It is a rare act to see an author granted the privilege to both adapt and direct a film based on his or her own literary creation. But this is the case for Stephen Chbosky, author, writer and director of The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
Fans of popular adaptations often flock to theaters full of worry that their beloved works have been mishandled—and that’s for good reason. In the case of Perks, fans of the popular young adult novel can rest assured that not only does the original material remain in tact, but the adaptation also enhances the experience of the story in a way that only the filmic medium can achieve.
After crafting a truly beautiful film filled with visceral images and a stellar soundtrack, Stephen Chbosky sat down with Paste to talk about music, its role in both the book and the film and what audiences can expect from the film, which hits theaters today.
Charlie says that songs have the ability to make him feel “infinite.” What do you think it is about that perfect song that can evoke such strong emotions in people?
Chbosky: I don’t even know if I could articulate it. It could be a number of things whether it is the bass, the melody, the arrangement, the sound of the singer’s voice or the words themselves. It could be any part of it. It’s interesting that with some of the songs that have meant the most to me I didn’t even pay attention to the lyrics. It was just how it felt in my chest. And what I know is that when that perfect song comes along it makes you feel like you can conquer anything. And I don’t know what it is about them. The true musicians are magicians to me.
What are some of the songs that give you those feelings?
Chbosky: There are two from the movie Once, “Lies” and “Falling Slowly.” There’s another one from The Swell Season’s first record called “This Low.” I’ve always loved Stars’ “Your Ex-Lover is Dead.” Coldplay’s “Warning Sign.” Virtually anything from The Strokes’ second album. The list goes on.
How involved were you in building the soundtrack for this film?
Chbosky: The soundtrack for both the album and the movie ended up being a 50/50 split between Alexandra Patsavas, our music supervisor, and myself. It was like our mixtape back and forth together. She has a little bit more taste in new wave and I have more mainstream sensibilities. It lead to this really wonderful time capsule of late ‘80s/early ‘90s music. She turned me onto bands I didn’t know existed and I did the same for her so it was a real marriage of music.
David Bowie’s “Heroes” is a very prominent song in the film, can you talk a little bit about the decision behind the song’s inclusion?
Chbosky: “Heroes” does not appear in the book and it was Alex’s pitch. We were searching for the perfect song to match the tunnel sequence and I tried “Vapour Trail” by Ride, “Sway” by Spiritualized, we tried some Smashing Pumpkins, some Radiohead—all great songs but none of them quite worked. So we were trying to think of a song that the characters might not necessarily know, and Alex had the brilliant idea of going backwards instead of trying to find a song that might be obscure from the early ‘90s. And when she pitched the “Heroes” I thought, ‘I didn’t know that song in the early ‘90s.’ All I ever thought of with Bowie was “Let’s Dance.” And it just ended up being the perfect match. It was all her, I give her one thousand percent credit. It was really a stroke of genius.
Both creating and sharing mixtapes has been a fixture in youth culture as is displayed in the film. Given current trends in music such as pirating, streaming services and the “death” of the CD, do you fear that future generations may miss out on this?
Chbosky: No not at all. It’ll shift to the playlist. Listen, as long as there are boys who like girls, girls who like boys and friends who are trying to give gifts to each other, there will always be the mix-something. It might be a tape, it might be a CD, it might be a playlist or someday there will be this “I created a special iCloud podcast for you, that only you can play when you type in this special code.” The thing that will always be the same is kids sharing music with other kids.
If Charlie’s story were to be told today rather than the early ‘90s, what bands would show up on his playlist? Do the songs really matter or is it more of the feelings they bring out in him?
Chbosky: It’s the feelings. I mean, the songs matter to this movie because it was set in the early ‘90s. But if it were today there are just so many great songs to choose from. Sam would listen to Regina Spektor, Charlie would love Arcade Fire and Stars and Patrick would probably love The Strokes. A great soundtrack could be made out of any year that has ever existed since recorded music began, including the ‘30s and the ‘20s. Individual artists and styles are going to change but the fans and the screaming girls will not.
Certain film theories label the director the “author” of a movie. Having work as an author on your book and then being given the chance to author the film version, what were the biggest differences you took away between the two?
Chbosky: The biggest difference is the fact that having been an author of a book where it was just me and a page really made me notice how truly collaborative the medium is for film. It’s night and day. Directing a film is about managing relationships and trying to get the most out of people and inspire them to want to do better. So it’s more about encouraging other artists where as writing a book it’s all about being the sole person at work. On some levels they’re the same process because you’re creating an entire universe and a tone but for a book you’re just using words and for a film you get to use two hundred people on location. But the end result is always the same and is a reflection of what you want to do.
Was there anything specific you were able to accomplish with the filmic version that may have been an impossibility when writing the book?
Chbosky: I have to say the main thing was juxtaposition. To turn thirty-five pages of a book into one image which is in the film when the communal wafer becomes the tab of LSD. You can’t do that in a book and that was really exciting for me. When Charlie has his breakdown in the movie it is so much more visceral than it is in the book just by the nature of the medium. Every time I could have a moment like that I loved it. You can’t open up a book and have a perfect song come out. It’s just your imagination. So the visceral moments and the use of songs and sounds were really great. The tunnel in the movie is better than it is in the book by far.
Do you think that with the filmic version you’ll be able to expose audiences to a different experience than what they may get from reading the book?
Chbosky: I am aiming for a complimentary experience. I wanted to make a movie that fans of the book would love but one that could also stand on its own for anyone who had never read the book. And, at the same time, I wanted to create it in such a way that the people who saw the movie who hadn’t read the book would connect with it and say, ‘Oh, there’s more? I want to read the book now.” They are perfect compliments and are ultimately about the same catharsis. They both reach the same end, they just do it in different ways.