Inside The Film Room contributing writer Joel Winstead recently spoke with “Dear Evan Hansen” director Stephen Chbosky ahead of the film’s release. The two spoke about Chbosky’s approach to the film as a non-traditional musical, as well as his history in screenwriting, penning films like “Rent” and “Beauty and the Beast,” and his desire to continue directing in the musical genre. The following a transcript of their conversation.
Joel Winstead: Was there ever any question of a theatrical release for “Dear Evan Hansen” [due to the pandemic], or was that the plan all along?
Stephen Chbosky: I don’t know if there was ever a question. I just feel like once we previewed it for the first audience – you know, we went to Las Vegas and the audience seemed to love it so much – that I think that there was no doubt that they were going to try and put it in theaters.
JW: Right, right. In a traditional musical you have big set pieces and costumes and dancing, but with a film like this it’s toned down with singing at a dining room table. What was the experience like adapting something more intimate like this compared to something, say, like “Rent”?
SC: It was very challenging because we all looked around for examples of what we were going for, tonally, and we couldn’t really find any. There were little pieces here or there. But unlike a wonderful movie musical like “Cabaret,” we didn’t have a “Cabaret” as an excuse to sing. Unlike a wonderful – you know, I co-wrote “Beauty and the Beast,” the live action – you know there aren’t tea cups and clocks, the fantasy element.
So, this is something very different, because there was nothing, there weren’t performers. It’s a kid at a dining room table, so we just felt our way through it and we tried to find a reason for all of the singing. Tried to find an excuse for it and what the grammar was for each song. It was a wonderful trial and error experience, it certainly helps to have a cast this good.
JW: Yeah, right, the cast is exceptional. You have Oscar-winners and nominees and musical talents left and right. Did you just make a dream cast list and everyone happened to say yes?
SC: Yes! You know, I’ve never been asked it that way before, but yes. We had the dream cast list and everyone said yes. It’s like, I wanted Ben Platt to reprise his role and he said yes, and I’ve wanted to work with Amy Adams for two decades and she said yes. The list goes on.
JW: Yes, that’s fantastic. Your previous film, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” is one of my favorites of all time.
SC: Oh, thank you.
JW: What makes that work for me so well personally, is partly the amazing soundtrack, but also that the ensemble is just so good. They are all very believable and they all felt like they were best friends even off set. I got very similar feelings with the cast here. It’s a great cast, they all come from different backgrounds as far as entertainment goes, but it seemed like they all gelled and worked together. What’s the secret?
SC: The secret for me is, when I cast movies, I don’t cast actors nearly as much as I cast people. I’m looking for quality in the human being that I’m working with. I just always feel that if you’re trying to create something that has meaning for the audience, finding really good people with depth to them and who are grounded and authentic and are kind and fun to be around really helps the process.
Whether “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” or “Dear Evan Hansen,” these emotional films require a lot of vulnerability to pull off, and the more everyone trusts each other the better off its going to be. I pay great attention to casting and then I just let the dinner party commence. It’s like when you throw a bunch of people together, there’s nothing like that first day when you realize the chemistry and you watch it unfold and you see them get closer. It’s one of my favorite parts of being a director.
JW: There are a few in the cast who aren’t known to audiences as being singers – Amy Adams, Julianne Moore – was there a little boot camp that everyone went through? Or did they just come in, knock it out of the park and no one knew?
SC: Maybe not necessarily a boot camp, but we have world class song writers, [Benj] Pasek and [Justin] Paul. Alex Lacamoire who is an orchestrator, he was the executive music producer, he’s terrific. We have vocal coaches, we have Ben Cohn on piano. We just had a lot of infrastructure in place to support them.
The thing is, whether its Amy or Julie or whoever – including Ben – everybody loved the songs and everybody wanted to do the songs justice. Since we were doing live singing in front of the camera, they knew that we couldn’t rely on a bunch of studio tricks. It wasn’t going to be that kind of movie. We were really going to sing in that dining room, we were really going to sing in the Hansen home, or the bedroom – they knew we had to pull it all off on the actual day and they all did it. We supported them, but they all brought it and they wanted to be great.
JW: One the things that this great cast has done is really bring home the themes of the film: grief and mental health, and with anxiety and especially isolation. Did shooting during the pandemic make everything feel more applicable? Did it inform, or were there any decisions made during the filming that were in direct effect because of the pandemic?
SC: Well yeah, there were certainly some. For us the pandemic influenced the entire shoot. We had, in a practical sense, locations chosen and they all went away, we had to start from scratch. We had some crew members chosen, they all went away because of schedule stuff, we had to start from scratch. Luckily the right group assembled for this film.
