The work of producing is famously hard to pin down. For those who do the job on a daily basis, the position can seem like part general contractor, part story editor, part accountant, part psychologist, part salesman, part diplomat, part camp counselor ... the list goes on. But hand it to Stephen Chbosky, writer-director of Summit’s fall sleeper hit The Perks of Being a Wallflower, who came up with a formulation we haven’t heard before.
"Being a great producer,” he suggests, "is like being a great international spy. If they’re doing their job right, you don’t even know they’re there.”
Meeting Chbosky’s producing team, you can see why he might think so. Perks, Chbosky’s feature debut, was produced by the determinedly self-effacing team of PGA members Lianne Halfon and Russell Smith, along with John Malkovich, their partner in their 14-year-old company Mr. Mudd. Even the name of the company leans toward the secret agent vibe, without even so much as a "Productions” or "Entertainment” to tip off an unsuspecting public. Probably the only place that the pair can’t hide in plain sight would be the independent film community. With credits like Crumb, YoungAdult, GhostWorld and the Oscar-winning sensation Juno, Halfon and Smith can credibly claim membership in the small group of producers whose work has effectively defined American indie film over the past two decades.
Characteristically, Halfon backs away from the prestige label that so many of her peers rush to claim. "‘Creative Producer’ seems like a strange title for us,” she admits, "since we’re very interested in and driven by practical concerns. It’s not just about assembling the elements, but actually making the film all the way through, on the line. We like to know what cameras we’re shooting on, where we’re mixing. Those are places where a producer can really make a difference.”
The sentiment is backed up by their fellow PGA member Mason Novick, who produced the two Jason Reitman/Diablo Cody collaborations, Juno and Young Adult, alongside them. "They’re not the we’ll-call-you-and-let’s-do-lunch kind of producers. They’re the let’s-go-make-movies producers. They can talk to the camera department. They can talk to production design. They can talk to the writer. They can talk to post-production. They literally are on top of everything.”
And though Halfon shies away from the creative producer title, the duo is deeply engaged in the creative producer’s chief task: finding great stories. The source for Perks of Being a Wallflower turned out to be close at hand. "After Juno,” relates Halfon, "we were looking for something to do. We really wanted to adapt a book. So we asked our assistant if he could pick one book that he’d want to see turned into a movie, what would it be? And this was the one.”
Neither had heard of the book before, but both were immediately won over by its openheartedness, its precisely rendered voice and achingly tender coming-of-age story. "We started tracking it,” Smith continues. "I think we may have tracked it longer than anything else we’ve ever tracked. But sometime after that, we were in a general meeting at WME. They were running down a list of their clients, and tossed out Stephen’s name. And it was one of those ‘wait, wait, wait — back up!’ moments.”
Chbosky by this time had been working in the industry for over a decade, adapting Jonathan Larson’s Rent for director Chris Columbus, and serving as creator and exec producer of the passionately admired but short-lived CBS drama Jericho. His primary reputation, however, rested on The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which had swiftly attained "modern classic” status in the YA literary canon after its publication in 1999. Over the course of Smith and Halfon’s tracking the property, Chbosky had been working intermittently on a screenplay adaptation, which he was determined to direct.
There was no consideration of trying to pry the story away from its author. Rather, the producers and would-be director entered into a careful dance to determine whether they had the same movie in their heads. "The book has a beautiful pitch to it,” Halfon observes. "It’s so delicate. But of course, directing, like writing, is a skill set. And we were concerned that he might not be able to render that delicate picture on a screen the way he had on the page.”
"With a first-time director,” adds Smith, "you want to get a sense of what they’re focused on, and what’s likely to throw them off their game.”
For his part, Chbosky was immediately impressed by his potential collaborators’ bona fides. "Most producers I’d met didn’t stand out for me the way Russ and Lianne did,” he explains. "First of all, they’re very intelligent, overtly so. Right away I could appreciate their encyclopedic knowledge of movies, and our common appreciation for favorite directors. And they had done work that I personally admired, both separately and together.”
