“The Perks of Being a Wallflower”
Roger Durling with Novelist/Writer/Director Stephen Chbosky
Roger Durling: I told the audience that it is so rare to have a writer of the book have the opportunity to write the screenplay and on top of that direct the film. Can you tell us about the journey you had?
Stephen Chbosky: Well when I wrote the book I was in my mid 20s I went through a really bad break up and I was a little crazy. Writing the book was very therapeutic for me; it was like Charlie tapped me on the shoulder and said it was time. He was my answer to find some hope and he was also my answer to the question; why do good people let themselves be treated so badly? We all have friends, hopefully it’s not us, but our friends who go through these things that we want so much more for them so it helped me a lot when I was a mid-20s kid. And then, I always knew I wanted to turn it into a movie, and once I published the book and saw that the fan response was so personal to everybody that I knew I couldn’t just sell it. Even though at the time I was broke and we had some offers when I first published the book, I knew I just couldn’t sell this one. So the journey was reaching a point where I had enough distance to do a proper adaptation and I guess enough strength to see it through emotionally. And once that happened, I mean the last three years have gone by like that.
Durling: What were the challenges with finding a cinematic voice and streamlining the script for your highly acclaimed book?
Chbosky: It was difficult, I am kind of glad that I am from Pittsburg and that like my grandfather was a steel worker because it was a blue collar job in a lot of ways. Like I have been working in the screenwriting for a long time but this was just sweat and time, honestly. I do have a draft of this, well I called the kitchen sink draft, like everything that any fan that could say “how could you cut it?”, I tried it once I swear. I needed that deniability that no I tried it, I promise. Otherwise what I felt was once I wrote the kitchen sink draft, then I took some time away from it and once I went back to it I realized that any time I strayed too far from the group of friends, it didn’t hold my interest as much. Or if I strayed away from when we were talking about the past from Aunt Helen, let’s say with his best friend Michael it didn’t tell the story. So it was constantly trying to find the center of the story, you know there were a couple of things that I cut that were really heartbreaking to cut; but in the end we had to find this focus story.
Durling: What were the parts that were hard to cut?
Chbosky: There were two that broke my heart because the actors that were in them were so good. We did have one flash scene with Charlie’s best friend Michael, just a little sleepover. The boys just talking about girls and it is really just so you know who he is. And this young actor named Owen Campbell from New York did such a great job and what I found was once I shot it that I really needed to focus on Aunt Helen and that anything outside of that just didn’t work. And then there is a subplot from the book about Charlie’s sister, where she gets pregnant and I did shoot and cut it and Nina did a wonderful job but again I found that an a emotional sense that once I put it in there and then you had the cafeteria fight, and then you had the boys in the park and then you had Sam and Charlie saying goodbye and then where it goes from there it was just an emotional threshold. I myself, even though I am emotional person, even I was like “I can’t do it” this is a little bit too much.
Durling: Which leads to one of the questions I wanted to ask you. The movie is really heartfelt but it never veers into an overly emotionally state, was that difficult finding the tone?
Chbosky: It was difficult but the best advice I got, this was very early on in shooting and John Malkovich he came for the first couple weeks of shooting and he pulled me aside at this dinner and he said “you know look, I really love your script because you have real heart and ‘cause you have real heart you don’t need sentiment, so direct this movie like a guy from Pittsburg” and the final thing he said “always get the tough take”. It was really interesting; I know we all know that John Malkovich is an exotic actor and everything else. He is from a little town in Illinois he was a football player and so he and I and Russell, one of our other producers just understood each other on that level, as just one of the guys. A lot of the tone came from the fact that I have that part of me but that I am also an emotional person, I guess. And that I knew that it was really important with the movie that is was trying to as much as it was, we had an open policy with all of the producers, the editors and everything that “hey guys if we are getting sappy you have to tell us because we are not making that movie”, you know we want to make a real movie. And that spirit of collaboration and the fact that everyone’s voice had great merit to me; I didn’t need book 2.0, I wanted a movie and it seemed to get us there.
Durling: What about balancing the humor? Because one of the remarkable things about this screenplay is that the characters, all of them, have their own journey and all seem to use humor as a shield to get through.
Chbosky: Yeah you know what is funny, at the end of the day at the worst day of my life I still find a way to laugh about things. It might just be my defense mechanism or what gets me through it. It is like 5 minutes ago when I literally didn’t know if I was going to make it here cause the traffic got so crazy. In that moment you could really tense and terrible; and start yelling and whatever but I just go “ok” and I texted Susan, “Isn’t this exciting, I don’t know if I am going to get there?”. I don’t know that is just my world view.
Durling: Well in the meantime I and Susan were popping zanax in the lobby so we were sweating for you.
