An exclusive interview with Perks author/director Stephen Chbosky
by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
Published in 1999, Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower was an instant sensation, becoming a New York Times bestseller, with almost a million copies sold in the United States in the 13 years since its release. But when it came time to transform the book into a motion picture, the author wasn't going to be rushed. He also knew that in the end he would be the one calling the shots - the story was too close to his heart to allow others to adapt the screenplay or direct the film itself.
'No, no one else was going to direct this film,' Chbosky laughs. 'I was either going to make this film or it wasn't going to exist. No one else was going to do it.'
'Listen, I think others could have made very beautiful versions of Perks, and there is an alternate universe I almost wish existed where a German film company wanted to make a German version of the novel, and I'd kill to see that movie, but in the end I just don't think it would have been right for someone else to have made this movie. It wouldn't have been right or authentic. You can't outsource the adoption of your baby and expect it to have the same sense of history as if you raised it yourself. It's just the way it is.'
NOSTALGIA AND HOPE
Perks follows a young Pittsburgh high school freshman named Charlie (Logan Lerman) who is dealing with all sorts of personal trauma and isn't sure he's going to be able to function during this new stage of his adolescent education. Two seniors, Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), take him under their wing, opening his eyes to the world at large and introducing him to experiences that help redefine his ideas of what high school can be and put him on the path toward healing his long-festering psychological scars.
In past interviews, Chbosky had mentioned numerous times how the general path his novel and film take is personal but not necessarily autobiographical. This was a point I was eager to have him elaborate on, but like most authors it was also one he just as fervently didn't want to over-explain.
'How do I put this?' he asks gingerly. 'Some of the stuff that happens to Charlie happened to me. Some of the stuff happened to other people. Like all stories, it's a mixture, and I'm not sure that trying to elaborate on the final mixture of what's personal to me, and what happened to others, and what I just made up, is a good thing.'
'I can say this, because I want to give you a real answer - some of it did happen to me and some of it didn't, and I do need to keep off of the table what is what. The important thing is that Charlie's worldview is mine. Charlie's genuine desire for people to be happy is mine as well.
'I have at times put people before me and thought that counted as love. 'We accept the love we think we deserve' is a line I wrote because it was my own response to why I let people treat me badly and why the people I loved, who deserved so much more, let themselves be treated so badly. I wanted to create a line we could all have. But Perks, to me, is a combination of my nostalgia of being young but also my hope for every young person.'
One of the more remarkable trademarks of both the film and the book are how profound they are in regard to the high school experience. Even though the story is set during the early 1990s, there is a universality to Charlie's story that's immediately relatable to viewers and readers of virtually every age and demographic, speaking to the core of the individual teenage experience that's borderline stunning.
'This story, it could be set anywhere,' says Chbosky with a smile. 'But that was the point. There's this thing in Ken Burns' Jazz - I love that series. Remember those shots of all the young girls screaming their heads off about Artie Shaw? Artie Shaw, Justin Bieber, there is no difference. The thing that is eternal is not the performer - it is the shouting teenage girls.
'There are certain things that will always be in adolescence, that sense of longing, feeling alone, feeling nobody else gets this. Yet everyone gets it, and even if you know that everyone gets it you still think you're the only one that gets it. I make a joke sometimes that whenever someone stops you and says they had the weirdest dream last night, it's always boring - I don't care what it is. But the flipside to everyone's dreams being boring is that whenever anyone tells you about their first kiss it is always interesting. Always. Whenever they tell you about the first crush they had, whether it was a boy or girl, it's always a great story.
'Just like a good superhero movie, it's the origin story. Origin stories are always great, and that's what Perks is, so I'm not surprised so many have related to it like they have - although I am grateful that they have. After all, I was just telling them my personal origin story.'
SURPRISED AT REACTION
With that being the case, it's impossible not to wonder how the almost instantaneous acclaim for the book when it was published affected the author. The same goes for the heated criticism. Certain school districts around the country banned Perks from their shelves, while in both 2006 and 2008 the American Library Association named it as one of the top 10 most frequently challenged books.
'I was very surprised,' he admits candidly. 'The very happy accident in all of this was that I wrote for personal reasons but you publish [the book] in hopes people who read it will not feel alone. Every time I get a letter, every time I meets somebody and they tell me this was their own high school experience, the person who doesn't feel alone is me, over and over and over again. It's the best feeling in the world and is the greatest joy. This is the best thing I've ever done, book and movie, and I couldn't be happier about that.
'In terms of the vitriol, of the people who object to it, it's strange because they object to it, and this happens quite often, for completely the wrong reasons. They describe the date rape that happens in the book, but not the movie. I didn't think it was necessary, as something it is not. It's a rape. It's traumatic. It's horrible. It goes to show [how] scarring witnessing that sort of moment can be for Charlie and it's completely in line with all the other stuff that happens. It's all there for a reason, yet some people think I'm trying to be sexy for some reason. There are moments when you want to say to someone, please God, look in the mirror, because this is not sexy. This is not titillating. If it is to you, then I suggest you stop blaming me for that and go look in that mirror.'
