Thirteen years after its publication, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is receiving a feature film adaptation, and with a cast that includes Harry Potter alum Emma Watson and Percy Jackson star Logan Lerman, the film is already garnering plenty of positive buzz. Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, who also wrote the novel, Perks recently debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, and is scheduled to expand into wide release over the next few weeks.
As a huge fan of the source material, I was thrilled to be given an opportunity to meet Chbosky and chat with him about his film. During our conversation in a conference room at the Hotel Valley Ho in Phoenix, it became immediately apparent that he has tremendous affection for the characters he created, as well as true appreciation for his fans, and he’s probably one of the nicest and most pleasant people I’ve ever had the privilege to meet.
First things first, I’m a huge fan of the book. I read it just a couple of years after it came out.
Stephen Chbosky: Oh, cool!
It’s one of those books that really hits home for a lot of people. Obviously it was a commercial and critical success, so why did it take so many years to bring it to the big screen?
Stephen Chbosky: A few reasons. The main thing is, I needed some time and distance from the book. The book is so personal to me, and if I was going to do a real adaptation and not just try to film the book, I needed time away so things weren’t quite as precious.
Were there conversations about selling the rights to other studios or letting someone else adapt it?
Stephen Chbosky: I always knew I was going to direct this movie, this was a dream and I could never, never sell it. The only time I was ever tempted… I wish there was an alternate universe, because I would love to see this version. Don’t ask me why, but a German film company wanted to buy the rights to make a movie in Germany, based on my book. I would love to see that movie. I don’t know what it would be, but I would love to see it.
So you knew from the very beginning, if and when this came to fruition, you would be the one to spearhead the whole thing?
Stephen Chbosky: Absolutely. I was either going to write and direct the movie, or there was going to be no movie.
You said the story is very precious and personal to you. When you’re taking a story like that and adapting it into a screenplay, what are some of the challenges you come across?
Stephen Chbosky: The main challenge is the fact that the book is written as a series of letters. It’s epistolary, and it’s first-person, and it’s subjective. Movies, by nature, are not subjective, they’re objective. I had to find a way to build to the same catharsis and the same emotional connection from a completely different vantage point. The biggest challenge was that without Charlie narrating the whole movie, I had to find a way to portray Sam and Patrick and Mary Elizabeth and these friends, in this time and place, in a way that every member of the audience, hopefully, will feel like Charlie always felt in the book.
In terms of changes between the book and the film, was there a lot of internal struggle about what to leave in and what to remove?
Stephen Chbosky: There was some. I did have a “kitchen sink” draft that had everything, and I wrote that because if a fan ever said “how could you take out blank,” I could say “honestly, I tried blank” no matter what it was. So I wrote that “kitchen sink” version, I took a couple of months away, and I read it. And I have to say fairly quickly, the central story presented itself to me. Some of these stories about his grandfather or about his extended family in Ohio didn’t seem as relevant as his time with his friends, or his romance with Sam, or his past with Aunt Helen. I was able to let go of a lot of things, because for me a lot of the process of making Perks was a process of letting go.
How many drafts did you go through before you got to the point where you knew what the story was and knew what you wanted to shoot?
Stephen Chbosky: That’s a great question, no one’s ever asked me that. I would say… five. Spread over a couple of years. I took my time, and by the time it was ready to film – I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to experience this one time — I got no script notes from the studio. They gave me some very smart cut notes, and I’m grateful for them, but script? They just approved it and we went and shot it.
When you started working on the screenplay, knowing that ultimate goal was to direct it yourself, did you already have actors and actresses in mind for the roles?
Stephen Chbosky: That came later. I just wanted to find the characters on the page, from this new point of view. Once I had that screenplay, I had a much better idea of what I was looking for. That’s when I saw Goblet of Fire, saw that one scene where Emma and Daniel Radcliffe are in front of these steps, and it was really moving and I just felt that Emma could be Sam. And then when I met her in New York and recognized a kindred spirit in her, I knew she was perfect for the part. And with each person, because I knew the characters so well I just instinctively knew what we were looking for. Our casting directors and our producers did a great job presenting me with choices, and I think we’ve put together a hell of a cast.
The film was originally rated R by the MPAA, and then you went before the board and appealed and got it lowered to a PG-13. Why was the PG-13 rating so important?
