Twenty-one years ago, at 1137 W. 36th Pl., a USC student was trying to write a novel. He had just gone through a bad breakup, and he needed hope.
It came to him in a piece of dialogue for the story. He was writing a scene where the main character, an angry kid, said, “I guess [that’s just] one of the perks of being a wallflower.”
That line stopped Stephen Chbosky, the USC student who is now the writer-director of the recently released film The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
“I realized that was my title,” Chbosky said. “The kid I was writing was not a wallflower, so I abandoned that incarnation of the novel and just started thinking of that title. It all started at USC.”
Chbosky, a member of USC’s class of 1992, went on to write the story of Charlie, a quiet, observant high school freshman fighting personal demons. Since the novel’s release in 1999, many have embraced the story and the main character as their own. When he wrote the story, however, Chbosky said he never considered how other people might receive it.
“I wasn’t really thinking about the reader then, I was just thinking about Charlie and what he was going through and trying to answer the question for myself about why good people let themselves get treated so badly,” Chbosky said. “The book was my answer to that, and I’m just glad it’s been able to help people since.”
Though the book is fictional and set in high school, The Perks of Being a Wallflower represents a combination of Chbosky’s high school and college experiences.
“A lot of those things that [the characters go through]were things I observed as much in college as in high school,” Chbosky said. “It’s not like ‘coming-of-age’ stops after you graduate high school; the college years are vitally important because you’re finally on your own and you finally have the right atmosphere to live as you want to live.”
A film adaptation has allowed the story to evolve, as well. More than a decade later, Chbosky had the opportunity to add to the story in ways not possible with the novel.
“The one thing that movies have is editing, it’s juxtaposition,” Chbosky said. “In a book you can never have a kid taking communion at Christmas, and cut from him taking the communion wafer to his mouth and taking his hand away, and now we’re inside a New Year’s Eve Party. I love it. I learned a lot of that at USC, how to take two ideas and create something unique and special and that’s the best part of movies to me.”
Though the film is set in Pittsburgh, Chbosky said that many aspects of the story were directly influenced by his time at USC.
“So much of the experiences that took place in the book [happened to me] at USC,” Chbosky said. “Stewart Stern — he was a professor at USC, and he directly inspired the character that Paul Rudd plays in the film, the teacher Mr. Anderson.”
Chbosky said that Stern, who wrote the screenplay for Rebel Without a Cause among other films, was a big reason he decided to go to USC in the first place. After hearing Stern lecture during his college tour, Chbosky knew he had to go USC.
“I’m a 17-year-old kid from Pittsburgh who doesn’t know anybody and suddenly I’m listening to this man at USC talk about how he met James Dean and would travel with Marlon Brando. And Paul Newman is his best friend,” Chbosky said. “I was so blown away by this person and that he was just giving an informal seminar to a bunch of USC students. I knew that this was the school that I had to go to because not only was he there, but it was the kind of school that could attract somebody like him.”
That wasn’t to be Chbosky’s only encounter with Stern, though. After Chbosky started at USC, he learned that Stern had suffered a massive heart attack and sent him — in true wallflower fashion — an anonymous letter.
“I wanted to thank him for changing my life because USC was such a great place for me,” Chbosky said. “I didn’t sign the letter, but he figured out it was me. This is the testament to USC professors. It took him awhile, but he eventually figured out it was me and he’s been my mentor ever since.”
Chbosky now has advice of his own for aspiring writers at USC.
“Pay attention, nurture, support, challenge and find that voice that is uniquely yours, the passion that is uniquely yours, it will lead you to your best work,” Chbosky said. “Do it for those personal reasons because that’s going to lead to the most authentic story and the most authentic personal story ironically becomes the most universal.”
Chbosky added that students should reach out to their teachers. He still keeps in touch with Stern, who now resides in Seattle and was the first person to read the screenplay for The Perks of Being a Wallflower. When the film premiered in Seattle a few weeks ago, Chbosky was able to live one of his dreams in sharing a Q&A session with his mentor.
“It was one of the greatest moments of my life, to finally sit side by side with the greatest teacher I ever had and talk about our work,” Chbosky said. “It was definitely an infinite moment for me.”
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is out now in limited release.