We have James L. Brooks to thank for many things: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Simpsons, Broadcast News, and one of the most iconic scenes in the history of teen movies. Brooks was an executive producer on Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything…, which gave us John Cusack holding a boom box aloft so the sounds of Peter Gabriel could drift into the object of his affection’s window. The entertainment legend now has his name on another film about the anxiety of adolescence, The Edge Of Seventeen. Written and directed by Kelly Fremon Craig, Edge follows the prickly Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), something of a loner—partly of her own design—who relies on her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), for solace. When Krista starts dating Darian (Blake Jenner), who happens to be Krista’s annoyingly popular older brother, Nadine descends into a self-destructive tailspin. The film deftly unpacks the agony of a teenage girl who believes the world has it out for her.
Brooks has a history of shepherding young writers to creative success, having worked with the likes of Crowe and Wes Anderson at the outset of their careers. The A.V. Club spoke with Brooks at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Edge premiered on closing night.
The A.V. Club: How did you come across this script?
James L. Brooks: Julie Ansell, who works for me, who looks for scripts, found this one. I read it, and it was fine. Kelly came in, and we talked. Then just as she was leaving—the whole thing was over—she turned around, and she said in a definite P.S.: “Nobody will ever work as hard as I do.” That really impressed me. We went forward without saying “let’s fix this” or “let’s adjust this act.” Let’s find out the mission. What’s the mission of this picture? What should it be? Kelly went off at my urging to do research for about six months and talk to kids all over the place. She’d tape them, and she’d bring it in, and a lot of it was intimate stuff. She’d call them on the phone, and she’d maintain relationships with them after seeing them in groups. I can’t tell you—I don’t even know if Kelly can tell you specifically what came out of it—but she sat down and wrote a second draft, and suddenly there was an important writer with a specific voice. I went nuts over it.
AVC: How important is a research process?
JLB: I believe in it a lot.
AVC: Have you done that in your work as well?
JLB: Always. I’m writing a script now, and I had shortchanged the research, and now years into it, many drafts, I’m going back and doing some proper research.
AVC: When you first saw the script was there anything that struck you?
JLB: We were never doing a teen movie. We were never doing a genre movie. We tried to beat that back with a stick. We were serving characters in a story the way you’d serve characters in a story in any event. But, what happens when you do the research, it’s not only what you learn, it’s that you’ve met these kids, and you have a constituency in your mind, so that you’re not full of shit.
AVC: There’s a parallel to Say Anything…
JLB: So did Kelly. Kelly was inspired by Say Anything… as well as the John Hughes pictures. Say Anything… spoke to her.
AVC: Did you see any parallels there?
JLB: No, the only parallels I’ve felt are the times I’ve done this with writers who became the directors of their movie, and it was the first time they’d done it, and it was like that. So I was familiar with that.
AVC: How much did the script change from that initial draft?
JLB: I never read the first draft again, so I couldn’t tell you. This was a four-year period. She got pregnant. She had a baby. The change was dramatic and extraordinary, and the biggest change I’d seen between drafts in my life, and I don’t know if I’ll ever go and make myself find out exactly what happened. But the whole focus was different. And it became—it’s just all Nadine, and then the actors came along. The guy who plays Erwin, Hayden [Szeto], influenced the story, and he influenced the tone with his presence. Woody [Harrelson] threaded the needle I didn’t know was there until he threaded it. There’s nothing patronizing in the part. There’s nothing conventional. He seems to be delighted and annoyed at the same time, which I’ve never seen.
AVC: He also defies a lot of the conventions of supportive teachers.
JLB: He’s not an irascible teacher, either. It’s a very specific character that you wonder about.
AVC: In terms of your working relationship with Kelly, was there any point where you just sort of let her go, or were you always collaborating with her?
JLB: I think the answer is yes, I let her go, and yes, I was always collaborating. I was present almost all the time, throughout the editing process, throughout everything.
AVC: Has that always been the case? You’ve worked with a lot of director-writers, like Wes Anderson and Cameron Crowe, at the beginning of their careers.
