How are you there God? I’m Margaret’s ’70s setting remains timeless
Director Kelly Fremon Craig talks about the challenges readers of Judy Blume’s novel have faced with images that have been in their heads for decades.
“Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” remains as relevant to teenagers as it was when the Judy Blume book was published in 1970. The story of a young girl on her first rocky steps into adolescence as she changes schools and navigates her parents’ different religious backgrounds, what happens to Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) happens to many young girls, and Margaret’s desire to be happy and normal is universal.
“I think one of the magic tricks of the book is that anyone who reads it can experience it as a contemporary in any decade,” director Kelly Fremon Craig told IndieWire. “When I read it in 1990, I had no idea that it was written 20 years earlier, so I projected everything into the image of my childhood in the 90s. And the book cover looked contemporary, you know what I mean? So I had no idea (set in 1970).
But any film adaptation of “Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret” you need to select a specific time and place for Margaret. “The difference between the book and the movie is that I have to make a visual choice,” Fremon Craig said. “For example, I need to set a time period and choose. And what I didn’t want was for people who didn’t grow up in 1970 or saw it differently in their minds to feel alienated (by these choices). So I tried to thread this needle (between the film) that felt both timely and timeless. That was at the center of my mind the whole time as I was thinking about how to build this world visually.”
Much of the threading of the needle comes down to the work of production designer Steve Saklad and costume designer Ann Roth, who in the late ’60s and early ’70s were never as loud and proud as the period warranted. “For example, Margaret’s room, I was hoping that her room would feel like you could see it in 1970, but you could also see it in 1980 or today, you know? Just to have this timeless nostalgia that everyone can tap into their own childhood,” Fremon Craig said.
But both Fremon Craig and cinematographer Tim Ives lean a bit on the scale in the quality of light, bathing the film in warmth that makes the characters and their world seem a little softer, a little more like a memory. “I really like this kind of sidelight, this light that cuts through and creates little (patterns), this dappled light on the floor,” Fremon Craig said. “There’s something about the light streaming through the window that makes me feel nostalgic. I don’t know exactly why, but where the carpet is illuminated in places, I feel at home.”
The filmmakers made a very deliberate decision about what “Are You There God? I’m Margaret” should feel homey and intensely familiar, where they can emphasize period details to keep the film authentically of its time. If Rachel McAdams’s hair and clothing are a bit more modern, as Margaret’s mother, Barbara, Nancy’s mother, Jan (Kate MacCluggage), will be a Stepford wife; If Margaret’s father Herb (Benny Safdie) looks like a scruffy dad with unkempt hair and baggy weekend shorts from time immemorial, then Sylvia’s mother’s updated and bold prints were deliberately captured a few decades ago. “I don’t know if most people feel that way, but (the way Sylvia looks) that’s how my grandmother always felt about me. For example, she had the hairstyle she had when she was 30 and never changed it. That was it, you know? Fremon Craig said.
Both Fremon Craig and Ives emphasized the film’s visuals to create a story that feels a little out of place. The camera focuses on the things that can occupy a child’s entire world, regardless of the period in which they are growing up. “(It’s) the time in your life before self-awareness is introduced,” Fremon Craig said. from the film’s opening summer camp montage.
“I remember this very definite change in my life when I was suddenly aware of myself, aware that people were looking at me and judging me,” the director said. “But I remember the time before that when I had no self-awareness and was like two eyeballs looking at the world. My whole sense of self was just all I saw (and) it was like freedom and abandonment. Like, your hair is messy and you have a sideburn and all these things and you don’t know and you don’t care.
Margaret’s opening montage at summer camp prompts the viewer to see the world as Margaret does, then slowly introduces the kind of emphasis on the beginnings of self-awareness that Blume’s book so fearlessly explores, lingering on the mundane but unexplored details. putting on a sanitary pad for the first time or the unseen steps of getting ready for a party. For Fremon Craig, this focus was key to capturing the spirit of Blume’s voice on Are You God? It’s me, Margaret.
“I feel that his work is always honest. He always tells the truth. It also rides a certain line where it’s almost scary how honest it is. Kinda makes me go “Oh, am I allowed to say that?” That’s how Judy Blume makes me feel,” Fremon Craig said. “For example, shooting the scene when Margaret tries the bench for the first time. It was something that was a little bit like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe we’re seeing this.” It’s such a simple and ordinary thing that half the population does, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it on film like that. So it felt a little electric.”
Exploring the small realities of growing up is also part of why “Are you there, God? It’s me, Margit” transcends its era – or at least the period.
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