More to maybe your question about why you’re asking, when you’re on location – and pretty much every actor was on location – we could not see our families, in some cases for four months. Nobody had ever experienced anything like that before. You usually get at least a weekend or two in there but we couldn’t even do that because of COVID protocols and all the risks involved. So, there were two sides to this. There is the obvious isolated side, where we would go home and we would each be in our own little worlds. Whether it was a hotel room or an apartment or a house, or whatever, wherever people were staying, they would be alone all night, every night. They couldn’t mix and they couldn’t go out to bars and they couldn’t go out to restaurants – we couldn’t do anything.
We would go home, watch television and eat dumplings, and then go back to work the next day. So, at work the next day, that was the other side of it. But then to go to work it was a joy, because finally, masks came off. For a lot of us the only faces we saw for months were the actors during shooting, and the minute the shooting was over the masks and the visors went back on for the cast and it was gone. So, what you saw, every frame of the movie you saw were the only faces we all saw for about four months. That was a profound experience because the hunger to connect, the hunger to express all the different shades and colors of life. But also, the gratitude we all felt to simply be working. For a lot for people they hadn’t had a paycheck in six or seven months. It was just a joy to go back and do what we love to do.
JW: On “Perks,” that was a film where you wrote the novel, the screenplay, and directed it. It was your thing and then moving onto “Evan Hansen,” it is an established property written by Steven Levenson. What was the experience like coming in and directing something you hadn’t written before?
SC: It was a joy for me. I love Steven Levenson’s writing, I think he is a world class talent, especially for being such a young person. And Pasek and Paul, they are already established Broadway, you know it’s like [John] Kander and [Fred] Ebb. It’s remarkable to work with these three young men who are so established and so talented and they are gracious as well. There isn’t a bad bone, not a bad egg amongst them. I loved it, I felt like because I am an author and because I’m a screenwriter, supporting Steven Levenson and supporting the song writers was one of my biggest priorities. From day one I went to Steven and I said, “Listen, I would happily write with you or I’d happily do it. It’s your choice,” and he said
“No, this is my baby,” so I said, “Perfect. Let me be the baby’s uncle as it were, or the babysitter and I’ll help where I can.” But it was a joy, Steven is that special and he is so talented.
JW: The great Michael Greif was the stage director for “Dear Evan Hansen” and also for “Rent,” for which you wrote the narrative feature. Have you had any conversations with him about the work that you’re doing of his?
SC: Yeah, we had a lunch for “Rent,” and I picked his brain for hours. He was very gracious for me, and we emailed for “Dear Evan Hansen,” but I also felt that for him, and I can’t speak for him I don’t know, he was very complimentary to me. I think he was a fan of “Perks,” I’m not sure what of my work he liked, but he thought that the movie was in good hands, which meant the world to me because I love his work. I think he’s a tremendous director and so often when I was on set or planning for a sequence there were many many moments where I asked what Michael Greif would do and I would try to do the best I could to translate his very impressionistic, abstract staging and design into the real world of film. I can’t say enough good about Michael Greif.
JW: Had you seen “Evan Hansen” on stage before you were even involved in the project at all?
SC: Well, yeah, that’s how I became involved. I saw it about three years ago this past summer and I just wandered in off the street. I had heard of it, of course, I knew that it won a bunch of Tony Awards. I didn’t know what it was about at all, so when I wandered in and I saw it, I was so moved by it. I was so blown away by the themes and the writing and the songs and the characters that I called my team the next day and said if they ever do this movie I want to be on it. I really think that this could do a lot of good for the world and it could reach millions and millions of young people and their families who don’t have access to Broadway or a touring company. We should get this story out to everybody.
JW: With the success of “Hamilton” filming their stage production, was that ever a conversation for “Hansen”?
SC: I mean you would have to ask them, I came late to the party. Maybe they did film Ben Platt doing it with the original Broadway cast. Quite frankly, as a fan, I hope they did, because I never saw Ben perform on stage. My entire experience, other than maybe a Tony broadcast when he did “Waving Through A Window,” my only experience was filming. So, I hope that exists, I don’t know that it does.
JW: For me, “Perks” is almost a musical, because I sing along with the songs as much as I would a musical. For you in the future, I know Greif has got some great work out there, maybe “Grey Gardens” or “Next to Normal”?
SC: Sure, I’ll keep stalking Michael Greif and ask him what’s next. There are a couple different musical projects that I’m circling and in various stages of development. Musicals are the most challenging type of movie that I have ever tried to make, because of having to find a way to ground and justify the singing. But, I have to say, I loved making this movie and I particularly loved creating the sequence with all my wonderful collaborators for the song “Sincerely Me,” which is as close to a traditional musical sequence that this movie has. That part was so fun for me to make that I just thought, “Oh wow.” I just tried to imagine what an entire movie of that would feel like and it would seem like a joy, so I’m excited to try and make another musical.
JW: Well that’s fantastic to hear, I’ll be the first one there.
“Dear Evan Hansen” is now playing in theaters.
Film critic and member of the NCFCA and SEFCA