Author Stephen Chbosky made an ambitious choice as his first feature film: his own acclaimed novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. From the pressure of living up to the reputation of your previous work to appeasing fans, that’s a daunting task. Considering the film’s critical acclaim and the successful opening, that publicity challenge Chbosky faced has been conquered.
As for the actual “making-of” challenges, the book presents many narrative difficulties: the book’s told in an episodic structure; stuffed full of flashbacks and subplots; and the book has a twist which we don’t see too often in High School dramedies. Speaking with Chbosky, those are factors he was well-aware of, all of which he approached with delicacy. That delicacy has made for, as he told us after our interview, a film “he wouldn’t change a frame of.”
Here’s what Chbosky had to say about adapting his own work, setting his actors free, and the power of David Bowie’s music:
Did you know from the beginning you wanted to direct an adaptation?
Yeah, I knew from the beginning. It was a lifelong dream. When I thought of the title 21 years ago this November, I always envisioned this moment of the book and the movie.
When you wrote the book, did you write it with a cinematic sensibility or did you just approach it strictly as a novel?
I was just focusing on the novel, but there were a couple of moments I added into the book because I thought they’d be a great deal of fun to film one day, and that came out of my training as a screenwriter. In particular, their last day of school when they all run up towards the sunset. In the book, that scene was a hill, but then I saw the bleachers. I saw the sunset from the bleachers, and I thought it was a beautiful image, so we switched it to there.
Structurally, the book doesn’t fit a standard film narrative. Did you see that as a challenge or did you see the core story right away?
I felt a very strong central narrative. My job in adapting was trying to find the core central story. In the book, you can have tangents and subplots. In a movie, you have to find the focus and the center. I knew there was so much in the book that the fans would love to see. My problem wasn’t finding a story, but finding which stories to eliminate.
Can that ever be painful, cutting those subplots?
Yeah, that happens. This was a real process of letting go. The book is so personal to me, but it’s an adaptation. In the first draft, I had the distant relatives and all those scenes. When I read that draft, I realized it really is about this kid and his friendships which help him deal with his past. Once I understand that was the central story it was much easier to let go.
One moment we don’t see in the film is Charlie and his dad’s connection over MASH. Was that ever in an earlier draft?
You know, I did write some of the Ohio family moments, but I never wrote MASH into the screenplay. I always knew there’d never be time. I love that scene. I know this is with Dylan [McDermott] as well, but I tried to keep the spirit of that scene alive in the present tense of the movie’s story. The moment you see the father get emotional…I mean, that’s a spoiler, but the arc of the father takes place in the hospital. I didn’t forget the nature of that relationship or the moments he has with his father. I just put it into context of the central story.
Did you approach it the same way with Bill, getting the spirit of that relationship in his small moments with Charlie?
I had Charlie at his house and all that stuff in the earlier drafts. What I realized is, the center of that relationship should be in that classroom. Once I made it cinematic with [DP] Andrew Dunn — who did Precious, Crazy, Stupid, Love. — I realized he could bring the beauty of it into the room. He can make that room feel comfortable. I just thought the way Logan and Paul related to each other…I knew Logan was a huge fan of Paul’s, so it was a real inspiration for him to do scenes with Paul. That was a magical two days when we filmed those scenes.
I remember talking to Paul early on about this part. I said to him a kid couldn’t wish for a better teacher than you. Everyone loves Paul Rudd. 4 year olds and 80 year olds love Paul Rudd. He was so busy with the new Judd Apatow movie and Our Idiot Brother, but he said he wanted to do it. He gave us a few days for fittings and a couple days of shooting. It was early on in the schedule, so it was a great way to kick off the movie.
A lot of filmmakers always say how hard it is to remain objective over a two year or so process. For you, it’s been much longer than that. When you are so close to a story for that long, is it hard maintaining a certain level of objectivity?
It is. That’s why I was fortunate in having these producers, editors, and the director of photography that I had. From very early on, I made a decision the book was the book. I expressed the story exactly how I wanted to in book form. In the movie, it would be a collaboration. In the moments when it was emotionally difficult for me to let go, I would rely on my team, to tell me what they think. It was helpful because it wasn’t personal to them. They can easily say if a scene is good or if it runs too long. Their feedback — Russell Smith, John Malkovich, and my editors — was invaluable, and it led to a better movie.
