Lianne Halfon and Russell Smith have a deep affection for the offbeat. Their production company, Mr. Mudd, which the pair run with John Malkovich, is behind such indie sensations as “Juno” and “Ghost World,” both of which center on adolescents marching to their own beat. The same applies to their latest film, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” now playing the Toronto Film Festival and hitting theaters in America Sept. 21. Stephen Chbosky writes and directs the adaption of his own bestselling YA novel, and the cast is comprised of some of the best young actors working today—Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, and Mae Whitman all deliver outstanding performances.
Backstage spoke with Halfon and Smith about making the movie and casting their young leads.
How did you first become aware of “Perks”?
Lianne Halfon: We had an assistant and we asked him out of all the books he’d read, what would he most like to see made into a film. He mentioned “Perks,” which neither Russ nor I had read before. We read the book and then we were in a meeting with our agent and he mentioned he had a client who was working on an adaptation of his own book, and it was “Perks.” So we just stayed on him. Stephen took two years to write it and I think we tracked it for about a year, saying, “Is it ready? Is it ready?” Finally he finished it and we met with him; we had offices at Farmers’ Market and we were sitting at a table, and there was a woman was about four tables away from us reading the book.
Russell Smith: For the second time. We introduced ourselves, which is how we found out it was her second time reading the book. And she was super excited to hear that we were thinking about doing something with it.
Where are some of the places you find material?
Smith: We’re still figuring that out. We look at all sources—theater, books, original ideas, magazine articles. In terms of the company, it feels like our individual tastes are only about five or seven degrees apart. So we look in between those degrees. We basically have to all agree on something if we’re going to spend the next two and a half years working on it.
You collaborate a lot with the same filmmakers. You appear to be big fans of the auteur.
Halfon: Yes, we’ve made three films with Terry Zwiogff as a director and three with Jason Reitman as a director.
Smith: We spend enough time together to get far enough into their heads so that they get the idea we’re all working for the exact same goals. It makes it easy when we go to shoot. But that can be an auteur or a first-time director. You have to all know what you’re making together. You can’t figure it out on the set.
How involved are you in the casting process? Are you in the room?
Halfon: With “Perks,” we cast it fairly slowly. We started with Logan and Emma and did a really lengthy casting process for the rest of the characters. We found them all over. Sometimes we’re in the room. With Stephen he did most of the casting with the casting director, and some of the casting we did off tapes that were readings done by casting directors in New York.
Smith: One of the hard things for actors coming into a room on an audition is finding their comfort level. All we can do is be friendly and nice. We just want them to know we’re on their side. We love actors and we’re very comfortable with actors, and we’ve spent many years living and working with actors. We like everything about what they do. Look at the casting of our films—many times we have more actors than movie stars.
Halfon: We love actors and we love stories.
Smith: With “Perks” in particular, we’re really proud of how this ensemble came together. A lot of movies use the term ensemble, but it doesn’t really describe what’s going on. This was a terrific group of actors of a particular age doing drama in a movie, and we love that.
Halfon: It was a great film to cast. Stephen had very specific and complicated characters. Sometimes when you take a book and translate it to film, the characters get simplified. But they retain all the definition in the movie that they had in the novel. It’s a tribute both to Stephen and the actors.
Smith: And I think the actors felt that pressure, they wanted to do justice to the material, which can sometimes be a crippling weight and He sort of released them from that responsibility, which was a nice thing.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” screens Saturday, Sept. 8, Ryerson Theatre at 6:15 p.m., and Sunday, Sept. 9, Cineplex Yonge & Dundas 7 at 3:30 p.m. as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.