Dialogue: 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' Writer-Director Stephen Chbosky on Bringing His Beloved Novel to Life

Dialogue: 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' Writer-Director Stephen Chbosky on Bringing His Beloved Novel to Life

Sep 05, 2012

In 1999, a little novel called The Perks of Being a Wallflower was released, and since then it's gone to become somewhat of a phenomena, inspiring an entire generation of kids who needed a little help finding their way in life. Thirteen years later, author Stephen Chbosky finally gets to see his characters come to life on the big screen, given the rare chance to not only adapt his own book, but also direct the film, which premieres this week at the Toronto International Film Festival before arriving in theaters on September 21.

Movies.com had a chance to sit down with Chbosky ahead of his film's Toronto premiere to talk about the book's journey to the big screen, as well as the cruel breakup that inspired him to write it in the first place.


Movies.com: Let's start with the question on everyone's mind: How, exactly, do you pronounce your last name?
Stephen Chbosky: [laughs] Okay, it's actually pronounced sha-bo-sky, Chbosky. Don't ask me why "ch" is a "sha," or where the vowels went, because when my dad's older brother was born -- he was the first born -- my grandmother told my grandfather, who's Polish and had a proper Polish name, "Steven, you have too many letters in your last name. We need to shorten it and make it more American." So this was her creation.
Movies.com: How did you manage to not only adapt your own novel, but also direct the movie? That's unheard of these days.
Chbosky: Well it was always the condition of making the movie. What I did was once I had enough distance from the book to do a real adaptation of it, I took a year and a half off of doing any jobs and I just wrote. Once I had a script I was happy with, that's when I went to Lianne Halfon, Russell Smith and John Malkovich to produce. Once we were together, then we got Emma [Watson] and Logan [Lerman] -- it was all about that script, and getting the script right. I would never have sold the script or the book without being able to direct the movie. It was too important and too personal to me to leave it to anyone else.
Movies.com: How difficult is it to adapt your own novel? What was the biggest challenge you faced?
Chbosky: Finding the right things to let go of. The book is very personal to me, and sometimes it's difficult to let go of a chapter, a scene or a moment, which meant a lot in book form. But very early on I said, look, I have the book, which has everything I ever wanted to say about the story in it. Let me just use this as an exercise artistically to find the true central story; the spine of this story. And once I discovered that, I found I was able to let go of certain moments and tell the story of Charlie and his great friendships.
Movies.com: Was it hard fleshing out the other characters, like Sam and Patrick, since in the novel we hear about them only through letters?
Chbosky: Yeah, it definitely was difficult because the book is completely subjective; it's epistolary. It's 100% through Charlie's eyes. It was easy to make a reader fall for Patrick because Charlie is so taken with him, but movies by nature are objective, and so I had to find a way to make each audience member fall in love with Patrick or Sam the way Charlie did. It took a while, I gotta tell you, because it's hard to write your first novel twice.
Movies.com: Where did this story originate from? Your own experiences growing up?
Chbosky: It's semi-autobiographical; Charlie is very personal to me. There is imagination -- there are stories I've heard from other people in there -- but it's also very personal. When I was 26 I went through a very bad breakup, and I had been thinking about the idea since college. I tried it a couple of times and it didn't work. So when I was going through this bad breakup, Charlie's voice just came to me. It was a Saturday morning, I'll never forget it, and it was like he tapped me on the shoulder and said, "It's time." That first day I wrote the first two letters of the book; a month later I had half the book, and I was done within a year.
Movies.com: As its author, which part of the book was most important for you to get right in the movie?
Chbosky: The tone. Yeah, because I'm trying to make a movie that takes young people very seriously without being too serious. It's a really tricky thing to do because you want to respect the experiences, but at the same time I didn't want to make an "issues" movie. I wanted to make a movie that dealt with them, but also celebrated that homecoming dance, or that first crush you ever had, or the first kiss you ever had. I wanted to celebrate the fun of being a kid as a trojan horse for talking about the other things that kids have to deal with. 
Movies.com: Was there a specific scene you were shooting where you had to take a step back and remind yourself that this was actually happening? That The Perks of Being a Wallflower was finally becoming a movie?
Chbosky: There were a few of them. When Charlie was talking to his Aunt Helen, that was shot on the street where I grew up. It was literally right outside the house where I grew up, so that was trippy. The Rocky Horror scenes were shot inside the theater where I first saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show. But "the moment?" I had dreamt about shooting that tunnel scene for 20 years, and there was a moment -- I'll never forget it -- where we filmed all night on the flatbed and it was time to go to the picture truck. Emma Watson had asked to [stand up outside the truck] by herself without a stuntwoman. So we got her all set, shot it, and it was like a "pinch me" moment. Designing the shot I had seen in my head for two decades, and watching Emma Watson enter the tunnel as Emma Watson and exit it as the character of Sam never to look back again was the single moment I will never forget as long as I live. I could not be prouder of that moment in the movie.

