It’s an oft-repeated story: if you write to author Judy Blume, she just might write back.
It was a story I heard during a small lunch held before an early New York City screening of Kelly Fremon Craig’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” in January, when a fellow writer causally mentioned that the pair had been penpals for years. I heard it again, just days later, while watching Davina Pardo and Leah Wolchok’s documentary “Judy Blume Forever,” which includes numerous talking heads who wrote to Blume when they were kids and maintain that relationship to this day (heck, she even attended one of their college graduations, that’s the kind of penpal Judy Blume is).
And, months later, I heard it one more time: when filmmaker Fremon Craig explained to me how she managed to get Blume on board with her big screen adaptation of her iconic YA novel “Margaret.” She wrote to her.
While Blume has never been shy about allowing her works to be adapted for the screen, including a “Forever” 1978 TV movie, the 2012 big-screen take on “Tiger Eyes,” and a ’90s-era TV series based “Fudge-a-Mania,” she long resisted letting her 1970 novel go that route. But Fremon Craig didn’t know that when she read the book as a kid, which follows sixth grader Margaret Simon as she works her way through a very complicated year of her life, complete with a move, a new school, a religious crisis, and the looming possibility of getting her period.
Fremon Craig “found” Blume at the exact right time: She was 11, just like Margaret. “‘Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,’ that was my introduction,” she said during a recent interview with IndieWire. “My best friend at the time was like, ‘You have to read this book. They do this exercise that increases your bust!'” (They did the exercise, then Fremon Craig bought the book.)
And the bust stuff? Oh, that really hit. “First of all, I was a really late bloomer, I didn’t need a bra till I was 14 or so, everything was just late,” Fremon Craig said. “I related to her on every single level, and I felt so much relief that someone else, even if they were a fictional character, was going through what I was going through.”
Fremon Craig swiftly picked up every Blume book she could find. (She even read the somewhat risqué “Forever” in the sixth grade, “which is probably too young,” she said with a laugh.) Like millions of other kids, boys and girls, Fremon Craig felt seen by Judy Blume. You can see that same level of care and reliability in Fremon Craig’s first film, “The Edge of Seventeen,” another instant classic coming-of-ager released in 2016.
“After I made ‘The Edge of Seventeen,’ I was thinking about what to do next, and I started to ask myself, who were the authors that I most loved?” Fremon Craig said. “Judy Blume was literally the first person who came to my mind. I started to re-read all of her work, and when I got to ‘Margaret,’ I was like, ‘This has to be a movie. It is so beautiful and honest and true.’ There was this whole spiritual journey that I didn’t remember from when I was a kid, this profound spiritual search at the center of it that actually really pins the whole thing together. That really struck me.”
And so, Fremon Craig did what many people have done before: She wrote to Judy Blume. (It was an email, but times change, even as Blume’s resonance doesn’t.) “I wrote her an email just telling her how much I loved her, how much her work meant to me, that she was somebody I thought of when I was making ‘The Edge of Seventeen,’ because I wanted to make something that felt like her books,” the filmmaker said.
She told Blume how much she wanted to adapt “Margaret,” even though she knew it had long been, in her own words, “off the table.” Blume wrote back, and Fremon Craig saw an opportunity. She sent a copy of the book to James L. Brooks, her mentor and long-time producer, who read it in one day.
Within days, the pair was on a plane to Key West, Florida to meet with Blume. “We were on a plane so fast to go see her, because it felt like, there’s a chance and let’s just get in there,” she said. “Judy calls it the Persuasion Lunch.”
But while Blume was eventually persuaded, Fremon Craig and Brooks had another hurdle to cross: casting Margaret. To say “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” doesn’t work without, well, Margaret is just plain silly, but it’s true.
“Oh, we saw so many girls,” Fremon Craig said. “So many girls, I don’t even know how many, and it was just no, no, no, no, no, no, no. And at some point, you’re like, ‘Are we going to find her?’ It gets tough.”
And then Abby Ryder Fortson, best known for playing the younger version of Cassie Lang (AKA Ant-Man’s daughter) in the first two “Ant-Man” films, walked in.
“It was instant,” Fremon Craig said. “I mean, instant. It was, ‘There she is.’ She was so funny. She could improvise, and that’s a big thing for me. I’m constantly pushing everybody to color outside the lines and go off script and try things. She was so great, just on her feet. She also had this thing about her where I just rooted for her, I just deeply related to her and wanted things to turn out OK for her. I don’t even know what that is about her, but she has that.”
Ryder Fortson admits it: She hadn’t read any Judy Blume before the audition, but she knew the name, it was just out there, somewhere in the preteen girl ether. (She does consider herself a big reader, rest assured, and said she grew up “really obsessed” with the “Percy Jackson” series, and calls herself a “huge fantasy mythology nerd.”)
