Writer/Director Stephen Chbosky on The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Stephen Chbosky has been influenced by a lot of angsty classics, like The Graduate and Catcher in the Rye. In 1999, he made his own contribution to the canon, releasing The Perks of Being a Wallflower, a young-adult novel whose tough themes helped make it a formidable word-of-mouth success, becoming the best-selling title from MTV Books by 2000. Within seven years, it sold nearly 800,000 copies, while also getting regularly challenged by the American Library Association for its exploration of drug use, homosexuality, and adolescent suicide. A film version seemed inevitable, but Chbosky wasn’t ready to hand over his polarizing baby. It took more than a decade for the wheels to truly start turning on a movie adaptation, and Chbosky emerged as the natural choice to pilot the project.
Set in the early 1990s, Perks centers around a troubled teen named Charlie (Logan Lerman), whose considerable emotional baggage has greatly impacted his high school survival. He’s virtually friendless until he meets Patrick (Ezra Miller), an extroverted senior secretly bedding the school quarterback, and Sam (Emma Watson), a gorgeous free spirit with scars of her own. A terrific vehicle for its budding young stars, each of whom uses it to graduate to a higher level of acting, Perks is enjoying an early rush of good reviews, from critics and ardent fans of the source.
Breezing through New York, Chbosky spoke to Filmmaker about watching his characters come to life, the story’s enduring audience, and the saga of translating one’s signature work to the screen.
Filmmaker: Your novel has been out for some time, but for those who may be unfamiliar with the book and its background, how autobiographical is this story? The main character, Charlie, has the feel of an author’s surrogate, and you were born in Pittsburgh, where the film is set.
Chbosky: The Charlie character is very personal to me. Not everything that he goes through is something I went through, and there are things that I went through that I did not include, but he’s very personal to me.
Filmmaker: Can you offer some examples of things in the story and in your life that overlap?
Chbosky: You know, if it’s okay, I kind of don’t do that. It is fiercely personal, but the thing is, it’s not so much about trying to protect my own privacy or life, because there’s nothing in there that I’m ashamed of, or anything like that. It’s more about the sense that the more it becomes my story, the less it can become the story for the kid out there who really needs it. I don’t want people to feel like it’s my life, I want people to see a reflection of their own.
Filmmaker: Conventional wisdom says that having an author adapt his own work does away with the fear of the film not doing the book justice. Did you feel that way going into the project? Do you still?
Chbosky: I had to do this movie for the fans of the book for that very reason you’re talking about. I don’t know if I recommend that every author try to do this, but for me, it was the only way to do it. It’s difficult for me to talk about in some ways, because it was so personal to me, and I was so inside this particular book and film, that it couldn’t be anything other than authentic to the story. However, there’s a flip side to that, which is that, sometimes, you can be so authentic to the book that you fail to make a movie out of it. I made it a point to throw myself in with strong producers and editors and other craftspeople, with an open policy of encouraging everyone to tell me the truth about the cuts and the work. Because I didn’t want to just film the book, I wanted to make a movie. And that’s a collaboration. I knew the trees so well that, every now and then, I needed help finding the forest.
Filmmaker: Was there ever a moment when you had any doubts, and maybe wanted to pass it off to someone else because there was too much pressure?
Chbosky: No, not at all. I was either going to make this movie or it wasn’t going to exist. I could never give it away. I received offers quite a few times, especially when I was young and very broke. I was offered to sell it or auction it and I passed up every opportunity until the moment was right.
Filmmaker: How were the challenges different in adapting your novel than in adapting Rent, another hugely beloved work of the MTV generation?
Chbosky: Well, the fact that mine was so personal made it both easier and more difficult than Rent. When I was adapting Rent, I had these beloved characters, and I loved the show, and I knew why the fans loved the show, but I didn’t create Angel, or Tom Collins, or Maureen. So it took some work to get inside those characters, and to read [playwright] Jonathan Marston’s handwritten notes about them, but it also gave me some distance and perspective, which made adaptation easier. In many ways, I felt like the Rent screenplay was my training ground and my sparring partner for Perks, because it was a beloved story, and it was about a group of friends, and about a certain time and place.
Filmmaker: You also worked steadily on the TV series Jericho, which you co-created. What are some of the things you took away from that experience that you were able to apply to Perks?
Chbosky: Jericho gave me an appreciation of how to introduce characters. When you write a pilot, you have 40 minutes to introduce [in our case] 21 characters. Each of them needs to be distinctive, and you have to establish a proper tone and point of view. The Jericho training ground helped me so much with the Perks screenplay, because it’s the same scenario, but I have 12 minutes to introduce every major character in the film, for the most part. Without television training, I don’t think I would have known how to do that.
Filmmaker: Do you think would have felt confident to make Perks had you not already made your first feature, The Four Corners of Nowhere?
Chbosky: Well it was such a different time with The Four Corners of Nowhere. I was so young. It was the first thing I did. It was like another lifetime. I was 23 when I directed that movie, and we got it in the can for $48,000. I made it all with my friends. It was more of a home movie to us. But I think it did help. I learned from all the mistakes that I made, so that helped. But, for me, the directing confidence came less from doing Four Corners and more from just writing for and working for so many great directors over the years. Some of the movies got made, some of them didn’t, and some of them got made by other people, but at this stage in my career, I’ve written for Griffin Dunne, Spike Lee, Chris Columbus, Jon Turtletaub, Jay Roach, and a handful of what I would consider true artists and journeymen. And the thing I would say to anyone who’s aspiring to direct is that if you sit on set, and see the same characters and actors being directed by, say, 12 different people, you realize how much room you have for your own [directing] style. And that gave me a lot of freedom and confidence to realize that I could do it the way that I wanted.
