The perks of being Stephen Chbosky: Upper St. Clair native talks about his novel and new film
Director Stephen Chbosky, left, speaks with Emma Watson and Logan Lerman on the set of "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," set and filmed in the Pittsburgh area. Mr. Chbosky will be making local appearances in conjunction with the film's premiere.
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If Stephen Chbosky is feeling infinite these days, who can blame him?
Blessed arrivals are all around him. His wife, Liz, gave birth to their darling daughter in August, and he has spent the past couple of weeks crisscrossing the continent to promote "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."
In the rarest of triple plays, he wrote the novel and then adapted it and directed the movie version in his hometown of Pittsburgh, where the story is set.
He assembled a cast, led by Emma Watson, Ezra Miller and Logan Lerman, that is hip, hot and highly talented. If someone comes to see Hermione graduate to a new role or revisit the stars of "We Need to Talk About Kevin" or "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief," all the better.
"Emma has been a great advocate of the movie, she's wonderful in it, but what I discovered is the people who go, it's a pretty even split between Emma's fans and the book's fans, and Ezra certainly has a lot of people who love him and Logan has his fan base.
"Look, whatever gets people into the theater, then they can judge for themselves, I'm all for it," the 42-year-old said during the Toronto International Film Festival. For someone who had arrived three hours earlier and is the father of an infant, he looked remarkably well rested or maybe just happy.
Entertainment Weekly has called "Perks" a "graceful and beguiling drama." Teens everywhere are making plans to squeeze it in between homecoming and the SAT, and Pittsburghers finally will get a look at the homegrown movie Friday when it opens at AMC-Loews at the Waterfront and the Manor in Squirrel Hill.
(The movie debuted at four locations in New York and Los Angeles five days ago, averaging an astonishing $61,000 per location, or almost 10 times what "The Master" raked in per venue.)
"Perks" is about the traumatic and triumphant freshman year of Charlie, a precocious student and social wallflower who is taken under the wing of two free-spirited seniors and stepsiblings. He shares, through letters or narration, first-time emotions and experiences, perceptive observations about the people around him and, eventually, heartrending memories that belatedly surface.
In advance of the "Perks" world premiere here, Summit Entertainment set up camp on the 23rd floor of the luxurious Trump hotel to arrange interviews in 9- or 15-minute increments (in most cases) with Mr. Chbosky and the cast.
The Upper St. Clair native recently had been in Seattle where he shared a stage with his mentor Stewart Stern, screenwriter of "Rebel Without a Cause" and inspiration for the model English teacher played by Paul Rudd in the film.
A seminar led by Mr. Stern at the University of Southern California convinced the Pittsburgh teen to enroll in the filmic writing program there. When the famous scribe suffered a major heart attack not long after, Mr. Chbosky wrote him an anonymous letter, much like Charlie does in the book, to say, "Thank you, you changed my life."
The 90-year-old and his wife attended an advance screening of "Perks" earlier this month, and he loved it. "Loved it-loved it," Mr. Chbosky reported.
"When the screenwriter of 'Rebel Without a Cause' gives you any compliment it means something, but he had already read the script, so he knew the script," but didn't know how Mr. Chbosky would translate it. "He said the tone, it's perfect. It's exactly what youth is, and it meant the world to me."
Paying respect to elders closer to home, Mr. Chbosky cast his parents in a "Perks" scene filmed in Bethel Presbyterian Church, dressed as a Catholic church, complete with twin Communion lines. He paired Lea and Fred Chbosky with actors Kate Walsh and Dylan McDermott, who play mom and dad to Mr. Lerman's character.
He purposely mirrored his fiction family with his real family, but not everyone got equal screen time.
Talking about his retired dad, he said, "Because it was better to open the scene with Dylan McDermott in a close-up, he's only in the very tail end of the wider shot. So he's bummed. But my mom is right there, and she does a great job." His sister, Stacy Chbosky, also turns up as a young mother.
Most of what Mr. Chbosky shot is in the movie, but some scenes with Charlie's suicidal friend, Michael, and a subplot involving Charlie's sister didn't make the final cut. The individual scenes and sequences are beautiful and the acting by Owen Campbell and Nina Dobrev fantastic, he said, but they proved to be too much.
"One more thing, I think, would have tipped it," he said of the movie's delicate emotional balance. The inclusion also might have robbed the power from other wrenching moments.
Mr. Chbosky's affection for his hometown, evident in the way he uses the city and its suburbs, is boundless. "I love Pittsburgh so much, I have everyone drinking the Kool-Aid," including the cast who stayed at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Bethel Park in spring and summer 2011.
Like real-life teens who rewatch Harry Potter movies instead of starring in them, the actors spent evenings playing music, talking, being silly, going to Eat'n Park or occasionally slipping away to the mall and movie theater across the street.
In a nod to the movie's signature scene, the filmmaker has offered to take visitors through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, music blaring, seat belts firmly in place. Although if the passengers twist around, they might see the vantage point on display early in the film.
"You know when you're a kid and look out the rear window? It's child-like, it's very almost hypnotic, there's something calming about it."
Mr. Chbosky, who is writing a book he calls a loving tribute to Stephen King, is that rare director who doesn't dream of more time or money to tweak his project. He finished the sound mix on the film in April, and the distance has given him the chance to see the project through fresh eyes once more.
"Look, to be a first-time studio director and to finish a movie and to look at the screen and say, if they gave me $20 million and another year to reshoot anything I wanted -- or gave me almost like a magic wand -- I wouldn't touch a frame of the movie.
"I wouldn't change a cast member, I wouldn't change a song and I'm really grateful to be able to say that, and I'm proud to be able to say that. I'm not saying it's a perfect movie, by any stretch, but even the mistakes became part of what I think is charming about it.
"I think it's an authentic celebration of what it means to be young, and it's everything I wanted the movie to be."
First Published September 26, 2012 12:00 am