake Jenner). The film, which premieres Saturday in Toronto and opens in theaters Nov. 18, summons the spirit of a John Hughes film and gives the teen movie a refreshingly real, R-rated spin, capturing all of the age’s awkwardness, self-doubt and quickly maturing smarts.
“It feels really good for people to watch it and say, ‘Me too,'” says Craig, whose previously wrote the script for the little-seen 2009 comedy “Post Grad,” starring Alexis Bledel. Brooks, who produced “Edge of Seventeen,” didn’t just want Craig to write the movie.
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“When I sat down with him, one of the first things he said was, ‘I think your voice is very specific so I think you should direct it,'” Craig recalls. “So I was like, ‘Can you put that in writing?'”
But at Gracie Films, Brooks’ production company, that’s the modus operandi, one that differs considerably from Hollywood’s typical development process.
“The whole idea of the very small company we have is: Writers are king,” says Brooks. “Every writer who comes through is never rewritten. They usually direct. If they don’t, they’re active producers. That’s the thing that makes sense for me. At three o’clock in the morning it’s great if something makes sense for you.”
Craig plunged into six months of research, interviewing teenagers about their daily lives. She even attended a high-school dance.
“When I went and interviewed all these kids, I asked them what movies depict your life accurately. Every single one of them said there aren’t any,” says Craig. “The process made me know I really wanted to pay respect to the messiness and the complicated nature of this age. It’s funny but it’s also painful.”
In the second draft, Brooks saw “an important writer with a new voice,” he says. They later set to casting the all-important part of Nadine Byrd, a rare blend of self-deprecation and confidence. They looked at, they say, 1,000 girls before being blown away by Steinfeld. Her sarcasm-laced rapport with Woody Harrelson, who plays an unimpressed teacher, is especially winning.
The final product, Brooks says, vindicated Craig’s promise to him.
“I wanted it as an abstract. Kelly was born wanting it,” says Brooks. “It’s hard to get a passion, a labor of love, out of the system right now. It’s not encouraged the way it was. So you’re going uphill. And we were able to do it, bit by bit, crises all the time. She turned out to be the real deal, all the way.”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP