Interview: The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Author and Writer-Director Stephen Chbosky

One of the year’s biggest small-cinema surprises is author Stephen Chbosky’s deftly affecting screen adaptation and direction of his own 1999 semi-autobiographical novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

The film, like the novel, chronicles the coming of age of sensitive freshman Charlie (Percy Jackson & the Olympians‘ Logan Lerman) as he navigates the social world of high school and his own emotional issues, helped along the way by his new older friends Sam (Harry Potter‘s Emma Watson) and Patrick (We Need to Talk About Kevin‘s Ezra Miller.)

Chbosky wrote The Perks of Being a Wallflower in his mid-20s in order to excise some of his own emotional issues. Set in the early ’90s in Chbosky’s hometown of Pittsburgh, the resulting work resonated deeply with young adult readers–often banned in schools for its frank approaches to homosexuality and teen suicide, the novel became beloved among Generation Y readers.

Meanwhile, Chbosky went on to write the film adaptation of Rent and co-create the cult TV show Jericho. Unwilling to trust the adaptation of his deeply personal Wallflower to any other film makers, Chbosky has pulled of the rare feat of an author directing the film version of his own novel.

The result is a wonderfully charming and moving film that explores familiar coming-of-age territory with honest, bittersweet passion and stand-out performances from its leads, especially Miller as the extroverted Patrick.

I sat down in Chicago a few weeks ago to talk with Stephen Chbosky about The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I found the author-screenwriter-director to be one of the nicest, most thoughtful and forthcoming film makers I’ve talked to in quite some time–Chbosky was one of those people you wanted to sit and talk to for hours. It’s easy to see the sensitivity and openness that fills both his novel and the film are no literary or cinematic pose; having wrestled with his own demons through his art, Chbosky seems genuinely interested in reaching out to help others.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower opens today in select theaters across the country.

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I was struck at the screening and your Q&A last night by what a large, passionate, and caring fan base the book has among people in their 20s who read it while in high school. They really connect to the book as a big part of their own emotional coming of age. When you meet fans at events like last night, they seem to come up and pour their hearts out to you.

Stephen Chbosky: I wrote the book for really personal reasons. I was going through a tough time, and Charlie was my response to that time. The book was asking why do great people let themselves get treated so badly sometimes, and how can you have purity if you don’t have innocence anymore?

But I love it when people pour their hearts out to me–it’s the best, because if you publish something partly because you don’t want people to feel alone, or make a movie so that kids or even adults don’t feel alone, then every time someone comes up to you, I’m the one who’s not alone. You get what you give. I did not expect for this experience to as rich as it already has been with the novel. I never get tired of talking about it because everyone brings their own thing, and it’s wonderful, it’s as diverse as people are.

The symbolic heart of the novel and the film is “The Moment,” the wonderful, resonate scene with your three protagonists driving through the tunnel, listening to music, as Charlie says he feels, “We are infinite.”

Chbosky: I love the moment. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve driven through the Fort Pitt Tunnel in Pittsburgh, because I’m from there. Driving through that tunnel is where I had all of my dreams, it was almost a rite of passage. I’m really proud to be able to capture at least how I feel going through the tunnel.

And with film that scene’s more visceral than in the book, by the nature of film. The nature of a novel versus a movie, each has their strengths and their weaknesses. One is more intimate, more emotional and private; it’s you alone with your thoughts. The other is more communal, more in your face. You have to respect each for their different powers and weaknesses.

You’ve said you wrote the novel in emotional rush, just pouring it all out. But since then you’ve written for film and television. When it came time to write the Wallflower screenplay, was there a struggle between that internal, emotional novel-writing self, and the screen-writing self that knew the film had to be structured a certain way to appeal to a movie audience?

Chbosky: By the time I began to write the screenplay, I’d done Rent and Jericho and other things that hadn’t been made, and I’d worked on my craft, and I was ready. I had enough emotional distance from the book that I did not feel tethered by the book but inspired by it to do an adaptation. The screenwriter part of me was crafting the film, 100%, but the novelist part of me was still in touch with the original of the story and how personal it was to me. So both sides, the kid and the adult, influenced the screenplay and the final version of the movie.

