Where was The Perks of Being a Wallflower when I was in high school? Okay, it was published in 1999 and my freshman year of high school was in 2006, so it was readily available to me. And apparently it’s also the novel that helped get many of my college-aged friends through their awkward pre-college years. One of said friends even has a tattoo of the novel’s most famous quote (“And in that moment, I swear we were infinite”).
My point here is if I had discovered Perks as a shy, lost high school freshman, I’m sure I would have immediately latched onto the story of Charlie and his search for love, acceptance and emotional stability. The man behind this masterfully crafted high school saga is Stephen Chbosky (pronounced Chahbahski – I learned that the hard way), who talked to CM about Perks, its upcoming film adaptation (which he’s directing) and what it really means to feel infinite.
(Photo credit: Isabel Tzeng)
Not An Autobiography
Chbosky is a proud graduate of the University of Southern California’s screenwriting program. The skills he learned in college helped him write the screenplay for the Rent movie, write and produce the fan-favorite television show Jericho and adapt Perks to the big screen.
“College to me was a pretty great time,” said the 42-year-old Pittsburgh native. “I made a lot of good friends, had a lot of experiences. It was invaluable for me in finding my voice as a writer. [USC] encouraged authentic expression about what we were feeling and about what life can be.”
Fiction writing didn’t become a part of Chbosky’s life until his senior year at USC. He said he found it “very freeing” and a great coping mechanism for breakups. His theory on writing: “the more personal someone makes art, the more universal it is.”
With that philosophy, you’d think Perks might be the story of Chbosky’s formative years. You’d also be wrong.
“It’s not an autobiography,” he said. “Everything that happens has happened to me or someone I know and care about. I tried to make [Charlie’s] family and friends as honest as I could and they became my surrogate family.”
His literary family helped take a book that only warranted an original order of 10,000 copies and transformed it into a teen classic that has now seen close to 1.2 million copies on the market. Did Chbosky ever expect this level of success?
“Not in this way,” he said. “I expected it to connect with some people because my friends read it and responded to it. What it’s done since then has been beyond my wildest dreams.”
I Felt Infinite When…
Perksis written in the form of letters that Charlie writes to…someone, somewhere. Why go that route? More importantly: who exactly is Charlie’s pen pal?
“I thought it was the mot intimate way to express directly to the reader what I was feeling,” Chbosky said. As for the mystery person’s identity, Chbosky wouldn’t budge. “Everyone’s answers are as legitimate as mine could be.”
Fine, be that way. He was more willing to discuss the aforementioned “infinite” quote, which has become Perks’ defining moment. Chbosky knows that feeling well.
“[I felt infinite] when I got married, found out my wife was pregnant, when I used to take road trips in college and I’d put on music and drive,” he said. “Every first kiss, every song.”
Infinity…a feeling I’d love to experience. One day.
Bringing It To Life
“The movie is everything I wanted it to be,” said Chbosky. “I wouldn’t touch a frame, change a song or cast member. There’s something magical that happened in summer 2011, when these kids found each other and became a family. It was a once in a lifetime experience.”
Chbosky was clearly proud of his baby and all the people who helped make it happen. The young cast includes Logan Lerman as Charlie, Ezra Miller as his gay friend Patrick and Emma Watson as love interest Sam.
“She wanted to play Sam so badly,” Chbosky said. “She gave everything to it. She’s a really generous actor and giving person. If people met her they’d be shocked at how down to earth she is.”
Watson and Lerman don’t have to wait long for a Perks reunion: they’re currently filming Darren Aronofsky’s (Black Swan) biblical epic Noah. Chbosky said that Aronofsky saw Perks and then cast them; whether the two are connected is up for speculation. Either way, we should all be excited to see this talented group of actors in action.
“There are so many breakout performances in this movie,” Chbosky said. “It’s one of the truly great young casts ever assembled.”
Black And Gold Love
The book was set and the movie was filmed in Chboksy’s (and my) hometown of Pittsburgh. As someone who grew up driving through the Fort Pitt Tunnel, I can attest that the view of downtown and our gorgeous skyline is enough to make anyone feel infinite (sitting next to Emma Watson doesn’t hurt either).
“I was so proud to go home and tell the story the right way,” said Chbosky, a lifelong Steelers and Pirates fan. “Some people asked me if I wanted to shoot in New York or Pasadena. For me it had to be King’s Diner, the Fort Pitt Tunnel, South Hills.”
Yay for hometown loyalty! Chbosky just exudes pride about Perks. He’s like a father whose kid just graduated from college. Speaking of the college crowd…
“If you’re in college, find and develop your voice,” Chbosky advised. “Every artist is different and unique. The best teachers will encourage you to create something a little more personal. It could mean sci-fi, action, mystery, comedy, however you authentically see the world.”
If you want to know exactly what Chbosky’s worldview looks like, check out The Perks of Being a Wallflower, in theaters this Friday. You’re all cordially invited to relive your high school years in all their glorious awkwardness.
“Making this movie this way was a dream come true,” Chbosky said. “It was wonderful to have this experience as an adult. This one is really special to me and I can’t wait for people to see it.”
Photo: at Zimbio