IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Screenwriter Karen Croner Talks 'Admission'

Friday, 22 March 2013 06:57 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Screenwriter Karen Croner Talks 'Admission'

Opening in theaters on March 22nd is the new comedy Admission starring Tina Fey (Date Night) and Paul Rudd (This Is 40). The film, which is based on the book of the same name by Jean Hanff Korelitz, was directed by Paul Weitz (About A Boy), and written by Karen Croner (One True Thing).

In the movie, Fey plays Portia Nathan, a Princeton admissions officer up for a major promotion who takes a professional risk after she meets a college-bound alternative school kid named Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), who just might be the son she gave up years ago in a secret adoption. Rudd plays John Pressman, the Jeremiah’s high school teacher who ends up falling for Portia and encourages her to help Jeremiah get into Princeton despite his low grades. Admission also boasts an excellent supporting cast of actors including Michael Sheen (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), Gloria Reuben (Lincoln), Wallace Shawn (The Princess Bride), and comedy legend Lily Tomlin (I Heart Huckabees) as Portia’s estranged mother. 

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with screenwriter Karen Croner about her work on Admission. The talented scribe discussed her new film, adapting the novel into a screenplay, why she wanted to write a comedy, wanting the actors to improvise on set, writing for Tina Fey, collaborating with director Paul Weitz, and working with comedy legends Lily Tomlin and Wallace Shawn

Here is what she had to say:

IAR: To begin with, can you talk about the challenges of adapting the original novel and turning it into a screenplay?

Karen Croner: I think I can give you the long answer of how all this came about. I had written a movie called One True Thing a long time ago, which was about a woman (Meryl Streep) who was dying of cancer and her daughter had to take care of her. After that, I ended up writing for studios about every affliction out there. I wrote about a quadriplegic, mental illness, and even suicide. Then I was writing this screenplay for a vampire movie and I realized I was having the time of my life and that was because everybody was dead already, nobody was going to get sick and die. Then I wrote about what I think is the saddest subject on the planet, which is girl soldiers in Uganda. I finished writing that script and a kind of light bulb went off in my head. I turned to my husband and said that I wanted to write a comedy for Tina Fey. I realized that I had always really meant to write comedy or “dramedy.” I'd gone on this very lucrative and stable road of writing dramas for the studios and when the writing assignments started to dry up it was this great thing in a way because I had to stop and go, what do I really want to do? So I had just gone through getting my son into middle school, which in West L.A. is like a blood sport. It's just horrific. I'm a public school person, so it was even more foreign to me, and I found the whole process of admissions fascinating. Somebody gave me the book Admission and said, “It's dark, dramatic and a lot of it takes place in flashback but it's about a woman who's an admission's officer who has a nervous breakdown.” I thought, well that's not dark and sad, that's hilarious! I got to write a story about what I just went through. So I gave the book to a producer I've wanted to work with for a long time, Kerry Kohansky, and we sat down and talked about how to make into a comedy. She was working for Paul Weitz at the time, somebody who I completely admired and we gave it to him. Then Terry had this brilliant idea that Tina Fey would be the person for it. So we gave Tina the book and Paul and I pitched to her how we would turn it into a “Tina Fey movie.” Now here we are. 

Is it easier or harder for you as a writer to pen a screenplay and create a character when you know which actress is going to be playing that role?

Croner: Well, it’s harder because you're writing for one of the greatest writers out there. So that's terrifying. Tina was so perfect for this part, that writing and imagining her doing it made the process so much easier. But as I just said, at the same time you're writing a scene and going, oh my God, Tina Fey is going to judge this and decide whether she wants to do it. She’s one of my heroes, so it was thrilling and scary at the same time. 

Tina is not only a great writer and comedian, but she is also a brilliant improviser, as is her co-star Paul Rudd. How much of the final version of the film is actually the words you wrote down on the page and how much is stuff that they improvised together on set?

Croner: Not very much was changed. My greatest hope was that they would have time to improvise as much as possible on set. I know that’s the opposite of what most writers say, but I was really hoping to get there and see what they would do. It was just going to be such a delight. They did do some, but not nearly as much as I had hoped for because the production was really tight and they had to move really quickly. But I had written a couple of very specific monologues, one in particular for Tina that I’d hoped she would just take and run with. She did, and it’s around the scene when the cow is giving birth. It was a much longer scene in the script, but she did some fantastic improvising there. 

How did Paul Rudd get involved with the project?

Croner: He came in at the end through casting and I think he and Paul Weitz had wanted to work together for a long time so he was just absolutely perfect for the part of John.  I think you really get to see a grown up side to him and a deeper, more emotional side than you normally do.

I think Paul and Tina make a perfect onscreen duo. What a great comedy team to have in your film, were you excited to get them both together?

Croner: Yes, that was magic. So seeing them in the same frame, which I don’t think we ever have is thrilling on its own.       

Besides Paul and Tina it is an amazing cast that has been assembled for this film. You must’ve been delighted to also have comedic legends like Lily Tomlin and Wallace Shawn involved as well?

Croner: When Paul Weitz cast Lily Tomlin I thought it was genius because just historically Lily is the comedian mother who gave birth to all these great comedians that came after her. So for her to be Tina’s mother just in terms of history and what she brought to that role, it was wonderful.

Wallace Shawn really looks like he is the head of admissions at Princeton, doesn’t he?

Croner: I think there are looks on his face where he looks baffled that are just amazing. He made so much out of that role, which is not big, and he really brought such depth and humor to it. So that was very exciting. 

Finally, can you talk about working with director Paul Weitz? Was it really a collaborative effort between the two of you on set, or did you just hand off the script and let him go make the film?

Croner: Paul was directing a movie (Being Flynn) while I was writing the first draft, but I was constantly checking in with him on it. Then Tina signed on after that draft and we spent a lot of time really talking about the work within the scenes. You know as a writer it has to become the director’s vision, so he was just an absolute pleasure to work with. He was absolutely inclusive, and I was on the set a lot of the shoot just watching him, and studying him to see how he was going to pull it off. 

Admission opens in theaters on March 22nd. 

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