Stephen Chbosky Explains Why 'Perks' Had to Be PG-13
By Shana Naomi Krochmal
Photo: Stephen Chbosky, Emma Watson, and Logan Lerman on set.
Earlier this summer, Ezra Miller explained how important Stephen Chbosky's book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, when he was growing up: "“One [friend] said, ‘This is my favorite book.’ The other said, ‘This book saved my life.’ So I read it and I found one of the best mythological maps for being a fucked-up kid.” Now that it's adapted into a film by the author and opens in theaters this week (September 21), we wanted to share more of what Chbosky had to say about the experience and what the book and movie mean to him.
ON ADAPTING THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER:
Stephen Chbosky: Perks is a very different adaptation for me, because I wrote the book and I knew I was going to direct the movie. I needed the extra time away from the book to go into the screenplay with any kind of objectivity. Books are more intimate. They’re more subjective than movies. So I try to take the heart and soul of the story and find a way of telling the subjective story in an objective medium. The most challenging part was to look at the material from a completely different angle. The book is 100-percent from Charlie’s point of view. There is not a lot of dialogue, and we experience all the other characters through his eyes exclusively. Sam and Patrick exist and we care about them because Charlie is saying, “This is Sam, she’s so great. This is Patrick, he’s so funny.” In a movie you have to earn all that. You have to show it. I look at the book and I’m very proud—I wouldn’t change a word of it, to be honest.
ON WHY PERKS HAD TO BE RATED PG-13:
I wanted that 13-year-old kid who really needs to see it to not have to wait. And so the only decisions I made to ensure that were language. That’s it. No content was changed because of that. In order to get a PG-13 rating you can only say the word fuck one time. The book doesn’t use the word fuck all that often anyway. When I wrote the book, I was in my mid-twenties. When I wrote the screenplay, I was in my mid-thirties. Like anybody else, as you get older, maybe you feel more responsible and you want to take care of people more. All the choices that I made to get the PG-13, I would have done regardless. I don’t want to have kids smoking in movies, because I know that Patrick has the potential to be a heroic character to hundreds of thousands of kids. And if he’s smoking, then a whole lot of them will start smoking. I do believe that movies have that power if the character is that lovable. And Ezra and I discussed this. I said, “I don’t want to kill any kids, so we’re getting rid of this.” Yes, there’s drinking in the movie. Yes, there’s drug use. There’s other things that are authentic to being a kid. But since they were never the point of the book, they’re more in the background. If you want to find them, they’re there, but that’s not the central story, so I didn’t feel like I compromised anything.
ON CASTING LOGAN LERMAN AS CHARLIE:
After Emma [Watson] came on board, we started looking for Charlies. We auditioned two people. He was the second. And 15 seconds into the audition, we knew he was it. He played the impossible. He has to be completely awkward and at the same time the most winning one. You have to be believable as a loner, and at the same time be cute. You have to be all shades of emotion and bring that level of observation to believe that these words and letters are coming from that kid. Before I even started the movie, I was worried. And then Logan was the second one, and I never had to look past it. He’s great.
ON CASTING EZRA MILLER AS PATRICK:
Ezra Miller is such a force of nature, and he’s such a good person. He’s so authentically himself. He was the only person to play this part. What we didn’t know—what you can’t know, because we had to cast the movie in five weeks—was what a good person he was. He showed up and, far more than just what he provided artistically on screen, was the morale that he brought to the set, the kindness that he showed his fellow cast members. Sometimes a talent like Ezra’s will eat up everyone around him. But he is exactly that while giving the whole time, which is really rare. Ezra was right because he’s authentically himself. He’s so funny. He’s free. He’s comfortable being Ezra Miller and he really fundamentally understood the character of Patrick. All of us on set—adults and kids alike—looked at Ezra in wonder. How can someone be that free at being themself? And Ezra makes it look easy.
ON HIS OWN SEXUALITY:
I’m basically a straight boy. What’s funny is that because I’m a straight dude, I’ve literally never been asked that question. I have two formative stories when it comes to gay kids. One is something that I experienced with my mom, which was amazing. The other is a kid I knew in college.
Growing up in a far more homophobic time in the ’80s, there was this one episode—I’ll never forget it—of the television show Cheers, where they’re trying to figure out who are the two gay guys in the bar. I was really young, maybe 13. Especially at that time growing up in Pittsburgh, I didn’t know gay from anything. And I remember—I don’t know what word they used on that show, I don’t know if it was fruits or something much more derogatory. Being a young kid then one of my favorite heroes was Eddie Murphy. And Eddie Murphy said faggot all the time. That was normal. And I remember this episode and I remember how the guys on the show treated the gay guy. And that my mom was like, “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.” I remember asking her, “What is gay?” And she was like, “It’s when two men or two women love each other the way your dad and I love each other.” And I was like, okay. It was just normal. And because she made it normal and natural and beautiful, that just became my understanding of it.
Then later in college, I met a guy [who was] a lot of the basis for Brad and Patrick. A guy who was raised Orthodox Jewish, and he was gay. And this is late ’80s, early ’90s, and he hated himself for it. So rather than have a boyfriend or just date, he just went to parks. And then he became HIV-positive in college. And thank God he’s still alive, he’s still healthy, [but] at the time when he told me he was HIV positive that was back when it was a death sentence. As a kid, he was so tortured. It informed a great deal of the relationship that Brad had with himself, and ultimately his acceptance of himself was one of the primary inspirations for Patrick. I wanted to have a character who was always out and always okay with himself.
Even though I’m a straight guy, I’d always had a real kinship with all of my gay friends. Myself for my own reasons and them for their reasons, but we all had a tougher time or a more confusing time coming to grips with [our sexuality]. And all of my empathies came from that.