Interview: Filmmaker Kelly Fremon Craig on Coming-of-Age Stories, Adapting a Beloved Novel and the Universality of Adolescence

Armed with an English degree from UC Irvine, Kelly Fremon Craig began her Hollywood career as a writer, penning the not-so-well-received 2009 Alexis Bledel-led comedy Post Grad. But it was her next script, for the 2016 coming-of-age smash The Edge of Seventeen, that got two much-needed boosts: James L. Brooks’ Gracie Films acquired the project in 2012 and helped develop the script with Fremon Craig (which resulted in Brooks becoming her mentor), and she got to direct the Hailee Steinfeld vehicle herself, putting her fully in control of her own sharp screenplay.

Apparently not content to simply turn out outstanding original screenplays, Fremon Craig then turned to the works of an author who had never allowed her books to be adapted into films: Judy Blume. But an impassioned personal note from the filmmaker to Blume mentioned two things that changed the author’s mind about allowing arguably her most famous novel, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret., to be brought to the big screen: the Brooks connection and the fact that the filmmaker had made The Edge of Seventeen, which Blume just happened to think was a fantastic examination of a time in young women’s lives, something she knows a little something about.

Set in the 1970s, Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. concerns 11-year-old Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) shortly after she and her parents (played by Rachel McAdams and Benny Safdie) move from New York City to suburban New Jersey. Less a single story and more a collection of moments involving Margaret and her new friends, her transformation into adolescence, and her emerging questions about faith, the film is a note-perfect exploration into the minds of young people that doesn’t talk down to them or avoid topics that may make even some adults a little uncomfortable (the amount of time spent on Margaret’s frustration that her first period hasn’t happened has got to be a record). It’s a damn near perfect movie, and I implore you to seek it out before the barrage of summer movies sweeps it out of theaters.

I recently had the chance to speak to Fremon Craig in Chicago, and she walked me through the process of getting the film made, preserving what makes it special, Blume’s contributions, and her own adjustments to make the story more cinematic. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. is now in theaters; go check it out. And please enjoy our conversation:

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book by Judy Blume, but I did see the documentary about her at Sundance, so I felt primed to watch this. That being said, as a middle-aged man, I don’t think I’ve ever been more invested in when a pre-teen girl gets her first period than I was during this movie.

You don’t know how many men say that: “I cried at a girl getting her period.”

I consider that a testament to the filmmaking. Once you got past the the excitement of getting this greenlit and Blume signed off on it, at what point did you realize that generations of people were hanging their expectation on you to get this right?

Oh my god, it really hit me the hardest when I sat down to write the script. The more I care about something, the more my writer’s procrastination kicks in, because I’m terrified to do it. So there were several weeks when I was like “I think I need to reorganize the closets first before I start this.” And then when I did start it, the first few weeks were a lot of typing and deleting, because I felt like every change felt sacrilegious in some way. And then at some point, I had to change my thinking because I knew I wouldn’t be able to continue like this, and I started to figure out that most of all my job was to deliver the spirit of the book and the way the book makes you feel. If I could do that, tap into the feeling and write from that place—“Does this line make me feel the way Judy Blume makes me feel?”—then I was onto something, then it gave me the freedom not to be nervous about every single change I made or even nervous about what her millions of fans think. I could just operate from a gut place rather than outside in.

The fan reaction would be more terrifying than Judy’s, I think.

Yes.

In your discussions with Judy, were there elements she wanted to leave intact?

Yes, a couple things. It was very important to her that it was set in 1970, but it was also very important to me that it was set in 1970. It was a non-discussion. I came to the first meeting with her saying it had to be 1970, and she said “Whew, because I wouldn’t make it if it were anything else.” We knew we had to get “I must increase my bust” right, and I almost got it wrong .

The expression or the exercise?

The movement. I was doing it like a hard clap—not only me, but my whole friend group was doing it wrong. But when we went to shoot the scene, Judy Blume was there that day, and rushed over saying “That’s not how you do it! You do it like this.”

Let me ask you about the ’70s aspect of the story. You’ve now done one modern coming-of-age story and one in a certain decade. Was there a noticeable difference, or is that time in someone’s life universal?

On a filmmaking level, everything becomes tougher when you shoot a film outside of your own time period. Every single detail has to be period-correct, every costume, but it’s exciting because you’re building a world. I had the most joy walking onto these sets because it’s a walk back in time, and it’s every little knick-knack, and something about that is really exciting. But I have to say, the subject matters and the feelings all felt the same. It never felt like we were making something that only existed in the past, emotionally.

Blume doesn’t often, if ever, allow her works to be adapted. Why do you think she was good with you doing it and this particular story being the one that got made?

So, she wouldn’t allow this to be adapted. She thought she would never let this one in particular be adapted. It was off the table. But the way I hear her tell the story, it was three things working together that changed her mind. The first thing was that I had just re-read Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. when I was thinking about what I wanted to do after The Edge of Seventeen, and I wrote her a letter how much her work had impacted me and how much I wanted to adapt this book. It turned out she had just seen The Edge of Seventeen, so that was the second thing. The third thing is that she’s a big fan of James L. Brooks, who is our producer. So those things made her feel safe to take the leap. And we sat down and had a really great meeting.