Stephen Chbosky: Look, the book is available to pretty much any 13-year-old who wants to go to the library and check it out. Because I knew what the book has meant to certain young people, I wanted those same young people to have access to the movie. [It was] very important to me. I know what the rated-R version of this movie is, and I had no interest whatsoever in making it. I was able to talk about every subject I wanted to talk about, I didn’t have to make any compromise. There was just a very delicate way of having my cake and eating it, too, and I’m very pleased that we found it.
I will say, to the MPAA’s credit, when I went in with Eric Feige and we went before the board and we had the appeals hearing, I was very afraid they were going to ask us to go back in and cut things out, and when they overturned the decision and gave us the vote, that was one of the happiest days I had making this movie. We were jubilant.
You saw it, we don’t pull punches. It’s there, but I’m very moved that they understood and that they agreed with us, that there is a difference between the treatment of drugs in Perks, and let’s say, Superbad.
That was the thing that was so puzzling to me after seeing the film last night. Sitting through that movie, I would never have dreamed it would be given an R rating. When you compare it to Superbad or Project X or those type of films where the partying and the sex is glorified or presented in a comedic fashion, I think the way this film handles the subject matter is done very well. For the R rating to have even been a consideration was baffling to me.
Stephen Chbosky: Absolutely. One of their rules is they don’t like to show the ingestion of drugs or alcohol, and in the case of our movie, you do see a boy ingest drugs. And I was afraid they weren’t going to let that happen. I had alternates in my mind about how to pull it off, and I’m just glad I wasn’t asked to.
In both the film and the novel, music is a key factor. It’s something that not only helps bind the characters together, but it also helps define their relationships with each other. How important was it to get the soundtrack right?
Stephen Chbosky: It was almost as important as casting it right, because I knew that the right songs would give it that sense of authenticity of the period, but also the sense of celebration for being young itself. Music is a big part of my book, and I talk about it a great deal. When I made the movie, I was like a kid in a candy store. I got to put in most of my favorite music from growing up, and in the moments where I wasn’t quite sure what those songs should be, Alexandra Patsavas, our music supervisor, she filled in all the blanks. It’s like the two of us had a little mixtape exchange, and it wound up on the screen somehow. And Summit, to their credit, when they saw the reaction the film got, they ponied up and paid for that music.
One of my favorite lines in the novel is when Bill tells Charlie “we accept the love we think we deserve.” In the film, that conversation is expanded a little bit. There are a few extra lines of dialogue that give Charlie something to hang onto, a little bit of hope. Why the change?
Stephen Chbosky: The change came from me just being older. I remember writing the line “we accept the love we think we deserve.” I was in my mid-twenties, and part of the reason I wrote the book was I wanted to understand for myself why such good people let themselves get treated so badly, whether it was in romance or friends, or just by their families. That line was a response to that, it was a way of empowering the individual, to say “you can have a higher standard, you can feel that you deserve more, and if you think that you deserve more then you’re going to get more.”
But then as I was getting older, I realized some people don’t think that they deserve an awful lot, and so I thought “let me just write something that’s a little more encouraging.” Especially when you have someone like Paul Rudd, and when we got Paul, I wanted to give him more because I just love him as an actor, so I wrote those two additional lines, “can we make them know that they deserve more?” and “we can try.” Which I thought was just a lovely, positive, hopeful way of letting people know that they can have better love and better friends and more passion in their lives.
Despite being set in a very specific time period, and being about a very specific age, the film and the book seem to resonate with people of all ages. Why do you think the story of Charlie and Sam and Patrick is so easy for people to relate to?
Stephen Chbosky: Since I wrote it for personal reasons I think that readers, and now moviegoers, recognize that I’m being authentic in telling this story. I think that whether you’re a kid and you’re going through it right now, or you’re a grown-up and you’re just feeling nostalgic about it, we all recognize what it means to be young. And the fact that this movie celebrates, and validates, and respects being young, completely at eye-level, I think people recognize that and respond to it.
I’d say past that, on a very basic level, that wonderful stories are often stories that go from being imprisoned to being free, and there aren’t a whole lot of differences, if you get right down to it, between The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Rocky. At the end of the day, this is a person that had a lot against him, and by the end he overcame all of it, and he’s whole, and he’s free.
The Perks of Being a Wallflower expands into select markets on September 28, 2012, and will hit theaters nationwide on October 5.