The trio took their time, meeting several times before determining to try and get Perksoff the ground. All three testify to the honesty and forthrightness with which the group laid out its priorities. "They wanted to know that I was going to be a director who collaborated, who listened,” Chbosky continues. "And I wanted to make sure that they understood that for me, this was more than a movie; it was a mission.” After a few meetings, Halfon, Smith and Chbosky determined that it was a mission they’d undertake together.
All parties understood that Chbosky’s initial draft, a robust 168 pages, would need some revision, but the development process was refreshingly non-contentious thanks to the filmmaker’s trust in his producers. It was made easier by the fact that, length aside, Halfon and Smith liked the script. "We sat right down to it,” Chbosky recalls, "I listened to what they had to say, saw the wisdom in it, and did the rewrite.”
Though the script development process was a gentle one, the producers knew that the unique circumstance of having a director adapt his own novel posed some pitfalls. "We had to make sure that Stephen was in a place where he knew that he was not shooting the novel,” Smith notes. "We’re shooting the script. Just this. Just the script.”
Concurrently, the group began to assemble their cast. In this task, their source material provided unique advantages and disadvantages. "In 97% of the movies where a teenager is the star,” observes Smith, "they’re comedies or horror films; they’re not dramas. So we had to get over that hurdle. We had to cast it beautifully, and we had to cast it in a way that would sell.”
On the plus side, adapting a novel that’s become a touchstone for a rising generation of talented performers carries built-in benefits. Emma Watson, best known as the HarryPotter franchise’s Hermione Granger, was a fan of Chbosky’s book and signed on to play the leading female role of Sam. And in signing Watson, Chbosky readily leaned on his producers’ reputations to assuage any fears of working with a neophyte director: "If she had doubts about me,” he recalls, "I could point to Juno, I could point to Ghost World. And that took away all the doubts.”
For the story’s sensitive protagonist and narrator Charlie, the filmmakers turned to another kids’ fantasy veteran, Logan Lerman, who had played the title role in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. "The moment we saw Logan on tape.” Recalls Smith, "we knew he was the guy.”
For the last of the film’s three central roles, Sam’s flamboyant, living-out-loud stepbrother Patrick, the group had to dig a little deeper, watching readings from scores of young actors. "It was a very difficult role,” reflects Halfon. "We already had the other two, but casting the third member of the group changes things. Ensemble casting means that it isn’t simply a matter of picking your favorite people.”
Despite seeing many more familiar faces, the producers found themselves drawn to a compelling reading from relative newcomer Ezra Miller, at that point best known for a preternaturally chilling performance opposite Oscar winner Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin. "Ezra’s reading was so distinct, so different,” Halfon continues. "There was something really striking about it.” Despite Miller’s lower profile and the pressure to cast a more recognizable face, the producers’ intuition told them that this was a lead worth pursuing. To fortify their hunch, they took advantage of a tool they’d never utilized before.
"We pushed Stephen and Ezra really hard to have a Skype session together,” explains Smith. "Ezra is a fun-loving, wild-child, brilliant guy. You could see a little of it. But we wanted to find out if we could see more of that.”
"Skype turned out to be one of our great allies,” shares Chbosky. "It helped me a lot ... Ezra’s one of those truly inspired actors; he’s so unpredictable. And Russ and Lianne were very, very smart to make sure we spoke the same language.”
As the filmmakers settled on Miller, recalls Halfon, "it was like finding the missing note that created a major chord. In that moment, you could see that it shifted Stephen’s view of the character. And that’s a real tribute to him as a director. You don’t want to be bound by preconceived notions, but adjusting as you go, and he clearly adjusted to what he saw with Ezra.”
Simultaneously, the producers engaged in very much the same process with the behind-the-camera team. "We like to cast the crew in the same way we cast the movie,” Smith notes. "So we had to make certain of two things: that they could deliver the work, and that they could communicate well with Stephen. So we often found ourselves saying, ‘Yes, he’s good. But is he right?’”
