Say one thing for James L. Brooks: He's got an eye for talent. The creative figures he helped mentor and nurture in Hollywood includes some of the most important names in the business. He mentored Cameron Crowe as he directed Say Anything..., helped discover Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson on the path to Bottle Rocket, and introduced The Simpsons to the world by helping develop the talents of Matt Groening on The Tracey Ullman Show. He co-created The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its two spinoffs, won Oscars for Terms of Endearment, and came close to repeating that feat with As Good As It Gets and Broadcast News. But aside from his work on The Simpsons—a job where he still serves as producer and writer, nearly 30 years later—and the occasional feature (2004's Spanglish and 2010's How Do You Know), Brooks's Gracie Films has kept a much lower profile over the past decade and a half than in the 30 years that preceded it.
"We don't exist to need to do anything. It's always been like that," Brooks says of Gracie, whose last film not written by Brooks was 2001's Riding In Cars With Boys (and, before that, Jerry Maguire in 1996.) "We have ongoing stuff that just happens, and The Simpsons keeps hearth and home together. I was in a strange state of mind for a while. Part of me was out to lunch. I don't know what I was going through."
That all changed when Brooks got his hands on a script by Kelly Fremon Craig that would become The Edge of Seventeen. Craig is a young filmmaker—she wrote a 2009 film called Post Grad, which starred Alexis Bledel—but she and Brooks each quickly found an energizing creative partner in the other.
"I wrote this script as a spec," Craig explains of The Edge of Seventeen, which means that it's a script that she wrote without a buyer in mind. It's a way of working in Hollywood that, she says, is kind of old-fashioned in an age when most writers meet with studios who want them to pitch their take on an idea developed in-house. "My representatives and I were talking about where would be the best place for it, and Jim was the person that I admired more than anybody. His movies were the movies that made me want to write and want to make films. We talked about how that would be the greatest thing that could possibly happen—so we took the shot, and it ended up that we sat down and it worked out."
Brooks liked the script enough to meet with Craig, and that meeting cemented for him that this was someone he wanted to be in business with. "I keep on talking about one moment," he says of his first encounter with Craig. "I have two steps leading out to my office. Kelly went up step one and a half, turned around, and said, 'Nobody works harder than I do.'"
The work that went into developing The Edge of Seventeen was definitely hard. The script was good enough to land her a meeting at Gracie Films, but before the process ended—a process which took four years—the entire script, from page one, was rewritten. "Not a single line remains," Craig says.
The process began with intensive research. The Edge of Seventeen is a coming of age dramedy with elements that are familiar to fans of, say, Cameron Crowe—there are shades of Fast Times At Ridgemont High, or even Almost Famous, in the story of a lost teenager trying to find her place in a world that she doesn't quite understand, and which doesn't seem to understand her. It stars Hailee Steinfeld as Nadine—a high school student on the cusp of adulthood whose struggle to cope with the death of her father gets even harder when her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson) starts dating her brother (Blake Jenner of Everybody Wants Some!!). In her corner, she's got her history teacher (Woody Harrelson) and a classmate with a crush she doesn't how to process (Hayden Szeto). None of that is particularly mind-blowing, in terms of a plot we've never seen before, which meant that to get deep into the characters, Craig spent a good chunk of that four-year development process doing firsthand research.
"When we sat down, Jim said, 'Let's take a journalistic approach. Interview a ton of teenagers, and just make sure you get all of the details right,'" Craig recalls. "So I started on what ended up being six months of research—of just talking to every teenager who would possibly sit down with me, and then talking to their friends, and that that mushroomed out. I'll never write another thing again without doing that, because it just gives you a different sense of mission, and it also gives you faces to the story that you're trying to tell. There are things that are universal about being that age that start to bubble up, and you start to have a sense of the things that everybody, no matter where they are in life or where they are in the social spectrum as a kid, is going through."
Brooks pushed Craig to try a journalistic approach because it's something he's had great success with in his own career. Dating back to films like Broadcast News and As Good As It Gets, he's often conducted interviews with the sort of people he's making a film about.
"It does so many different things for you. You're not staring at a screen, you're dealing with human beings and letting it go through you," he says. "When I wrote a gay character, I spent six months asking questions I've never asked a gay friend, the questions you don't ask just because you don't have the right to do it. Dustin Hoffman took a part once in a romantic comedy and he said he did it because you don't have to research it—I disagree with that principle. I think you do, and I think if you don't, you're not into specificity."
After Craig had completed a script that she and Brooks were satisfied with, the next part of the development process was preparing her to direct. That wasn't something she necessarily intended when she wrote the script, but it was something that, as they were moving forward, they decided made sense. Brooks admits that there was a "tremendous growth curve" for Craig as she prepared to take on the role of director, but they found a few ways to help her grow into a role for which, he says, she's "a natural, in a way."
"One of the things that was really formative is that Jim has a relationship with this acting coach, Larry Moss, who's just a staggering human being, with such a reverence for acting, writing, and storytelling," Craig says. "He runs this class in L.A. where actors put up a piece of theater, and then he works with them and improves it—and we sat in the back of that class and watched him for weeks. That was so formative because you saw somebody who really cared, and got the craft of acting, and got how to make room for somebody to do their best work, and see how to pull it out of them, and see the things that were blocking them. To watch somebody do that so beautifully was a big deal. It informed the whole thing."
Larry Moss wasn't the only person in Brooks's phonebook with whom they spent some time to help Craig grasp the finer points of directing. They took a lunch with someone Brooks describes as "the greatest production designer alive—nobody that we could get" just to hear him talk about how he approaches his work. When they wanted to prep her for understanding the role of a score, they met with Hans Zimmer. If someone is trying to put together a private masterclass on directing, they could do a whole lot worse.
"It was always clear what the most important thing was, at the end of the day," Craig says. "A lot of people tell you that a lot of different things are important, and they are, but you've got to make your day, so there are certain central things, and one thing that Jim is always steadfast about is: 'Are we telling the truth?' Making room for the actors to do their best work, setting the stage, and creating an environment where the talent has space to do their best work—I'm so grateful that I got to go through this with Jim, and watch how he does that, and how he keeps those most important things at the center of everything that he does."