Chbosky: Oh good, fantastic. You would have had a much different screenplay everyone would have been intense the whole time.
Durling: One of the characters Patrick played by Ezra Miller, it is such a unique and refreshing character in that the gay character is the strongest one. He is the one that everyone looks up to, is charming and smart character can you discuss that?
Chbosky: You know Patrick in the book was representative of me, always wanting to have an older brother. I am actually the oldest in my family and I always wanted an older brother to look out for me and so when I was writing the novel, again Charlie being my hope, I was giving myself at that time characters and stories of people that could help me and what I was going through and Patrick came out of that. And when it came to the movie, I knew there was time to take a very subjective first person novel and make it objective in a cinematic sense. I thought, I have this wonder opportunity and I did it very deliberately, like I want the gay kid in this movie to be like Ferris Bueller was to me growing up. The most above-it-all confident and strong, if you would say anything about he would turn around and hit you. And I thought cause one thing I know about writing this book and the letters I get from the kids, which I have gotten for over 10 years, is that some of them would just break your heart. Santa Barbara and Los Angeles are sophisticated places, I get letters from like Louisiana and Mississippi and like rural Ohio and these kids are like “I haven’t come out and I don’t know what to do”, and that kind of stuff. And so I thought look, if I am a 12 year old gay kid I want to give him a hero. That is all I want to do. One little role model, where you don’t have to be a victim or meek or weak and you don’t have to take their shit. You can be beautiful the way you are and so that is what Patrick was.
Durling: One of the most beautiful lines and I’m going to butcher it but even saying it out loud I get emotional that the teacher tells Charlie, “we accept the love we think we deserve”, can you talk to us about that line?
Chbosky: You didn’t butcher it, you got every word perfect. It was great. I wrote that line when I was 26, and it took me exactly 11 years to follow my own advice. Now I’m married and have a daughter so I am good. Anyway that line to me was that I have so many friends whom have been through things some of which I deal with in the film, some which are slightly different. Let’s just say they are trauma of some kind. And I found that in the question ‘why do people let themselves get treated so badly?’, it wasn’t enough just to ask the question. I wanted to come up with some blueprint or a user’s manual or some slogan that would make people understand that they actually in charge of their own destiny. So we accept the love we think we deserve is just that. Let’s say you’re like my friend, I won’t name her because that would be terribly rude. I have a friend just had the worst teen days in life, just awful and you write that line to say ‘hey just pick a nice guy, why not?!’. You keep chasing these guys and trying to find some, I don’t know, some horrible step father and change what happen to you; but that is not the way out of it. This is the way out of it, just be good to yourself and let’s see where it goes from there. And now she has been married for ten years and life is good. And so, I don’t know that is what it means to me, but it is not just romance love but also love of self, it’s love of your future, it’s the love you have for your life. And any standard you have that you can anything that you want if you put your mind to it. That is what it means to me.
Durling: One of the things that I love about the film, of course is that it is so specific about Pittsburg and the high school experience. That specificity becomes very universal because whether we have gone through molestation or bullying in school, you know we do relate to this film. And when you’re making the film and writing the film, were you concerned about your audience that this was only going to attract teenagers and that it wasn’t going to speak to an older audience?
Chbosky: No, I deliberately designed it, so I made a lot of choices to that end. I wanted it to be as relatable as possible to a young person let’s say, ‘cause I feel like this respects me and validates what I am going through; and these are some of the things that I am feeling. But at the same to design it so, let’s say that girl or boy’s mom or dad will be very nostalgic about it but then their parents will be nostalgic about it, because adolescence is eternal to me. What I was hoping to do with the movie was, if I could make it on all these different levels, I know it is just a movie I am a very idealistic person but I feel like it could erase some generation gaps. I knew now, as a 42 year old man, that I don’t quite remember the first kiss as well as it first happened. In my work, I worked very hard to remember and respect what that felt like and then what I am hoping is: let’s say this person loves it and this person loves it and they go “really you loved it mom?”, “yeah, yeah”, “so did you get drunk in high school?”, “oh yeah…ummm a little bit”, “did you smoke pot?”, “well…no not in high school.”, “And college?”, “yeah…kind of”. Then suddenly these secrets we keep, that’s a small secret, but those lead to bigger ones. And if we can erase some of these than that daughter can know that her mom gets her and that you know not to get very personal but I will just say this: Let’s say there is a step-father in the house and let’s say he is a bad guy and I have know many of him through friends of mine, and maybe they talk and get rid of that guy.
Durling: I remember reading that your book was censored in certain schools, is that a concern yours that your film or book or subject matter is censored?
