On Friday, Summit Entertainment will release the highly-anticipated big screen adaptation of Stephen Chbosky‘s 1999 best-selling novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower (trailer). The film chronicles a school-year in the life of Charlie, a troubled and lonely high school freshman who begins to come out of his shell thanks to the friendship and support of two seniors who are also outcasts in their own ways, Patrick, who is gay, and Sam, who has been the victim of abuse.
Chbosky adapted and directed himself, which provides the first post-Harry Potter starring role for Emma Watson as Sam, and which also features standout performances from Logan Lerman as Charlie and We Need to Talk About Kevin‘s Ezra Miller as Patrick. The film had its world premiere last week in Toronto, which is where I caught up separately with Watson (watch video of our interview here) and with Chbosky (watch video of our interview above).
Chbosky, a youthful 42-year-old, is a “proud son of Pittsburgh” who says that his adolescence was “different than Charlie’s on the outside,” since he was a talented athlete, but “inside there was a bit of a thunderstorm.” When he entered his junior year of high school, he recalls, “it all shifted for me,” since that’s when he began to abandon the jocks and mix with the drama kids and performing in musicals like Fiddler on the Roof and Annie. “They were my people,” he says. “I found myself much more natural and relaxed with my theater friends than I was with my athletic friends.”
At the age of 16, Chbosky penned his first screenplay. “It wasn’t terribly good,” he says, “but I finished it, and it gave me confidence that I could do more.” When it came time for him to look at colleges, he visited the USC Film School, and sat in on a lecture given by Stewart Stern, a two-time Oscar nominated and Emmy-winning screenwriter who is best known for penning the script of another film about emotionally-conflicted teenagers, Rebel Without a Cause (1955). He recalls, “I decided then and there, that day, that I was going to go that school. I said, ‘If this man is here, I will go here.'”
Not long after Chbosky arrived for his freshman year, though, Stern suffered a massive heart attack. While he was recovering in the hospital, Chbosky sent him a mixtape and a letter telling him, “I just want you to know that you changed my life” — but signed it with a false name, explaining that he didn’t want Stern to think he had written the letter out of some sort of scheme to advance himself. Stern wrote back to the return address on the envelope, and they began a correspondence. A year and a half after the first letter, after another of Stern’s lectures, Stern walked up to Chbosky and asked, “Was it you?” Chbosky acknolwedged that it was. Ever since, Stern has been his “mentor” and “hero.” (Stern, who is now 90 years old, was the first person who read the script of Perks and attended an advance screening of the film in Seattle earlier this month.)
During his senior year, Chbosky was working on a story when he wrote the line, “I guess that’s one of the perks of being a wallflower.” He immediately realized that it had nothing to do with the character that he was in the midst of writing about, who was not a wallflower at all, but that it would make for a great title for another story. Over the next five years, he says, the wallflower character lingered in his mind, and certain images came to him in conjunction with it — two older friends, an aunt, and a tunnel, to name just a few. Then, a bad breakup, of all things, inspired him to finally start writing this other story. He recalls, “I was going through a very hard time, and I needed something that was going to give me hope, and it felt like Charlie tapped me on the shoulder and said ‘It’s time.'” That day he wrote the first two of the many letters from Charlie to an anonymous recipient of which the book is composed. Withn a month, half of the book was complete. And, within four months, he had finished it.
The book was a hit right out of the gate. “The reception was beyond my wildest dreams,” Chbosky recalls. It got great reviews, generated letters from readers who said it changed their lives, and almost immediately prompted calls for a big screen adaptation. “There’s one [book] that just you’re meant to do,” he says, and this was it for him. “It just poured out, and it has more or less haunted me ever since because it was so easy,” whereas everything else has been much harder.
He spent many of the ensuing years just as he had spent many of the preceding years — as, in his words, “a journeyman screenwriter.” Some scripts turned out better than others. The highest-profile of the lot was probably the adaptation of the Broadway hit Rent, which was made into a movie in 2005. All the while, he knew that a Perks movie was something that he wanted to do — he wouldn’t sell the rights to anyone who wouldn’t also let him adapt and direct it — but the moment never felt quite right to do it. When he finally did sit down and focus on penning the screenplay, he found it “much more difficult” than the book. The latter took just four months; the former took a year.
The Perks movie holdup was due, most of all, to Chbosky’s refusal to make the movie until he had found a trio of actors that he and the book’s readers would feel were worthy of the characters they had come to love. He says that he had no specific stars in mind when he wrote the screenplay, but that ideas began to come to him after he finished it.
The first? Watson, best known as Hermione Granger from the blockbuster Harry Potter series, for the part of Sam. He says that he had admired her from afar for years, and was very impressed with how she had gotten better with each movie she made. “Being a guy from Pittsburgh, I like a good blue-collar work ethic,” he says. The moment when he knew she was right for his film came in the middle of a screening of Goblet of Fire, the fourth installment in the Potter film franchise. He recalls, “She had this little scene with Daniel Radcliffe in front of a staircase — and she started crying, and she broke my heart. I said, ‘I think this girl could be Sam.’ And then I met her in New York City, and it was really sitting down at that meeting that I knew that I had this kindred spirit in this girl, and that, as wonderful as her life is, that there’s also something incredibly lonely about being in the center of that hurricane,’ and that she very personally related to The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”
As for Lerman, Chbosky had seen some of his work and knew that he wanted him to be a part of the project, but never imagined that he would play Charlie. He laughs, “I thought, ‘He’s such a confident kid, he’ll be Patrick. He’s really fun, he’s funny. But he was like, ‘No, I want to audition for Charlie.’ And I was like, ‘Charlie?!’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, Charlie.’ ‘Okay.’ And he comes in, prepared, and within five seconds there could have been no other Charlie.” (Lerman was only the second person who read for the part.)
The hardest of the three parts to cast ended up being Patrick. The character, Chbosky explains, “is tricky because it’s so easy to go off the rails in so many different directions.” What he knew, as a child of the eighties who had loved Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), was that “in this movie Ferris Bueller’s gonna be the gay kid; he’ll be above it all, and confident, and not a victim.'” Miller, who at the time had not starred in a major film — he has since appeared in several, most notably the haunting We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which Miller portrays a youngster who is evil incarnate — auditioned via video, then did a call-back via Skype, and won the part. (Interestingly, Chbosky says, he still has not seen Kevin: “When Perks was going, he went to Cannes to celebrate Kevin, and he specifically asked, ‘Steve, never see it. You know me as me and you know me as Patrick. I never want you to see Kevin.'”)
Chbosky, by all indications, has made the movie that he waited so long to make, with actors who he seems every bit as proud of as the characters that he first wrote 13 years ago and they have now brought to life. He smiles and says, “I have a prediction — a very proud one — and I hope this happens because I love these kids: that someday, maybe like 15 or 20 years from now, people will say, ‘You’re kidding me! All of those kids were in one movie?!'”