Interview: Perks of Being a Wallflower Author/Director Stephen Chbosky


High school can be tough, as we’ve seen countless times in films released this year alone, but Stephen Chbosky’s coming-of-age drama The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a different animal from the others. First of all, it’s based on his own popular best-selling novel, which one has to assume many producers and filmmakers wanted to adapt even though Chbosky decided early on he wanted to adapt and direct the film based on his book himself.

13 years later and the film based of his book is being released, starring Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief) as 15-year-old Charlie, a quiet kid who arrives at high school after having experienced some personal issues, but he quickly befriends a group of seniors, particularly half-siblings Sam and Patrick (Emma Watson and Ezra Miller), whose exuberant and artistic lifestyle includes weekly performances of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” that help pull Charlie out of his shell.

It’s a film that’s relatable whether you’re going to high school now or did back when the movie takes place since Chbosky has found a way of capturing a lot of the feelings we all experience, despite the movie clearly being set in a time period that dictated a soundtrack which includes many classic tunes from the ‘70s through the ‘90s by the likes of the Smiths, the Cocteau Twins, David Bowie, XTC, Cracker and New Order. (You can read our review here. got on the phone with author, screenwriter and director Stephen Chbosky before the premiere of his movie at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and we spoke to him about the transition to filmmaker, working with young actors and putting together that soundtrack. I haven’t read the book unfortunately, but I’ve heard it’s good and I hope to get to it soon. I’m sure people tell you that they see themselves in the characters, but there are scenes in the movie that mirrored my own high school experience. I was kind of freaked out by that.
Stephen Chbosky:
Well, yeah, I based it on your life.

CS: Oh, you did?
I didn’t clear that with you, I should have cleared that. I’m sorry.

CS: No worries, no worries. I was curious about that because I kept a lot of journals back then and I haven’t seen them since. Anyway, the book came out back in 1999 so how long did it take for you to decide to adapt it into a screenplay and direct it yourself? Did you have others looking at doing it over the years?
No, no, I never sold it, never optioned it, nothing. I knew I was going to do this myself. I just needed the time and distance really to do a real adaptation, you know what I mean?

CS: It’s kind of ballsy because many other authors once they finish a book want to move on and not have anything to do with adapting it which is why I wondered if it took some time before you decided you had to adapt it yourself.
I knew from the beginning. Making this movie was a lifelong dream of mine. I don’t really know why I was compelled to write my first novel twice except that the images in some of the scenes, they continued to be present in my life and I just felt that it was the right thing to do the movie.

CS: Did you know from the beginning that you’d have to make major changes? I know that the novel is a series of letters but did you generally have to start from scratch for the screenplay?
No, it wasn’t starting from scratch but to be honest, writing the screenplay was far more difficult than writing the book for me, because the book, when I wrote it, I was much younger and I was more connected to the insecurities and the feelings of being that age. What I had to start from scratch was mostly remembering what those first parties, first crushes, first kisses feel like. That took some work but once I had it, I felt very free inside of the work.

CS: That must be one of the reasons why the book has connected with people and why the movie probably will, too. I graduated in 19XX and there was a lot of stuff from high school I had completely forgotten and seeing this movie reminded me about a lot of things. What year did you personally graduate and when was this set?
I personally graduated from high school in 1988. The book is set in ’91 or ’92, and the movie, it’s basically early ‘90s is what I say. I said to all the design departments and to the music supervisor, “As long as it’s 1994 or earlier then I’m comfortable with it.” I didn’t want to do a standard period piece; I wanted it to feel more timeless than that, but it’s supposed to be early ‘90s.

CS: The novel came out in 1999 so how long had you spent writing it before then?
I started in college. That’s when I got the title and a couple of the images. I wrote it in the summer of 1996, that’s when Charlie’s voice really came to me and I wrote the first two letters. I had a third draft by the summer of ’98, and that’s what was published.

CS: Going back to writing the screenplay, what were some of the things you felt you needed to change once you got the actors involved?
Things didn’t change so much as they got clarified. Ted Tally who wrote the adaptation of “Silence of the Lambs,” a tremendous screenwriter, he had the best quote I ever heard about adapting where he said it’s basically turning soup back into bullion, and I love that analogy. You’re not changing it, you’re distilling it. You’re getting the story and the characters into their absolute central essence and it takes some back and forth, it takes overwriting and then taking out a few scenes then overwriting again, just to get the tone calibrated perfectly, but once you have it, it works. That’s what the process is. Nothing’s changed, it just got clarified.

CS: Did it take a long time to get that first screenplay once you got going?
No, it took a while like I said because of the emotional work to do it properly and to do it respectfully from a young person’s point of view, that took some time. Once I had that first monster draft, each subsequent draft got easier because it was about distilling and clarifying.

CS: These characters must be close to you having written them twice, so when you started going after actors, which I imagine must have been about two or three years ago?
Yeah, I went to Emma (Watson) two and a half years ago.

