The Perks of Being Stephen Chbosky – A CineArts Interview with the Writer and Director of THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER

October 4, 2012 at 7:59am

The Perks of Being Stephen Chbosky – A CineArts Interview with the Writer and Director of THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER

By Frank Gonzales/CineArts


It is that rare bird in Hollywood who not only can write and direct a movie, but also writes the source novel that the film is based on. Stephen Chbosky is that kind of rarity. His 1999 novel “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” was not only a success, but the way it struck a chord with its readers signaled a new force in literature was on the horizon.

Chbosky took some time learning the screenwriter’s craft, working on the film adaptation of the Broadway hit “Rent” and writing for the television show “Jericho.” Eventually he came back to writing the screenplay for “Perks” and then after meeting with the production company that bought the rights for the film, was tapped to direct the feature as well. This was not only unusual because he wrote the novel and screenplay, but even more so because he had never directed before!

But Chbosky took it in stride and not only created a new version of his original work, but along the way blossomed in his craft as much as his protagonist Charlie does in the movie. CineArts recently discussed Chbosky’s work, from writing the story, to developing a screenplay, to directing the movie, and how this triple-threat bird learned to fly.

Upon first glance it’s easy to think that THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is a purely autobiographical story, and Chbosky agrees to a point. “A lot of the things that happened in the story happened in my life. Some of it was anecdotes and stories I heard from friends, some of it was invented, but Charlie is very personal to me. I would say the vast majority of the things he feels and thinks are things that I share with him.”

“Perks” is written from the point of view of Charlie (portrayed in the movie by Logan Lerman), who recalls his freshman year of high school in a series of letters to an unknown “friend.”  It is a very ingenious literary device Chbosky had been working on for a while.

“The genesis of “Perks” came from a few different places. I will say that my original idea was to write a book called ‘Letters from a Friend’ and the idea was to write a book of letters and pass it off as real. In other words, claim some kid picked me out of a phone book and started writing me these letters. That was my original idea.

“Then when “Perks” became another idea for a book I realized that it was Charlie writing the letters and that he was not writing to me but to someone out there. It just felt like the right fit.”

As with the case of many, the idea of “art imitating life” fell true to form. “I will say that the first and only anonymous letter that I ever wrote was to Stewart Stern, who was a wonderful writer who did the “Rebel Without a Cause” screenplay, and “Sibyl” for television and a bunch of other highly acclaimed movies.

“When I went to visit USC film school as I was deciding where to go to college, he was giving a seminar. I was 17 and I was so taken with him that I decided to go to that school because that’s where he was. He was the inspiration for the Mr. Anderson character (played by Paul Rudd in the movie).

“After I entered USC I learned Stewart had a heart attack in his home in Seattle. So I wrote him a letter and made him a mix tape to basically thank him for changing my life. And I signed the letter anonymously because I didn’t want him to think I was using this opportunity to have him help me secure an agent or anything else cynical. It was just a sincere thank you from a young person. It took him about a year but he finally figured out it was me and he was my hero and friend and mentor ever since.”

This initial gesture to Stewart formed a foundation of sorts for “Perks” as the idea of an anonymous series of letters gestated. After its success as a novel, doors opened for Chbosky to try his hand at screenwriting, eventually landing him opportunities in film (the film adaption of “Rent”) and television (the CBS show “Jericho”). But adapting “Perks” for the screen was never far from his mind.

“I needed distance from the book to do a proper adaptation and I needed to learn a few things about adapting books and movies, and some time to write some television. All of the things I learned from doing the screenplay for “Rent” and the television show “Jericho” I used to adapt “Perks.”

This learning process was not just limited to writing, but to other talents he developed that eventually led to directing his first feature film. And while one would think that the transition from writing to directing would be challenging and daunting, Chbosky felt at ease.

 “From ‘Rent’ and ‘Jericho,’ I wasn’t a director but I used the opportunity to observe and learn. On ‘Rent,’ I worked with Spike Lee, who was originally tapped to direct that film, for bit of a summer. Then Chris Columbus, who took over, was so gracious to call me in and observe on set. When I saw him direct 250 extras on the opening sequence, I got the bug! This thing that I dreamt up in my living room in Brooklyn was suddenly being done by all these people and Chris was the maestro making it happen. It just started there.

“’Jericho’ was fantastic because I worked with Jon Turteltaub, who directed the pilot and the second episode. Watching what Jon did with the actors and subsequently watching the other directors of the various episodes, I realized that each had his own style, but the result was always the same. I saw that I could do it my way. It was very freeing and I brought all of that experience to “Perks.”

