Interview with Stephen Chbosky writer and director of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”
I met Stephen Chbosky in the Park Hyatt Hotel in Chicago on August 27, 2012. He was very energetic and lots of fun to interview.
Sarah Adamson: I’m chatting with author Stephen Chbosky whose book, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” has been made into a film and will be released near the end of September. He’s also the screenwriter and director of the film. Welcome to Hollywood 360 Network Radio!
SC: Thank you. It’s nice to be here.
SA: It’s so great to have you. The film centers on a freshman boy in high school and his daily struggles. How did you go about casting your main character Charlie?
SC: I wrote the screenplay and I wrote the book so I had a good idea about who this kid was going to be. We auditioned two people. Logan Lerman was the second person to audition and after him there were no other auditions. There was no need. He brought in such a perfect read of the character. I knew I had found my kid.
SA: That’s wonderful.
SC: That was the easy part, to cast…Charlie and Sam.
SA: And he’s the focal of all of this. So, if he’s not going to work the film’s not going to work. Believe me listeners, he works. He’s amazing in this role.
SA: You’ve said the story is personal to you, yet this is not based upon your life. How did the character of Charlie come to you?
SC: I was 26 and going through a tough time, a breakup. I’m sure we all could relate. I needed a little bit of a ray of hope. I’ll never forget. One Saturday morning it was like Charlie tapped me on the shoulder and said, “It’s time.” I wrote the first two letters of the book that day. A month later I had half the book [written.] A year later, I had two drafts. It poured out of me. Charlie was my response to the question of why do the good people we know in our lives let themselves at times be treated so badly? I wanted to answer that with a great kid and that’s what Charlie was.
SA: Such a poignant book. I refer the writing style a little bit to “Catcher in the Rye.” It’s one of my favorite high school books. Is it one of your favorite books?
SC: I love J.D. Salinger. It was more of a college book than a high school book for me. I also loved Fitzgerald and Hemmingway. You know…the usual suspects. But I must confess, my favorite author is Stephen King.
SA: Mine too! And I’ve met him in person!
SC: I’m very jealous right now. I’ve never met him!
SA: Yes, he signed my copy of, “The Stand.” I should have brought it for you!
SC: That’s my favorite of his. Yes, you should have! I would have stolen it.
SA: Let’s talk about Emma Watson. She plays Sam, the love of Charlie’s life. She’s older. She’s a senior and he’s a freshman.
SC: Go Charlie! He certainly did well for himself (laughs).
SA: He certainly did. What did she bring to the role?
SC: Emma brought all of the generosity, warmth, vulnerability and strength that she has. If you know her in real life…I’m fortunate enough to know her. You wouldn’t believe that anybody who grew up in the eye of that hurricane is as grounded as she is. Let’s put it this way, it’d be late at night. We’d be at the Crown Plaza hotel, all of us. All she wanted to do was make you beans on toast, which is a big English thing. She loved to cook Heinz beans for the cast and myself late at night in her room (laughs). She wanted to feed everybody. That’s who Emma is.
SA: That’s such a great story! Thank you for sharing! Some of these scenes I would imagine would be a little difficult for the cast and yourself to film. How was the mood on the set? Off set? How did you cut that tension?
SC: Mood on the set was great, actually. The thing about it is, young people want to go to those places. They live it everyday. This gave them an outlet to talk about some of the things that they felt whether it was the really fun things like their first kiss or first crush or whatever or some of the tougher things that kids go through. The mood was great. There is another thing that need to understand. In this movie…I’m going to list four of my main actors, Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Mae Witman. None of those kids had a standard high school experience. They didn’t go to prom. They didn’t really walk with their graduating school class, per se. This was their high school experience. The mood on the set was fantastic because all of these young people finally got to be young people. When they run in the movie to the prom limo…that’s the only prom limo they’ve ever seen. Mae Witman’s boyfriend, Landon Pigg, who is a fantastic singer, he played her boyfriend in the movie. That’s their prom. I hope someday they get married and have kids and they get to point to that scene and say, “There is mom and dad’s prom.”
