Film

Letting Go, Piece by Piece

Our Full Interview with Stephen Chbosky, Writer/Director of The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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This week, Elinor Jones wrote about The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the new adaptation of Stephen Chbosky's beloved young adult book—and a film adapted and directed by Chbosky himself. Did we mention that Elinor is a The Perks of Being a Wallflower SUPERFAN? Here's her full, giddy interview with Chbosky.

MERCURY: So, have you been getting a pretty positive response to the movie?

STEPHEN CHBOSKY: Yeah. It's been overwhelming, actually.

I really liked it.

Thank you.

And I'm the kind of person you don't want to sit next to during a movie based on a book, because I just complain and make notes of what's different. But this captured the book so perfectly!

It was tough to do, but I'm glad you felt that way.

Did I read that the book was never optioned? Like it was always going to be your thing to do?

Always, always gonna be my thing. I wrote the screenplay 100 percent on spec, because I knew that if it got into the development machine, I couldn't take notes on the story. I had to take the time and make it right for myself. And I thought the fans would love that too.

But even though you still had it in your control, was there a fear when you were doing it? Like, what if this doesn't turn out right?

There was a period, from time to time—but I just felt such a sense of purpose with this movie, and with this story. A lot of times, even in the tough moments, [I was] just willing myself that this cannot fail. And whenever we needed a break, we got one, and whenever we needed an extra day, we got it, and it seemed like somebody was looking out for this movie.

Did you start by putting the whole book into a screenplay, and crossing lines out? Or did you envision everything going a little bit differently as a movie?

That is a great question. Nobody has ever preempted me that way before. That's great. I knew because there were various drafts where I put in everything. And the reason I did that was because I wanted to make my peace with letting go of different parts of the book for the movie. And what I found was when I took a few months away, and I read the draft, stuff like the grandfather, and his family in Ohio, and certain subplots with his friend Michael—all those elements just didn't hold my interest in movie form, even though I love them in book form. And so yeah, that's how I did it. It was just letting go, piece by piece, of moments. The last one I let go of which was the most difficult—and I actually shot it, and [actress] Nina Dobrev did a great job—the stuff with Charlie's sister. It was tough to let go of.

The stuff with her pregnancy?

Yeah. Because what I found was even though the sequence itself is lovely, and she did a great job, I found that once I put it in, then we get to the part in the cafeteria with Patrick and Brad, and the part with Patrick and Charlie, there was an emotional fatigue that happened. There wasn't enough room. And I'm talking for me, let alone an audience member. It was just too much. I thought it would be a proud DVD extra. I called Nina and told her what a great job she did, and she completely understood.

In terms of details that were cut out, I noticed they ended up being mostly family aspects, so the film focuses more on the friends.

I found writing that the further away we got from his friendships and his experiences in school, the less it held my interest. And at the same time, it's funny that you say that, because I'm older now. I was younger when I wrote the book. And in a sense, family is even more important to me now than it was then, and I found that, with [actors] Kate [Walsh] and Dylan [McDermott], who know me as well, they gave it so much humanity, which is a gesture that just hits you in the forehead, and I felt that the parents being respected was important to me.

Did you know...well, no, you wouldn't know. I'm going to tell you what I did. I bought the book several weeks ago, and it was the book version that had the movie poster on the cover. And for some reason, when I started reading the book, and I hadn't yet seen the trailer for the movie, I decided that Ezra Miller was Charlie, based on how they were standing, and Logan Lerman was Patrick. And it messed me up so much when I watched the trailer and then the movie. Because the whole time I was reading it, I saw the opposite characters.

You mean because [Miller] is standing somewhat off to the side?

Yes! And the way that Logan Lerman is standing—he looks kind of confident. He almost has a smirk. Which I think now is he's smiling because he's happy. But for whatever reason, that's how I'd perceived they were going to be.

That's so funny. There was actually some discussion about that. Like, are people going to think this guy is the wallflower? And I guess, in some cases, they did.

Were those actors you cast your first choices for those roles? Is that how you imagined them looking when you wrote the book?

You know, I didn't imagine them looking any particular way when writing the book. It's funny that you ask it that way, you have a really interesting point of view.

I'm new at these, by the way. This is only the second time I've ever interviewed anybody.

Oh really? Then maybe that's why! You feel very left of center, which is exciting for me. [BRIEF INTERRUPTION BY ELINOR GIGGLING WEIRDLY.]

