The perks of a Pittsburgher: Back home, Stephen Chbosky directs a film version of his novel
Stephen Chbosky says people in Pittsburgh have been respectful during filming of "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."
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Call it the perks of being a Pittsburgher. Or playing one in "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."
Upper St. Clair native Stephen Chbosky, who is directing a movie version of his novel, gave his young stars "a crash course in Pittsburgh." He literally wanted to provide Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Nina Dobrev, Mae Whitman and others with the flavor of the city.
His book largely is set in 1991-92 -- a time of mix tapes, VCRs and fanzines rather than iPods, DVRs and Facebook pages or websites -- but some things never change.
"Being a teenager is still being a teenager, but they didn't know what Sarris chocolate pretzels were until they came here. They hadn't had chipped ham, and they hadn't had chicken paprikash, and they hadn't had cheese fries from the Original O or a sandwich at Primanti Bros.
"This was the homework that I gave them. Needless to say, they loved their homework," the director-writer said in an interview this week at a Pittsburgh hotel.
For the record, he was not "gingerly munching Chinese chicken salad," to borrow a passage from the book, which skewers fatuous interviews with untalented celebrities.
He is the real literary deal, celebrated for penning a poignant coming-of-age novel with 1 million-plus copies in print and comparisons to "The Catcher in the Rye" and "A Separate Peace." He also wrote the film version of "Rent" and co-created TV's "Jericho."
The boyish-looking 41-year-old, clad this day in jeans and a short-sleeve navy polo shirt, was sipping a diet Coke as he offered an apology to anyone who had to cool his heels -- and motor -- last week so "Perks" could film on the Parkway West and inside the Fort Pitt Tunnel.
"I would like to formally ask the forgiveness of my beloved hometown and to thank them for being so patient. But I think that when everyone sees Emma Watson flying out of the tunnel -- standing up on a pickup truck -- I think they'll agree that it was worth it."
Mr. Chbosky calls that sequence "a particular dream come true for me, in a whole series of dreams come true, which is what this movie is. I've had those images of the kids flying through the tunnel in my head for about 18 years now, and to finally have actually filmed it on Wednesday feels pretty fantastic."
Sporadic rain on Thursday, the second of two nights of filming, forced a stoppage inside the tunnel as the crew dried off the black Ford pickup and then relaunched it so there would be no continuity gaffes.
The British actress known as Hermione in the "Harry Potter" series was safeguarded by a harness in scenes shot with a stunt driver at the wheel and police nearby. So, kids, don't try this at home, even if you are feeling "infinite," to quote lead character Charlie.
After sharing Ms. Watson's declaration that it was "one of the greatest moments of her life," the director says, "Those of us from Pittsburgh, we understand how beautiful it is, but to hear it from an outsider was very special."
The book is a series of letters written by Charlie, a suburban Pittsburgh teen, as he navigates his freshman year of high school, a family with its share of secrets and his introduction to new friends, dating, mind-altering substances, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," transformative trips and memory minefields.
"There was nowhere else I could have made this movie, with the authenticity and the magic that Pittsburgh has," said the director, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife of eight months, writer Liz Maccie.
However, if Pennsylvania's tax credit for film and TV production had not been extended, he said he would have spent only a week in Pittsburgh and the rest of two months mournfully faking it elsewhere.
Mr. Lerman, who was Christian Bale's older son in "3:10 to Yuma" and the lead in "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief," plays Charlie, while Ms. Dobrev ("Vampire Diaries") is his sister and Zane Holtz (ABC Family's "Make It or Break It") his older brother.
The sister is a high school senior, and the brother plays football at Penn State University while dreams of the Steelers dance in his relatives' heads.
Kate Walsh and Dylan McDermott portray their parents, Melanie Lynskey is Aunt Helen and Paul Rudd an English teacher who feeds Charlie great books.
The director had been an admirer of Mr. Lerman's work when they had lunch in Los Angeles and the actor, who turned 19 in January, later gave "the greatest audition for the role and when it was done, I knew that there could be no other Charlie.
"He just connected to the character completely, with no direction, no prompting from me. ... I got in my car and I drove home and I actually got very emotional because I knew I'd found my kid." Moviegoers will watch Charlie write the letters that form the story's spine and we will hear them in his voice.
As Sam and Patrick, Ms. Watson and Ezra Miller are high school seniors and step siblings who befriend Charlie.
Although Ms. Watson, now 21, was dead set against more high school roles, her agent pressed the script on her, and the actress fell in love with it. "Once she and I met, we both knew in each other we had a kindred spirit," Mr. Chbosky says.
