The Perks of Being a Wallflower Press
By Gary Murray
Stephen Chbosky comes across more as a middle school shop teacher than a writer/director of cinema. As the adaptor of the screenplay for Rent and the co-creator, executive producer and writer of the television show Jericho, he has recently broken into Hollywood in a big way.
Stephen is probably best known as the author of the coming of age novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, one of the most successful new books in the last few years. He is also the writer and director of the big screen adaptation which stars Emma Watson, Logan Lerman and Ezra Miller. From the time Stephen wrote the book to a finished film was 12 years.
The story of The Perks of Being a Wallflower is of Charlie (Logan Lerman), a first-year high school student who has had some personal problems in his life. He finds the world of high school a bit daunting until he meets seniors Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller). They are step-sister and brother. The two older kids take young Charlie under their wings and expose him to a wider life which includes Rocky Horror and drugs. As Charlie bonds with his new friends, he discovers greater truths about himself. It is a story of coming of age and coming to terms with the demons in your life.
Stephen Chbosky admits that different production companies showed interest in the novel and wanted to make it into a major motion picture. But the writer knew that this was to be his project. “For this one,” he said, “I just had to. From the minute I thought of this title, I knew it was going to be a book and I knew I was going to make a movie of it someday. All I needed to do was gain some experience. Doing things like adapting the screenplay for Rent or doing the television show Jericho, all those experiences you learn different tricks and crafts. Television is very succinct and very clear. I needed that in order to introduce nine characters in six minutes. Rent is an iconic story for certain people and the fans are among the greatest fans ever for anything. I needed to learn how to walk in this sacred world for people with characters I didn’t create. I was just trying to translate them for the screen. And those experiences and working with all the directors over the years, I built up muscle and was ready to do it.”
On getting the chance to make his book into something more, he said. “You work your whole career and every now and then it just works. I’m very excited right now. I wrote the screenplay 100% on spec. I got my producers and we got Emma and we cast Logan. That’s what we went to Summit (Entertainment) with. Summit never gave me a script notes, this was going to be the story. Either I was going to direct it or it was never going to exist.”
The book is a series of letters written by Charlie to an unnamed person. “It is such a tricky thing to go from a completely first person subjective epistolary novel,” said Stephen, “Nothing is more objective than cinema, nothing is more visceral. It is the same catharsis and it is the same character and it is the same theme. So, I needed that time. It took four months to write the book and a year to write the screenplay.”
The book has been a huge success with both teen readers and more academic types. It has been taught in some schools and banned in others. Many were worried that an adaptation of the work would ruin the magic of the written word and have expressed their apprehensions. Stephen takes it all in stride, saying “I knew that the book had an academic following and a critical following but in order to do my job and my mission with the movie, I didn’t want to do the small independent version of it. I wanted to find what is commercial in this story for me. I knew that millions of kids who could benefit from some of the messages in (the book) that are never going to read the book in a million years. I loved some of (Summit Entertainment’s) commercial instincts. It helped me understand that it is a much bigger tent that we think it is. I love popcorn movies and so it was fun.”
He then expanded on the thought. He said, “Some people are reticent now but once they see the movie they aren’t at all. It is not mainstream or commercial by compromise, it is finding the thing to celebrate and respect about youth that I did and set out to do. Once they see it, the fans seem thrilled.”
He finished the thought by saying, “One out of 100 people don’t want anyone to touch it because it is so profoundly theirs–which makes me sad. I’m glad that they love it. It means a lot to me that they love it that much. But, I didn’t publish the book so they would be alone in their feeling that they are the only one that feels this. I published the book to let them know that they are not alone. And that’s my hope for it.”
Stephen Chbosky wishes that the film will cross generations. “I’m hoping the young people will love (for today),” he said, “and Mom & Dad will love it for nostalgia. It is a very lofty goal but if this group can love it for their present and this group can love it for their nostalgia, then they will realize that there is not much of a generation gap. Its just stuff we haven’t talked about yet. I wrote a line in the movie. ‘Some people forget what its like to be 16 when they turn 17.’ I wrote that line because I want to erode this gap. It’s just a movie, but my book was just a book and it saved some lives. I’m on a mission with this one.”
Many critics and readers have wondered if the work is a biographical tome. Stephen insisted that the book is a work of fiction but based on real experiences. He said, “Charlie as a character is very personal to me. I’m not as shy as he is but a lot of his world view is mine and the things he wants for people, I want for people. Some of the things he went through, I went through. Some of the things that happened to Sam and Patrick either happened to me or people that I love. I changed a little bit to have the essence of the story or the lesson of the story but not betray the trust of the person. It is s legitimate semi-autobiographical story. I was able to let go of a lot of ghosts.” He finished the thought by saying, “It is not different in sense that all the emotions I wanted for it.”
The film has a unique look that makes it difficult to pin-point the exact year the film is taking place. Stephen wanted the movie to have more of an idea of Dead Poets Society where the film could have been set at any age than a very specific time period such as Dazed and Confused. “I love the idea of old photographs and I love the visual aesthetic for the movie, like a timeless nostalgia,” he said. “I don’t know if it achieved the true old photograph nature that I wanted.”
He then said, “I wanted to make a film about the last time of nostalgia before the internet and cell phones changed communication. Adolescence is the same forever, what changes the way we communicate. Your mistakes are public record. I knew that I didn’t want the movie overly emotional or sentimental. I found that the more I restrained, the more I held off on revealing things. That gave me my ascetic. It really helped me tell the story.”
Since he had written both the novel and directed the screenplay, there was a question about the difference between what it seen in the novelist imaginary eye and the director’s realistic eye. He said, “When you imagine it as a novelist, the weather is perfect. If you want a snowstorm, it is there. You don’t have to lay down snow in your neighborhood.” Then he expanded on the idea, “I learned a lot as a novelist and as a screenwriter in terms of how much room there is in a movie and what the emotional threshold of any viewer is. The process of adapting this novel was always finding that center.”
The course of making the movie completely focused his efforts. “I want to be an author/director,” he said. “I didn’t know that. Doing the movie brought me back to writing novels again. I’m 2/3rds of the way through my second book. I love writing novels because it is just me and a page and trying to figure out a story. But then to make the movie and find other ways to tell the story, it is the best of both worlds.”
He finished the interview by saying, “Being an author and being a director are very similar to me, screenwriter that’s the tough thing. If I can get the right writing partner to provide that only 10 years provided before, I can be more efficient and it might be more fun.”