Women and Hollywood: I read that you started in the documentary world? Can you talk about how you shifted into writing?
Karen Croner: When I first started writing, I was very interested in true stories; I think that came from doing documentary research. So I started off writing a lot of long-form drama for television, dealing with special justice issues. It was kind of a way to take things that I was fascinated by and wanted to investigate and go deeper in the storytelling of them to a wider audience.
WaH: Your big break was your adaptation of One True Thing in the feature world?
KC: I think my big break was writing a movie for Faye Dunaway, which I think was the second script I had ever written. And that’s a whole story within itself.
WaH: Can you talk a little bit about how you got that gig? It’s always interesting for people hear these stories.
KC: The producers had read a number of the scripts that I had written, and they were interested in me because of the intimacy in the characters, and at the same time, muscular drama mixed in with the intimacy. I had a very particular personal connection to the triangle of characters that existed in the book One True Thing, in terms of, I was the one who had worshiped my working father and had looked down on my stay at home mother. So I think that real personal connection to the material was something that they knew would translate to the adaptation.
WaH: So now Admission, talk about what drew you to that book.
KC: What drew me to that book were a couple of things. I am a public-school girl; I went to Fairfax High. But I had just gotten through the process of getting my son into private middle school in Santa Monica, which is really an anxiety provoking experience. So I read the book and somebody had told me that it was a very sad, internal book about an admissions officer who has a breakdown. And I thought, well that doesn’t sound sad to me; I want to write about that. I want to go into that world and show what happens behind the closed doors of admissions to help dispel the anxiety for other people, and to demystify the process. At the same time, I thought coming from a less healthy place, if I had to suffer, I wanted to write about an admissions officer suffering. I thought that it had a lot of comedic potential.
WaH: Do you get approached by someone with material or do you pitch yourself? What’s that process now in your career?
KC: Admission came about because I was really taking control of my career. I was on the open writing assignment track for quite a long time, steadily; and as that contracted it was really kind of a blessing for me because I had to look up and say, what do I really want to do? So I went out, found this book and gave it to the producer who gave it to the director and to Tina. So it came from me initiating control over my writing life in a way I hadn’t before.
WaH: And you had a relationship with the producer?
KC: Paul Weitz had come close to directing Daughter of the Queen of Sheeba, a script of mine, a while back, and then he didn’t; but the producer Kerry Kohansky-Roberts, Paul, and I knew we wanted to find something together. We spent a number of years until we found the exact right thing and when I read this book I thought she would be perfect for it. And she’s somebody I will continue to work with forever.
WaH: Can you talk about the challenges of adapting a novel?
KC: One of the things I think is that in Hollywood there’s this practice that once a novel is auctioned, the author is ignored and kept in the dark. It’s a practice I abhor. I’ve always made a big point of involving the novelist in the process. I sat down with the author and was really honest and said, “I’m going to stay true to your premise and stay true to the soul of your book, but the story is going to have to change and the tone is going to have to change.” We remained close through the whole process. She’s still a very good friend of mine and I stayed at her house when we were filming in Princeton. The process in adapting is to stay true to it and make it into a movie. In this case, a lot of the book took place in the past. It was her memory of her relationship with the man who got her pregnant with a very, very internal voice. The question was how to externalize and dramatize that, and make it entertaining.
WaH: While watching Lily Tomlin, I’m like, God—she’s the most radical feminist I’ve seen on screen ever in a movie. I read a bunch of articles about her bringing the Bella Abzug tattoo. Was that character as radical in the book as she was on the screen? Can you talk about putting together this radical feminist in a movie.
KC: Yes it’s interesting. Here’s the thing, Jean Hanff Korelitz wrote the book. Tina Fey, Lily Tomlin, and I are all serious feminists. We identify ourselves as feminists and at the same time we have a sense of humor about ourselves. I think that’s probably what’s new with this character is that, at a times, she is a really funny. The movie is not making a statement about all feminists. It’s looking at this particular woman who has hidden out from her life in the same way as her daughter has hidden out from her own life. What Lily brought to it was all of her vast experience in the trenches and drawing on people that she knew and had worked with. So it was a character that we all grew to have great affection for. Lily really brought a lot to that.
WaH: I was surprised to see a woman who was such a radical feminist in a mainstream Hollywood movie.
