Liz Swain 4:24 p.m., May 24
Interview with The Perks of Being a Wallflower writer-director Stephen Chbosky
Stephen Chbosky, left, on the set of the film.
The coming-of-age film The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on the bestselling YA novel by Stephen Chbosky, hits theaters Friday. To promote the film, the publicity department sent out copies of the book. I read it on Monday night, and on Tuesday morning, I had a chance to speak with Chbosky about the project.
Matthew Lickona: First off, congratulations. It’s got to be a thrill for a writer to both write the screenplay based on his book and then direct the film version.
SC: It’s a dream come true.
ML: So why make this a movie? Not every book like this works as a movie – I think there’s a reason why The Catcher in the Rye never had a huge film adaptation - besides the fact that Salinger hated the idea.
SC: I wanted to make this a movie because I knew there were millions of kids who would never read the book no matter what anyone said or who recommended it to them, and I think a lot of them could use the story. Also because, for me, I love the sense of community that a movie can provide. When you write a book, it’s such a private experience. You write it, and someone reads it, and you’re alone in both instances. When you make a film and there are 300, 400 people in the theater and when the person next to you is crying when you’re getting emotional, you realize that you’re connected to everybody, and I love that sense. I wanted all the misfit toys in the world to unite on this one, in every theater. So I thought that was worth doing. And plus, I have to say that for me, very personally, a lot of these images were still in my mind and still in my heart even after the book. I wanted to get rid of them once and for all, and now they’re up on the screen to help other people, and I have more room for my wife and my daughter.
ML: Are there things that the movie could get across that the book couldn’t?
SC: I don’t think anything’s different, it’s just a different way of telling the story. It really is about a point of view – instead of everything being filtered through Charlie’s point of view the way it was in the book, you have all these other perspectives. I will say that one thing movies have that books don’t is juxtaposition. They have editing. So when Charlie has his panic attack at the end of the movie, it’s far more visceral than it is on the page of the book, just by the nature of it [because of the cuts between images]. Or when he’s in church and the communion wafer becomes a tab of LSD. You can’t do that in a book, and I loved that aspect of the storytelling. But otherwise, it’s the same emotions, same catharsis.
ML: On the flip side, was there anything you risked losing in translation in going from book to screen?
SC: No, nothing. You know, movies are a lot more literal than books, and there are a couple of things that I wish I could have included in the movie. But ultimately, they just didn’t work. The whole subplot with Charlie’s sister that I wrote and we shot…Nina Dobrev did a fantastic job, but I had to cut it, because it didn’t fit in the overall sense of the movie. Same with my flashback scene of Charlie and his best friend Michael [who commits suicide before the story opens]. That young actor who played Michael, Owen Campbell, is fantastic talent and I know we’ll be seeing him a lot in future years. But again, it just didn’t fit the overall movie.
ML: Can you say how it didn’t fit?
SC: The Michael flashback confused the language of the flashbacks. The flashbacks became about Aunt Helen, and that was important to the final story. Michael felt like a distraction or a confusion. The thing with Charlie’s sister [who dates an abusive guy and gets pregnant] – because it was an emotional movie already, I didn’t want to go overboard with that. What I found was, when her story was included right before the fight in the cafeteria and the scene with the boys in the park and then the scene where Charlie says goodbye to Sam, it just became emotionally too much. It’s like, a song can’t be all chorus. You need verse, you need rhythm. Those moments by themselves were great, but in the overall arc of the story and where it was going, it just overwhelmed it. It threw off the rhythm.
ML: It seemed to me that the biggest change between book and movie was that in the film, there’s less of Charlie together with his family.
SC: What I found is… there’s a draft, the first draft I wrote of this, I called it the kitchen sink draft. It had everything in it. I wrote it and then I stepped away, and then I read it. And I realized that the more I dealt with the extended family, the less I was interested when I was reading. And so I was able to distill it down into the story of the friendships. But even though the family was not as involved in the movie as they were in the book, it was very important to me that the grownups be relatable, intelligent people. I’m not interested at all in making a movie where the grownups are treated like idiots. And I felt that even though they were less present, the impact of them – let’s say at the hospital, when they come and Dad kisses Charlie’s forehead and his mother holds him – I found to be incredibly moving. Or around the dinner table. The essence of the relationship was still there.
ML: The book is certainly more explicit about its sexuality than the film – you’ve got rape, masturbation, abortion, Charlie walking in on his sister with her boyfriend… Were you required to sand things down for the film?
SC: No. Listen, any kid under 17 can get the book in pretty much any library across the country. I wanted kids to have the same access to the movie as they did to the book, and the reality of what PG-13 is…I was able to deal with every issue that I really wanted to deal with, and not water anything down. But I wanted them to have the same access. It was very, very important to me.
ML: And I noticed there was a lot less smoking in the film.
SC: I got rid of all the smoking, 100 percent. I smoked for almost 20 years, and I remember that I quit when I was in college. Then I saw this movie with Christian Slater, and he was smoking, and he looked so good when he was smoking that I actually started smoking again based on that movie, and I didn’t stop again for like 17 years. I knew the power that this movie was going to have. I knew how relatable these characters were. And if I put a cigarette in Ezra Miller’s hand, I almost felt like you could snap your fingers and 50,000 kids would start smoking cigarettes, just becaue of the connection they would feel to the characters. I could not be responsible for that.
ML: You’re returning to this older than when you originally wrote it. Did the passage of years affect you when you went to write the screenplay?
SC: Yes. It took me longer to get back into the emotional state that young people feel. Because I wanted to respect and validate what their reality is. So that took a while. But some of the craft of writing the screenplay was easier because I had more practice. I started the book when I was 26 and published it when I was 29. Since then, I’ve written the screenplay for Rent and did the show Jericho and other things. I was a better writer when I sat down to do the screenplay.
ML: Tell me about the soundtrack. It’s very different from the mixtape that Charlie makes for Patrick.
SC: The essential songs are The Smiths “Asleep” and the Rocky Horror Picture Show stuff. They’re in there. The truth is, Patrick’s mixtape would probably cost $15 million. “Blackbird” alone probably would have been 35% of our budget. There’s a reality of what things cost. But I will say that the soundtrack we got was astonishing. Alexandra Patsavas, our music supervisor, just created this wonderful atmosphere with the record labels and the bands and the singers She announced, “This is a special one. This is not the payday. This is something special to be a part of.” You wouldn’t believe how supportive bands like Dexys Midnight Runners and Air Supply and David Bowie and all these acts were. They gave us a song, no pun, for a song, because they wanted to be a part of it. It was terrific. Something that happens in Hollywood is, you finish a movie, and when you’re testing it for an audience, you put in every song you want, and then you finish testing and the studio says, “Okay, now go replace everything with cheap songs.” The response was so overwhelming when we tested this one that the studio, to their credit, said, “You have to keep them all.”