‘Are You There God?’ Director Kelly Fremon Craig on Making a Movie ‘All About Boobs’
Kelly Fremon Craig, who directed the new (and first!) movie adaptation of Judy Blume’s seminal work Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, couldn’t even get through reading two chapters of the original book to her son before he chastised her.“I got maybe a chapter and a half in, and he turns to me and
Kelly Fremon Craig, who directed the new (and first!) movie adaptation of Judy Blume’s seminal work Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, couldn’t even get through reading two chapters of the original book to her son before he chastised her.
“I got maybe a chapter and a half in, and he turns to me and is like, ‘You made a movie all about boobs?’” Fremon Craig says through laughter over Zoom. “As if I’ve written smut!”
The director, who made her debut in 2017 with the similar coming-of-age romp The Edge of Seventeen, has been reading Margaret to her 9-year-old. It’s one of many rereads for Fremon Craig, who originally read the book around Margaret’s age—she was almost 11, but in the 1990s instead of the 1970s—while she was sprinting through every Judy Blume book possible.
“When I got to Margaret, something about it just hit me,” Fremon Craig says. “I was a late bloomer, so I was flat-chested and praying to God for boobs. I was in that weird place of not quite feeling like I had a great friend group—in particular, there was one girl that didn’t do anything particularly mean but just was one of those people who made me feel bad about myself every time I was around her. That’s so common at that age.”
That’s the magic of Margaret, though—both the book and the character herself. Most girls can find at least one, if not a million, parallels between herself and the leading character, be it her quest for boobs, her fear/excitement for a period, her wariness surrounding middle school boys, her spiritual search, or even simply her connections to her family. Really, any young person (like Fremon Craig’s son, who has since warmed up to the material) can relate. Doesn’t puberty suck? (But also, isn’t growing up just a little bit exciting?)
Both the book and the movie, which premiered in theaters on April 28, follow 11-year-old Margaret Simon (Abby Ryder Fortson) at a pivotal moment in her adolescent life. Not only is she about to enter puberty—a life change she feels neither here-nor-there about—but her parents have moved the family from New York City to the suburbs of New Jersey. Gross. How is she meant to live life without her joyous, overbearing grandmother Sylvia (Kathy Bates) and all of her best friends in the Big Apple?
Fremon Craig was on a Judy Blume reading marathon again as she hunted for her next film, following the release of The Edge of Seventeen. When she picked up Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, everything clicked. She felt herself drawing those personal parallels again, but this time they touched Fremon Craig on an even deeper level. Now, she not only could relate to Margaret; she also connected with Margaret’s mom Barbara (Rachel McAdams). This was the movie she needed to make, she decided.
Alas, while Blume was open to the idea of adapting all of her other works—Superfudge is in the works at Disney+, while Forever has landed at Netflix—Margaret was the only no-go. After Fremon Craig put out feelers, her agent got back to her with Blume’s response: a hard, “Never.”
“I was like, ‘No, but that’s the one! It has to be.’ I couldn’t give up on it,” Fremon Craig says. “I really was like, ‘I have to really passionately pitch to her why this one needs to be made and why this is the time to make it.’”
As stubborn as Margaret demanding her first bra, Fremon Craig would not take no for an answer. She sent the book to her producer/partner-in-crime James L. Brooks—heard of him?—and asked for his thoughts. He adored it. They agreed to work together again. The only step left to accomplish: Get Blume on board. The duo flew down to Key West, where the author resides and runs a bookshop, to convince her of all the reasons why now, in 2023, was the perfect time for Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret to make its Hollywood debut.
“Honestly, I think that we’re at a time now where, as an industry, there’s a support for women’s stories that didn’t exist even five or six years ago,” Fremon Craig explains. “It felt like you had to do a lot of convincing that you were actually capable of being responsible for these millions of dollars and leading hundreds of people and delivering something on time, and in the right way—when you don’t look like the people who have historically done that.”
Blume was not as frightening a figure as all those strong “no’s” made her out to be. She picked Brooks and Fremon Craig up from the airport in her Mini Cooper—a favor Fremon Craig turned down so many times, until Blume insisted—then brought them to dinner, where talk of an adaptation began.