KC: I think the idea is really to look at this mother and daughter. In the same way as Tina is a woman who is hiding out from her life in this world of admissions in college, Lily plays this woman who has had fears for whatever reason to emotionally connect with her daughter and with other people; probably because she’s had this secret she’s been keeping and hasn’t been able to be honest with her daughter. Being less about the statement on feminism, it’s really about a disconnect that can happen between a mother and a daughter. In some ways, it’s a love story between the two of them breaking out of the limitations they put on themselves and their hearts so they can find each other.
WaH: In other circumstances she would have been a character who was completely different.
KC: I think because Lily has such a known history of being a radical feminist and embracing that world, and chooses roles based on her feminism, gave us more freedom to be a little sillier with it because we are so confident in our world view of feminism. If somebody else had come in who was not from within that world, that would’ve concerned me.
WaH: It had authenticity.
KC: Yes it had authenticity and was based on people we know. Beyond that, it’s really about Tina and Lily, who play characters who are so similar; caught in different worlds but still caught. One’s caught in a house; one’s caught in an office and it’s hard to make that bridge. The movie is about both of them finally crossing the bridge to each other.
WaH: When I went to go see the movie I had this expectation that this would be a comedy and it’s really not that at all. I want people to understand while Tina is funny and Paul Rudd is always funny, and they are adorable together, this is a very moving film. I think this is where Tina wants to go with herself too.
KC: I was sitting on set one day and Paul Rudd turns to me with this big smile, and I thought since he plays Words with Friends all the time that he finally beat somebody or had gotten some word he’s been trying to get, but he says, “Oh my God, I just realized we’re making an emotional adult dramedy. I never get to do that and no one gets to make these movies anymore.” He was so excited to play a different kind of role and brought a lot to his part. The most surprising or interesting thing for me, was to watch Tina do the comedic stuff but then to see how large her range is. She’s actually a really fine actress and can pull off the real emotional stuff. That was a great experience, to get to watch her explore that range. People are going to see both Paul and Tina do things they’ve never done before; and that’s sort of the blessing and the challenge of the movie.
WaH: It is a challenging movie, because people will have different expectations.
WaH: About a Boy also is not ha-ha funny.
KC: Paul Weitz combines drama and humor together in a very Jim Brooks-like way, like the tone of About A Boy, you could even say Capraesque, so it’s a movie that is comedic, but in the end about something, and very moving.
WaH: I read that you are creating a television show about your life. Can you talk about that?
KC: There are two things I’m doing right now that I’m really excited about. I’m writing a television show for Fake Empire, which is Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage who did Gossip Girl and The O.C. I grew up in Laurel Canyon and the show is very autobiographical. It’s about an adult woman who returns home with her teenage son after her more conservative life doesn’t work out to reconnect with this big extended family that still lives in this compound that she grew up in at Laurel Canyon. And that is very much a dramedy. The other thing I’m writing is an R-rated comedy at Universal for Charlize Theron. I’m having the time of my life.
WaH: Can you offer some advice?
KC: Three years ago after having written the darkest thing I’ve ever written, about girl soldiers in Uganda, I turned to my husband and said, “I want to write a comedy for Tina Fey.” Just out of the blue; I hadn’t even thought about it before that moment. At that moment, it was an impossible idea. Everything in this business is impossible. So you just have to completely ignore it and then reach for what you want for more than anything. It had taken me a long road to get to that realization of what I’m meant to do. I think my advice is everybody will tell you it’s impossible, and it actually sort of is, so you have to ignore it completely.
The other thing I would say, don’t be a screenwriter to be a screenwriter. You need to be a screenwriter because you have something you want to say. In this movie Admission, I was very passionate on wanting to tell a story that would help alleviate the anxiety of the parents and kids going through this insane system as they figure out where they go to college. I wanted to demystify that. I wanted people to understand who the people who were making these decisions, so that nobody would ever base their self worth on how these people decided who got in and who didn’t. Admission to any of these schools should never be a referendum on any parent’s self-worth or kid’s self-worth. So I had something I really wanted to say and really wanted to explore. I know there are a lot of people who say, “I want to be a screenwriter.” But in order to sustain yourself and be in it for the long haul, it has to be because you have things that really matter in your heart that you want to say to your world.
Admission is in theaters today.