JLB: Yes. I think that’s the relationship that is established. I think with Wes, he had really spent his life preparing to direct. It was his thing. It was what he wanted. And with Cameron and Kelly, I think they were writers. With Cameron, six directors turned us down. I said, “You know, maybe you’re the best director.”
AVC: Did you and Kelly always know that she wanted to direct this film?
JLB: We just discussed that. She just told me. Because I had said, “Jeez, I don’t know how it happened. I don’t think there was a moment where you said, ‘I’d love to direct,’ and I don’t think there was a moment where I said, ‘How’d you like to direct?’” She said, there was a moment when I said to her, “This requires a specific sensibility, this character, and you should direct.”
AVC: What were the challenges of getting it made?
JLB: Going around and asking for money until we got it. STX’s business model was the $30 to $60 million movie. We were outside their business model, but they liked the script enough, and they just, you know, became enormously supportive.
AVC: You’ve had such a long career in TV as well, which has also gone through a sea change. Have you witnessed stories that you would like to tell that you think would be better told in film moving to TV?
JLB: TV gives writers control, rather than directors, because writers control it. TV, the pursuit of excellence is commercial. It’s the way a lot of networks make money, by pursuing excellence. We’ve had recent greatness in television, all over the place. Now this year, it might be a stellar year in film. Certainly, I’m hearing more titles that I have to see. So I hope we’re a part of it. It’s great if we’re a part of it. It’s great if we somehow scramble into being one of those pictures.
AVC: What do you like about the experience of producing a film and fostering talent like Kelly versus doing the writing and directing yourself?
JLB: It’s soul food for me. It’s good for me. It’s good for me to try and help another voice out. It’s good for me to work in something with a group that—I wasn’t about to do a film about teenagers. It’s good for me, and I get something out of it. Especially the way I work intimately with it. It’s, “Hey, kids, let’s do the show right here.” It’s good for me. It’s a good battle against cynicism. It’s a good battle against all sorts of things. It’s good. It’s a multivitamin.
AVC: There’s a movement to have more women behind the camera. How do you see your part in that by fostering Kelly’s voice?
JLB: It was fostering this writer’s voice. It wasn’t a matter of gender to me. It wasn’t. Some of my best friends are female directors. I’ve always worked for women. Mystified at what that percentage was. Got a little suspicious when we went into three or four meetings, where they loved the script, it was a pro forma meeting, just to approve the financing, and I go in with Kelly, and then we didn’t get it. And I started to think, is it possible? Is it possible? I hope not. But I did get a little suspicious, because it’s happened on the set. It’s happened with crew. I remember the first movie where I had to say, “Can I help you carry that?” I had to stop myself from saying that as women came on crews, as women became grips, as women became gaffers.
AVC: What movie was that on?
JLB: What a good question. Maybe Spanglish. Maybe, I’m not sure.
AVC: Nadine is fascinatingly complicated, and she’s very real. What was it like working with Kelly to build this character?
JLB: I think that the great thing is that if you do an original character and you try to make it as honest as you can, people say that’s me. Hailee’s performance is one of the best I’ve ever been around, ever. She’s a girl who’s tough to like and hard to love. Harder to love. And there’s no wavering of it. And that really is what is exciting and has you leaning forward, that nobody’s asking “please like me” because I’m the heroine of the movie at any point. I think that’s the heart of the movie. Her giving that performance is the heart of the movie. You know, where she’s just doing the truth, and there’s no awareness of a camera or judgment. That’s who she is. I’m knocked out by that. Catching Hailee at exactly the right age and having her so insanely talented that she can do this truth and still has comedy chops is nuts.
AVC: Over the course of your career, what have you liked about developing female characters?
JLB: I think it was because of the crummy home that I came from, and you know, an alcoholic father, my mother had two sisters, and I had an older sister who was eight years older than I was. I was raised by women. I overheard female voices when I went to sleep. I was raised around that point of view.