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The Edge of Seventeen star Hailee Steinfeld and her director tell us how they made the best teen movie in years

“People are so much more than the little bit of them you see.”

The Edge of Seventeen
Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson star in The Edge of Seventeen.
STX Entertainment

The Edge of Seventeen is one of the best teen movies in years.

Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig's perceptive script and skill in guiding her ensemble cast turn the story of prickly loner Nadine — who, naturally enough, learns to care about people other than herself — into the sort of perfect reflection of youth that will hopefully become a staple of teen culture and nostalgia for decades to come.

So how did the movie get to be so good? That was a question for both Craig and her star, Hailee Steinfeld, whom you might best know for her Oscar-nominated turn in 2010’s True Grit (when she was just 14) or for her burgeoning musical career.

The two sat down with me separately a few weeks before The Edge of Seventeen opened to talk about those kids today. Steinfeld’s interview follows, and Craig’s interview is after that.

The following conversations have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Hailee Steinfeld and Haley Lu Richardson in Edge of Seventeen
Hailee Steinfeld (left) and Haley Lu Richardson star in The Edge of Seventeen.
STX Entertainment

Todd VanDerWerff

One thing I noticed is Nadine isn’t on her phone all the time. This movie feels sort of timeless in that sense, in that she’s kind of a throwback.

Hailee Steinfeld

Yeah, there was a discussion about that — the feeling of it looking sort of timeless. That feeling that we’re talking about, with the wardrobe, with this jacket that she wears, feeling like it’s a hand-me-down from somebody along the way. It has this '80s feel to it.

The music in the film is super timeless too. Not only does it make it feel cohesive, but I always feel like, if I see a movie with my parents, and there’s something they catch on to that I don’t, it’s either a specific reference from a different time or the music. So I feel like certain songs in this movie can bring our parents back to that certain situation.

Todd VanDerWerff

Even over just a few years, you’ve played such a wide range of characters. What do you look for in a role?

Hailee Steinfeld

Some sort of challenge that, once I overcome it, I can look back on it and feel like, "I initially thought this was something I couldn’t do, and now I’ve done it." A role that’s complex and meaningful, and has something to say.

Great people surrounding me. Great material. Scripts that you read where you’re like, "All I have to do is what’s on the paper." That feeling is the most exhilarating thing ever, when you’re placed in an environment with all these moving parts, and you jump on board, and you’re in it.

Todd VanDerWerff

What was the challenge with Edge of Seventeen? What scared you a little about taking this role?

Hailee Steinfeld

The idea of not doing this story justice! I read it, and I was like, "I don’t know if I’m ready to admit how much I am like this character!"

We’ve all felt those feelings, and I think a lot of us don’t know how to express that. I have this idea in my head that there are classic films, and timeless films, and they are called those two things for a reason.

I don’t want to make that what I’m striving for, but more the idea of, when my generation watches this, they can feel like this is theirs, and they can call this their own. That’s the kind of film I wanted to make and be a part of, and I am, which is insane.

Todd VanDerWerff

What does Hollywood get wrong about teenagers that you think this movie gets right?

Hailee Steinfeld

There’s a version of a teenager’s life that people constantly misperceive, in a way. There are more [teen] movies that we get to watch and wish our lives would look like that, [and then there are teen movies that] feel like, "That is actually what my life looks like!"

This really, truly is an honest interpretation of what life feels like as a teenager. I again wouldn’t say there’s necessarily anything wrong with [movies that function more as wish fulfillment]. I just think there’s a more realistic version of a teenager’s life that people don’t focus on as much.

Todd VanDerWerff

Was there something in the script that made you say, "Yeah, this is something I’ve gone through," or, "This is something my friends have gone through"?

Hailee Steinfeld

Between myself and friends and family members, I was able to piece together the exact emotions I imagined Nadine to be feeling in every moment.

I remember distinctly reading it the first time. Sometimes you’ll read something, and the first time, you’re like, "Oh, this is cool, I like it!" And the second time, you start to pick up on things. But the first time I read this, I picked up on so many things. I was able to identify with the character, and with so many situations.

Todd VanDerWerff

Did you look for inspiration in any other films or performances?

Hailee Steinfeld

There were films and characters I’ve related to in the past that I was reminded of, but I think I was able to just be a teenager, and freak out when I wasn’t able to freak out when it happened to me in real life, and feel absolutely everything in every moment. I was so focused on that, [rather] than referencing anything specifically.

Todd VanDerWerff

Would you say Nadine gets to be more demonstrative in her emotions than the average teenager would?

Hailee Steinfeld

To a certain degree, sure. But at the same time, I’m shocked watching this movie that I didn’t react to certain things that way, and I don’t know why I didn’t.

