Dear Evan Hansen Director Stephen Chbosky: Mental Health, Musical Sequences & Authenticity

The breathtaking, generation-defining Broadway phenomenon becomes a soaring cinematic event as Tony, Grammy and Emmy Award winner Ben Platt reprises his role as an anxious, isolated high schooler aching for understanding and belonging amid the chaos and cruelty of the social-media age. 

Directed by acclaimed filmmaker Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being A Wallflower, Wonder), we talked with Chbosky about mental health, musicals and authenticity.

Interviewed for Risen Magazine

Risen Magazine: Let’s talk Dear Evan Hansen. I thought you did such a fantastic job. I love the weaving of the songs, and this is… you had written musical adaptations before with Rent and Beauty and the Beast. This one you did not, but you decided to direct. So, why did you want to helm this film?

Stephen Chbosky: I wanted to helm it for… When I saw it, I saw it about three years ago on Broadway, and I knew nothing about the story. I just, I knew it had won some Tony Awards. I heard it was good. When I saw it, now you’ve seen the film, it’s the same kind of feeling. It’s like, “Wow, that was surprising.” I didn’t know… I thought it was going to be this sweet little earnest story about a kid who was struggling, and then it becomes this amazing story that’s so surprising and ultimately redemptive and was about something; it was complicated. And the music was phenomenal. The writing was great, the characters were great. I just loved it. And I remember calling my team the next day and just saying, “Look, if they’re going to do this movie, I want in. I want to do this so much,” because fundamentally, just as a person and as an artist, I knew that this could make millions of kids feel less alone.

I knew that it could shed some light on mental health issues, and also maybe give parents a little bit of a roadmap to have these conversations with their kids. It basically could do some good in the world, and that’s what really ultimately matters. I believe that art has a place and a responsibility just to help and to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. And so, I don’t know, it checked every box I was in. I loved it.

RM: It has the comedic elements but it also has those elements that make you a little bit uncomfortable and force you to think about things from a different perspective, and how you feel about what’s going on. And I think you’re right; if there’s an opportunity that art can ever make us kind of self reflect or check our own behavior, that’s something really positive. And like you mentioned, within the area of mental health, whether that’s not feeling alone or whether that’s anxiety, maybe talk a little bit about how you think it could do good for that.

SC: Well, I feel that first of all, fundamentally, whenever we talk about it, the stigma is decreased that much more, right? And when I think back, there’s been… my family, my wife’s family, there’s been some struggles with… and I think back two, three generations when it was never talked about, and now it is. And it’s like, just that alone, right away there’s a little more light on it. And when there’s more light, there’s more hope, always. I also think that, by showing this character who struggles with depression, social anxiety and all these other issues, by talking very, very honestly about very tough subjects like suicide, but at the same time with all that, not forgetting that movies can actually still be entertaining and music can still be very fun, and that you can have a catchy tune with great lyrics.

And not forgetting that both are… you can’t really have a lie without understanding truth and you can’t really have dark without light, and you can’t have redemption without sin. And so, all these things are going into it. So, but going back to your point about mental health. To me, I just wanted to talk about it honestly as much as I could, so that the kid who might feel ashamed that they’re feeling depressed, whether they’re like Evan who really wears his problems on his sleeve, or a character like Alana who seems perfect, whatever it is, or a character like Connor who does this tragic thing, is that all these things are represented. And the more that we see it, the more we can talk about it, the more we talk about it, the closer we become, the closer we become, the better lives so that we have.

RM: One of the songs that I loved was the Sincerely Me, where we have the three different angles, and the world’s still going on around them, and it’s the blending. Talk to me about filming that and pulling that off so that it was so seamless for us, and fun as they’re trying to describe their inner feelings, as you mentioned.