In January, she made the rounds at LA studios to plead the case for "Perks." Summit Entertainment, the studio behind "Twilight," said yes. "We wouldn't be making the movie without her passion for it," the director-writer says.
As for the fans who turn up on the sidelines to see Ms. Watson, Mr. Chbosky reports, "The crowds have been very respectful of our process and her time. Those people who have come out to watch filming -- and there have been quite a few of them -- I think they just want to witness what's happening. There's never been a moment in the middle of a take where someone goes, 'Emma!' Doesn't happen."
Rounding out the cast: Mae Whitman is chatty Mary Elizabeth, who tenaciously clings to the notion she's Charlie's girlfriend; Johnny Simmons is a closeted gay jock; and newcomer Erin Wilhelmi completes the circle of friends as Alice.
Mr. Chbosky is shooting mostly in the South Hills communities of Upper St. Clair, Peters, Bethel Park and Dormont although he turned up on the West End Overlook Friday night as prom-goers posed for photos of their own.
When a girl learned who he was, she entreated, "Take a picture with us." He did, weeks ahead of the prom he will stage along with a big football game that could be populated with volunteer extras. (Details will be published once available.)
Filming in Bethel Presbyterian Church, dressed as a Catholic church, allowed Mr. Chbosky to exercise his perks of being a director.
In a scene with twin Communion lines, he placed Ms. Walsh on one side and his mother, Lea Chbosky, on the other, while Mr. McDermott was paired with dad Fred Chbosky. "I basically, to the best of my ability, mirrored my fiction family and my real family on both sides of the aisle."
His retired parents live in Upper St. Clair, and his sister, Stacy, now a Californian, will turn up elsewhere on film with her preschooler son.
Mr. Chbosky, a 1988 graduate of Upper St. Clair High School with relatives in Duquesne, Monroeville, Homestead and Carnegie, knew he would be pressed for time to see friends so he made some of them extras.
Among them: Mary Lou Einloth, his first film teacher in high school, seated in a front pew. "We did a dolly [shot] around her to find Logan," and he later introduced her to the church. She chastised him for embarrassing her and then got tears in her eyes.
"Eileen, who is a waitress in Kings Family Restaurant, waited on my parents for years and years and years, and she's such a sweet lady that I had to put her in the movie as a waitress. She serves a mean egg."
Kings on McMurray Road functions as the book's Big Boy hangout although the teens no longer smoke because the reformed smoker doesn't want to encourage cigarette use.
"We just fell in love with Kings' old-fashion decor, and they were the nicest people to us. On this particular movie, that's been a real premium for production.
"We're trying to make a nice movie, and we really appreciate nice people. ... It's been a real delight introducing the cast to the Frownie Brownie and fried ice cream and Kings apple pie."
Mr. Chbosky, almost halfway through production, got out of the gate before the Pittsburgh-based "Still I Rise" starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal but says the talent pool is deep enough for both. "The bottom line here is that Pittsburgh crews and cast are fantastic."
Actor and special-effects guru Tom Savini, whom the director calls "a hero of mine," will turn up as a high school shop teacher. Filmmaker George A. Romero gave permission for use of his name on a marquee.
After all, in 1987, Mr. Chbosky attended a film festival at the Fulton Theater, Downtown, and walked away with a (now framed) poster autographed: "Steve, stay scared. I hope you get your first script produced. George Romero."
Although the book touches on subjects such as suicide, abuse and sex, Mr. Chbosky is aiming for a PG-13 rating. "I would find it very sad if the book could be available to a 13-year-old but the movie could not."
He emphasizes the story's emotional context more than its taboo topics in his screenplay. "I've matured a great deal since I wrote the novel, and the things that interest me have to do with the people far more than the activities."
The book, published in 1999, has served as a lifeline to readers who confide in letters that they felt so lost and depressed that they thought about killing themselves. "And then they said that they read the book and chose not to."
The movie could be just as powerful, he told the crew during a production meeting.
"I believe that, other than your love, the most important thing a person can give is their labor," he said. It was a lesson learned from hearing about his steelworker-grandfather who would go to the mill three times a day looking for work during the Depression but found none.
"In a tough economic time, we can all be grateful to have jobs. But further still, to know that those jobs have meaning. ... This film will literally save lives and if we do our best, it's going to matter to a lot of kids."
And "Perks" proves that Thomas Wolfe was wrong.
"I really, from the bottom of my heart, I wanted to thank the people here in Pittsburgh for embracing the movie and for supporting it the way they have. ... I think you can go home again and I'm very, very sorry about the Fort Pitt Tunnel, but when you see Emma Watson, I'm telling you, it will be worth it."
First Published June 1, 2011 12:00 am