Stephen Chbosky has pulled off what very few storytellers have been able to do. In 1999, he wrote "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," a hit novel that became a favorite read for millions of those who were either living through the characters' events, or have already experienced them. Years later, having persevered through the temptation of selling the material to someone else, Chbosky has directed his own feature-length film adaptation of the story, with a condensed screenplay worthy of the heart achieved by his book. In the film version of this story about the roller coaster of adolescence, Logan Lerman plays Charlie, a freshman who starts a relationship with seniors Patrick (Ezra Miller, from We Need to Talk About Kevin) and Sam (Emma Watson).
I had the pleasure of speaking to Chbosky about his film, tackling certain topics like differences from the adaptation (some spoilers for the book), the excitement of getting older, and more. As this interview became one of my more personal discussions with a director, I have done my best to keep this as raw as possible, including Chbosky's "stammers and brain tangents."
The Perks of Being a Wallflower opens in Chicago on September 28.
In the book, Charlie gets a little snarky about reading interviews in magazines with famous people. How do you feel about interviews now?
That [part in the book] was about, I won't say the actress that I am referring to, but there was definitely a style in the 90s where it was always about, "She cracked open a Camel Lite, and drank a diet soda" to give it an air of importance. Charlie, in that part of the book, it was so cheeky, it was just about a style. I like it when a journalist actually quotes me, but then kindly eliminates all my stammers and brain tangents, because that's how I think. That's what I concentrate on. And I also think, and this is not to, this is not to kiss critic ass, - I don't know if you've been given production notes - but so, the book has meant a great deal to some people. I have received some letters in the last ten years that would break your heart. Now that I see the role of journalists is - look - there's some kid out there, and he's having a bad time, and they'll read your article, and they'll go to the movie, and it will help them. I see that as spreading the word. I'm still cheeky.
Is it pointless for me to ask you questions that compare the book to the movie? Are they two different entities?
Ask away. I have answers for everything.
Why is Sam's hair different?
Because Emma looks so cute with short hair.
Did you try her with long hair?
She had extensions in her hair for the Rocky Horror Picture Show segment. She wanted to distance herself from Hermione, and I was all for it.
Why did you get rid of smoking?
Because I knew growing up that Christian Slater, in movies like Heathers and Pump Up the Volume made smoking look so cool, and I smoked a little bit when I was younger. But I saw Pump Up the Volume and I immediately bought another pack of cigarettes. I smoked for seventeen years, and I finally quit four and a half years ago, and I knew that kids specially would look at Patrick and say, "I want to be like Patrick," and if I gave that character a cigarette they would smoke. I don't want everyone to ever do it, it's so hard to get rid of.
The abortion story in the book ...
It was the last thing to go. I shot it. It's great - Nina Dobrev was great. What I found was, and this is a real lesson from novelist to filmmaker, how you only have so much emotional space, and there's only enough room for the audience I think. I love that sequence, and if you ever see the DVD there it is; it's really good. But it just was when you included it, by the time you got to Patrick in the cafeteria, and in the park with Charlie, you're kind of burned out, and we still had so much movie to go.
Was that the most painstaking cut you had to make?
That was it. Hands down.
What was the second most painstaking cut? Editing, or just adapting?
I wasn't precious about anything. I made decisions early on. All the stuff that had to do with the extended family, Charlie reads the poem to Patrick, they are moments that I love, but I knew they would not fit the movie. The hardest cuts were always about the family, because Kate Walsh did some amazing work as Charlie's mother, and they had some lovely scenes, but I had to keep that center. The second most difficult thing to cut was that I wrote this flashback scene between Michael and Charlie. The young man that played Michael, Owen Campbell is his name, did a fantastic job, but what I found was that there is only room for one true ghost. My producer Russ Smith kept telling me, "You only get one true ghost, I'm telling you." And I'm glad I didn't listen because I have this beautiful scene and Owen was great.
I learned how truly literal film is. It is very interesting.
If viewers were generally more able to sit through longer movies, would you have made this with a longer running time? Or was there any thought to making this a TV show, or a miniseries?
I thought of a miniseries, and I decided against it. I wouldn't change a frame of this movie, now that it's done. It's humbling to me, and I'm grateful. I wouldn't change a song, I wouldn't change an actor. That's it. That's the version. The attention span that you're talking about, it is what it is. But not just for audiences, but for my wife. If I play the movie for my wife and she and I have a talk late at night and she says, "You don't need it. You're good. We have enough from the sister in this way," my wife helps me make my peace. This movie is a lot about my letting go of these images and these characters.
