Stephen Chbosky saved lives. No, not in that saving-a-cat-from-a-burning-building way nor performing the Heimlich on a little old lady at a restaurant. He saved lives by writing a peculiar little green book called The Perks of Being A Wallflower.
The semi-autobiographical story, told through a series of letters written to an unnamed pen pal and set in the early 1990s, follows an awkward high school freshman named Charlie navigating his way through the mess of high school—a pile of uncertainty marked with fake friends, issues with body image, struggles with sexuality and the pain of first love.
Ever since the book's release in 1999, it's become a staple on every teenager's bookshelf thanks to its sensitive and accurate representation of teenage life. Ask any kid whose read it and they will tell you how much it has helped them make sense of their own life. Although because of the books treatment of drugs, suicide, sex, eating disorders and homosexuality, its also become one of the most frequently challenged books in history.
But now, after being passed around from locker to locker in high school hallways for over a decade, the book is finally a movie, which is now out in theaters. Also written and directed by its author Chbosky, the film stars Logan Lerman, Emma Watson and Ezra Miller among a supporting cast that includes Paul Rudd, Mae Whitman, Nina Dobrev and Johnny Simmons.
Complex got a chance to speak the man behind the phenomenon about what motivated him to write the book, how he feels about the idea of changing a kid's life and finding the perfect actors to play his beloved characters.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
Was it always your plan to turn it into a movie?
It was always my plan. I thought of the title 21 years ago and I always envisioned this moment. I knew it was going to be a book and then I just had to make this movie because this is my lifelong dream.
I read that your book was semi-autobiographical. What made you want to write it in the first place?
When I was in my mid-20s I went through a bad break up and I was in a bad place in my life. I think I needed something to give myself some hope in that moment, and Charlie really came out of that need and out of the question of why good people let themselves get treated so badly. And at the end of writing the book, I was in a much better place.
A lot of kids have connected with this book, how do you respond to people who say the book has changed their life?
Here’s the wonderful thing, I talk to them individually because everyone comes up to me and says something like that; they say it for a different reasons and I wonder how it changed them, and we have a discussion. Every time people come up to me, they let me know that the book made them not feel alone, and all that does for me is make me not feel alone, because there was a time when there was me in a room thinking stuff, and wondering if anyone got it. And then to see how many people understand—now I feel far more connected to people than I ever did.
Since you did write the screenplay and direct the movie, you must have gotten a bunch of offers from other people to adapt the book into their own movie.
My agent said we would average a call a week, whether it was from producers optioning it or a writer or director wanting to adapt. Even a German film company, I don’t know the name of the company, but they wanted to buy it and turn it into a German film, which I would love to have seen, in an alternate universe kind of way.
Yeah, there were many offers, but I couldn’t let it go. I don’t know how to sell something this personal. And especially what the book meant to the fans—I couldn’t let it go to anyone else. I owed the fans a movie that was worthy of their love for the book.
When it came to the casting, what were you looking for and how did you settle on Ezra, Emma and Logan?
Well, I mean, all I was looking for was the characters. I knew these characters so well because of the book and the screenplay and obviously the parts that were inspired by my life, but I was looking for terrific young actors but also really generous young people—that was very important. This movie doesn’t have bad guys and divas and attitudes, it doesn’t have that—it has people, like real people, and that’s important.
So, with Emma, I saw her in the Goblet of Fire and she had that beautiful scene with Daniel Radcliffe in front of the staircase, and I love that scene and she broke my heart in it. And that was my first inkling that this is Sam. Then, we met in New York City and there was something about her. I just knew that this was a person who just wanted to break out and do something different and wanted to explore the wilder side of her self, and that is what Sam gave her. She never auditioned; I just knew she was right.
Every time people come up to me, they let me know that the book made them not feel alone, and all that does for me is make me not feel alone, because there was a time when there was me in a room thinking stuff, and wondering if anyone got it.
Logan and Ezra were slightly different. Logan in real life is a very confident young man and I thought he’d be good to play Patrick because he’s also very funny. I said, “Hey, why don’t you audition for Patrick?” And he said, “No, I want to audition for Charlie.” I was surprised by that, but I said, "OK. I believe in following an actor's passion, so if that’s what you want, I'll be supportive. Let's do it." And he came in and he nailed it in five seconds because he had the balance of every characteristic that Charlie had, and everything that I wanted the character to be for the movie.
