KELLY FREMON CRAIG, writer/director Edge of Seventeen
Kelly's directorial debut EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, starring Halee Steinfeld, Woody Harrelson and Kyra Sedgwick bowed to extraordinary critical praise and earned her a DGA award nom. The Atlantic said 'This is a movie about a teen, first and foremost, rather than a "teen movie," and that's exactly what makes it feel like a peerless example for the genre.' Kelly is also a successful screenwriter and mom. NBD.
What are your top 3 tips for building a writing career?
1. Each of us has a set of experiences and perspectives unlike anyone else in the world. The more specifically YOU your writing is, the better and more original it will be. Cultivating your own voice is the most important thing you can get good at, and the one thing that will set your work apart.
2. Understanding story structure and narrative drive will be your other most important skill. Watch a ton of great movies and a ton of terrible ones. Study your favorite scripts and your least favorite. Disassemble them to understand exactly why they work or don’t. For the ones that don’t, how would you fix them? Reading books on structure won’t hurt either, but nothing will teach you about it quite like experiencing it.
3. Speaking of books on structure, Robert McKee was right when he said your ending is everything. YOUR ENDING IS EVERYTHING. Never, ever forget that.
Can you tell us about a moment, either before or during your career, when you were dealt a blow to your professional dream, and you had to find a way to regroup and soldier on?
My first script was made into a film I hated, and it made me seriously contemplate quitting. In hindsight, I’m grateful for the experience. It thickened my skin, and fostered a toughness in me that anyone will tell you is a requirement of the business. It also showed me just how fragile films are, how the tiniest things can kill them, just how precise you need to be. Understanding that helped me enormously in the making of my own film.
You've got a script due. There are a million distractions including but not limited to your child, your fatigue, your unanswered emails. Take us through how you get the script done, and please include where you write, what you listen to, caffeine, etc.
Well, I drink about 75 Diet Cokes a week, and do a lot of self-talk (“Relax, you’ll figure it out.” “Stop surfing the internet” “No more cheesesticks!”) I try desperately to work normal business hours, but sometimes am up til 3 in the morning for several weeks. I’m told I have an extraordinarily high pain tolerance for long work hours, and can be relentless and laser-focused when trying to figuring something out. On the flip side, I’m also very good at avoiding writing to begin with – starting a new script still fills me with the deepest kind of fear, and I suspect that won’t ever change.
When did you realize you wanted to be a director and how did that inform the way you built your career?
I had been messing around making short films and music videos from the time I was 13. I loved directing before I even knew what it was, or ever considered it as a career option. It wasn’t until being disappointed with the result of my first produced film that I decided to put a real concerted effort into getting behind the camera. I was extremely fortunate that right around that time, I met Jim Brooks. I benefited greatly from his belief in writers becoming directors.
What are the films and TV shows that inspire you both as a writer and a director? Is there anyone whose career is a beacon of aspiration/inspiration for you?
There are several filmmakers who have moved me, opened my eyes, changed my worldview, and made me feel less alone when I really needed it. To name a few: Alexander Payne, Cameron Crowe, Richard Linklater, John Hughes, and Jim Brooks. I am bowled over by the singular voices of each of these filmmakers. Their films feel personal and universal, and always get at something larger about life. I hope, in even the smallest way, I can do for people what these filmmakers have done for me.
What advice would you give to women to build a successful writing career? Has a WOC Hollywood community been important to you? What about a mentor?
I am incredibly lucky to have found a mentor in Jim Brooks, who produced The Edge of Seventeen, and whose support made every bit of difference in my career. He gave me my break and set a hell of an example – he is wildly passionate, ferociously protective, and always fights for the film’s best interest, even when it’s exhausting or unpopular to do so. There is no one in the world I’d like to emulate more.
You are now a DGA award-nominated and critically acclaimed writer-director. Are you living your career dream, or is there more yet to unfold?
It’s meant a lot to me to be recognized by people I admire, especially for a project that matters so much to me. It’s surreal and still a little hard to absorb. But, I will say, the actual journey of making the film was still without question the best part, so I’m glad most of all for the opportunity to go on more journeys like it.
The great James L. Brooks was a producer on your film. Was he a mentor? It's so unusual for women to find mentors in this business. How did your collaboration come about?
Yes he was, and I will spend the rest of my life trying to properly thank him, and come up short. He liked the script and took me under his wing, and I spent the next 4 years essentially going through Jim Brooks School of Film. It consisted of long discussions, meeting with people who are masters in their field, analyzing films, a period of research and interviews with teenagers, and watching great directors at work.
Because there are so few high profile women directors, I find I subject myself to a lot of scrutiny over whether I am or look like what a woman director should. I worry about being taken seriously if I'm too funny, or too feminine in a meeting. Do you worry about these things? What advice do you have for women in their careers for keeping their confidence up and keeping their eye on the prize?
Initially, I drove myself crazy worrying about these things. But at some point it occurred to me I was trying to hit an impossible bulls-eye, and that there is no actual way for any of us, man or woman, to ensure we’re never judged by appearances. I believe, ultimately, if our work is really good, it’ll speak louder than our poor choice in footwear. Or at least I tell myself that.
What's next for you?
I’m working on a new script with Jim Brooks that I’ll write/direct, developing a TV show, and reading through scripts to consider directing. It’s a neat time of opportunity.
For all the mom-writers out there, what are your top 3 time management/sanity management tips?
1. There is a great new thing called www.Instacart.com. They do your Costco and Ralphs’ shopping and deliver it right to your door. THE BEST.
2. Recruit the kids to help you with dinner, errands, and housework. Make games out of these things or turn them into small adventures. It always feels good to me to turn getting-things-done into quality time.
3. Expect you’re going to fuck up. It’s not the end of the world if you forget it’s Wacky Hair Wednesday at pre-school (Today I forgot it was Wacky Hair Wednesday at pre-school).
Any books or podcasts you can recommend for emerging/aspiring female writer/directors?
I listen to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast pretty religiously. I think he’s a truly great interviewer, and the conversations with artists are always achingly truthful. Check it out.