'Wallflower' director and star take a 'Time Warp' to the '90s
It took Stephen Chbosky four months spread out over several years to write his novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, an earnest tale of a troubled high-school freshman finding friends among his new school's social outcasts.
Turning that novel into a screenplay, and then into a movie, took longer.
"It took me a year to write the script," Chbosky said in a recent phone interview, ahead of the release of "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," which arrives in Salt Lake City theaters today.
The book and movie, set in the 1991-92 school year, tell of Charlie, who befriends the offbeat Patrick and his sensitive stepsister, Sam. Charlie becomes a watchful observer of these suburban bohemians as they use drugs, alcohol and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" to break out of their high-school conformity.
Going from the novel in which Charlie narrates through a series of letters to an unnamed pen pal to a script "is such a difficult point-of-view shift. â¦ Since Charlie is such a reliable narrator, he can tell us Sam is nice. [In a film,] you have to earn every piece of that, so you feel about Sam the way Charlie did in the book."
Chbosky also had to build his reputation in Hollywood before he could take on the job. The novel was published in 1999, and in the interim Chbosky earned credits for co-creating the cult TV series "Jericho" and writing the screenplay for the movie version of the Broadway musical "Rent."
The key to making "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" work was finding a perfect cast to play Chbosky's yearning teens.
"The first time I read [the script], I didn't know which character appealed to me the most," said Logan Lerman, who ultimately was cast as Charlie. "Each character was a gem."
Lerman, best known for playing demigod Percy Jackson in "The Lightning Thief," found Charlie's role "the most challenging. He's pretty different than I am. â¦ I just wanted something to keep me creatively inspired. This was the one that was on my mind for that whole year, year-and-a-half [after I read it]."
Chbosky had seen Lerman in "The Lightning Thief" and thought he would audition to play the more extroverted Patrick. But "I believe in going with any artist's passion," Chbosky said. "He was the second kid I read for the part, and he was the last."
Chbosky saw Ezra Miller in the 2009 indie "City Island" but thought he was too young to play Patrick. Then he saw Miller's videotaped audition.
"I was blown away," Chbosky said. "We did a callback over Skype the next day. We did that at 5 o'clock, and we cast him by 11." (One stipulation Miller made to Chbosky was that the director could not watch Miller's last movie, "We Need to Talk About Kevin," in which Miller plays a teen sociopath.)
For the last piece of the triangle, the beautiful but fragile Sam, Chbosky approached Emma Watson, the British actress who had just finished a decade portraying supersmart witch Hermione Granger in the "Harry Potter" series.
"She wanted to break out of the 'Harry Potter' world, put on the American accent," Chbosky said of Watson. He recalled their first meeting: "We all have it in our lives, when you sit down with somebody and you have a bond. I got this girl, and she got me. I was going to challenge her, and she was going to challenge me."
Among the challenges for the cast was to be introduced to a movie that is well before their time: "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
The musical 1975 cult classic plays a major part in the film, and Chbosky introduced his cast to it by taking them to see it in the same Pittsburgh theater where he watched and performed it as a teenager.
"I knew 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show,' but I had never seen it before live," Lerman recalled. "We all saw it for the first time. It was incredible. I was saying, 'Oh, s-, I have to be the guy in the gold thong.' "