The Perks of Being a Pittsburgher
As his opus is released to theaters nationwide, Upper St. Clair’s Stephen Chbosky comes home.
Stephen Chbosky is a genuine auteur. Originally from Upper St. Clair, Chbosky wrote the bestselling novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, largely inspired by his own teenage experiences. Composed as a series of letters, Wallflower tells the story of Charlie, a shy high school kid who finds excitement and enlightenment with new friends Sam and Patrick. The coming-of-age novel takes place in Pittsburgh, and was both praised by critics and protested for its blatant portrayal of sex and drug use. The book has become a classic of Gen-X literature.
Now 42, Chbosky has worked as a Hollywood screenwriter for nearly two decades, but 2012 has proven to be a red-letter year: He adapted and directed a film version of Wallflower, which moved into wide release last week. He also recently married the writer Liz Maccie, who just gave birth to their first child. PM caught up with Chbosky at the Fairmont Pittsburgh, to talk movies, relationships, and his beloved hometown.
This seems like a homecoming, doesn’t it?
This is a homecoming for me. I grew up in Upper St. Clair. You name the township, and I have a friend there. So for me, to bring the finished movie home — and to see the reaction we got last night [at the local premiere] — was a dream come true. Because the one thing about Pittsburgh that I love is that if they don’t like something, they’re going to tell you. They don’t pull punches. And I love the honesty of this city. Which means that, when they give you an ovation, and your mom and dad say, “That was great,” you actually know they mean it.
All your work, like the TV series “Jericho” and the screenplay of Rent, is very location-based. But in theory, you could have filmed this movie in Toronto.
We could have. And there was some talk about New York. But I said to [the producers], “This movie has to be filmed in Pittsburgh. There are details that you can’t fake anywhere else. Of course you have the Fort Pitt Tunnel, which is unlike any other tunnel in the world. But more than that, it’s the food, it’s the people, it’s the blue-collar background. One of the best stories I have about making this movie: John Malkovich, [who was a producer on Wallflower,] we always know him as this eccentric, genius actor, but he’s from a rural town in Illinois. He played football. He was a guy’s guy. And when he came to [Pittsburgh], he looked around and he said, “I get this place.” So his advice to me was, “Direct this movie like a guy from Pittsburgh. Always get the tough take.” Because he knew that, even though my story was emotional, I came from a tough place. And if I fought against the sentiment of the story, it would become a better movie. It takes a tough person to be emotional without being sentimental. Whatever tough I have, I got from this town.
Your book is written in an epistolary style. How tough was it to adapt the book into a screenplay?
The conversion process was difficult. It took some time. Because the book was so personal to me, I felt an obligation to the fans to put everything I loved in the screenplay — so my first draft was really long. I called it the “kitchen sink” draft. I wrote it all. I left no stone unturned. And then I took about three or four months away from it, and then I read it. And it’s amazing how quickly the story found itself. This became a story about growing up in this city at that time, and the friends that got Charlie through his adolescence. And everything that ventured too far away from that [theme] didn’t seem to work as well. It was tricky. Hardest screenplay job I’ve ever done.
Hollywood people are always complaining about how boxed-in they are. Here you had a lot of freedom. Was that a luxurious feeling?
It wasn’t luxurious — it was humbling. I’ve been a journeyman screenwriter for 17 years. I know how rare this opportunity is. I know I may never get it again. Because, as the stakes get bigger, so does the scrutiny. Even though I didn’t have final cut, I might as well have. I got the respect from the studios, as the author of the book, but I also got the respect of the actors, who looked to me for that sense of authenticity, the details, what it was like to grow up here. If someone came to me tomorrow and said, “Here’s a million bucks, change anything you want, take all the time you want,” I wouldn’t change a frame of this movie. And that almost never happens in Hollywood. I know that.
How autobiographical is this?
I want to give a satisfying answer. I was at Peters Township High School, and this kid asked me, “How autobiographical is it?” I said, “Sixty-seven percent.” And it got a big laugh. But I can say this. Charlie is very personal to me. Charlie is my purest self. I share his worldview. I legitimately want people to be happy. If people wrong me, I legitimately try to not get to angry, because it doesn’t do any good. Some of the stuff he went through, I did; others, I didn’t. But the honesty of this story is true. And the ultimate catharsis of the story is true. The things he’s been through … that’s almost irrelevant. He’s come to the other side, and in the end, he’s free. And that’s how I feel now.
What do you think this film will say to the shy teenager?
I think the film will say two things. First, that you’re not alone. I wanted this movie to be an experience for that kid who thinks that no one gets it, that no one will understand. I want that kid to sit in the movie theater, and have three hundred people go through the same journey that they went through. To feel personally connected to Charlie, to laugh when everybody else laughs, to get emotional when everybody else gets emotional, to cheer when everyone else cheers. If you have that experience, it’s much harder to convince yourself that nobody else gets it. Number two: Whenever you can, get off the wall. In the story, there are a couple of key moments where it’s Charlie who takes the initiative. It’s up to you in those moments to participate, to reach out and make those friends. For me, it was junior year of high school.
Are Sam and Patrick based on real people?
They are inspired by real people. The characters themselves are my creation, amalgams of people I knew. Patrick, for example, is the older brother I always wanted to have. And Sam represents every girl I ever had a crush on in high school. But the real people that inspired both characters: Yes, Sam is very much around, and has children, and Patrick lives in Washington, D.C., and he owns a whole bunch of apartments, and he’s doing really well.
Do they know who they are?
And have they seen the film?
No. Neither has seen it.
Wallflower was originally published by MTV Books, and your story is attached to Generation X. How do you feel about that connection?
I feel very connected to the time that I came of age. I love the music of the time. I love some of the style of the time. What I love most about it is that it was the last era before the Internet and the cell phone changed communication. I wanted to capture that with the movie. Some people were curious why I didn’t update it. There’s no song that was worth changing that sense of nostalgia. With the Internet, kids know everything so much younger. We know that, and we try to protect them. I’m glad I remember what that era felt like. That said, I [also] wanted the movie to be as timeless as possible. It’s not as if adolescence ended in 1993. And what kids are going through today perfectly mirrors what kids were going through when I was a kid. That first kiss is eternal.
Has being a parent changed anything?
Completely. It’s amazing how immediately your life changes, how everything is suddenly about [my daughter]. I know that sometime my daughter is going to turn 13, and I want her to see this movie, and I just want her to know that her dad gets it. There are things that she won’t tell me, I know that. There are things that kids hide from parents, and I know that too. But I just hope she knows that I understand. And if it weren’t for my daughter and it weren’t for my wife, I wouldn’t have been able to make this movie. Not this way.
Do you miss Pittsburgh?
I do. I miss coming here for the holidays. It’s such a nice city. I’ve been all over the country. I’ve been in some countries all over the world. And this is the nicest town I’ve ever been in. People are legitimately friendly. They’re down to Earth. And yet, they’re very sophisticated. People ask me, [who] don’t know the city at all, “So you’re from Pittsburgh. What’s that like?” And I’m like, “We have a symphony. Every Broadway show comes here. And some shows that never make it to Broadway come here. We have great sports teams. We’ve got the most beautiful skyline I’ve ever seen.” I don’t know what’s better than this. We have the Incline. We have the Original O. You could take me to Brussels, and I’d say the Original has better French fries than the entire nation of Belgium combined. I’m in Los Angeles now, but every chance that I have, any production I can bring back here, if it fits artistically, I’m coming back. I beg to differ with Thomas Wolfe. You really can go home again.