With Ezra Miller, I did an audition over Skype, and even through Skype he was so charismatic and hilarious that we cast him within five hours of that audition.
Yeah, Ezra Miller is just so magnetic on screen. It’s hard to not respond to him.
It’s incredible, and this is the best thing about Ezra—really all the kids but were talking about Ezra—is that usually very free, improvisational-type actors are very difficult to give direction to. What’s so great about Ezra is it’s the best of both worlds—you can have your cake and you get to eat it, too. He'll do five takes and do something crazy every time, and then you can talk to him. Sometimes the thing that I wanted was the right thing, sometimes the invention he put out was the right thing. Phenomenal talent.
And with Logan, especially playing Charlie, who is essentially kind of a part of you, did you see yourself in him? Is there anything that you connected with?
We definitely had a bond, over the character and this thing that we just both understood. That happened, and it happened fairly quickly, but it evolved over time. It is actually funny you asked that. There's a photograph of me walking down the street with Logan, and you can just see our backs. What’s amazing is—I had no idea this was happening—we both have roughly the same posture, and we started to meld. I don’t know if he was getting things from me or if it was just a natural kind of camaraderie, but it definitely happened.
Speaking of camaraderie, what was it like on the set? How did the young cast gel together?
It was fantastic. The set was one of the best times I’ve ever had, and not just professionally, I mean I ever had in my life. Because even though its stressful and all those things,it was amazing watching these guys come together in the way that they did, and watching them become friends on screen and off-screen. Finally watching people like Emma, Logan, Ezra, and Mae who never had prom, never really had a proper graduation, because they were always working, and watching those kids get to have a high school experience that we all take for granted was very special.
And I told them at the beginning that I wanted them to have the time of their lives, all of them, because it wasn’t even for them to just give me a good performance, I wanted them to be able to be kids because so often in their professional lives they weren’t allowed to be.
What kind of things did you encourage them to do to have that experience?
Well, the first thing was we made sure that everyone was in the same hotel. We were going to be in one place, that was number one. Number two: In certain moments, I planned activities to bring people closer together. When Logan, Ezra, Emma and I met for the first time, we all sat down in this little conference room, this little dinner theatre. It’s kind of a strange room. Anyway, we're at the hotel and we just sat down and chatted, and then within a half an hour I had to get going. So I left Ezra and Emma with our dance captain choreographer to construct the homecoming dance because I knew they both loved to dance and they both loved movement, and there's no better way to bond then in that way.
Later that night, I took them all to dinner and I took them through the Fort Pitt Tunnel for the first time in their lives and that bonded them as friends, but also made them understand my vision for the movie and how beautiful I felt the movie was. Because if you have ever actually done the drive, it's astonishing, it's an astonishing thing to do.
Have you ever stood up on the back of a pick-up truck?
No, I have never done the back of the pick-up truck—no, no, no. I begged people to just not do it. We had safety cables, it was a beautiful image, but I wanted to do it. But, yeah I just hope no one does it. Anyway, so there were many other bonding things. All I’d say is once all the kids got in to that hotel, they basically took it over and turned it into a little common room/dorm room and they drove the management slightly crazy, but it was all in good fun. And they became friends—I don’t know, it meant a lot to me to watch them come together like that and be there for each other.
Yeah, that definitely comes across on screen, and you feel like you went to high school with these people. By the end of the movie, you are part of their group of friends.
You are, yes, and that’s exactly what I wanted it to feel like. Especially for a person who may be alone out there, who doesn’t feel like they have a whole lot of friends. I wanted to get that person back for him.
Do you have any other plans to write another book?
Yes, I’m two-thirds of the way through my next book right now, and it will either come out next year or the year after.
Is it going to be another coming-of-age novel?
Not exactly, but it will definitely be emotional. It will deal with some of the same themes. But it is more of a loving tribute to Stephen King, who is my favorite author. And it is about the friends that you make when you are a little kid.
I love this one. Obviously Perks is always going to have a special place in my heart, but I love what I’m writing right now.
Well, congratulations on the book and the film. The movie is getting great reviews and I think it's absolutely amazing.
I really appreciate it because I knew there was a little risk in doing the movie. And I wanted to take it, because I thought it could do some good. And it gave me all these wonderful friends and it’s the most gratifying. I really appreciate your time and your obvious fondness for it, it means a lot to me.