Here's the thing—I deliberately don't describe anyone physically [in the book] because I wanted people to bring their own faces and physical characteristics to make them feel more connected. And in making the movie, I knew obviously I couldn't do that. When I was writing the screenplay, I didn't think about any of the actors. I didn't think about Emma, Logan, Ezra, anybody, I just wrote it. And when it was done, I was looking for—not something physical, but more an emotion from all the kids.

With Emma, when I met her in New York, I hadn't pictured Sam with long hair or short hair. It didn't matter to me what she looked like. It was the quality of being kind, being vulnerable, and at the same time being strong, and feeling alive. And that's what I got from meeting her. And how desperately she wanted to do something different and break out of the shell that she was in.

And Logan, it wasn't so much physical. When I met Logan, he's such a confident person in real life, I was gonna audition him for Patrick. I said, hey, I want you to read for Patrick. He said, "No, I wanna play Charlie." And then we auditioned two people, he was the second, and after him there were no more auditions because there was no more need. Within five seconds, I said, "This is my kid." And his interpretation of the character only grew with time.

Ezra I knew from City Island. He was very young in that movie. But I saw that movie with my wife and I turned to her and said, "That kid could be Patrick." I thought, oh, he's too young, it wouldn't work. And then Lianne Halfon, one of my producers, came up to me and said, "I think we found Patrick." And I said "Who?" And she said "Ezra Miller." And I go, "Oh, that City Island kid." And we did a callback over Skype, and after that callback I knew.

So no, it was never physical, but Logan has this incredible ability to blend what is awkward, what is true, what is confident, what is funny, what is bad—all at the same time. And Ezra Miller is like a force of nature. And anybody who sees that performance knows that they're seeing something truly special.

One thing I noticed as the movie started, Ezra Miller playing Patrick was more "out there." I guess "flamboyant" is a word people could say, even though it doesn't seem like that captures it. And at first I was like, "Sigh, this is not right." But then as it went on, it was so right. Because he's still very, very kind, and I thought he had a lot of depth, and he delivers Patrick.

He did. I wanted to create a character on the page, and then Ezra played it beautifully on the screen. But he's not a typical gay character. He's a self-assured, confident, amazing, brilliant smartass who would be anyone's idyllic older brother. The fact that he's gay is kind of beside the point.

Totally. One other thing that was different—sorry, I'm backtracking now—was the addition of the subplot of Charlie helping Sam with the SATs. Where'd that come from? That wasn't in the book. Or if it was, I guess I missed it.

No, it wasn't. I mean, she went to Penn State for sure. You know what it was—here's what's tricky about a first-person narrative versus a movie. In a first-person narrative, you can write Charlie saying something like, "Sam is so nice and so friendly." And because Charlie is a reliable narrator, we go along with it. And we love Sam because Charlie loves Sam. In a movie, you have to earn it. You have to make every person in the audience feel the way that Charlie feels. If you don't earn it, then it's not gonna work. So the Penn State subplot became a way of tying her together—her difficult past with trying to redeem what she went through, and trying to redeem her, some of the things that she did. And having this vulnerability that I could only describe through Charlie's words in the book. So if I'd had the first-person narrative, I probably wouldn't have needed it and I wouldn't have done it. So that is why it's there. So that she's far more relatable to people. I'll also say that for me, as an older person writing it, I was trying to find ways to remember being a kid. And really respect and celebrate what that means at eye level. I'm not looking back, I want to experience it the way kids experience it. One thing I always remember is how nervous I was about my future all the time. And the anxiety about where was I going to go to school, what was I gonna do, and I wanted to give that to someone and it really fit well with Sam.

But in a way, you did have a first-person narrative because you still did use Charlie talking and reading his letters.

No, I did, it's true, it did have that element. But we're observing Charlie while he does it. He's not an omniscient point of view where we never see him and we're looking at everything that he's looking at.

Could you sense that when you were starting to put together the screenplay? Like, we need more Sam and Charlie time?

I sensed it instantly, absolutely. Whenever it was the three of them together, it was magic on the page. Always. And the same was true on set. When it was the five friends, it was magic. And whenever it was outside of it, it was very difficult to pull off, because if it's just a shy boy in his bedroom, you'd have to throw a lot of writing at something like that to make it work. Whereas if it's the chemistry between Ezra, Emma, and Logan, it just took care of itself.