But she liked that script, and so she sent in a self-taped audition. Soon, she was in a room with Fremon Craig, Brooks, and producer Julie Ansell. And she brought a prop. “I brought in a bag of cotton balls,” Ryder Fortson told IndieWire during a recent interview. “Because there’s this thing in one of my audition scenes, it got cut in the movie, but it’s before the party, and Margaret stuffs her bra with cotton balls. So, as one does, I brought in a bag of cotton balls and I stuffed my bra in my audition. And Jim Brooks bursts out laughing.”
Ryder Fortson remembers walking out of that audition feeling “so proud” of herself. And then she read the book. She was a goner. “I remember turning to my parents and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, how did someone write down exactly how this feels?'” the actress said. “I was so touched by it, and it really made me fall in love with the project.”
She had to get the part, so she went the extra mile. So she wrote Fremon Craig and Brooks a letter. “I actually wrote a letter to Kelly and Jim, just explaining why I loved it so much and how much I related to Margaret because I was going through the exact same stuff that she was at the exact same time that she was,” the actress said.
Even with Margaret locked in, there was lots more to do, like casting her trio of new friends (including Elle Graham, Amari Price, and Katherine Kupferer, all wonderfully funny). Fremon Craig and casting director Melissa Kostenbauder went looking for young actresses who, like Ryder Fortson, could be quick on their feet and happy to improvise. “I loved the idea of just regular kids that look like regular kids and sounded like regular kids, and also were clever enough to work off the top of their head,” Fremon Craig said.
One thing she didn’t have to look too hard for: contemporary kids who vibed with the story, which is still set in the early ’70s, just like Blume’s book. “I didn’t have to try,” Fremon Craig said of making the story relatable to her youngest stars. “While I was writing the script, I interviewed a ton of 11- and 12-year-old girls, because I thought to myself, ‘I wonder what has changed, what are the differences? I want to understand those.’ The amazing thing was I found that there were almost no differences. I mean, social media, yes, but the insecurities, the group dynamics, it was all the same. That’s part of the magic of her book is she captures that, and it doesn’t ever change.”
It was also essential to Fremon Craig to give the other women in the story, including Rachel McAdams as Margaret’s mother Barbara and Kathy Bates as her grandmother Sylvia, the same dimension and growing pains as Margaret. It’s a coming-of-age story for all ages.
“I wanted people to go to the theater and expect that they would relate to Margaret, and they’d have sort of this nostalgia, but the surprise would be that they now relate to Barb or Sylvia,” the filmmaker said. “I wanted to show that you go through these times of uncertainty and where you feel awkward in your skin again and again throughout your life. … I feel like I’m always sorting out some mess in myself, and every time I see someone else doing that in a movie or in something I read, it reassures me. It makes me feel like, ‘OK, thank God, I’m not the only one with this mess to deal with.'”
It was a message not lost on her young star who, at age 15, already seems to get it, just like Margaret.
“One of the things that makes Margaret so relatable is that her story is so timeless, because it’s something that we all go through,” Ryder Fortson said. “No matter if you’re 11 or if you’re, I don’t know, 88 or something, you still go through the journey of finding yourself every single day. I mean, I’m 15, I’m still doing it. I know my parents are, my grandparents are, they’re still figuring stuff out. It’s so honest, it’s so true to the real human experience of questioning things and figuring things out.”
And, yes, Blume was on hand when the film shot in 2021 in North Carolina. (She and her husband, George Cooper, even appear in a quick, very cute cameo.) Ryder Fortson remembers it clearly. Admittedly, it sounds like the sort of thing you wouldn’t forget.
“We were filming the scene where we were doing the ‘We must increase our bust’ thing, and the way that Kelly was having us do it at first was like this,” Ryder Fortson said, demonstrating with her hands clasped in front of her. “You’re kind of crunching those muscles. But Judy said — and we must follow how Judy intended the must increase our bust thing! — we were doing it wrong. The way that you see it in the movie is like [she intended], and that works better. It’s a little tutorial from me to you!”
But Fremon Craig is still stuck on an earlier interaction with the “incredibly generous” Blume, who visited the filmmaker in Los Angeles for another meeting after that Florida “Persuasion Lunch.”
“After we were done, we stepped out into the hall and we were saying goodbye, and she sort of took me by the hands and she said, ‘I just want to tell you, don’t ever be scared of me,'” Fremon Craig said. “And what she was really saying was like, ‘Don’t be scared of making changes or pushing back against things. Please know I’m on board for a real creative exploration with you.’ I felt it was permission-giving. She really gave me permission to run with it.”
Write to Judy Blume, and she just might help you write your own story.
Lionsgate will release “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” in theaters on Friday, April 28.