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Capone shares fond and traumatic high school remembrances with THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER author/writer/director Stephen Chbosky!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

Stephen Chbosky has had an interesting and not exactly linear career. After writing, directing and starring in the 1995 independent film THE FOUR CORNERS OF NOWHERE (one of the first films to go into heavy rotation when the Sundance Channel was created), he wrote one of the quintessential books about young adults, THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, an autobiographical tale of his time as a high school freshman being taken under the collective wing of a group of outcast seniors. The novel was published the the fledgling MTV Books in 1999 and became a best seller almost immediately.

In the 2000s, Chbosky took on a variety of work, including writing the screenplay for the film adaptation of RENT and helping to create the cult series "Jericho," which was one of the first cancelled network shows brought back to life thanks to a letter-writing campaigns by fans; the show died early in its second season. But Chbosky has always wanted to take a crack at turning PERKS into a movie, which is what he did. He took on the added burden of being the film's director as well, and he's put together a remarkable film starring Logan Lerman, Emma Watson (in her first film since the HARRY POTTER films), and a star-making turn by Ezra Miller.

When I introduced PERKS to a Chicago audience a few weeks back, I said, "If you had a pulse in high school, you'll be able to identify with at least one character in this movie," and I stand by that statement. Chbosky has made a movie testament to the power of good friends during tough times. And I know so many people who were befriended during high school by elder classmen just because they were good people. I remember getting to know junior and senior members of the drama department of my high school, and my passion for and knowledge about movies was the launch pad for our friendship.

The morning after a fantastic Q&A with Chbosky, I got to sit down with him. I found out he's stayed a whole hour after the movie, signing books and ticket stubs, and posing for every photo. He appreciates every fan, and is rightfully proud of his movie, which beautifully captures the insecurity and vulnerability of people that age both in the early 1990s and today. Please enjoy my talk with Stephen Chbosky…

Stephen Chbosky: What’s up, man?

Capone: Since a few hours ago? Not much. I heard you were there for a while after I left.

SC: Yeah, there were a lot of kids that brought books, and I signed a lot of tickets. What was really gratifying was the people who were like, “I’ve never heard of your book, but I’m going to buy it now.” I’m like, “That’s music to my ears. Thank you.”

Capone: That’s really the goal, to get that kind of response.

SC: It’s really sweet.

Capone: One of the things that occurred to me seeing the film the first time was that this is a story that embraces really kind people. Sure, you’ve got a few bullies in the mix, but you don’t really linger on them. It’s really just about good people. There’s no trumped-up villain. That’s a risky thing I think these days, not to have like something to fight against, or maybe they are fighting against something that’s a little more intangible.

SC: God, what a great compliment. Thank you. Kind people interest me, and the struggles of kind people interest me, and even the two, if you could even call them more troubled souls--if it’s Brad or if it’s Aunt Helen--it was very important to me to now vilify those characters, to see what’s human and what’s troubled about them. Yeah, I have no time or interest in assholes, I just don’t.

Capone: In fact, Charlie might do the meanest thing in the whole story. He might do the worst thing at least in the context of the high school story.

SC: He does, but in a way, every now and then, it really hurts to be honest.

Capone: It came up yesterday about how you don’t really give physical descriptions of the characters in your book. Was it tough to commit to a look, an actual type?

SC: Honestly, I just looked at the talent of the actor and the nature of their personality. I was casting actors, yes, but I was casting people, and it’s what they all brought. I mean I originally thought Charlie would be blonde. I originally thought that Sam would have green eyes. But then once they audition, and you meet them you realize “No, this is the person.” It was really easy to let go. Also something that helped me a great deal when I made the movie was I knew I had the book. I had the book exactly the way I wanted it, and so it was exciting to see how certain cast members made the story evolve.

Capone: Yeah. Was it tough in a bigger sense that you have this first-person account in the book. Everything that we read, Charlie has written in that book and it's his perception more than maybe reality. Whereas in a movie, you are committing. Even though he is narrating it, it’s more finite.

SC: It is. Yeah, that was tricky, because in the book, Charlie could just say, “Patrick is so funny,” and because Charlie is a credible narrator, we just accept that Patrick is funny, and we love Patrick as Charlie loves Patrick. The trick and the challenge in adapting was I had to basically create a movie where each audience member felt as Charlie would feel about all of the characters, and that was a real challenge.

Capone: How did you get through that? What was the breakthrough?

SC: It was the decision that I made about the character of Michael [Charlie's best friend prior to high school]. I knew that part of the backstory is that Michael killed himself, and when I said, “Alright, I’m going to bring it up in this moment at that party, and in this way, I’m not going to make a big deal out of it. I’m going to blindside the audience. They know something is going on with him, but they don’t quite know what it is, and then when he says that without sentiment. It’s not “Oh, woe is me.” He's not pitying himself. He’s not a victim. It’s just a part of this life and this thing that he carries around.

That gave me the whole aesthetic for Charlie and really the movie to just show some restraint and don’t be melodramatic, be truthful and respectful about what this experience is for kids. In terms of Patrick, what I found was that once I got to the football game and once those three were together, and I so enjoyed writing their banter, like "What's your favorite song?" or the lines like, "You can write about us." "Yeah, call it 'Slut and the Falcon'." I just fell in love with these kids and loved the way that they interacted with each other.