It’s in this process that Chbosky locates "the invisible brilliance of Russ and Lianne. They did the vetting that I didn’t have time to do, and they were incredibly patient with me. Finding our DP and editor, I met with a dozen of each, and I never felt unreasonable pressure on Russ and Lianne’s part. They knew what I needed to do the job right, and there was no ego in any of it ... I felt guided and protected, which is the very best thing you can do for a first-time filmmaker.”
When it came time for the cameras to roll, the producers found other ways to support their filmmaker. The first was taking advantage of the state and local production incentives that allowed the team to shoot in Pittsburgh, where Chbosky’s story was set, and even in the neighborhood where the director himself grew up. "We wanted to get the feeling of that place,” says Halfon. "It’s a kind of resource; it gives the crew and actors access to a unique set of responses that they can rely on to inform the work that they do over the course of the shoot.”
Another was the meticulous attention to detail required of a period piece — even when the period is as recent as 1990. "It’s amazing, how many things you have to change,” marvels Halfon. "Just shooting a high school dance ... you have to clothe all those people! We wound up using just a little bit of costuming there, and asked all of our extras to bring ‘vintage clothes.’” And creating the sense of period wasn’t just a matter of costumes, she continues. "It’s the way kids carry their books to school. It’s the fact that there’s no cell phones. It’s a subtle difference, but it creates a huge impact in terms of the way characters relate to one another.”
Chbosky particularly appreciates the complementary strengths of the team. "Lianne has such a great grasp of detail and tone, while Russ has this tremendous sense of size and scope,” he says. "For instance, in the scene where the kids are walking up to the first party ... I felt under a lot of time pressure, trying to make the day, and I was ready to make it a smaller moment. Russ was the one who said, ‘We can go bigger on this. Don’t worry about the time.’ And he was absolutely right. That scene could have felt like television, but Russ’ input made it into a movie. He really understands what the camera can do, and whenever he could encourage me to go wide, he did.”
The director came to treasure the soft touch of his producers. "Any director who also writes is bound to overshoot by at least 10%,” he admits. "A less sensitive producer would fight you tooth and nail to prevent you from shooting an extraneous scene. But Russ and Lianne knew how important each piece has been to me, and they let me learn on my own ... When you get into the editing room, that’s when you realize that it’s okay to let go of that scene that they knew wasn’t going to be in the movie six months ago.”
Over the course of post-production, Chbosky appreciated the degree to which the role of his collaborators mirrored his own, and how their collective experience allowed him to translate his story to the screen. "During production,” he explains, "the director’s job is to look at the different cast members and speak the different ‘languages’ of those actors, particularly if they’re driven by one method or another ... You have to be the person who lets them go to that place, or pull them back. But in post, I became that actor, the emotional standard-bearer of the story, and Russ and Lianne became that fixed pole for me. I counted on their perspective to bring me back to solid ground.”
When it came time to unveil the finished product, the producers admit to some trepidation. "We had an additional hurdle,” notes Smith, "that being people who had read the book. Because Stephen has a trunk full of letters — a literal trunk full of them — from people who have read the book and responded so deeply to it. But there was a moment when we did a screening in Orange County, with a focus group afterward. We had 20 people in the group, 10 of whom had read the novel. When we asked them to compare the two, all 10 of them said that the film was even better than the book. When they said that, we looked over at Stephen, and we knew we had accomplished everything we had wanted to do."
"It’s what we hoped we would deliver,” agrees Halfon. "It’s very different than the other high school movies we’ve done, Juno and GhostWorld. Yes, it took a lot of discussions about how to get there,” she smiles, "but we all had the same place in mind.”
The director is ultimately (and somewhat mischievously) unrestrained in his gratitude to his producers. "I love giving Russ and Lianne compliments,” Chbosky laughs, "because it makes them so uncomfortable. I can only imagine what everything I’ve said here is going to do to them.
"Because the truth is,” he continues, "I’m getting more credit than I should be getting. This movie just wouldn’t exist were they not so supportive, so sensitive and so patient, which is a quality that often gets overlooked. This is a movie where nice guys finish first. Russ and Lianne ... They’re the nice guys.”