Chbosky's answer is illuminating, but it also goes to the sort of nuts-and-bolts aspect of filmmaking and of adapting popular books for the screen that most authors avoid by allowing others to compose the screenplays for their works. Deciding which elements to change, which elements to keep, and which ones to excise is often too difficult and painful for an author.
'It was very difficult,' he states matter-of-factly. 'It was about a decade between book and screenplay, and I needed that time to make the tough decisions. In the same breath, I also missed a step. When you write a book like this and you're 26, you're still close to your own high school experiences. When you're in your late 30s, I ended up having to do a lot of work emotionally to put myself back in the mindset, to respect what it was that kids go through on an eye-to-eye level.'
'Additionally, I had to find a way to turn a very subjective [narrative] - the letter form of the novel - towards movie language, to the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words. I had to find a picture, because it was the only way that I was going to get the density and the catharsis I wanted from the book to be put up on the screen. I wouldn't have wanted it any other way. I want people to cheer. I wouldn't have been satisfied any other way. It may be selfish to say this, but I want people to love it [the movie] just as I do the story itself, and I wasn't going to rest until I came up with a script I felt accomplished that.'
The story itself obviously lends itself to both cliché and to melodrama, two facets Chbosky knew he had to find a way to avoid - if not completely, then just enough so that the audience never realizes their emotions are being fiddled with. But how to calibrate that? How to trigger the emotional responses required for Charlie's story to resonate without the movie descending into Nicholas Sparks-level platitudes?
'That was the trick, right?' he asks honestly. 'I didn't want to make a sentimental movie - I wanted to make an honest movie. I remember John Malkovich, he came on to produce the film, on set during those first couple of weeks and during dinner he said, 'I love your script because it has heart. Because it has real heart you don't need sentiment. Direct this movie like a guy from Pittsburgh and always get the tough take.' That became a bit of a mantra for me - always get the tough take.'
'Sometimes when you have a really emotional actor, a method actor, that person more than anyone needs a very strong director because they're not self-editing. They're just going to go there, and they need someone to tell them to pull back a little, to bring it down. In post, that was [producers Russell Smith and Lianne Halfon's] job with me. Other people as well. I told people over and over again that I had the book, I didn't need the book again, that I needed the movie and if I went off the rails I needed them to tell me. Luckily, between their feedback and my 'this has to be great' desires, we managed to get it done.'
CASTING WAS KEY
Running out of time and with the publicist breathing down my neck to wrap it up, I decide I can't leave the room without asking about the three young actors - Lerman, Miller, and Watson - who make up the central triumvirate of the tale. 'They're extraordinary, aren't they?' responds Chbosky with a gigantic grin. 'The whole cast is great, but those three, especially Logan Lerman as Charlie, are just wonderful.'
'You know, there is a little bit of fate that goes into it, casting, and there were times over the years when I was doing rewrites on the script and I would stop and think to myself, what was I waiting for, why wasn't I making this movie? Now, that the movie is over, I know what it was I waiting for - I was waiting for those three kids. If I make it three years ago they're too young. If I make it three years from now they're too old. But those three were the key.'
'Not only those three, but those three at this particular stage of their lives and this stage of their careers. Emma had so much to prove to herself, that she could play an American and a teenager, someone right around her own age and in a real-world setting. I've never seen anyone who needed such permission to just be free and that's all she wanted to be, and it was an honor to help her do it.'
'Logan, he brought in the performance that you saw. We auditioned two people and he was number two - there were no other auditions. He was fantastic, and he only got deeper, only got better, as we spent time on the production and he read the book and the script and dug deeper and deeper into it. He was determined. This really cool thing happened. There was this screening at Donna Karan's house and afterwards Paul McCartney came up to Logan and said, 'You're brilliant, man.' How amazing is that?'
And Ezra? Playing the sexually liberated Patrick, his performance was the one I personally found the most emotionally effecting in the entire film. What did Chbosky have to say about him?
'He's awesome,' he proclaims proudly. 'I knew him from City Island, and while he was a little younger I knew that with Logan and Emma basically being raised on film sets that I needed a bit of a wildcard to let them know it was OK to be kids, that this was important. Ezra, my goodness, I hit the jackpot with this guy. He's amazing, isn't he? Without him, I just don't think this particular trio of actors would have been as stunning as they ultimately were.'
'WE ALL GET THIS THING'
At the end of the day, the movie is the movie and the book is the book, and while Chbosky is proud of both, now that the former is going into general release while the latter is finding a newfound surge in popularity, one wonders what his thoughts are on the journey as a whole. 'I had this moment,' he explains, 'and I don't know how many directors have felt this way as this is only my second movie, I had finished the final mix and I was a lunatic when I was done. So tired. So emotionally drained. I came back to it after a few months away and I was like, my God, I made that movie? It was as pure a moment as you could get.
'I know I'll sit in the theater and I'll look around and when people laugh or cry or whatever, I'll think to myself that we all just get this thing, this emotional thing, and while I made the movie and while you watched the movie when it's all finished, it is the thing that is the thing, it doesn't get simpler than that. Our parts in it, the making if it, that's kind of irrelevant, and I just love that sense of community, that sense of experience we can have collectively. Adolescence, first kisses, how we meet the love of our lives, it's always interesting. Remember that.'
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