CS: I assume the actors had read the book or knew the book and the characters but what did they bring to the characters when you got them on board that you didn’t expect?
Because I knew the characters so well, it wasn’t as difficult to find the actors as you would think. Early on in the process, I made several comments. I said, “You have the book, and the book is exactly what you want it to be, so in the movie, embrace collaboration. Embrace your fellow artists. The actors will have ideas.” The producers, who have produced some terrific movies, listened to everybody. So once Emma came on board, she brought so much warmth and vulnerability and kindness and generosity to Sam and when she brought that, I knew that some parts of the script that were emphasizing parts of her character, those could quietly be lessened and other aspects could be heightened. Each person brings their own story, and what was so exciting about this was that Charlie was not just a character in my mind, Charlie was that plus a brilliant young actor in Logan Lerman who brought his own experiences, his own issues, his talent, his point of view, his humor–he’s so funny–and his vulnerability. Same with Ezra Miller, same with Mae Whitman. These kids–and even the adults like Paul Rudd, Melanie Lynskey–all of them! They brought so much to their characters and I just love actors, and there’s a reason why we paid money to see them. (chuckles)

CS: I’ve spoken to Ezra a bunch of times and met him and I felt like Patrick was more like his real personality than in any other movie I’ve seen in him. He has so much comic energy.
Oh 100%. I’ll never forget that my wife and I were watching “City Island” and my wife said, “God, that kid could be Patrick.” This was years ago, and at the time I said, “Oh, yeah, he’s great but he’s probably too young,” but then when we had auditions, Lianne Halfon (one of the producers) comes to me and says, “We found this kid. Oh my God! He had this audition, Ezra Miller.” And I looked at her and said, “Yeah, it’s the ‘City Island’ kid. Wow, did he sprout, he is old enough!” Then we did a callback over Skype, believe it or not, and he was so good in that callback and we offered him the part that night.

CS: Yeah, Ezra’s great and I know he doesn’t say “Yes” to a lot of things so it’s a real testament to the screenplay that he would do this.
Yeah, he is very picky and he’s very genuine, but I think for all the kids, this was a special one for them and it meant a lot to me that they all came.

CS: I want to talk about the music because that obviously plays a large part in the movie, because it sets the specific period of time. Were a lot of the songs in the movie mentioned in the book.
Yeah, yeah, a lot of the songs were in the book. The Smiths’ “Asleep” was seminal, the Rocky Horror Picture Show stuff was as well. Past that, it really was again Alexandra Patsavas our music supervisor, and myself, the soundtrack is basically our mix tape back and forth. She brought in a lot of songs, I brought in a lot of songs, and then Jennifer Nash our music editor, she contributed, and it all came together. Yeah, I love that music and to their credit…. How it works is that when you cut a movie, you put in every song that you ever wanted to put in, right? And then you test the movie and show it to an audience, and the audience loved it so much that Summit, to their credit, they gave us a lot more money. Normally, after the preview, you have to give all the good songs back and you have one week to find the cheap equivalent, but to their credit, they ponied up and we got the soundtrack we wanted to get.

CS: I have to say that you don’t really heard The Smiths or even the Cocteau Twins used in movies much and I assumed they just say “no” to a lot of things. Did you have to show them the movie to convince them?
No, a lot of people knew about the book and because this was a special project and because the book had good will out there, it wasn’t like they were asking for exorbitant amounts of money. It was just that there were so many songs, that’s what I mean.

CS: I’ve heard so many stories about filmmakers having to give a big pitch to convince some artists to allow their songs to be used.
People seemed to be very enthusiastic about being a part of the movie. I was nervous about the Smiths’ “Asleep” and I was nervous about the “Rocky Horror” (music) because it’s so important to the movie and the book, and the Smiths could have asked for the moon and we probably would have given it to them but they didn’t. When they realized how important it was, they gave us the song for… well, I can’t say how much… but they just got into the spirit of it and people seemed enthusiastic about being a part of this.

CS: That’s great. I do have to call you on one thing though because at the dance that Sam and Charlie attend, she hears “Come On Eileen” by Dexy’s Midnight Runners and says, “They’re playing good music!” I went to high school when the song was popular and I don’t remember anyone liking it by the ‘90s.
But the point is “They’re playing good music.” In other words, after listening to all this Top 40 and here’s one of the greatest dance songs. If you really think about it, if you play that at a wedding or anything, you’ll get people dancing at the most bogus events, that’s what she means. I love that song and it’s my favorite songs from the ‘80s.

CS: Then no offense was intended. Now that this is finally coming out are you working on other things?
Yeah, this process made me fall in love with writing books and directing movies and that’s what I want to do. I want to be an author/director and I’m writing my second book now and I want to make a movie of it, and I hope I get to do this for the rest of my life. I had the greatest time over the last two years.

CS: As you’re writing the novel is it hard not to think of actors while writing them? How do you separate those two things?
It’s hard to describe but I’ll just say that when you’re writing a novel, the world of the novel is so completely in of itself, actors don’t enter into the picture, you’re just creating a world, and then, just like “Perks,” once I have a screenplay, then I’ll know who I need to go out to.

CS: But you’re still thinking of doing it as two separate things, writing the novel first and then once promotion is done, writing a screenplay?
Yes. Yeah, that’s kind of how I like to do it because you can’t short change any part of the process. You can’t hurry the book along so the screenplay… I have to do it the way that I do it, and I’m having a great time.

CS: As a director, you got such great performances out of these young actors so do you have people coming to you wanting to direct other things? Is it hard to say no to things when you’re presented with other opportunities to direct?
Thank you, that’s a very nice compliment, but it started. People are very excited about these performances and as I’ve said, I just love actors, and I love the art form and I’d love to help them be their best. It’s not difficult. If the right thing came along, I would absolutely direct something I did not write because I love the process so much, but we’ll see. I’m taking it day by day.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower opens in select cities on Friday, September 21.