Maybe it’s because somebody was watching, and I was more self-conscious than she was. It’s honest! We have moments where anxiety kicks in, and everything is going wrong, and people are staring, and great! I’m going to give them a show! It comes over you, and you just let it go.

Todd VanDerWerff

Kelly’s script has a great ear for dialogue. What did you enjoy about that?

Hailee Steinfeld

Just talking the way [teenagers] talk!

Very early on, one of the first things Kelly said to me was if, at any point, something doesn’t feel right, correct it, or make it feel right to you. It was nice to have that freedom, and to have that trust, where you can say whatever is on your mind, and not even purposely go off script but really feel like you could make it as real as possible.

Todd VanDerWerff

Do you remember points when you stepped in to tweak it to be more realistic?

Hailee Steinfeld

From the auditioning process, we started to have conversations about the dialogue, and who this character is, and how we could develop her. Discoveries were made by the minute, from the auditioning process to the last take of the last reshoot day. There were a few moments where I would sort of question the meaning behind a couple of things, not with the intention of changing it but just to get a better understanding. For me, anyway.

Todd VanDerWerff

At the end of this movie, Nadine has been through a lot, but she still has a long way to go as well. What do you think she still needs to learn?

Hailee Steinfeld

How to deal with people! How to deal with herself!

She does have a beautiful transition, realizing that she does have this inner strength and it’s always been there. It was just a matter of time before she discovered it. She does have people who truly love her. Learning how to love, and learning how to be loved, is something equally as hard to learn. She needs to accept the fact that not having the answer to every question is okay.

Todd VanDerWerff

Your music career is going very well, too. What do these separate pursuits feed in you?

Hailee Steinfeld

I’m learning more and more, as I continue with the music, how one benefits the other. One of my favorite experiences so far has been in the studio writing, and to some extent, thanks to this movie, I was in that position once where I showed up at school and saw my best friend [dating] my brother [a plot point in the movie]. I’ve felt that now in a life of someone else’s, and I can talk about that.


Hailee Steinfeld and Hayden Szeto in The Edge of Seventeen
Hailee Steinfeld and Hayden Szeto star in The Edge of Seventeen.
STX

Todd VanDerWerff

There are a lot of movies that don’t capture teenagers well at all. What did you see as your goal in trying to write about that age range?

Kelly Fremon Craig

I wanted to capture how complicated it is. The film is a comedy, and there's a lot about that age that's funny, but there's a lot that's painful. It's dark. It's ugly. It was important to me to try to capture it truthfully. To try to say, "Here it is, warts and all." To say, here is a real look at Nadine’s internal life, and some of it is hard to look at.

My experience has always been that if I see something, even if it's hard to look at, if I can recognize it as truth, I can recognize it in myself, and I can forgive it. That was part of the thinking — trying to say, "Here it all is. I'm not going to pretty this up for you."

Todd VanDerWerff

I was talking with Hailee earlier about how Nadine isn’t constantly on her phone, but the movie does take place in the present day. How did you decide how much modern technology to keep?

Kelly Fremon Craig

I really only wanted to use phones when it made sense for the story. I didn't want to have a film where there's a bunch of bubbles popping up all over the place, even though that may be the way things are now.

Having spent time in high schools researching all this, it is interesting to walk through the halls and see everybody going like this [looks down at imaginary phone] and how weird that is. It was important for me to use it where it made sense for the story. I never wanted to use it as, "Hey, this is what's happening right now, guys."

Todd VanDerWerff

What did you learn from going back to high schools for research?

Kelly Fremon Craig

How instantly you go back there emotionally. Showing up as a 30-something woman, I was, like, "Holy shit. I'm back to every vulnerable, insecure, awkward thing. Ugh. It's awful. It's icky." The feeling of it came back, which is a great place to write from.

The other thing was just how things that I worried about [as a teen] — it's exactly the same. Nothing has really changed. On some level, that was comforting. There is this certain rite of passage that everybody goes through.

Todd VanDerWerff

You don't have your moments of, "God, those kids today"?

Kelly Fremon Craig

Having spent a lot of time interviewing them, I felt like, "Oh, man. It's just so human." Everything they're talking about is stuff I deal with, but maybe it feels like the highs are higher and the lows are lower, because at that age, you don't know that it will pass. You don't have that sense of life goes on. So the stakes feel enormous.

Entertainment Weekly's Toronto Must List Party At The Thompson Hotel
James L. Brooks, Hailee Steinfeld (center), and Kelly Fremon Craig attend Entertainment Weekly’s Must List party.
Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Entertainment Weekly

Todd VanDerWerff

You have a twin set of challenges here. One is that as a director, this is a movie about relationships, where you want to show the actors in the same frame a lot, so they have time to grow and evolve those relationships. But the other is that you also have to keep Hailee sort of isolated, because Nadine is so often on an island. How did you navigate that?