I’ve seen interviews where you’ve called Brooks your mentor, but he’s also a producer on both of your films. What does his mentoring entail exactly?

First of all, he’s legendary for a reason. He’s one of the smartest human beings I’ve ever met in my life. He’s so quick-witted and funny. It’s interesting watching him write; he writes off the top of his head. He doesn’t have to workshop it; it just comes out fully formed and perfect. I marvel at him still. He cares so much about the work; he works hard, and he works hard to get every single detail right.

I guess being mentored by him, coming up under him, I’ve been raised with his concept of how to make movies and how to set a certain tone on set. He can clear away all the noise; there are all of these things that want to screw up the film. Film is a very delicate thing, and it’s money, time, logistics, bad ideas, it’s a million things. And he’s really wonderful at blocking them all out and serving the work. So seeing that example is inspiring. I’m so lucky to come up under him and see how he does it, because when I’ve worked other places, nobody does it like he does it.

You mentioned that Judy was on set more than once. Were those days different, helpful, terrifying, distracting, life-affirming?

She was there for several weeks. You just felt the whole spirit of the place lift because it was like a legend had arrived, and we were all gathered together to do right by her. So when she walked in, it was like “She’s here!” She’s so warm, approachable and gracious, and she puts everyone at ease, so there’s no walking on eggshells around her because of how generous she is. It was just a spirit of joy, honestly. It was life affirming, exactly.

Let’s talk about Abby a bit. I’ve seen her things like HBO’s Togetherness or the first two Ant-Man movies. Why was she the right one to play Margaret?

She has such a soulfulness and a vulnerability, and she has this ability to convey so much without saying a word. Margaret is a very interior character; she’s not the loudest in the group—very often she’s saying nothing, but she’s feeling all sorts of things. So I knew we had to have an actress who could convey a whole range of emotions on her face, quietly, and she can do that. And she’s so funny. There are certain facial expressions she has that just make me laugh, and they are so tiny but they nail the experience, the awkwardness or uncertainty. I think the kid is a wunderkind.

You mentioned that you’d recently re-read this book, but what is your history with Judy Blume when you were a young person? What made her special to you?

I found her when I was 11; a friend introduced to her by saying, “You have to read this book; the girls in it do this exercise.” And she showed me the “I must increase my bust” move.

So it’s your friend’s fault you did it wrong.

I know, she taught me wrong. So I read this book, and then I had to read everything she ever wrote, because it felt like she got it, what it was like to be that age. She writes with such honesty and specificity; it’s really meaningful at that age to see yourself reflected in a book. It’s something of a relief because you feel very alone at that age, at least I did. You feel like you’re the only one who feels this awkward or who’s praying to god for boobs or whatever. I certainly felt all those ways, so it was a relief to meet Margaret.

I was impressed with how you handled the religious search of this story. It’s partly about someone searching for something to have faith in. How did you go about presenting that in a way that wasn’t off-putting or making this a religious movie, which it isn’t?

First of all, I love the way you articulated that question. I’m going to borrow that . The spiritual journey was a big reason I wanted to make the film, because I did find it really beautiful that in the throes of adolescence, where you feel really uncertain about yourself and life and everything is really scary, that’s when you reach out for something greater. She doesn’t know what she believes about any of it, but she’s searching for a sense of something that is in charge of us, something that’s going to make sure she’s okay. I really liked that she’s carving out her own sense of spirituality and that there’s a curiosity and a searching, and that really resonated with me. That’s when I started searching in that way; I still search in that way. I feel like I still have that question mark that lives in the center of me and always will and is always trying to figure out “Why are we here? Is there an order to this?”

The other thing you zero in on here is that friendship at that age is fleeting. The character of Nancy is a bit of a bully and a liar, and when Margaret realizes that, she puts a little distance between them. That’s very mature of her and might be the most coming-of-age thing in this movie. She recognizes that this person might not be good for her in the long run. I don’t know if I’ve seen that presented quite like this before. Tell me about that aspect of Margaret’s journey.

I remember at that age going through exactly that. Shifting between friend groups and trying to decide who was reflective or who I actually was. I think your friends are a reflection of you, and when you see them doing things that you don’t like, it makes you wonder if you should hang out with them. Friendship is such a difficult thing at that age.

When I was growing up in the 1980s, most of the coming-of-age movies were about boys. Lately, it’s been more about girls, with The Edge of Seventeen being a prime example of that. Were there films that you did drift toward when you were growing up that were in some way comforting, and was your mission as a filmmaker to make the things you didn’t see?

Yes! One hundred percent. It was Stand By Me, for instance. I’d always hoped that this would be a girl version of that. I loved that movie, but I wasn’t anywhere in it. I think that’s why I made a couple of them, because I asked myself “Why do I feel like I want to do this?” And I think it’s because, at that age, I think it helps. It’s the reason I loved Judy Blume; I was seeing myself and knowing I was normal or at least I wasn’t alone. We were in it together. I think that stuff can help at that age.

Do you think you’ll keep examining younger people’s stories, or are you ready to tackle the world of adults?

I thought I was ready for that after The Edge or Seventeen, but then I was like “Oh no, now I’m going to do one about 12 year olds?” I didn’t know how I was going to do it.

Best of luck with this. I know so many people who are ready to see this movie with their friends and kids.

Oh, thank you so much. This was great.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.