Are You There God? Its Me, Margaret Director Kelly Fremon Craig on the Pressures of Adapting Judy Blume: It Felt Like Painting Over a Picasso

Now in her eighties, legendary children’s author Judy Blume only recently became keen to the idea of adapting her books for the screen. But when it came to “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” — arguably Blume’s most famous title — her arms were crossed. She didn’t want any filmmaker to touch it.

“And then I got this letter from Kelly,” Blume told Variety, smiling, in a cover story for March’s Power of Women issue. She’s referring to “The Edge of Seventeen” writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig, to whom she eventually granted the screen rights. Blume was convinced for three reasons: the beauty of the letter that Fremon Craig wrote her, the fact that James L. Brooks mentored Fremon Craig and would serve as a producer on the film, and most importantly, the fact that Fremon Craig was the first person to pursue the rights whose work Blume had previously seen. Within a week of the letter, Fremon Craig and Brooks flew to Key West, Fla. to make an in-person plea to Blume; the rest is history. “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” hit theaters via Lionsgate on April 28.

Fremon also spoke to Variety for Blume’s cover story. For her full interview about meeting Blume and adapting “Margaret,” read on. (See Variety‘s interview with Brooks here.)

What was your relationship to Judy Blume’s work before this project came together?

Of all the books I read growing up, hers were the most impactful. Before I read her books, I really didn’t love reading. The first one I read was “Just as Long as We’re Together,” and it started a spiral where I had to read everything. When I read “Margaret,” oh my gosh, it felt like somebody had a USB cord to my brain. She understood everything that I was going through at that age. I also happened to be a late bloomer, who was praying for boobs every night. I also related to the struggles she goes through with friendships. At that age, you’re deciding, who are the people that are reflective of you? And I remember feeling like some of the people I was hanging out with, I wasn’t sure if they were my friends or my enemies. I had certain friends who would make me feel bad about myself, and they didn’t even say anything in particular. Something about them made me feel incredibly self conscious. So I related to the tidal wave of self consciousness that Nancy brings on just by showing up in Margaret’s life.

So her books are really formative for me. Honestly, there is a direct link back to to her books when I think about what made me want to be a writer. She says it all. She puts it all out there. She says even the unsayable part. That, to me, is the gift of her writing, and so much of why I’m a writer. I love exploring those details that we stuffed deep down inside ourselves.

What made you decide to pursue the film rights for “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”?

After I had made “The Edge of Seventeen,” I was thinking about what to do next. I started to think about the books that had had the biggest impact on me, and the person at the top of that list was Judy Blume. So I bought all her books again and started to reread everything, and when I got to “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” there was something about it that just knocked me flat all over again. I remember, vividly, as a kid, feeling that it really buoyed me and made me feel seen, but as an adult, it impacted me in all sorts of different ways. I found the whole spiritual search she goes through to be so moving and profound. There was something about this kid asking these really big questions about about life, existential questions. At that age, there’s so much uncertainty. The ground is shifting under your feet. Your body is changing. Your friends are changing. It would make perfect sense to reach out for something that feels solid. I love that Margaret doesn’t know what she believes about all of it. Even at the end, she doesn’t totally know. She has this glimmer of hope that maybe there is some sort of benevolent organizing force, but the movie doesn’t — and book didn’t — provide any answers.

Blume had decided she never wanted to sell the rights to “Margaret” before you came along. Was that daunting to you? How did you convince her?

When I wrote her the letter, I actually didn’t know that “Margaret” was off the table. I just went in full force, passionately. Spilling my heart, telling her how much her work has impacted me and that she’s been such a North Star for me as a writer. Everything I ever write, every film I ever make, I will be trying to make somebody feel the way “Are You There God?” made me feel.

I talked about why I thought it would make such a beautiful film, and that we were at this specific point in history where there’s real support to make a movie like this, which I don’t think there would have been six or seven years ago. When I was trying to get “The Edge of Seventeen” made it was just a different environment.

After I wrote the letter, I heard through her representative that she was willing to talk about any of the books, but “Margaret” was off the table. But I just could not let it go. I pushed on ahead and sent Jim Brooks the book and said, “Look, if we can get the rights would you produce it?” And he read it and saw what was special about it, and within a week we were on a plane to go see Judy in Key West.

How did the conversation go?

it’s just the most surreal thing in the world to meet Judy Blume. She was so kind, she picked us up at the airport. Both of us squeezed in the backseat of her Mini Cooper, and I was like, “What world am I in?”

She is everything I hoped she would be when I was 12 years old looking at her photo on the book jacket. She’s just 100% herself. There’s something so reassuring about being around her. It was such a nerve wracking experience to meet somebody that’s a lifelong hero, and she made it instantly okay.

What was your process for adapting the screenplay once you got the rights?

I really just holed up in my office by myself. The first week or two were so tough because I felt like there were a million people in the room there with me. I had Judy Blume in the room, I had Judy’s 10 million fans, I had my 12-year-old self, with everyone saying, “Don’t fuck this up.” So I had to find a way to gently clear them all out of my head and just write. What’s hard when when you’re working with material that’s so beloved is, you can feel like with every change you make, someone is going to be like, “Why would you change that?” Like painting over a Picasso.

Eventually I made a rule for myself that calmed me: “If you can write something that makes you feel the way the book made you feel, then you’ll have done right by it.” That guiding principle allowed me to get out of my own way.

Blume makes a split-second cameo in the film. Whose idea was that?

From the very beginning, I really, really wanted to stick her in there somewhere. But it’s delicate, because you can do a cameo that can take people out of the story. So it was about finding a way to slide her in where you could almost miss it, unless you’re a Judy Blume superfan. But that 10,000-watt smile is just so great.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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