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While Boadway shows like Mean Girls and Spider-Man began as Hollywood movie franchises that jumped to the stage after strong multiplex runs, Stephen Chbosky, who wrote the screenplay for Disney’s live action Beauty and the Beast and the film adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s Wonder, has turned a hit Broadway musical into an awards season hopeful set to open the Toronto Film Festival.
Chbosky, best known for adapting his 1999 novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, says he’s happy that his new movie, with its powerful message to young audiences about the perils of social media and isolating themselves, is getting an exclusive theatrical release by Universal on Sept. 24, before heading to the digital world.
“The movie in part is about how screens have changed the teenage and adolescent experience, in many ways for the worse,” he tells THR.
Chbosky’s adaptation of the Broadway phenomenon — starring Ben Platt, Amy Adams, Julianne Moore, Kaitlyn Dever, Amandla Stenberg and Nik Dodani — is based a script by Steven Levenson, who wrote the book for the original stage play. And Platt, who originated the role and won a Tony for it, is reprising the character of Evan Hansen, a painfully awkward teen who gets caught up in a lie when he claims he was best friends with a schoolmate who commits suicide.
Chbosky sat down with THR ahead of Evan Hansen’s premiere to talk about how he created a Broadway musical suited to the big screen, the responsibility he felt toward the plays rabid fan base and why he’s thrilled to be opening TIFF.
Did you feel a responsibility to get the movie version of Dear Evan Hansen just right, given the successful original Broadway stage play has such a huge fan base?
I did feel a responsibility, but I didn’t feel a lot of pressure. I loved the show. I made the movie as a fan of the show. I always felt that in doing my job, I was always looking out for the fans.
What parts of the stage play did you keep intact, and what parts did you change for the movie adaptation?
There were a few different changes. One, very naturally, when you’re looking at a Broadway production, the stage takes on more of a metaphoric and abstract spatial relationship, where a bed represents an entire bedroom or a couch an entire living. So we always knew (with the movie) that what was an abstraction becomes quite real. We have to find that house, we have to find that school, we have to find what Evan’s bedroom and Evan’s house really looks like. And we knew the minute you brought it into the real world, we would bring it into close up and change the emotional intensity of the piece. So that was step one.
And some songs in the stage play didn’t make it to the movie, and some songs were written for the movie itself?
The minute you take a song and move it from a stage to an actual dining room, the minute you change a scene from a stage to an actual school, it feels different. And so, as a result, to make the audience understand Evan’s point-of-view even further than they do on a stage, we took out a couple songs and we added a couple songs that spoke to those larger themes.
In the Broadway play, the audience doesn’t actually see the scene with Evan in the orchard, only what he recounts. The movie, on the other hand, portrays Evan in the orchard from three perspectives and at three different times. Tell us why three versions of the orchard scenes were used to reveal the fantasy and reality of Evan and Connor’s relationship.
Right away, we felt with the screenwriter Steven Levenson that to have different points of view of what happened that day and how he broke his arm was a powerful tool you could only do in a movie. That’s hard to do on the stage, to lean into this idea of the Rashomon of what happened in the woods, how did he break his arm. We thought we had a very powerful opportunity to talk about how memories vary and it’s something I explored in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and it was satisfying to explore that further.
The Broadway play had actors having to project to 1000 people in a theater. In the movie, you brought the camera to the actors. What was it like to create a more intimate Dear Evan Hansen, albeit with far more real space in which to do so?
Let’s start with Ben Platt. I’d never seen Ben perform the show on Broadway. I’d seen a clip of the Tony Awards. That’s it. I didn’t have a pre-conceived notion of what the performance should be. I knew he (Ben) would bring the lightening. It was my job to bring the bottle. I wanted to do extended takes. I wanted to have live singing. I wanted to use every took at my disposal to allow the audience to basically be ten feet from him, as I was, and witness this remarkable performance. And that aesthetic, the extended takes, the live singing, or just the naturalistic feeling of the performance that Ben brought was something I wanted to extend to all the cast.
On Broadway, Connor, played as a threatening loner by Colton Ryan, comes back essentially as a voice in Evan’s head. In the movie, you got to expand on the character, giving Connor more dimension and humanity. Tell us about that.
A lot of that is a credit to Colton’s performance and how he approached it. But the biggest change is the stage show had these lovely moments where Evan is talking to Connor, but the you reveal it was like talking to himself, basically. We knew that in a real bedroom and a real world, that wouldn’t work on the screen. So we had to make up for that, and not have Connor as a thin character. He’s too important. So that’s when the quest for Connor came, of Evan doing a search and looking for proof of who he really was.
For the song Words Fail, where Evan tells a devastated Murphy family his relationship with Connor had been invented, during the stage play came towards the end of the nearly three hour-long performance where Ben Platt could easily launch into his confession. In the movie, he has to show up on set and summon the emotion to look into a camera and confess his heart-wrenching lie. How did you shoot that scene to recapture the emotional intensity?
Knowing how important that scene was, we took our time. We shot that over a couple days. I made a point to talk to the actors and ask do we go scene first and then song? We decided to shoot the song first because I didn’t want (Ben) to wait around for it. I was afraid that it might emotionally burn him and the others out. By doing the song first, we understood what the emotional high of the scene was. And because of that, I was able to figure with the performer and the creative team, okay, if this is as intense as the movie is going to get, how do we get there so as to save that special moment. Because a movie can’t be all tears and emotion. You have to build the thing and give the audience room to discover it on their own.
Dear Evan Hansen the movie will open the Toronto Film Festival with a gala screening at Roy Thomson Hall. How excited are you?
It’s a dream come true. And it’s an honor. Nine years ago, I brought The Perks of Being a Wallflower, my first studio feature, to Toronto. It was a magical premiere. I remember walking past the fans. The idea that not only do we get to go back, the idea that they wanted to invite the movie to be the opening night movie, it’s a dream come true. I love Toronto. I love Canada. I’ve spent a lot of time there. It’s a home away from home. In a lot of ways, bringing Dear Evan Hansen to Toronto is like coming home.
Universal will give Dear Evan Hansen the movie a theatrical release. How important is it for you that the movie, like the stage play, plays before a live audience, as opposed to young people seeing it at home, on their own?
I’m so happy that we’re having a theatrical release. We worked so hard so that, if you went to the theater, you would experience in a truly immersive way. To me, to see it in the theater is to see it as it should be seen. I really hope, with everything going on, people can go and go safely. It feels like in Hollywood more and more movies are going straight to streaming. I think that’s a shame when the theatrical experience isn’t given more time and attention. We all understand why it’s happening. But I’m very moved that we’re going to theaters.
Not going straight to streaming feels right too, perhaps, for a movie about young people too often feeling isolated and anxious and too focused on screens in front of them, and viewing the movie online without the opportunity of a cinema experience does undercut that message?
I agree. That’s why I was very happy when they decided to go to theaters, and exclusively. The movie in part is about how screens have changed the teenage and adolescent experience, in many ways for the worse. It’s nice to know people can watch the movie together.
This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter’s Sept. 10 daily issue at the Toronto International Film Festival.
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