Chbosky: It is a concern, I think that the movie is making the book have a much bigger profile than it ever had that there will be backlash in terms of censorship. It is inevitable. Now it is a target, you know I hope it doesn’t happen but it’s like you make a movie to end a silence for people but it is tough when certain groups want just silence. They think if they get rid of these books that the subject that it deals with will go away. We of course know that, that isn’t true but I try to be respectful, I was raised catholic, certain groups think that this is cynical or exploitative but all I try to do is win them over and try to say “no I am coming from a good place”. Yeah but I think it is inevitable. That said getting a PG-13 rating was huge to me because I knew that young people have access to the book, for the most part around the country, and I wanted the movie to have the same.
Durling: Let’s talk a little bit about the casting. This cast has such chemistry together; they seem to be best friends, almost like a family. How did you come to have them make such a tight-knit relationship (at least that is how it comes off on the screen)?
Chbosky: No you are right, they were. Some of it I planned, but sometimes the movie gods are nice to you. I knew like Emma for example had a lot to approve, especially to herself after the Harry Potter Movies. And she was dying to break out and play this other role. So that was exciting. I also knew that Logan Lerman, who had done Percy Jackson and some other more tempo kind of movies was dying to get his hands dirty with this kind of part. These two very serious young actors that have been child actors since they were each 9 years old or something like that. This was a real graduation for them, they were really excited. So I had that, a great base with these two people. So then you go, ok so they are very serious young people, so I need Ezra Miller, who is a complete wild person. I thought he will bring out the fun in them and encourage the fun in them and they will encourage him to get more grounded. Mae Whitman came in and maybe it was because I wrote the book and the screenplay and some of it is based on my life, I just knew the essence of the people that I was looking for. And I think that we got very fortunate that we got the right mix of veterans and rookies whom came together and just gave us a great balance. And the kids became friends. And see the thing I love to point it’s so gratifying to me is in the prom scene, you know when they are all running to the limo and Charlie is talking about how Sam got cheated on that Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, and Ezra Miller, and Mae Whitman four of the five friends had never had prom this was their only prom. And I just love that they got to have this experience and be kids, and they look good so well done.
Durling: It is your book and some of it is autobiographical and you’re directing these young kids. Was there times that you felt over-protective over about certain things or did you allow them to surprise you with additions to the words or characters?
Chbosky: You know what, I casted them, I trusted them. I Iove artists and actors so much; which I don’t know if that is rare with directors but my sister is an actor as well as some of my friends. I love the art form, so no I trusted and look I thought that they gave me a lot of respect. And trust me, being the author and everything else, I never got the cliché that no my character would never do that. You know what I mean? That just never happened. Past that, I felt like with Ezra and Mae, they are two of the best improvisers that I have ever been around; young or old. It was just let them go free, let them be kids. And then say “hey, hey come back just do it the way I wrote it one time and we can have it as a safety let’s say”. Sometimes that would be the better thing sometimes what they came up with would be better but the thing that I loved about making the movie and loved so much about these kids was, look I can script the truth or dare scene and every line in there I wrote but what you can never write is the fill. You can never write all the individual reactions to when Alice jumps on Patrick and kisses him and all the “ewes”, “awes”, ” and get a room”, and all that. That is what come out of these young people together and that chemistry and if I had been a control freak or controlling person, which I am not; but if I had been that way though I would have lost of that and they would have just sat In there and thought I just don’t want to make him angry. That’s just no way to make this movie.
Durling: The bridge sequence, by the way I love the visual and metaphor of kids flying and moving away from your troubles and that infinite moment that they will always remember. Can you talk about that scene and the directing of it? And having written it in the book and actually seeing them materialize on the screen.
Chbosky: Yeah that was, filming in the tunnel, the greatest time that I had on set. I have ridden through that tunnel thousands of times and that is where, if you go from the south hill suburbs to downtown or the colleges you go through that tunnel. When I was 16-17 and was dreaming of doing things and making movies and writing books that is what I would ride through. So it was very personal to me and I know it became very person to Logan, Emma, and Ezra going through it time after time over night. I can really say, I have seen that stuff in my head for so long, that it is hard to talk about just capturing it with this wonderful technology of film and emulsion and chemicals; and all these things that go into it. The first AD is shutting down traffic for a little while so we could get in there but I think that it boils down to one moment that I had on set was that Emma really wanted to do the stunt but in Harry Potter land they don’t let them do anything, obviously there are so much at stake so she never got to do any of that fun stuff. So I said ‘yeah you want to ride in the back of the truck? Well let’s do it!’. So we got the safety cables and this one take, and I don’t even know why to this day and we talked about it and she doesn’t even know why; but the third take which is basically what you see in the movie. So she climbs out of the cab and she stands up in the truck and she puts out her arms and just in that moment, it is like she went into the tunnel as Emma Watson and she left as the character of Sam. And she never looked back, never had to reach for it again. And that this girl who has so much pressure on her and takes it all so seriously and never wants to let anybody down, she got to be this kid for like 60 seconds in the back of this truck. And I’m in the camera car next to her composing the shot with the team and me jaw hit the floor because I couldn’t believe how free she was. I had never seen someone happier, never. It was just beautiful, so that it what it was like because now I got to pass this baton and now all these images that have been in my head, my heart, and my body for so long, they aren’t there now. Now I have more room to stop being a kid and go be a dad.