SA: Those prom scenes were wonderful. That’s a really interesting perspective. Sam’s brother Patrick, played by Ezra Miller becomes Charlie’s really good friend. Why do you think that seniors would choose to become friends with Charlie, a freshman?
SC: As you know in fairytales, there is always the momma bear, the papa bear, and the baby bear. It is always primal in all of us…the idea of the little one who finds the two older ones to look after you. In the writing, I don’t know if this would ever occur to anyone, but there is a mom, dad, older brother, older sister, and then Patrick and Sam. I designed it that way because I wanted Charlie to find great older friends who could show him the world with no judgment with all of the adventure and mischief that comes with being a kid. It was the perfect combination.
SA: There are so many great quotes in the film. What are some of your favorites?
SC: Some of my favorites from the movie and the book is when the teacher, played by Paul Rudd, says to Charlie, “We accept the love we think we deserve.” I also love when Sam says to Charlie, “I want to make sure the first person who kisses you loves you.” I do like “Welcome to the island of misfit toys.” I do love when Charlie says, “In this moment I swear we are infinite.” That is my favorite. That [line] and “We accept the love we think we deserve” are my favorites personally.
SA: Yes, I also love, “We can’t change where we come from but we can change where we go from here.” All of these are strong messages.
SC: I like that, too. I like some of the jokes, too. I wont give those away though because if I give them away they won’t laugh!
SA: You mentioned, Paul Rudd, who plays the fantastic English teacher who really does make a different in Charlie’s life. He’s handing him books on the side. Charlie kind of lingers after class. He befriends Charlie, which is fantastic. Did you have such a teacher in your life?
SC: I did. When I was 17, I was trying to choose a college, and I went to University of Southern California, the film school there. The day that I went, it happened to be the day that a man named Stewart Stern was giving his seminar. He wrote the screenplay for “Rebel Without a Cause.” He also wrote “Sybil” and a bunch of those great things. He’s been nominated for three Oscars. He won an Emmy…wonderful man, wonderful writer. I’m a high school senior and he’s telling stories about the day he met James Dean and when he used to travel with Marlon Brando. My mind was completely blown. I decided then and there that I was going to this school. I said, “If this man is here I’m coming here.” He completely inspired me. He became my mentor from the time I was 19. He was actually the first person who read the script for “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”
SA: Fantastic! Has he seen the movie yet?
SC: He’s going to see it next Tuesday. We are going to do a Q & A together and it’s going to the biggest honor of my life to share a stage with Stewart and pay tribute. His movie “Rebel Without a Cause” was one of my big inspirations.
SA: Could you please tell me a little bit about you high school and college years. You mentioned film school.
SC: I grew up in Pittsburgh. Same house, same place at the table in the south hills. Mom and dad were from Dukane. I was an athlete a little bit. I played soccer. I was always a shy kid but then junior year, I said, “There are a lot of girls in high school musicals” so I auditioned for “Fiddler on the Roof” and I got cast in the chorus. I thought, “Man there are so many girls here and they all hug you!” I loved it. I found my people. I won best flirt, so there you go (laughs). That was great. Senior year was, “Annie.” I was the understudy to Rooster for one night.
SA: So, this story started in high school.
SC: Yes, it started in high school. I was very much Charlie I didn’t do a lot of activities. Slowly, I came out of my shell and I had a great time. In college, I was a film student so it was vague depression, cigarettes and a lot of art. But I had a great time.
SA: It’s wonderful that you were able to segue your writing into your directing. These characters and these actors are so amazing. Out of the gate, this huge film is so great for you.
SC: Thank you. That’s very kind of you. Robert Atlman, who is a big influence and hero said that 90 percent of directing is casting and he is completely right. You get the right collection of people together and you get the atmosphere together that it is very free where there is no judgment. If you create an atmosphere that is very open you steer the ship. A lot of it takes care of itself. Some things are tough, you have to dig for things deeper. But as long as you know what you want it seems to happen.
SA: Oh yes, I agree. I’d like to thank you so much for chatting with me and best of luck with the film!
This interviewed aired on Hollywood 360 Radio Network on October 6, 2012.