Kelly Fremon Craig

There are actually a lot of things that were written into the script in terms of how to capture loneliness cinematically with lighting and framing and everything like that.

One of my favorite shots in the movie is when Nadine is sitting in the dark alone in the living room. You hear her mom with the hair dryer on, and it's shot at this odd, uncomfortable angle. She's just sitting in the chair. To me, I see it, and it just breaks my heart. It feels so lonely. The lighting is a little heavy and muddy. She feels tiny.

Also color. Everything she wears is a little louder, but it's got a dirt to it. It's worn down by life and by age.

Todd VanDerWerff

She does seem to wear her vintage clothes as a suit of armor. Hailee mentioned the jacket as being key.

Kelly Fremon Craig

It was important to me to give her a look that you couldn't nail. You couldn't say, "Oh, she's a ..." Something that felt all her own. With her jacket, I remember having certain things that felt like you can't leave the house without that. On some level, you feel cool in it, like, "This is the best version of me when I have this on." It was important to me to find what that was for her.

Todd VanDerWerff

This movie’s treatment of teen sexuality is really well done. It avoids that cliché of "the boys want to have sex, and the girls are a little scared of it." Here, everybody wants to have sex, and everybody is a little scared of it. How did you approach that element of the story?

Kelly Fremon Craig

One of the things that was important to me in that scene in the car when she's with Nick was that you saw his side. This is a guy who has just gotten a text that says, "Hey, you want to [have sex]?" Of course he's going to take her up on it! Of course he's going to do it. [And when she doesn’t want to go through with it], of course he's going to be like, "What? What the fuck?"

It was important to me that this wasn't a creepy guy. This was a guy who is just as confused. Everybody on some level is trying to make a connection and fumbling through it.

So much of that age is trying to find somebody who gets you and taking a lot of wrong stabs as you try to find that. There's a lot of fumbling as you try to find who your people are, who can really see you.

Todd VanDerWerff

There are so many moments in this movie when Nadine realizes one of the adults in her life is a human being, too, with their own wants and needs. What was interesting about that theme to you?

Kelly Fremon Craig

Something I experienced at that age and still experience to this day is you can look at somebody and get a snapshot and think you have them pegged and think you know all about them and make all sorts of assumptions about who they are and what your relationship to them will be. But when you have an opportunity to pull back the curtain, you see people are so much more than the little bit of them you see.

Whenever I've done that, I go, "Oh. Oh, God. We're all fucked up." I probably romanticize people's lives. I do it with writers a lot. My favorite writers, some of them are just so fucked up, and I'm like, "Yeah, but he really gets pain." The darkest stuff in the world I can romanticize. Nadine does it the other way. She assumes [her teacher] is this lonely bachelor and then finds out, "Oh, you actually have this warm life."

Todd VanDerWerff

When I’ve talked to people who’ve worked with your producer, James L. Brooks, in the past, they always have some story about how he made some suggestion that was absolutely perfect, just off the top of his head. What did you appreciate about having him in your corner?

Kelly Fremon Craig

When I first sat down and was starting the draft, he said, "The first and most important thing you have to figure out is, what do you want to say about life?" Having lived in the Hollywood experience of, "What happens on page 15? We need more set pieces, and for the trailer we're going to need ..." to have somebody say, "What is churning in you that you want to say?" I wanted to cry. It brought me back to why I wanted to be a writer and filmmaker in the first place.

Some of that can get beaten out of you over the process of working in this industry. To have somebody say, "Hey, remember that, and start there, and let that be the thing that pulls you through," was really a gift.

Todd VanDerWerff

We often think of writing and directing as two sides of the same coin, but they’re really different skills. What about your writing informs your directing, and vice versa?

Kelly Fremon Craig

So much of directing is about a couple different things. Number one is allowing incredibly talented people to take your work as an idea and then elevate it and put their own print on it. To me, it’s exciting to see how you have something in mind but someone else's talent makes it better. That's really cool, especially when you've lived in a world where all you have is your own echo.

I realized that so much of the process of directing is about creating an environment where actors feel safe to do their best work. I probably have a pretty touchy-feely approach, where I'm about making everybody feel safe to try stuff.

But I also recognize it's so vulnerable to get up in front of a camera. It's so scary to do that and try stuff that may not work. When you're given permission to do that and know, "It's okay. I don't care if you fuck up. Let's play. Let's find it together," to me, that's so fun. That's the best part of the process, that collaboration.

The Edge of Seventeen is playing in theaters nationwide.