Stephen Chbosky: filmmaker of conscience

Last week I attended a pretty wicked writers workshop at USC where the novelist and screenwriter Stephen Chbosky gave an unofficial two hour master class on writing for film and television. Much of it focused on Chbosky’s breakout hit, “The Perks of Being A Wallflower,” a novel he conceived of at 21, began writing at 26 and turned into a movie three failed drafts later, at 42. (Chbosky also wrote the screenplay for the hit musical “Rent,” for which he was handsomely paid, explaining “This is why you want your movies to get made,” and co-created the short-lived but fiercely loved TV series “Jericho,” which upon cancellation, prompted fans to send nearly 40,000 pounds of peanuts — 8 million individual nuts, according to ABC News — to network executives in protest. The show was subsequently picked up for 7 more episodes.)

A fascinating speaker and thinker, Chbosky was exceedingly generous in dispensing advice to aspiring writers, from basic tips (“Write everyday; it doesn’t have to be so inspired, it just has to be”) to the more nuanced (“Don’t describe how people look; if you don’t, you’re inviting the reader to do it for you”). But of all the many pearls he unstrung in a short afternoon, what struck me the most had to do with a little choice he made in adapting “Perks” from page to screen. 

For the role of Patrick, one of the novel’s central characters, a vivacious and charming teenager who is also openly gay, he cast the equally vivacious and charming Ezra Miller, who is magnetic on screen. “If you’re gay in high school, that’s who you’d want to be,” Chbosky said of Miller. In the book, Patrick smokes constantly, but in the movie, not a cigarette in sight. But this seemingly small detail was considered with deep seriousness.

Chbosky confessed that as a teenager he had a smoking habit for several years. Fortunately, or so he thought, he quit. Then he went to the movies and saw Christian Slater smoking (in a film I can’t recall) and Slater “made it look so fucking good, I picked it up again and smoked another 17 years.”

A quiet but collective gasp could be heard when he said this. Chbosky is now a husband and a father, a role one can assume has matured his attitude towards health and life in general, but what’s even more remarkable is that his concern extends to every single eye that lands on his screen. Rather than cite artistic license, or necessary drama, or the absolute unbending coolness of character, he cut the cool in favor of conscience.

More filmmakers like Chbosky, please. And for those who have seen “Perks,” more films from Chbosky.