'Wallflower' writer-director Chbosky revels in city he loves
Some movies can do everything right and still leave you cold. Others find a way to bypass your critical faculties entirely.
For anyone who grew up around a certain time and/or place — late '80s/early '90s in Pittsburgh — “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” will be hard to resist.
The tumult of adolescence is fairly universal, so other generations can probably relate. And you certainly don't have to have grown up in Pittsburgh. But that wouldn't hurt, either.
“It was a dream come true to come home,” says Stephen Chbosky, an Upper St. Clair native who wrote the screenplay and the novel it was based on, and directed the film. “Perks” was shot last summer in Pittsburgh, with stars Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Paul Rudd, Kate Walsh and others, largely in and around the neighborhoods where Chbosky grew up.
“I've been watching movies set in Pittsburgh for so long,” Chbosky says. “Other than George Romero's work, when outsiders come in and try to make a ‘Pittsburgh' movie, they never got it right.
“I wanted to show that there is a Fort Pitt Tunnel, there is a Dormont. I wanted to show, even if it's just the South Hills, the Pittsburgh I grew up in, and the Pittsburgh that I love.”
“Perks” began life as a young-adult novel about a quiet, introspective kid named Charlie, who is attempting to cope with the first day of high school after the suicide of his best and only friend. Charlie, played in the film by Logan Lerman, finds his isolation challenged by a teacher (Paul Rudd) and a pair of eccentric senior step-siblings, Patrick (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson), and their crew of misfit friends.
Chbosky calls the story “semi-autobiographical.”
“The movie ended up becoming more autobiographical than the book,” Chbosky says. “Going back to those locations, looking back at where I grew up through a lens, gave a sense of detail that the book — which was written in New York City — didn't have. ... It just brought up all these memories.”
Setting movies in the suburbs is generally easy, since they tend to look largely the same wherever you go. But the Pittsburgh region's quirks tend to stand out in a way that's more than just topography.
“I loved showing all my fellow artists who worked on the movie the city that I love,” Chbosky says. “The Hollywood Theater in Dormont — that's where I first saw ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show,' which is very meaningful to me. King's Family Restaurant has a different feeling than any generic diner. ... Shooting all over Upper St. Clair, the hills, the trees, re-creating luminaria on the street where I grew up. The scene where Aunt Helen is talking to little Charlie, if you turn the camera to the left, that's my parents' house. We ate chipped ham sandwiches on set. Logan just fell in love with chipped ham sandwiches.”
Chbosky has written a number of screenplays, including the film version of “Rent,” and the TV series “Jericho.” This is his first attempt as a director.
“I was going to direct that movie, or there would be no movie,” he says. “I wrote the screenplay on spec. We made the film we wanted to make. I knew if I went into the Hollywood system (with the screenplay), it would have been eaten alive. To be a first-time studio director ... I didn't have final cut, but I might as well have. If they gave me $10 million and all the time in the world to re-shoot and recut anything — ‘Hey, you want a different song, or cast member?' — I wouldn't change a frame of the movie.
“I'm very humble and grateful for that, having been in the business for a while, I know how rare that is.”
Unlike a lot of teen-centered films, “Perks” gives its adult characters more well-rounded roles, instead of depicting them as remote, or simply out-of-touch with their children.
“The movie plays both ways,” Chbosky says. “I wanted to celebrate, validate and respect what kids go through; but, at the same time, treat their parents with the same respect. If I could make a movie that a kid would love — because it's about what they're going through — and an adult could love — because it's about what they remember going through — maybe that family would talk a little more with each other.”
Paul Rudd's character — a freshman English teacher and former playwright, who sees Charlie's potential and supplies him with unassigned books — is based on one of Chbosky's real teachers.
“When I was 17 years old, I wanted to go to film school, and I visited USC (University of Southern California),” Chbosky says. “It happened to be the day Stewart Stern was giving a lecture. He wrote “Rebel Without a Cause.' I'm 17 years old, I don't know anybody, and now I'm listening to a guy talk about the day he met James Dean, and how Paul Newman was his best friend. Of course, my mind was blown. I went there specifically because of him.
“He became my mentor. He was the first who read the screenplay for ‘Perks.' We did a Q&A together three weeks ago in Seattle, which is one of the greatest moments I've ever had, because he's the direct inspiration for the character. He's the one who said to me, ‘You can do this.' ”
Casting the film was a particular challenge, but Chbosky thinks he's found a group of young actors who will have an impact for years to come.
“I told our casting directors, ‘This is a tall order, but I want to put together the best young cast since ‘The Outsiders.' ... And, in so many ways, I think we succeeded.”
All of the young stars had previous high-profile roles under their belts, but hadn't yet attained superstar status — well, except for Watson, in her first major post-“Harry Potter” role.
“What struck me was how passionate they were about the story, how much they wanted to do it right — (whether) it was how effortless the acting was for Emma, how hard she worked, and how much she wanted to be free and wild.
“Ezra Miller is a real wild card — such an inspired improvisational actor. What surprised me was that he loved direction, and collaboration. If you meet Logan in real life, he's so confident. But he really wanted to play Charlie in the audition, and I couldn't believe how well he understood the character.”
Chbosky is curious to see what people will think of the film years down the road.
“Twenty years from now, it'll be the most gratifying moment when someone says, ‘Wow, all those kids are in that one movie.' I think there are seven legitimate stars, that will be stars for a long time.”
Directors often have a hard time pinpointing a favorite scene from their own films, but not Chbosky. There are a few key scenes that involve driving through the Fort Pitt Tunnel that stick out, in particular.
“We in Pittsburgh, we know how magical that tunnel is. I can't believe that of all the productions that have ever gone (to Pittsburgh), no one has ever tried to capture the magic of that moment. I'm so proud that I got to be the first one.”
Bringing the production to Pittsburgh was always a goal, something Chbosky thought about long before he actually had the chance.
“I remember when the city was going through such a tough time in the early '80s with the steel business. I remember when Michael Keaton brought ‘Gung Ho' to shoot in Pittsburgh, and millions of dollars. I thought that was a great thing that he did. And I said whenever I can shoot in Pittsburgh, I want to come home and bring business to the city I love.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com or 412-320-7901.
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