Capone: With Charlie’s announcement that his best friend had killed himself--I had not read the book--I had assumed that that was going to be something that we dealt with later and we don’t really, but you said that you actually did shoot some scenes or a scene…

SC: I shot one flashback scene with David, and what I found was that Aunt Helen was the ghost of the past, that there wasn’t really room for two and that two was emotionally somewhat confusing for the audience and for me. My editor, Mary Jo Markey, gave me a great piece of advice. She said, “Listen Steve, you wrote the book, so every one of these characters is huge to you, but that’s not true for someone that’s never seen it or never read it. You can let go sometimes.”

Capone: That’s got to be a tough piece of advice to follow, letting go.

SC: It is. Listen, I knew the book so well, but that’s why it was lovely to have the book and to embrace the collaborative nature of it. So [producers] Lianne [Halfon] and Russ [Smith] gave me so much great advice along with [producer] John Malkovich and Mary Jo Markey. So many people helped me, and I needed help.

Capone: You mentioned yesterday that you had been thinking about turning this into a screenplay for a while before you actually did it. Was directing also the intention this whole time?

SC: Always. Since day one, I was never going to let this go without making it myself, and that’s why when I wrote it, I didn’t sell it and then go through three years of development. I just saved my money from "Jericho" and I lived on that and I wrote this screenplay on spec. Once it was ready to go out, that’s when I got my producers, and I did one more draft with some of their input, and then we got Emma and then we got Logan and never got a script note from the studio.

It was the only way to do it, because it was so personal to me, and I’m not a jerk, and a lot of directors that get their own way can be really, really tough personalities to deal with, and I was never going to be that guy, because I’m a gentle kind of person. So I had to just be very prepared in order for it to come out the way I wanted it. But yes, I was always going to direct it. It was the dream. This moment right now as it’s coming out, this is a 21 years in the making dream right now.

Capone: That also means that if it’s no good and it comes out bad it’s all on you.

SC: [Laughs] It's all on me, 100 percent. It was the biggest risk of my career, easily. What I found was I had to do it. Like I said last night, it woke up my love of writing novels and it woke up my love of filmmaking. I love directing. I love it. Full disclosure, when I went in, I said, “I could hate this. I could hate the collaborative nature and feel like everyone is trying to take from this story,” and it was just the opposite. I love the actors. I love the crew. It was a great experience. I can’t wait to make another movie.

Capone: I’m guessing when the book came out--and I’m sure you’ll be getting another round of it when the movie comes out--people said to you, “This is my story.” I know with the group of critics that I saw it with last week, there were about five of us that hung around talking about the movie and the parallels your story had to our own experiences. I think three of the five of us, we had been "adopted" by upper classmen in the theater department in our high schools, which is not the case in your story, but they do sahre a love of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW. All the theater people I knew took me to ROCKY HORROR. Do you get sick of hearing stories likes that?

SC: Never in a million years. You have to understand, you're a writer; so am I. We're the writer types, and the writer types were always a little bit left of center and maybe we are a little precocious for certain ages, and so we would seek that out. We would seek out that guidance and those experiences. So yeah, I don’t get sick of hearing it. I think it’s great.

Here’s the magic trick with PERKS: I write it for personal reasons, and then you publish it and you very deliberately make the movie to make certain people not feel alone, whether it’s kids or even adults who might have gone through some of these things, and every person that comes up to you and says, “This is my story,” the person that doesn’t feel alone is me. That’s the whole thing. How could I ever get sick of that? How could I ever get sick of “Hey, you know those things that have been inside of you that you have been obsessed with, or you felt alone with? Guess what, you’re not.”

Capone: So you wrote a book to reveal your own support system.

SC: [laughs] No, I didn’t. When I say it was a “magic trick,” I mean I didn’t anticipate this. But the response was so overwhelming that you think, “Oh, it wasn’t just me,” and it’s the best, man. That’s why talking and doing interviews, I could talk about it all day and I have at times. I’m just starting now, and people are like, “Oh man, you’re going to burn out.” No. Because you bring a completely different thing than anybody I’ve talked to today. It would astound you. It’s different every time, because every person is different.

Capone: Do you think if you wrote the book today and set it in the present, that it would be a different story? People don’t really make mix tapes anymore. People don’t write letters.

SC: It would be a different story, yes. I wanted to capture that last time before the internet and cell phones changed everything. It changed communication. It changed how people relate. It’s like this last bit of nostalgia, but filmed in a way that’s kind of timeless, because I don’t make the biggest deal about the early '90s, because I didn’t want it to exclude kids. I didn’t want it to feel outside of their own experience, so I just avoided the whole internet and cellphone subject.

Capone: Many of your literary references are mentioned there on the page and on the screen, but what your film touchstones for this movie?

