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When an author writes a novel that's beloved by millions of fans, especially teenage fans, you can't blame him for wanting to do the movie adaptation just right. But Stephen Chbosky was insistent for more than a decade that his book The Perks of Being A Wallflower didn't just need the right director-- it needed him as a director. That was a pretty bold demand for an author, writer and director who only had one feature behind him, but years of patient waiting finally paid off: The Perks of Being A Wallflower, written and directed by Chbosky himself, is in theaters now and earning rave reviews.
But how did Chbosky manage to take his own delicate novel-- made up of letters written by our protagonist Charlie (Logan Lerman) to an anonymous friend?-- and turn it into a movie? And how did he find the right actors to make these kids come to life? I asked him about all of that, plus the spot-on advice he got from none other than John Malkovich, when I spoke to him by phone before the movie's premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. For more on the movie you can read my review, then check out my conversation with Chbosky below.
You've been wanting to make this into a movie pretty much since you wrote it. What made now the right time?
I needed time away from the book to do a proper adaptation and not just try to film the book. What made this the right time was that I finally got that distance. I saw this beautiful movie called Once, and I and been working Hollywood a long time. I saw that movie and thought, this small thing that touched me so deeply, and it just woke me up. "Steve, get back to your own personal stories." I just decided that the time had come. It was time to stop waiting and start doing it. Luckily I'd had enough time away. I had worked on my craft and art that helped me do a real adaptation.
I wrote the screenplay 100% on spec, a couple of years ago now. Then I got my producers, Leanne, Russ and John, and we got Emma, and then Logan came on board, and that's when we went to Summit. When we walked in, we already had a good part of the package together. But ultimately, Emma was what got it made.
Emma brings this world-weariness to Sam that's important to the character. Did her long career of acting give her that? Is that something you saw in her?
Absolutely. I saw her in Goblet of Fire, there's a screen between her and Daniel Radcliffe, on the steps. She was so moving. I stopped, I thought "This girl is special." And I recognized that she got better every movie. When I met her in New York, I recognized in her a kindred spirit, but more than that there was this world weariness. She had grown up in the eye of the hurricane. I thought, there is no better den mother to the island of misfit toys than that person. What I love about Emma, and what she brings to Sam-- she's a very generous person. At the end of the night, they would stay up all night-- they're kids and they have kid energy, and God bless them-- and she would make beans on toast for everybody. And she would take care of people .That's what she does, and that's what Sam does. I love that girl. She's a really special person.
As you get further away from having written the book and being a teenager, those emotions must feel further away. Do you have to go through those teenage emotions again to make this? How do make yourself feel the way Charlie does?
It all came down to the song "Asleep." There's a part at the end where Morrissey sings "There's another world, there's a better world, there must be." I remember being 19 and feeling very lost, and clinging to the hope of those lines. I know the song is about suicide, but those lines wren't to me. I had to remember a time when it took 3 lines of a song to give me hope. I went back and i remembered my first kiss and how my heart was pounding through my chest. I respect all of those moments for what they are. What happens for a lot of adults, they date a lot of people in college and in their 20s, and once they get settled down, everything else feels like prologue. That sense of anything can happen, which is exciting, it's also terrifying. That took more time than anything.
Do you also have to help the actors tap into that?
They got it completely. I learned on them. They felt that the movie was celebrating what they were going through. When we shot the film, Ezra was 18, Logan I believe was 19. The girls at the very latest were i their early 20s, They tapped right into it. I also love my cast so much, I think they're great. I twas so wonderful to be able to throw 7 actors in a room and say, "OK, let's have a truth or dare party." You can't script every line, you can't script camaraderies. Just to throw those kids in a room and let them go was a thrill, every time.
Ezra's version of Patrick wound up being different from how I imagined the character, but I was surprised by how much I like that anyway. What did he bring to the film and to that role?
Ezra brought such a sense of freedom to Patrick, and confidence. Emma and Logan, they were child actors, and they've been doing it for so long. I wanted a wild card. I wanted somebody who was allowed to be more of a kid. He did work, he worked a lot, but not like they did. I wanted him to bring that sense of spontaneity and that loose quality to them, and they helped ground him. That threesome, and then of course the five, they were very well balanced, and I did that deliberately.
When I was a kid, my hero of heroes was Ferris Bueller. He was above it all, kind of the coolest kid in school. When I wrote the book, what Patrick was to me was the older brother I always wanted to have. When I got into the movie, that was still going to happen for Charlie, but it wasn't just Charlie's point of view. I thought I have a chance for Patrick-- I can make the gay kid Ferris Bueller. I can make the coolest, most confident, the least victim person to be the gay kid, which is very rare. Look, I could never openly condone violence in schools, but at the same time, being a guy from Pittsburgh, I just love that when he gets called faggot, he turns around and clocks that guy. He does't take that shit. Ezra fell into line with all of it. He loved playing Patrick. And oh my God, trying to get the drag off of him in the Rocky scenes… he loved it.
You said John Malkovich gave you the advice to always get a tough take, and shoot this like a guy from Pittsburgh. What does that mean?
He said "Your script has heart, you don't need sentiment. Fight against the sentiment." Whenever a movie, especially a movie about young people, deals with any kids of issues, they do it in a precious way. What he was telling me was, you've got these characters, just embrace the other side. Don't get all weepy with this. You are dealing with true emotion, if you have a true emotion, you don't need the tricks. It was a real vote of confidence, and it helped me a lot. Paul Rudd, he really embraced that. I think the scenes between Paul and Logan taught me a lot about how much restraint the performances could have and still ring true. By doing that I was able to get a lot more emotion.
I assume that many different versions of this have existed in your head over the years. How does the final product compare to what you imagined?
If you gave me all the tim win the world and all the money n the world and magic wand powers, I wouldn't change a frame of this movie. I wouldn't change a frame, cast member, song. This is it, this is the version. The novelist in me thought there was wrong, the filmmaker in me learned otherwise. There were other things that went by the wayside that I was able to let go. I couldn't be prouder of this movie. I can say, I've been doing this now-- almost 20 years ,when I made my first very very low budget movie to this moment. This is the icing on the cake.
It's wonderful because this is so personal, but at the same time, I have had the images in my head for so long. As beautiful as the tunnel was, and I loved filming the tunnel and the first kiss scene and Secret Santa, but there was some tough stuff. Now that I was able to film it and get it out of my head, I get to move on.