That freedom he felt as a directorial novice was aided by a couple of other benefits very close to him: his familiarity to the story, and his family and friends. “It’s difficult to put into words, but because I knew the story so well I didn’t have any doubts about my ability to direct “Perks.” Luckily, my producers didn’t have any doubts either. I had nothing but support.

“And the other benefit I had was that my sister is an actor, most of my friends are actors, and I love actors. So I found that speaking to my fellow artists about this story, about these characters, about this setting, time and music, I found it very natural and I wound up loving to direct, almost as equally as writing novels. These are the two things I want to do the rest of my life.”

As he began to work his way through the task of bringing the story from page to screen, once again his familiarity with the story allowed him to bring all of the visuals from his mind to the set.

“I found it easy actually because when I wrote the book it was very visual in my mind. I know it just ends up being words on a page but when Charlie writes about the luminaria at Christmas or Sam’s eyes or the football game, I saw them a certain way in my mind. So all I needed to do was find a way to condense it and bring it into real life.

“There’s one scene in the movie where Aunt Helen is talking to Charlie about the luminaria at Christmas Eve. We actually shot that scene on the street where I grew up. And one of my colleagues asked if it was strange to film in front of your house. I said ‘no’ because as I wrote the book, that’s what I pictured. So with the visuals, since I had been carrying this story around in my heart for over 20 years, it wasn’t difficult to translate.”

Yet there was as a very valuable lesson he had to learn in the whole process of being a director, one he found inspiration from in an unlikely source. “The most difficult part for me was letting go. There was a draft of the screenplay that was very, very long. So I had to make my peace with each part of the story and book that I had to let go. It was a hard lesson but it made the difference in the movie.

“I remember one of my inspirations for adapting came from another movie, “The Fellowship of the Ring.” I love the” Lord of the Rings” books and I thought the movies were brilliant. But in ‘Fellowship’ they cut out a character, Tom Bombadil, who was one of the most beloved characters in the books. And I thought it was such a gutsy move because ultimately he doesn’t serve the story; he’s just a wonderful aside in the book. So when I saw that I took that lesson to heart in adapting “Perks.” I thought, ‘Hey, not everything is precious. Just tell the story and let the story do the work for you.’

“When we shot it and got it to the editing room, I realized that it was ok to let go of this memory here, and that scene there, and really find the central story. This became the central motivator for making the movie: letting go. After that, it all fell into line.”

The process of bringing THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER to the screen was not all technical, but relied heavily of the actors to bring the story to life as Chbosky imagined it. Casting was an essential part of the process. Chbosky struck gold with Emma Watson (Sam), Logan Lerman (Charlie), and Ezra Miller (Patrick).

“When I wrote the screenplay I wrote a faithful adaptation of the book. So I wasn’t writing with any actor in mind, just the characters themselves. Once I had the screenplay that I loved and that I was happy with I started to have meetings and look around. I went character first and actor second, and I was very fortunate to get this cast together.

“With Emma, I had seen one of the later Harry Potter movies and there was a scene on the steps of the school she did with Daniel Radcliff. She was so great in that scene that I just knew she was Sam. Logan I was introduced to later. He came to the audition and was so brilliant I knew he was Charlie.

“Ezra’s such a gifted young actor. He’s such a free person that there is no limit to him. So for me, when it came time for the audition call back, we actually did it on Skype! And even through it was over distance and the internet, we all knew that this was Patrick.”

These were three crucial components to making the experience on set ring true when it was time to start rolling.  “Ezra brings so much humor and so much life and so much camaraderie to his fellow actors. He’s really generous. Emma is an actor who was getting better every year, first and foremost. But when I met her for the first time, I felt an instant kinship with her. She was so down to earth and true to life. She was polite and vulnerable and kind and I loved all of those qualities for Sam. And I also loved those qualities for the morale on set, because it was important for me that the kids have the summer of their lives.

“The joy for me in making “Perks” as a movie was that I was finally able to share this story with so many artists that I’ve admired and grew to admire. “Perks” has meant a lot to a lot of fans, and I get the letters from them, so it’s gratifying that now Emma and Logan and Ezra and the rest of the wonderful cast and crew can all get them too.”

A funny and touching coming-of-age story based on the beloved best-selling novel by Stephen Chbosky, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is a modern classic that captures the dizzying highs and crushing lows of growing up. Starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER is a moving tale of love, loss, fear and hope—and the unforgettable friends that help us through life. The film is now showing at CineArts Theatres.

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