Growing up in Pittsburgh, Stephen Chbosky dreamt of writing books and making movies, but, he recalls, “there were no people around me doing it.” Pittsburgh wasn’t known as a gateway to Hollywood—that is, with the exception of George A. Romero. “He was a huge hero of mine,” Stephen says. “I loved Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead.” Horror films aside, Stephen grew up on coming-of-age stories like Dead Poets Society, The Breakfast Club, Harold and Maude, The Graduate and Stand by Me. All of which makes his eventual career seem almost destined.
Stephen wrote and directed the film version of his own novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Wonder, among other films. “It’s how often science fiction fans will make these great science fiction movies, or horror fans will make these great horror movies. For me, I was a coming-of-age fan, and so making coming-of-age films felt like a very natural fit,” he says. His latest release is an adaptation of the Broadway hit Dear Evan Hansen, the story of a kid with crippling social anxiety whose desire for connection leads him to fake a relationship with his deceased loner classmate Connor Murphy. The mix-up brings Evan closer to the Murphy family and, eventually, a video of him talking about loneliness and friendship goes viral on the internet.
Over the course of his career, Stephen’s perspective on art has shifted. “When I was younger, I was interested in what art could give me, and as I’m getting older, I’m much more interested in what I can give art, or what art can give people. The one-way street completely turned around.” Therein lies what he hopes to achieve with Dear Evan Hansen, a story he thinks can help young people feel “that they are seen, that they are understood, and that they are not alone, especially with everything we’ve all been through the last year and a half.”
A living room musical
Stephen first saw Dear Evan Hansen onstage about three years ago. He went in not knowing much about it, and left the theater blown away by Steven Levenson’s words, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songwriting, and all the performances. The very next day, he called his team, saying that if it were ever to be turned into a movie, he’d want to meet the producers. A few months later, as luck would have it, the project became his.
Stephen’s hope with the film isn’t to replicate the Broadway production, but to give it “a very close sibling,” a companion piece of sorts. “It’s a real privilege to be able to see a Broadway show, or even a touring company. Millions and millions of people do not live close enough to any city to be able to see something like this,” he says. “And yet, so often, these are the young people and parents who could use the support or could use a story like this. To me, there was a huge sociological component to wanting to make the movie, just to bring this beautiful story to millions more people than could possibly see it onstage.”
A longtime lover of musicals, Stephen admits that this one is inherently different. “There’s no fantasy element to it, there’s no performative element to it. It’s not a cabaret or princess’ castle, it’s dining rooms and living rooms in suburbia.” But that challenge was what fascinated him most. To give the story authenticity, he insisted on live singing among his cast: “I felt that the more traditional pre-record and lip sync would not work with a story that was this intimate.” He also wanted the locations to feel real. The Murphy house, for example, came furnished as we see it onscreen. And the high school was shot at a real school while class was in session. “There were several takes that were ruined by the intercom,” Stephen says. “All of it added an extra layer of groundedness, which I felt was essential for the success of the movie.”
Finding Evan Hansen onscreen
To Stephen, who has worn both the hats of writer and director, the job always comes down to character. “If I’m sitting and I’m writing, I try to think about how I can convey what the character is feeling, but also what I can show the audience about the world, about life, through the character. As a director, it’s the same basic idea, but rather than using words, I’m using casting, or I’m using the way you shoot, or the way you approach the scene.”
As an active collaborator, Stephen tries to embody characters as much as possible so that when it’s time for an actor to approach a scene, he has a toolbox of ideas that can help them access the most authentic character. “I will twist myself into pretzels trying to figure out how to help them achieve their own version of the character, or the scene, or just their own humanity,” he says.
Working with Ben Platt, specifically, made for a unique collaboration. “[Ben] had played Evan six or seven hundred times already. There’s nothing I can teach him about Evan Hansen. He developed the character. He was there years before I was. Here, my job was more to be supportive, to occasionally remind him that he’s never said these words before, or to encourage him, rather than to sing out, to sing in.”
Stephen and Ben would often discuss the emotional weight behind some of the film’s key moments. Like the song “For Forever,” as Evan is telling the story of his and Connor’s friendship is front of the whole Murphy family. “He and I would have discussions [about how] there are always two lies with Evan. There’s the lie that everyone talks about, which is that he’s lying to this family that he was Connor’s friend. But there’s a much more, to him at least, profound lie, which is that he tried to kill himself last summer. Often, the subtext of a song would be: Here’s this kid that all he wanted to do is break down and say, ‘I tried to kill myself and I need a lot of help.’ But he’s not saying that. He’s saying everything else but that, and those discussions led to some really wonderful moments.”
Inherently, Dear Evan Hansen is a story about isolation told through catchy songs. It might seem antithetical, but to Stephen, that’s the whole point. “There is no darkness without light, and you can’t really talk about depression or anxiety without talking about happiness and calm,” he says. “It’s part of the real world, it’s part of life itself. To have a brutal movie about a young person’s life, or on the other side, a perfectly cheerful, complete escapist-fantasy version of a young person’s life—neither of them is particularly real. To me, what’s real is both, all the time.”