This weekend, Tina Fey will once gain flex her neurotic muscles. In Admission, she plays a Princeton admissions officer, who takes an emotional hit. She learns that the child she gave up for adoption is one of her applicants. It’s an awkward position and subject that screenwriter Karen Croner handles with care. ScreenCrave recently spoke to Croner about finding the balance between the film’s humor and drama. She also walks us through Admissions journey from page to screen.
The movie’s based on a novel written by Jean Hanff Korelitz. How were you chosen to adapt it?
Karen Croner: I found the book and at the same time Kerry, the producer had found the book. She was somebody that I wanted to work with for a long time. So it was really a moment in my career of not doing assignments and initiating my own projects. I was up for changing genres. I’d been writing drama forever and I decided that I really always enjoyed comedy. The book was given to me, and I was told that it was very dark and traumatic. And that it was a story about an admissions officer who had a nervous breakdown. I had just gone through getting my son in middle school in Los Angeles, which is not a fun process, and I thought, ‘Well, that doesn’t sound sad and dark. That sounds hilarious. I want to write about that woman’s suffering.’
There’s a lot of comedic possibilities within that world of admissions and a lot of true depth and emotion. So we gave it to [director] Paul Weitz, who Kerry was working with at the time, then Paul and I pitched an adaptation to Tina and she signed on.
What was your first impression of the book?
Karen Croner: As most novels, it’s very internal. A lot of the book is told in flashback about backstories of a romance that the character had in college. The woman who wrote the book had been an applications reader for Princeton. So she took us into that world behind those closed doors. That was the part that I was most fascinated by. I then went off and interviewed a lot more admissions officers and read every book about it. Because I was really trying to understand what this kind of person is whose job is a gatekeeper and launching people into lives.
Did you make any major changes? How did you balance both the author and studio’s influence?
Karen Croner: One thing that happens in this business is when people option books, often the author is just never spoken to again until the movie comes out. And I’m really appalled and horrified by that. So I made sure to keep Jean and the novel every step of the way and to honor her as completely as possible as the originator of these characters. Number one, I sat down and I said, ‘I’m going to make changes in the story and the tone but it’s gonna be absolutely true to the themes of the book.’ She completely got it because her book was a very internal voice. The job of adapting that is to externalize the characters, and the drama and the conflict.
When you pitched the movie to Tina did you already have a script or just a treatment?
Karen Croner: No, all we had at the time was the book. She read the book and Paul and I pitched to her how we would turn it into a movie, tonally, especially what the changes would be. She was a huge fan of About a Boy and tonally it’s very similar to that. So then she signed on. When I finished the first draft –you know when someone signs on with a book, the big moment of truth is when they read the adaptation. So when she read the first draft, she said, ‘Yes, I’m in.’ We were off and running. It was pretty spectacular.
So you actually got to write the script with a confirmed actress in mind.
Karen Croner: Yes. It’s exhilarating and terrifying because it’s Tina Fey. She’s one of the great writers of our time you’re writing for. It [was] daunting but wonderful [laughs].
When did you hand over your final draft to the director?
Karen Croner: Paul and I were very collaborative. It was such a pleasure to get to work closely with him. He was off directing a movie, while I was doing the first draft. [We] then worked closely while I was doing the second draft. He was very inclusive all along the way.
Do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters out there?
Karen Croner: I think the good thing about this business is that it’s very democratic. A good script will get recognized. It’s harder than ever because the business is contracted. I have a few friends who put their scripts in contests. I hate recommending that, but when they get noticed and make it into the finals, they’re getting calls from people. So that seems to be a system that’s working for new screenwriters. My advice would be, if you write a script, dream big. Who is your absolute favorite director for it? Who is the actor or actress you’d give anything to have in it? Go for that!
Admission opens in theaters March 22.