Rachel McAdams and Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret director Kelly Fremon Craig hit it off immediately when they started shooting the Judy Blume-approved adaptation of one of the most popular young adult books of all time. So much so that they immediately started crying together about what it feels like to be a mom.
“She pulled me aside the very first day. It was my first scene, and we were both crying,” McAdams, who plays Margaret’s mother Barbara, told MovieMaker. “It was a scene about how hard it is to find the balance as a mother and be there for your family but also be there for yourself. And sometimes those can go hand-in-hand, and sometimes they can’t, and what’s your emotional fallout from that? So we’re both crying out on the lawn. That was day one.”
“We just dove in together and it was really a beautiful experience. I had a five-month-old, and she always had time for me to go and pump or take a break if I needed to. It was a super mom-positive set,” The Notebook and Mean Girls actress added.
“With Kelly, it was so easy, because we’re both working moms with young children and neither of us really cook, but we try. We just both had so many similarities to Barb that we could connect through… The first day on set, it just felt like she was rooting for everyone from behind the monitor. You could just feel her enthusiasm for the story and how much attention she was paying to every little tiny moment.”
For Fremon Craig, the feeling was mutual.
“Rachel has such a gift for conveying multiple complicated emotions in one single look or word. I really don’t know how she does it,” Fremon Craig says.
“I find motherhood to be really a real sort of emotional layer cake. There’s so much that you feel at once. There’s love and pride and fear that you’re not doing it right, and you’re going to mess up your kids for the rest of their life. Your identity changes and you’re not sure how you feel about that. I find it to be very messy, and Rachel portrays all of that and in a way that makes me laugh, and just cracks my heart open.”
But before McAdams signed on, Fremon Craig had to argue her case to Judy Blume herself, who declined the first time Fremon Craig asked her about adapting her beloved 1970 novel Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret into a feature film.
“I was coming off of my first film, The Edge of 17, and deciding what to do next. So I was thinking about the books that had had a real impact on me, and Judy Blume was number one on that list,” Fremon Craig says.
“I sent her a letter telling her how much her work meant to me and that I had just re-read Margaret and was so deeply moved by it all over again, and just felt that it would make a truly beautiful film,” Fremon Craig adds. “But I heard from her reps that she was open to optioning any of her other books, but Margaret was off the table because that book just meant too much to too many people.
“But still, I just couldn’t let it go.”
So Fremon Craig flew to see Blume in person in Florida — and this time, she brought James L. Brooks, the producer celebrated for everything from The Simpsons to Broadcast News to Terms of Endearment.
“Jim Brooks and I hopped on a plane to Key West, where Judy lives, to just really passionately pitch why it needed to be a film — and by the end of that meeting, I had a feeling we were actually going to do this,” Fremon Craig said.
“I really just poured my heart out about how much the book made me feel seen at that age. How much it felt like something solid to hang onto in a time that felt really uncertain.”
Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) is a 13-year-old grappling with the double whammy of searching for God while going through puberty. McAdams plays Margaret’s free-spirited mom, Barbara, who transitions from going to work to staying home when the family moves from New York City to suburban New Jersey. Benny Safdie plays Margaret’s kind and patient father, Herb, and Kathy Bates plays her feisty, outspoken grandmother, Sylvia.
Doing Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret Was an Easy Yes for Rachel McAdams
When McAdams caught wind of the movie being made, she was immediately on board.
“The minute I heard that it was even a possibility for me, I wanted to do it,” McAdams said. “I already knew at that time how careful Judy Blume is about having her books adapted, and that that’s a big leap for her.”
Both McAdams and Fremon Craig were big on Blume growing up, but this was McAdams’ first time actually reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
“I came across her when I was a little bit younger, like Fudge and Double Fudge and Super Fudge, you know — Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing — all those books,” McAdams said. “But I knew of Are You There God? because it was a famous book amongst young people. There was lore around it, I guess, and I would have been younger — I was probably eight, nine, ten when I first heard about it and just, Oh, it’s got boobs and periods and God and all this stuff in it. Maybe it’s a little advanced for me.”
McAdams read it soon after becoming a mother.
“It was interesting coming to it so much later in life, when I was doing the film, to get to read it with fresh eyes as a mother now. I could really connect to the character I was playing immediately — and then to feel the power of the book, because it took me right back to being a kid. I was like, ‘Oh, no wonder this resonated for so many people and has continued to for so long, to this day,’” McAdams said.
Kelly Fremon Craig Remembers The First Time She Read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret
For Fremon Craig, it was love at first read.
“I read it in 1990 when I was 10. And what was wild about it was it was written 20 years before in 1970, obviously, but I had no idea. It was so contemporary,” she said. “When I read it, it just felt like it had been written that same year. I think the magic of Judy Blume is that she writes in a way that’s so honest, that it just sort of transcends time.
“Judy really was the author who led me into being a reader and then ultimately a writer, really. Before her, I didn’t like reading,” she says. “A lot of the stories of characters that were assigned by my teachers at the time just felt sort of distant and inaccessible to me, whereas her books felt so personal and just like an intimate conversation with a friend.”
Finding their Margaret was as easy as watching Fortson’s first audition.
“We just instantly knew we found Margaret. It was like, ‘The search is off,’” Fremon Craig says. “There’s something about her where you just can’t help but root for her… There’s something about her that is so resonant and relatable, and that felt to me very important for Margaret, because all of us as readers, that age in particular, project ourselves onto her. So she had to be a character that could draw all of us in and feel like every one of us, while also maintaining her own specificity — which was a real feat, and she did it.”
One of the things that Fremon Craig knew from the start was that she wanted the film to be set in the time it was written, not the present day.
“I knew that I wanted it to feel timeless in the same way that the book does,” she says.
Blume herself was on set, giving the actors more backstory for their characters and helping Fremon Craig shape the details.
“She was very involved in all parts of the process, and we talked about everything,” Fremon Craig says. “We talked about big things, like the complexity of Margaret’s spiritual search, or creating a deeper emotional arc for Barbara than existed in the book — and also little things, like how messy Margaret’s room should be or that her hair should always look a little unkempt because she did it herself. I think those very specific details are what makes something feel real.”
McAdams recalled her conversations with Blume very fondly.
“Judy is so sweet because she never wanted to step on anyone’s toes. I mean, she’s the most gracious, generous person,” she says. “She was always like, ‘Well, I don’t want to get kicked off the set.’ I’m like, ‘No, tell me everything! Tell me what she did, tell me whatever you want to tell me.’ So then she finally acquiesced and gave me this amazing backstory for Barb, for Herb, for the whole family — she even told me things about my brother. He’s not even in the film… you just see how great she is at world-building.”
“My partner saw [a cut of the film] and he said, ‘You know, I think seeing this movie ups my game as a dad.’ He doesn’t say things like that glibly,” McAdams adds. “As much as it’s a powerful story for women, I think it’s very relatable for men, too. And I just love the warmth to it. There’s nothing really terrible that happens in it, and yet, the moments can be excruciating.
And I think that’s so common for so many young kids as they go through preteen and teen days. It’s a fun, cringe-worthy time to revisit.”
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret arrives in theaters on April 28 from Lionsgate.
A version of this story first appeared in the Spring 2023 print issue of MovieMaker Magazine.
Main Image: Rachel McAdams as Barbara Simon and Abby Ryder Fortson as Margaret Simon share a mother-daughter moment in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Photo Credit: Dana Hawley