I think the running time is perfect. What I wanted to do was deliver a catharsis to anyone who wanted one, and to celebrate all aspects of youth, but then the idea of coming through the adversity, and being free of it.
As someone who has written about teenagers, would you consider yourself a full-grown adult now?
Yes. I'm fully grown.
Is life less exciting when you grow older? Help me with that.
Life gets a lot better. You know how most of the things are a little crazy right now?
Yeah, but it's interesting.
It is interesting. But the crazy goes away, and there's a sense of calm. It's not boring calm, not at all. My daughter was born 17 days ago. The moment she was better than anything I've ever known. I don't care, any school dance, you name the craziest night you've had, at any club, with any drug, and the birth of my daughter buries it. That's the nature of it. So, we all get a turn at being young, but that doesn't mean we can't be young at heart, which I am. And it doesn't mean we can't respect each other on the generation gap. But that's great. I directed my first movie at 23. Wow, that's awesome, man. Are you going to direct?
No, I did film school, and made a couple of snarky short films about movies, but I am not very good at bossing people around. Speaking of which, was that strange at all going from being a novelist to a director?
No, it was great, because it's not bossing people around. With this cast, and this crew, and because I was the author of the book, I didn't get the normal first-time studio hazing, I just didn't. They knew I knew what I was talking about. I didn't have to do a lot of bossing. People were just really excited to help me tell the story.
You had your first film when you were 23, and you studied filmmaking. Was this an ultimate goal to direct this movie?
Yes. Always wanted to do it. When I thought of this title when I was in school, I knew it would be a book, and I knew it would be a movie. I just knew it. Absolutely. There was a small temptation when I was younger, when I first published the book, because I was broke. I don't remember the studio, but one of the studios offered me a lot of money, and I was tempted because I naively thought at the time that if you wrote the book, then that gives a lot of weight. And someone very kind and smart pulled me aside and said, "If you sell this thing, it's gone, you know that?" And so I didn't sell it then. I was offered a TV show, and didn't do that.
It was worth waiting for?
One hundred percent. It made all the difference in the world.
How did your casting change how you received these characters?
What's great about it is that now Charlie belongs to Logan and myself. Sam belongs to Emma and myself. It changed it in that I don't feel the burden in my mind anymore. I get to share them individually with one of those actors. If I were ever to write another book, it's tricky because they have made an imprint. It's a terrific cast, and they have really brought a lot to their roles. They're forever these characters to me.
What personal advice for a person who ants to express themselves but are not comfortable doing it, or feel weird about diaries?
Just pick up a pen. You don't have to publish it, it doesn't have to be a book. It can be diaries, or letters. It can be anything. It ultimately leads to you getting closer to what you're really thinking and wanting and feeling and needing.
Was there ever any temptation to update the time of this story? Do you think this story would still be doable in this age of Facebook and texting?
No. There was one reason I didn't do that, even though there are some modern songs that I love and would have loved to have tried. I wanted to capture some final time of nostalgia before the internet and cell phones changed everything. And I also wanted to celebrate my own youth in one aspect - you hear a song on the radio, and you can't Google the lyrics. I thought that was so great that in the end, when Sam found the tunnel song, it's not like they searched for it for a year, they just found it, and they got to live that whole moment over again. It wouldn't have worked in a later time.
There's some purity to that. Not only are they on the age of growing up, but they're on the cusp of things that are going to change the way they interact with each other. Even personal phones, over house phones.
Absolutely. The world has changed so much in the 15-20 years of which this movie is set. That last bit of nostalgia.
Did you have to close the tunnel for those sequences?
You didn't close it down, no. There were many news reports about the hour-long wait. Sorry, Pittsburgh!
Did they think it was an action movie?
No, they knew what it was, they saw Emma. They closed down the highway, and we did a pass. We got through the tunnel, and about two miles behind us the police would let the next group through.
This book came out in 1999; but there have been many teen movies in between. Were you worried about previously traveled thematic territories when it came to a movie of the high school subject?
I was doing my own thing, and I wasn't thinking so much about the modern teenage movies. There have been some great ones, like Easy A, Juno. Mean Girls is really terrific. But they're all different than this. My inspiration was, you go back twenty years, and it was Dead Poets Society, and Stand by Me, Breakfast Club, Graduate, and Harold and Maude. That's what I was thinking about. It was more traditional.
Even making the film, it was coming the same place you were in 1999.
There was something sweet about the nostalgia of it. I wanted to make a movie where some 15-year-old kid would love ot as much as their mom would, or older brother and sister, and maybe they'd all talk. Like, "Oh, you love it too? Why?" And then the stories come out, and we realize we're not that different. I realize that's idealistic, but that's what I want.