Stephen Chbosky brings his ’Perks’ to the screen
Stephen Chbosky put off his Hollywood debut for a long time. Author of the seminal late ’90s novel, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," he’s turned down innumerable offers from Hollywood to adapt his story, choosing instead to hone his skills and bide his time until he could do it himself. But having directed a hardly-released independent feature (the almost impossible find of "The Four Corners of Nowhere"), and headed up the production of a major television show (cult favorite "Jericho,") now seemed to be the right time. And if the ecstatic critical reaction is any sign, the "Perks" will only keep coming for Chbosky.
"Perks" has been subjected to some lofty comparisons, with the book often sized up against "Catcher in the Rye" (which it references endlessly) and the film already earning comparisons to classic coming-of-age tales like "Rushmore." Its scope is smaller than those aforementioned masterpieces, but the beauty of the characters within is similar. Chbosky has an old-school nature, right down to shooting on 35mm film instead of digital, and his focus is on the people. He’s a substance over style guy every day of the week, and it provides a look at the intricate complexities of teenage life that is fresh, honest, and invigorating.
It also doesn’t hurt that he has one of the best casts of the year. Logan Lerman stars as the freshman introvert Charlie, and Emma Watson as his senior crush Sam. But it’s the recently out Ezra Miller who truly shines; taking the role of Patrick (Sam’s stepbrother; an out high schooler carrying on a relationship with a closeted football star,) and elevating it to near tragic heights. Miller, who last year turned heads with a deceptively-brief turn in "We Need to Talk About Kevin," seems poised to become one of the young generation’s most important actors, and Chbosky was understandably delighted to have given him one of his first starring roles.
After a raucous screening at a Boston theater (where Chbosky literally spent hours signing books for adoring fans,) the newly christened writer/director sat down with EDGE to talk about his bright young stars, the process of adapting his own book, what’s changed for people like Patrick in the 13 years since it was published, and more. Just how wide the appeal will be for his challenging, painfully honest teen movie remains to be seen. But you can be sure his is a voice we’ll be hearing much more.
Cut for the film
EDGE: So right off the bat, I noticed you were cutting things out of the book. Hardly precious about your own words?
Stephen Chbosky: Well, in order for the movie to exist I couldn’t be precious. I mean, look - the first kiss is going to be there. "Rocky Horror Picture Show" is going to be there.
EDGE: I really liked how you adapted it, which seems to be by leaving everything that wasn’t visually dynamic on the cutting room floor.
Stephen Chbosky: I’m glad you say that, because it took me some time. There was definitely a kitchen sink draft of the "Wallflower" script. It had everything. I wrote that, and I took some time away, then I looked at it, and thought, "Oh wow, the Grandfather character, I love him in the book. Don’t need it." And you realize the story is really just about these friends, and how they help him learn about his past, and overcome it. Everything else is just distraction.
About Ezra Miller
EDGE: So I imagine other people had wanted to adapt this themselves. Movie studios, directors, etc.
Stephen Chbosky: Oh, I’d been offered deals many many times. To option it, to buy it; I just could never sell it. I’d never let it go.
EDGE: Was it "I can’t bear to see this ruined," or was it "I have to be the one to make it; I have to do it myself"?
Stephen Chbosky: It was "I want to make this." Always.
EDGE: So, we need to talk about Ezra Miller. I was lucky enough to talk to him months ago; I thought he was nothing short of brilliant in "We Need to Talk About Kevin"...
Stephen Chbosky: Which I haven’t seen! He specifically asked me not to see it. He said, "You know me as Ezra, and you know me as Patrick. Don’t see Kevin."
EDGE: I don’t think you’d have been able to direct him if you had! I thought he was great before this, but now seeing his range, I’m amazed.
Stephen Chbosky: He’s so inspired, and brilliant, and this is the beginning of an incredible career. I’ll never forget: I saw him in the movie "City Island" with my wife, and she said, "you know, he could be Patrick." And I said "yeah, but he’s too young." And then he auditioned for us, we did a callback over Skype, and even over Skype I knew immediately. I offered him the part that day.
The ratings game
EDGE: And Johnny Simmons is also great, in a more surprising turn, as Brad, Patrick’s boyfriend..
Stephen Chbosky: Thank you! I want Johnny to get some more accolades. To play that - I was proud that he did the movie. He’s from a pretty conservative part of Texas. And from what I understand he’s going to get some, uh, well...
EDGE: He’s going to catch some shit?
Stephen Chbosky: Yeah, I think he might. But he didn’t care; he played it fearlessly. It would be such a temptation, too, to catch a jock in the role. But no, I thought, "I want to catch the nicest, sweetest boy you could ever find, someone we just truly like, to play a role who is truly trapped." It’s like Melanie [Lynskey, as Charlie’s troubled aunt] - there are no villains in my movie. Only people. But yeah, Johnny, I’m a fan of his.
EDGE: The thing about "Perks" is that it goes into pretty heavy topics; stuff that is somewhat commonplace for kids but not as standard in cinema. Drinking, smoking, ambiguous sexuality, the book delves into abortion. Did you worry, throughout the process, about running into problems with the MPAA?
Stephen Chbosky: Well, there’s a rule in the MPAA, you can have one "fuck," basically [in a PG-13 movie.] You can say the word "fuck" once. There are some exceptions, but pretty standard rule: one fuck. So there was an ongoing contest: who’s going to get the "fuck?" So Ezra ended up improvising some great ones, but there was one scripted for Logan near the end of the film. Luckily, I got alternates of Logan’s scene without it, because Ezra’s one. And he’s very proud he got the "fuck."
EDGE: It’s funny. It’s almost become like a running gag in PG-13 movies. You sit there, consciously waiting to see where the "fuck" pops up.
Stephen Chbosky: Yeah, it has hasn’t it? And I think we used it well. We used our "fuck currency" quite well.
EDGE: That’s the kind of thing you don’t have to worry about in a book.
Stephen Chbosky: Well there’s so much you have to change. And that’s what was exciting to me.
EDGE: So what movies inspired you to take the plunge into the director’s chair?
Stephen Chbosky: For me, they’re the ones I grew up with, and could continue to study right up to when I made "Perks." "Rebel Without a Cause." "The Graduate." "Harold and Maude." "Stand by Me." "Dead Poets Society." That’s the top 5. But also two others - I love "The Breakfast Club," which was my favorite film at 15, and "My Life As a Dog," by Lasse Hallstrom. But also, I adore "Rushmore," "Election," "Juno" - but "Perks" was always meant to be a traditional coming of age movie. Which is how I see those first five I mentioned.
A sports film?
EDGE: We’ve talked a bit about the coming-of-age genre, "Perks" is definitely an important one for many kids my age. What is it about that general story, that structure, that provides such catharsis? Is it the only one that can do that?
Stephen Chbosky: It is. But there’s one other, in a very different way: sports film. Well, great sports films. "Rocky?" "Rocky" and "Perks" are like this [intertwines fingers.]
If you really think about it, one’s a bum and he goes the distance against Apollo Creed. One’s shy, and he doesn’t have any friends, and by the end he’s speeding through a tunnel with his arms out high and the greatest friends in the world. It’s the slavery-to-freedom path, true catharsis. Sports and coming-of-age movies. And I adore them both.
"Perks of Being a Wallflower" is in limited release. It goes into wider release on Friday, October 5, 2012. For a complete list of theaters, visit the film’s website.
Watch the trailer to Perks of Being a Wallflower: