Stephen Chbosky, 47, has spent much of his adult life filling a blank page up with words. His first book, the epistolary novel The Perks of Being a Wallflower, came out in 1999. It was the beacon to which many an adolescent slouched. But for the last decade or so, Chbosky has been filling up blank screens with heartwarming images. He wrote the screenplay and directed the film adaptation of Perks, the screenplay for Rent, and the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast. Most recently, Chbosky has brought Wonder to life. The film, which opens on November 17th, is an adaptation of R.J. Palacio’s book about a boy Auggie (played by Room’s Jacob Tremblay) with a facial deformity. The film c0-stars Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson. Along the way, Chbosky became a father himself – to a daughter, 5-year-old Maccie, and a boy, 2-year-old Theo. As we spoke briefly at the tail-end of a media junket, Chbosky opened up about Wonder and how being a father and a husband has affected his work.
First of all, I always like to ask writers how having children has affected their work and the process behind its creation.
My motivation used to be the art alone, and now it is my family. They’ve also changed my process because as anyone with kids knows, especially little kids, you don’t have a whole lot of time. Having children has forced me to be a lot more efficient in my decisions when I write. Now, let’s say I come to a day and I don’t have a lot of inspiration. When I was younger I might have skipped it. Now, because I know how precious this time is, I force myself to work no matter what. Ultimately, I found that very freeing.
My work on the Beauty and the Beast screenplay was a direct result of spending time with my daughter watching Disney princess movies. Everything I wrote for Beauty and the Beast I wrote for her. A lot of what I wrote in Wonder for August’s mother Isabel, played by Julia Roberts, was based on watching my wife getting back to her work and getting back to herself after having children.
The film is a love letter to my son and my wife; Beauty and the Beast is my love letter to my daughter.
What does she do?
She’s a television writer. Having children’s so profound for everyone, but mothers have an extra component where they’re constantly worrying about their kids. Watching my wife find her way back to herself, in her own identity–aside from the kids, whom she adores–was very inspiring to me, so I put that into Wonder. The film is a love letter to my son and my wife; Beauty and the Beast is my love letter to my daughter.
What were some of the things you took away from watching princess movies with your daughter?
I realized the power of the movies, the power of the role models and the examples of these princesses. These are revered characters, beloved characters for millions of girls. Not just girls, but people and children. I knew that through Belle I could say little lessons to my daughter like, “If the Beast ever takes you, don’t cry in a corner. Try to build a rope and escape”. Some of the things that I added for Gaston, for example, the subplot in the second act in which Gaston leaves Belle’s father Maurice to the wolves, I added to flesh out what a bad guy really looks like, so my daughter would be more aware of. We all love Gaston from the cartoon, but I wanted to make it a little bit closer to home, and a little more true to life in the live-action version, as a warning to my Maccie.
I think one of the deep ironies about being a successful director or writer or whatever is that though you are inspired by your children, and give joy to millions of them, often times you’re not home with your own.
My biggest regret as a father is unfortunately unavoidable in our business. Making movies is a very demanding job. My regret is having to spend as much time away from them as I have, especially when I was directing Wonder. There’s one part of the movie that means the most to me where you see little Via, and it’s her fourth birthday party. Maccie, my daughter, actually plays little Via (later played by Izabela Vidovic). When I was making Wonder I missed her actual fourth birthday, it was unavoidable. But I was able to recreate it on film, so I could always say that I was always at every one of my girl’s birthdays.