Filmmaker: It’s been 13 years since the novel was released, and in addition to its initial fans being older now, a whole lot of outsider coming-of-age tales have come and gone since then. Did you ever worry that the story might not be as fresh today, or might not grab an audience in the same way the book did when it debuted?
Chbosky: No, because it’s not a story bound to its time. It’s a timeless story. To be honest, the book sold more two years ago than it did when it came out. There’s been a certain group of people, I think, who’ve embraced it every year for 13 years. If anything, what the time has given it is a bigger audience. And since I’m older making the movie versus when I wrote the book, I feel that, now, the grown-ups are included as well. And we’ve got as enthusiastic responses from adults as we have from kids. And the film has been incredible for the book. My book was never a New York Times bestseller, and it’s been number one now [on the Children's Paperback list] for four weeks this summer. And that’s before the movie’s release.
Filmmaker: Have there been films or books that you’ve encountered over the last 13 years that have felt like kindred spirits to Perks?
Chbosky: Not that I can think of. But, over the last ten years, I thought Juno was a terrific movie. I loved Garden State. The movies that meant so much to me, that I studied for this, were Rebel Without a Cause, The Graduate, Harold and Maude, Stand By Me, Dead Poets Society, and The Breakfast Club.
Filmmaker: The set decoration is an element that stands out in the film, particularly the characters’ bedrooms. How closely did you work with the production designer? Are there any fun anecdotes about where some of the items came from?
Chbosky: Yeah, I worked very closely with Inbal Weinberg. She’s a very talented young designer. I found her because I loved her work on Blue Valentine. She created a visual journal for Perks the year before I met her, and I knew she was the right person. And she was obsessed with those bedrooms. She took a couple little sentences in my screenplay and she just ran with them. As far as some of the items, it was a combination. I actually brought my books to the set, so when you see Charlie’s books, they’re my books from that era. The set that got the most attention was Sam’s bedroom. I think that bedroom was Inbal’s masterpiece. She put so much time and thought into it, and she wanted it to be the perfect place for [Sam and Charlie's] first kiss. And when Emma [Watson] went upstairs into the room with Inbal, I think they just spent three hours together, just messing it up perfectly. Emma did it in character, and I think it really helped her, with the kiss scene and other scenes. And I know for a fact there were some photographs peppered throughout that Emma herself took of the other kids.
Filmmaker: And you shot in Pittsburgh, naturally. Is there something specific about that atmosphere that you needed, aside from it being the setting of the book?
Chbosky: It’s hard to put into words. Pittsburgh is a blue-collar city. It’s a tough city. It was the only place I could’ve made the movie. And it’s not just because the theater where I first saw Rocky Horror is where we shot the Rocky Horror scenes, or because [a pivotal scene] was shot on the street where I grew up. It’s about an appreciation of Pittsburgh. [Producer] John Malkovich was a football player from a little town in Illinois, and when we were making the movie, he pulled me aside and he said, “Direct this movie like a guy from Pittsburgh, and always get the tough take.” And that became a bit of a mantra on set. We led with the notion that if you’re sentimental or treacly about something, it’s going to ring false. And I personally only could have told this story in a place that doesn’t like to talk about these things, a place that kind of has a walk-it-off philosophy about the tough things that people go through. And it helped a lot.
Filmmaker: An interesting thing happens in this movie, in that we’ve all seen Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, and Logan Lerman in other films, yet this one feels like a breakthrough for each of them. Did you get that sense during production?
Chbosky: Yes, I got that sense during production. For everybody. Not just the three of them. It was a breakthrough for Nina Dobrev. It was a breakthrough for Mae Whitman. They’re all tremendously talented, and they were really hungry to do something they’ve never done. I mean, for Ezra to come off of We Need to Talk About Kevin and do this, and for as radical a leap as Emma playing Sam after playing Hermione, and for Logan to play Charlie after playing Percy Jackson, you could really feel it on set. I knew the first time I got three of them together that I had something special. I threw Emma and Ezra into a dance rehearsal because I thought it’d be a good way to bond, and then after we had dinner that night, I took the three of them through the [story's trademark] tunnel for the first time. They had never seen it. And from that moment, we were all friends.
Filmmaker: This may be remembered as the movie that announced Ezra Miller as a true star.
Chbosky: I think that Ezra’s performance is a huge breakthrough. And I think that anyone who’s seen Ezra’s work, in City Island or We Need to Talk About Kevin, knew a while ago that he was a special talent. But I think, with Patrick, he was able to put all of the pieces of himself together in one performance. He’s such a force of nature that I’m so proud and grateful that we got him for this film. I think that boy’s going to win Oscars in his life, I really do. And I can’t wait for people to see him in this movie.
Filmmaker: The mixtape serves as a nostalgic motif throughout the movie. What would we find on your playlist right now?
Chbosky: Ha, that’s funny. My playlist right now is a fun combination. Let me pull it up. [Pause.] Okay, I have Bon Iver; the soundtrack for the Matilda musical, which I saw in London and was fantastic; the new Coldplay; the new Brandi Carlisle; and the new Tenacious D. Those are the main things right now.
Filmmaker: And the film’s tagline, which is doubles as its signature line, is “We are infinite.” What does that mean to you?
Chbosky: What that means to me is that it doesn’t matter where you come from, because you can go anywhere. It doesn’t matter what you’ve been through, you can overcome it. And if we stop, and look around, and just take in our surroundings, like a wallflower can do, we see just how truly vast the world is. And that all we need to do is try to embrace a positive and constructive attitude, and the world can be anything that we design. That’s what it means to me.