Durling: With how timely this movie is, with all this bullying that we have been hearing about happening in schools and also the child abuse that has happened. You never intended your book to be preaching and to be a statement.
Chbosky: No, no it was very personal and got me through some bad things. And then once we published it, it helped other kids get through some bad things. Now I hope that the movie will do it in mass because it is not like preaching, because preaching I don’t think is very effective. What I want it to be a communal experience, so ok if I look out here and let’s say there is a person right there and there is a young person and they think they are all alone in the world and when they are laughing they realize that 3 people down is laughing and when they are crying or trying to hide the fact that they are crying or that this person to their left is crying; and that when they are gasping that they are gasping. And with preaching it is just about the preacher, where as truth or spirituality is about everyone that is gathered, and so that is what I was interested in. Not to preach but for everyone to go, oh my god I can relate to this and even though I feel alone this person next to me can relate too. And maybe I will say hi to them in the lobby.
Durling: Which brings me back to the line, that I think when it played here when Emma says, “welcome to the island of misfit toys”, everybody laughed. We were laughing because of recognition, ultimately at some point in our lives we have all felt like misfit toys.
Chbosky: Exactly, isn’t that interesting. Like the one thing that I remember and we all learned, let’s say when we go back to our high school reunions that with the exception of very small group, everyone felt like an outsider. You know if you look back on it, it is interesting that if you have, there’s about 300 misfit people in here, isn’t that strange that we get it. The tent is so big and for some reason we think that it is so small because we only know our part of it. That is why I wanted this movie to reach out and let everyone know that we all get it and that no one’s alone.
Durling: The music plays such an important part of this movie, it is almost another character. How did you come about working on that?
Chbosky: Well I have loved music so much; I am the kid that made mixed tapes. I made a lot of them.
Durling: And did you write the love notes?
Chbosky: Oh yes I did it all and it really didn’t work very well for me, I have to say. When a girl doesn’t know you like her and you give her mixed tapes, they are like “ok…thanks”, and let’s go away. Anyway this is the year that I graduated from high school, in 1988, and making an early 90s movie and then Alex Patsavas, our music supervisor she I think is a little older than me, this was our era. I was more main-stream and she was more punk and new wave and alternative. The whole soundtrack was like our own little mixed tape back and forth, she would send stuff, and then I would send stuff. I would be like “what about Come On Ilene by Midnight Runners, and she would be like ok, what about tub boat?”, “alright that sounds great”. “Hey how about air supply and she would be like ‘really air supply?” and I would be like “yes that song is great, you have to have air supply!”. Yeah that is how it came about. The reason why it all exists in the movie, and this is to credit, because this is very rare that this happens; ‘cause usually you put in every song you want and then you test it for an audience and the audience goes ‘oh that was lovely’ and then the testing is over, then the studio goes, ‘hey, hey that’s great can you replace every expensive song that you put in there with cheap songs. The response however, was so overwhelming from the audience about the music and the movie that said alright you can have it. Which is crazy and Lianne Halfon, she has produced like 20 movies she couldn’t believe that that happened, but it did. Because I think that they felt that it was another character can’t just skimp on something that important to being a kid.
Durling: What was that experience like going back to your hometown?
Chbosky: It was 145 degrees in the theater and you think it is rough in here. No it was great because the sense of authenticity I felt in those details and so the actors would turn to me, and if something is more real to them they are going to give more and feel more connected. So going to the scene of the crime, made all the difference. Same with the scene when Aunt Helen is talking to little Charlie with the beautiful luminaries being a landing strip for Santa Claus, that is my street. If you turn the camera when looking at Aunt Helen, that is my house. And my parents, who are both retired were so happy to get $1500 for location fees, they really were. They were also extras, I’m sorry; because this is a loving tribute to my family is that the church in the scene that they are all taking communion, my parents and my family were all extras. When Dylan McDermott was on the left, my dad was like back two rows. So the fiction family and real family all went and Kate Walsh and my mom, and my mom loves Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice; so she was like “oh my god, its Kate Walsh!”. “Yeah mom it’s Kate Walsh!”, “Oh my gosh, Mr. Shbouski”. I don’t know if it makes a difference other than it made me happier and more connected and I think it translated.