In the book, Charlie's obsessed with the song "Asleep," by the Smiths. And as I was reading the book I was laughing, thinking "What if he doesn't get the rights to that for the movie? What would happen then?"

[Laughing] I was very worried about that.

Well, I'm glad you got it. I guess you would have had to sub in another song that he was obsessed with?

Yeah, I guess I would have had to figure something else out. But what I thought what was always so beautiful about this experience were people like the Smiths and Morrissey and Johnny Marr—they gave us permission, and it meant so much to me. Same with Rocky Horror. [If we couldn't have used that], that would have been really difficult. I don't know what I would have done.

They had to give you permission too? I guess that didn't even occur to me.

Oh yeah, all the actors, and the studio, the songwriters—all of it. It was quite a task to pull off, but my producers did a great job.

Cool. I think we're kind of running out of time, but I have to ask: What is your favorite thing that you got into the movie? Or your favorite moment from the movie?

There are two. And I love them for different reasons. My favorite scene is the first kiss scene. I'm very proud of the writing of that scene and I think that Logan and Emma played it beautifully. And really all of the elements came together and it felt so real to me.

In terms of my favorite moments, the tunnel moments. I don't think of them as scenes so much as moments. There is one moment where on the end of the first night—we shot them over two different nights—at the end of the first night, as dawn was coming up, and I'll never forget it as long as I live. Emma wanted to do the stunt in the back of the truck. So we got her in the safety cables and on the third take, and we went, and I'm in the picture car next to her, filming it. We designed the shot as we went. Something happened on that take, and you'd have to ask her what it was about that take, she got out of the cab, and she stood up in the truck, and it was like she entered the tunnel as Emma Watson and she left the tunnel as Sam. Never looked back. There was something about that experience. Because you have to understand, this young woman has lived in the eye of a hurricane for well over a decade. Half of her life. And although she'd had so many great experiences being in the eye of that hurricane, it's also an extreme way to live. And she was always on set. She never got to be a kid kid. And what I saw on her face in that moment was someone who was absolutely free. Who got to be a kid. And I was there filming it. My jaw hit the floor. I couldn't believe it. I was capturing this moment within the movie. And you saw it.

That's the take you used?

It's beautiful. I will remember that as long as I live. As long as I have memory I will have that memory. She's a great, great kid and I'm very honored to call her my friend.

You know one other thing I really liked? When I was in high school, I grew up in a small town near Portland, and we spent so much time driving around in cars listening to music just because we didn't have anything to do besides that. And then you see it in the movie, you're like, "Oh man, that's so cool!" And it was a really special time.

Yeah, and that's how you feel afterward. But we all remember that drive and that friend and that song. It's an iconic universal experience of being young. It's something that city kids, like in New York City, they don't have licenses, and I always think, aw, you didn't have that. But you had Broadway, so boo hoo. [Laughs.]

All right. Is there anything that you've wanted to say about your movie, or you want to put out there, that hasn't come up in these interviews or that I haven't asked?

Nothing that I can think of off the top of my head. You actually asked one of, hands-down, best interview questions about the writing process, but you did it in such a different way.

Wow, that is such a huge compliment! [BLUSHES!] Thank you very much.

No it is, because it's funny, usually people are like, "So what was challenging about it?" and you didn't ask that. You went the other way. And the fact that you're like the person with the ledger going, "Oh, he left that out. I wonder why he left that out." I remember when I saw To Kill A Mockingbird, which is obviously a book referenced in my book and movie, and I loved that book. I loved it. And I saw it in my head in this perfect way. And then I saw the movie, written by Horton Foote, and it's a great movie. An undeniably great movie. And the whole time I'm thinking, "It's wrong!" Now I look back on it and I think it's just a great movie, but at the time, I was 15, and I remember feeling just that it's not how it was in my head. So when I was making Perks, I kept that in mind. I could not let down the fans with this. It was too important to too many people to do it any other way. I was never gonna sell it without doing it, I was never gonna throw it into the Hollywood machine and hope and pray. I was gonna do it right. And listen, I think there are certain people who loved the book who will see the movie who really will wish I'd put in this scene or that scene, but I can assure anybody who loved the book that if anything's left out, it's left out for a reason, and it was my doing. All I wanted was for people at the end of the movie to feel that sense of catharsis the way they did in the book. That was the bottom line. That we'd see Charlie all the way through the difficult things that he has to go through, all the way to his ultimate retribution, and I just hope they love it. And so far, knock wood, they have.

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