The only trick was trying to go back to more of that emotional place, the true emotions of being young. It’s difficult when you’re older—you know how things work out, you’ve had relationships, and your first kiss was a long time ago. You have to go back and remember when a kiss made your heart pound, coming out of your chest. Or the first crush or that perfect night or first party. It’s nostalgic for us now in our 40s, but for a young person it’s here and now.

So I had to write it from an emotional point of view that respected that. To remember a time when you’d listen to Morrissey in the song “Asleep” sing, “There is another world / There is a better world / Well, there must be,” and maybe that’s the only person who was saying it to you at the time. You’re forging your identity at that time, and I wanted to respect that true experience.

I designed the movie to celebrate the experiences of teenagers watching it today as much as we celebrate our nostalgia for our own teenage experiences. I know it’s a lofty ideal, it’s just a movie. But it was one of my mantras making the film. When a young person has a crush or is saying goodbye to a friend going off to school, as an adult you want to tell them that time will heal whatever it is that is ailing them. Now that I have an infant daughter, I understand the impulse to say, “This thing you’re so upset about right now doesn’t matter,” because what you’re really trying to say is, “It’s okay, you’re going to be okay.”

But what I’m trying to say in the film is maybe there’s another way of approaching it to validate it and say, “I know it’s really hard, how do you feel about it?” Which is a completely different conversation than, “It’s okay, you can get over it now.” If that book does that at all, that was unintentional because I was just writing a personal thing for me. I made the movie now that I’m older—I’m 42 now, I was 26 then—and now it’s more deliberate, but it’s the same mission.

We have to talk about your terrific cast. Like you, I saw Ezra in City Island a few years ago and just stopped and said, “Wow, this kid really has something.” And then his chilling darkness in We Need to Talk About Kevin just blew me away.

Chbosky: That’s the word, “wow.” I’ve never seen We Need to Talk About Kevin because Ezra specifically asked me, “Don’t ever see that movie.” Because he’s so sweet; if you met him, he’s like this wild man, very free, just this wonderful kid. And Patrick is so close to him that way.

In the novel, Charlie can say Patrick’s hilarious, and it’s his perception of him that you’re reading. And in an objective movie I had to figure out who is this real kid from a third-person point of view, and Patrick just got bigger, especially with Ezra playing him.

Was it hard turning these characters, based on yourself and real people in your life 20 years ago, over to the actors?

Chbosky: It was so liberating, so refreshing to be able to share Charlie with Logan and share Sam with Emma and Patrick with Ezra. Through writing the book and the screenplay, I carried these images of these characters with me for so long, and it was just lovely to just let them go.

And from the other side of it, to different degrees all three lead actors brought this preconceived notion about who they were as actors, especially Emma with Potter, and what was so great was they all got to just shed it. They’re amazing young talents.

Did making the film and letting go of the story and characters allow you to see and learn new things about them?

Chbosky: Yes, I learned on set about the characters because of the actors, and then I learned a great deal about writing from the film editing process, because I learned how literal film truly is, and how there’s not as much room for ghosts and for subplot, and how important paying attention to the central story is. It was very cathartic for me as a writer to see the two mediums play out that way.

But now watching the movie, I love that tunnel every time, I love that first kiss every time. The only thing that I have trouble watching is Charlie’s breakdown–it’s really hard, I can’t do it anymore.

The film is somewhat different tonally in regards to Charlie’s emotional struggles and that breakdown. Those themes run throughout the book, but the film is not a “breakdown” film—it feels much more about life and joy and that tunnel and that kiss.

Chbosky: Kids have things that they struggle with, but if we dwell on that thing in life then that thing will consume us. The movie spends maybe six minutes on that thing, the breakdown, and everything else is the joy of life. And I hope that how I dealt with it in the film is somewhat of a blueprint for kids who might be struggling.

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“While all the other arts were born naked, [film], the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erhard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.”

--Virginia Woolf
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