Movies.com: Was that really important to you? To shoot where you grew up?
Chbosky: Yeah, it was my idea. Look, I could've shot in in Pasadena or upstate New York, but Pittsburgh has something really special about it. Not just for me, but ultimately for the entire cast and crew. There's something about that town that even when you're being emotional, there's something blue collar about it. It's not a sentimental place; it's a tough place. And so I knew in making a movie that dealt with real emotions and real experiences of kids, I needed to make sure that it was not sentimental, and Pittsburgh was invaluable in that way.
Movies.com: It's interesting that you were so against making this a sentimental movie considering all the wild emotions present throughout. 
Chbosky: There was this one experience I had -- we were having dinner one night early on in the shoot, and John Malkovich pulled me aside the day before he took off. He said this -- I'll never forget it for as long as I live -- he said, "I love your script because it has real heart, and because you have real heart you don't need sentiment. So try to direct this like a guy from Pittsburgh: always get the tough take."
Movies.com: There are tons of references in the book and the movie, from The Catcher in the Rye to Rocky Horror Picture Show. A lot of them are about becoming your own person and finding your path in life. Was there one that was most inspiring for you while writing this?
Chbosky: Not the book; the movie, yes. When it was time to make the movie I went back and watched all the coming-of-age movies that meant the world to me growing up, and also as an adult. Rebel Without a Cause, The Graduate, Harold and Maude, Stand By Me, Dead Poet's Society -- I studied all of them again and asked myself, "What do all these movies have in common?"
Movies.com: Since the book was published in 1999, it's amassed a legion of fans. Did a lot of kids like Charlie reach out to you? Do you have any crazy stories to tell?
Chbosky: I've received so many letters, I've lost count. More letters from people who relate to Charlie or relate to Sam; some of the letters would bring tears to your eyes. This one girl wrote to me once, "The first time I ever felt loved was when I read your book." I lost it that day. Other kids over the years, I've received letters where they felt alone and had given up, and they were going to end their life, but had read the book and decided not to. I have a very special copy of the book and I keep them in that book. But yeah, the fans have been supportive and amazing, and that was another huge motivation to do the film myself.
Movies.com: Though the film takes place in the early '90s, a lot of its themes are prevalent today. What do you hope kids and adults take away most from the film?
Chbosky: I hope that people take from this film a validation of their own experience. If they're young I hope they see it as a celebration of what they're going through, and if they're adults I hope it validates their memories. My secret hope with this movie is that kids will see it on their own and that adults will see it, and maybe a girl will talk to her mom and that the mom will listen. That they'll remember we were all young once. 
Movies.com: Where do you go from here? Do you want to adapt more of your writing for the big screen? Take on more directing? What's next?
Chbosky: Making this movie I fell in love with writing novels again and I fell in love with directing, so right now I'm writing my second novel and I'll direct that one as well. 
The Perks of Being a Wallflower arrives in theaters on September 21.
Follow along on Twitter @ErikDavis and @Moviesdotcom.

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