SC: I studied what I consider to be classic coming-of-age stories, starting with REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, written by Stewart Stern, and I was one of the few people lucky enough where I read it before I saw it. It’s an amazing screenplay that he wrote. THE GRADUATE, HAROLD AND MAUDE, STAND BY ME, DEAD POETS SOCIETY, and BREAKFAST CLUB. BREAKFAST CLUB was very much out of the '80s in style and other elements. But I remember how I felt when I saw it and I remember that it so spoke to me directly and I wanted to capture or pay tribute to that spirit.

Capone: I saw THE BREAKFAST CLUB in high school so I knew John Hughes was speaking to me. But it is that relatability that you’ve got that helps win the day. There’s something for everyone.

SC: There is and again when I wrote the book, that was not deliberate at all. It was a fiercely personal story to me and it was lovely to learn what was personal to me was universal to some folks, and I just followed that with the movie. The novel I wrote with blinders on, because I was just in my little room in New York City. Now I know what it is and I want to pay tribute to the fans.

Capone: I did want to talk about the cast and in particular Emma, because as strange as it might seem, I think she was the biggest gamble in your movie in terms of casting, because she brings a certain baggage with her. What was the deciding factor for you in having her in the movie?

SC: I thought she was an incredibly talented young actress and such a nice person. When I met her, I just knew it was there. I knew it, and I had so much faith in her and still have. Really, the sky is the limit for this girl, and she takes it so seriously and she’s such a hard worker that I didn’t feel the gamble. I just felt like it was going to work. I just had faith, I really did. Maybe it was a gamble, I don’t know.

I told a couple of Emma stories yesterday. This is actually my favorite one that I didn’t tell, because it had nothing to do with filming; it had to do with what got us there. We had the script. We had her involvement. We had Logan, and we had these wonderful producers, and it took us about six or seven months to get financing and to get someone to say yes, which is really fast actually. What did it was her. She flew into L.A. and she had tons of meetings and she’s being offered everything. She’s turning down everything. And she would go to the heads of studio and say, “Make THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, and no one would.” She finally had dinner with Erik Feig of Summit, and he was finally like “Okay, you want me to make PERKS. What is it about this movie?” She says, “I think this would prevent someone from killing themselves, and that’s why I want to do it.” That girl, at that dinner, she came to town and she got it done. She was 21 meeting with heads of studios going, “Make THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER.”

Capone: Twenty one, but having made movies more than half her life.

SC: You know what? There are a lot of people that would not take an active role, that would just sit back and take in the offers and ride the wave. She doesn’t do that. So there was no gamble. Any young person that took it that seriously and helped us get it made far more than I think most actors would, there’s no gamble. She was going to be terrific and she is.

Capone: Was there any pressure to get that PG-13 rating, or had that always been the intention? There's a fair amount of drug use and sex, or at least sex talk.

SC: That was always my intention. The only thing I deliberately cut and it had nothing to do with the rating, but my own conscience, was the smoking, because I knew the power that that could have. I saw HEATHERS and was like, “Christian Slater looks so good smoking,” and I had smoked for almost 20 years and I couldn’t encourage anyone to do it. So that was deliberate on my part.

Capone: Self editing on your part.

SC: 100 percent. I knew the power of it. I’m no fool. I knew it was fine. I watched enough movies, whether it’s JUNO or SOCIAL NETWORK or EASY A and all of these films, and I got a basic idea about what the rules were and I didn’t feel I had to make any compromises whatsoever. It was, “You’re allowed to say the word 'fuck' one time.” That’s an actual rule and Ezra Miller got the "fuck."

Capone: That was a great line.

SC: That was pure Ezra. Originally, it was Logan with, “You touch my friends again, and I’ll fucking blind you.” But Ezra was so good that I used the other one. It was never supposed to be R rated, and even though the book has harsher language and a few more stories, they teach it in high schools. It was never supposed to be exploitative.

That was always the aim, and I never felt compromised from it. What was lucky for us is they gave us an R rating, and we went in and had an appeals hearing. Erik Feig and myself went in, and we spoke to 12 jury members of the MPAA, and they overturned it. We didn’t have to touch a frame. They overturned it 9-to-3. I am so astonished that I was able to get the one thing that I desperately wanted to get, which was when the communion wafer becomes the tab of acid, and I actually had a version cut in case they wouldn’t give it to us where you see the thing, and then the music changes, and you kind of know. That would have been so blasphemous.

Capone: There is some rule about actually showing the drug usage. You can show a kid exhaling pot smoke, but you can’t show him inhale.

SC: Yeah, there were all of these rules. But be showed ingestion twice, but when you’re able to go in and say, as much as I love SUPERBAD, and I thought it was great, this isn’t SUPERBAD. There is a huge difference between what PERKS is doing and what SUPERBAD did.

Capone: Your argument was “intent”?

SC: The argument was they're concerned with what the vast majority of American parents will feel, and our point was, “Listen, this is taught in high schools. It’s been in high schools for 10 years. Parents aren’t going to be blindsided by that, they know what it is, so just let it happen,” and luckily they agreed.

Capone: There are still so many things we could talk about. We didn’t even get to the music stuff, but we covered a lot.

SC: Well listen, Steve, if you need more stuff, call me, alright?

Capone: Okay. Thank you so much. Take it easy.

SC: You too, and thanks for last night.

-- Steve Prokopy
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