“Margaret’s a very internal character, so a lot of it was about how to convey that with the camera. I actually think there’s no better medium than film to show an internal character. You’re right with them in those private moments,” Fremon Craig says. “We all just talked for a couple of hours, and by the end of that meeting, it started to feel like, ‘Maybe she’s coming around to the idea.’ We left and then we heard that she was on board.”
Now, the tricky part: adapting one of the most beloved books of the 20th century into a pitch-perfect movie, yes. But even harder? Wrangling a gaggle of child actors. To this day, Fremon Craig is still so calm when discussing the concept of working with dozens of child actors. On set, her tricks involved dozens of ice-breaking games, treating production like summer camp, and encouraging the kids to improvise as much as possible.
The result? A lead actor came up with one of the best improvised lines in recent memory. “It looks like a thumb!” Margaret’s friend Gretchen (Katherine Kupferer) shouts, the first time she sees a penis in a book about puberty. (Fremon Craig almost ruined the take, because she was laughing so hard.)
“You cannot get that stuff unless you give them permission to be themselves and color outside the lines of the script,” Fremon Craig says.
Just as the director did with The Edge of Seventeen—where she hung out with a handful of teenage girls—Fremon Craig prepared for Are You There God? by kicking it with a few 12-year-olds.
“We hung out in a fifth grade and sixth grade classroom and spent some time interviewing,” Fremon Craig says. “I completely believe in that research and that journalistic approach to begin with. There are so many details you can’t make up. There’s something about sitting in a room with somebody that you just absorb stuff that you can’t elsewhere.”
Those sessions inspired Fremon Craig to write another hilarious line for Gretchen. While looking at Playboy magazines, Gretchen compares the model’s breasts to her own, which “look like little wizard hats,” the young girl mopes. This came straight from the mind of a real 12-year-old girl, one that Fremon Craig interviewed before heading into production.
But when it came to non-improvised lines, things got a little trickier. There’s that pesky title, which is so iconic and beloved, but became a bit of a beast to capture on screen. Everyone reads “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” in their head a certain way. Fortson couldn’t say the line in a way that would resonate with everyone’s own interpretations—so Fremon Craig suggested they use a tiny cheat.
“I have to tell you, that was honestly one of the hardest lines to get. You know that everyone’s waiting for it,” Fremon Craig says. “We found it really by tweaking it—not quite saying the line as it was. She says it in a way that’s slightly different. That gave us permission, it got us in. There’s a chance that line takes you out of the story, because you’re like, ‘Title! Oh, there’s the title.’”
The title drop was one area where Fremon Craig strays from the book, and there aren’t many other spots. There was never any plan to make drastic changes to the book—the novel takes place in the 1970s, and even though it feels timeless, Fremon Craig kept the time period the same. The idea of Margaret with a smartphone “really ruined everything for me,” Fremon Craig says.
Still, it doesn’t really matter when the adaptation takes place. The spiritual search, the quest for breasts, and the struggles with friendship all feel deeply connected to the present day—and they always will.
In a couple of previous interviews, Fremon Craig has revealed the best piece of advice she received from her mentor, Brooks: Find out what you want to say about life with each new movie. While Blume probably has her own take about what she wanted (and still wants) to say about life through the story, Fremon Craig identifies with Margaret’s existential search for answers about a higher power.
“What really struck me, rereading the book, was the dovetailing of the uncertainty of puberty with this spiritual search,” she says. “The way uncertainty in your life can provoke these larger life questions. There was something about that—and her trajectory with that.”
Fremon Craig continues: “The moment where [Margaret is] like, ‘No, there’s nothing out there. It’s just me. That’s it, there’s nobody looking out for me.’ I have been on that trajectory again and again in my life, struggling with the question of, ‘Is there more out there? Is there some sort of benevolent organizing force in our lives, or is it all just a crapshoot lottery?’” she says. “I have asked that question again and again and again in my life and come up with different answers. It’s always shifting.”
Now, Fremon Craig has produced two existential, hilarious, tender coming-of-age masterpieces—but she’s still uncertain as to whether or not that’s her genre of choice, or if she needs a breather from it.
Regarding working in that genre: “I’m probably done,” she admits. “I thought I was probably done after Edge of Seventeen, and then I read this and I was like, ‘I have to make this.’ There’s something about that age where it’s very easy to get back there, emotionally. That said, I’ll probably be tackling something else. But who knows!”