This was a labor of love for everyone. This wasn’t the money gig at all. I think every actor made scale. We all wanted to tell this story together. When I wrote the script, when Emma came onboard, when Logan auditioned, and when I talked to Ezra Miller over Skype, piece by piece the family grew. Each step of the way there were challenges, but there was so much enthusiasm to tell this story, and I think it translates.
How was it going from having full control of a character to getting more spontaneity with those actors?
The spontaneity is the best part. Like I said, I didn’t want to replicate the book. I wrote a screenplay that celebrated the book, but I let there be room on set. Ezra Miller and Mae Whitman are two of the best improvisors you’ll ever meet. Some of the best and most energetic moments came from their improvisation. I didn’t make the film to control anyone, but to set everyone free, artistically.
You referenced Harold and Maude and The Graduate as two of your favorite movies in a previous interview. Like Bill gave books about wallflowers to Charlie, did you ever tell Logan to watch those films and study those performances?
You know, I didn’t do that so much, although they knew my influences. I think they did that on their own. If they needed it, they’d go to it. The actors just kept reading the book and the script. At the hotel we turned it into a real dorm room, where all the actors stayed up all night and became real friends. That’s where it happened. The tone didn’t come out of anyone trying to mimic The Graduate, but getting the right people together and letting them be free. I’m really proud of that. I love actors, but I haven’t worked with them a lot. It just clicked with this group. I hope you think so [Laughs].
[Laughs] You can definitely see that in one of the film’s big moments: having “Heroes” blast over the tunnel scene.
Oh, good, I’m glad. I love that song. You know, I came to that song later in my life. The producers and I had a debate over that. They said, “There’s no way those kids don’t know that song!”
[Laughs] I actually thought that as well.
Yeah, it’s fine. I said to them, “Sure, that’s fine.” I told them, here’s the thing: this is a semi-autobiographical book and a movie, so I lived this. In 1991 or 1992, I did not know this song. It may not be realistic, but it’s true. I standby that unabashedly. I don’t know what to say other than that’s actually what happened.
You could also pass it off as a character detail: they don’t know who David Bowie is, so they’re clearly not as cool as they think they are.
I hear ya. I love that moment, because, obviously, you love the song “Heroes.” There’s a moment you heard it for the first time and thought, “Oh, what is this? I love this song.” I love that this movie took place before Shazam, the Internet, and cell phones, when you’d have to search for a song for months [Laughs]. You heard it once in a great mood, but then ya think, “What is it, again?”
[Laughs] I believe I heard it for the first time in The Replacements, starring Keanu Reeves.
Well, there ya go! I never saw that film. Is it good?
[Laughs] It’s one of those movies I question why I like it so much.
That’s great, man. A real good buddy of mine, Dave Wilcox, is an actor and he loves that movie. I’ll check it out, though.
It’s on cable all the time, so that shouldn’t be difficult. Obviously when you’re writing a book you can have plenty of time to crack a scene if you don’t feel it’s working. How was it being on set where you don’t have all the time in the world to make a scene work?
You know, it was difficult at first. By the end of the shoot, I loved it. It forced me to make decisions, to always look for the essence of the scene, and that was the fun of it. For 37 days, which was how long our shoot was, we all got a little closer, the work got a little better, and the momentum just kept building. I’ll never forget, on the Saturday before the kids’ last day of shooting, we all got together in this restaurant and Nicholas Braun, who plays Candace’s boyfriend in the movie, gave us this wonderful concert for 20 or 25 people. He sang this sad, but beautiful song called, “Something Brief.” I’ll never forget looking around seeing tears in everyone’s eyes, knowing this time is over.
See, the adolescence you and I take for granted is deeply foreign to this group. I can point to a moment where they’re all running to prom, but Ezra Miller, Emma Watson, and Mae Whitman never went to prom. They were on movie sets, so they never walked with a graduating class. This was their High School experience, and I got to capture that. Letting go of that, yeah…I know I’m not answering your question about time, but that’s the time I remember. I don’t remember the 12 hour days we had to cram it all in. I just remember that summer, that group, and the friendships which were made.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is now in limited release and expands this Friday.