SC: Thank you for mentioning Sincerely, Me, which I will say selfishly is my favorite sequence, because it’s the one time in the show and the movie that gets to be unabashedly musical, capital M, dancing, singing, fun. It’s hilarious. Jared is so, he’s just, he’s so sarcastic. And I think for me, filming that was one of the joys. The idea of… on stage, and Michael Greif is a great director. He just sets the stage. They’re just kind of bouncing around. But I got to have go-karts and Dance Dance, or Pump It Up in the video game. And I love the convention, as they’re writing the emails, when he keeps repeating them and they keep changing the lines, that he keeps repeating the action. It was great fun to put together with the whole creative team and the actors. I mean, my gosh. You can’t believe, Ben Platt, Colton Ryan and Nick Dodani are so fun, and their dancing is so fun. I don’t know. Thank you for mentioning that one. I’m surprised you brought it up, because you went from mental health to the most ludicrous part of the movie, and that was wonderful.

RM: The other song that was my favorite within it, was the So Small, So Big that Julianne Moore sings. And that was the one that just really got me because I could visualize a child sitting there wondering if… parents ever coming back. And there’s so many broken homes within America, whether you’re dealing with any of these other pressures that have been going on in the world. Maybe talk to me a little bit about the vulnerability that’s shared there.

SC: Oh, well, you mentioned that song. That’s the one that when I saw it on Broadway, when that came up, it was so surprising and I almost did a true, ugly cry. I’m talking an audible “Ahh!” in the audience. But it is such a remarkable song. And just Evan, who in that moment is at his lowest, he hates himself so much. He’s done this bad thing, he’s seen the pain he’s caused. He just feels like maybe he’s not worth even being around. And to have his mother really get him out of that darkness by talking about this thing that she’s been through. Yeah, I just thought it was just a remarkable song. And in terms of… listen, as a director, what you do is you try to make the atmosphere as kind and supportive and as intimate as possible because the actors have to go to these vulnerable places.

What Ben Platt does in that scene, silently listening to her, is remarkable. And what Julianne Moore does with it is so true and intimate and tender and authentic. And it’s like, she took all of her experiences as a mother and just put it into that song. I just, it’s a really magical moment of film. I’m very proud to be associated with it.

RM: One of the things that I loved about it is I felt like it was a time where you can have a perspective shift. And there’s so many times in life. Some people, it’s easier to just kind of take your own step back out of a mess and say, “Okay, everything’s going to be okay. Maybe not today, but down the road.” Where other people, they can’t do that and that’s where we unfortunately have a lot of resulting things that end in suicide or problems within families and so forth. But, so one of the things that I loved about that was this idea that he was having somebody help him kind of reshift his lens, the way that he looked at the world. And I feel like it’s so relatable on any level, from children to adults, especially with everything that we’ve gone through and are still going through right now in the current climate of the country. And just, the need to kind of focus on what’s important, how you’re going to weather through something, and trying to block out the noise. For you, how is that done?

SC: Well, I think… Well, what a complicated question. That’s kind of remarkable. No, it’s rather great. I think that… You say that you, speaking about the pandemic. So we all know, because we’ve all lived it, and as a world we’ve never lived through anything quite like this before. Certainly, they travel with a speed that hit everywhere at once. So, we all know the effect it’s had on the isolating kids. We all know that it’s led to more depression. I heard a statistic that the average teenager now experiences the same level of anxiety as a mental hospital patient did in the 1950s. That is what’s happening, and between the pandemic and the social media and everything else that’s going on. So because of that, I think a movie like this, that talks directly about this and also to show, like you said, a character like Evan, that even at his lowest he deserves redemption. He confesses, he goes through this journey, and by going through this journey he comes out the other side. And the ultimate theme of the movie, which so brilliantly written by Steven Levenson, is realized; that, no hiding, no lying, just be yourself and that’s enough. That’s a great…

We all deserve to be respected and loved for where we are, and the more that we tell the truth, I think the more authentic we are, the closer we’re going to become. I just, I think it’s a wonderful message. It’s funny, some people just get fixated on the lie. He lied and he’s bad and that’s it, and they dismiss him. To me, no, I don’t buy that at all. It wasn’t the way I was raised. You say, “Look, here’s this teenager whose father won’t return his text. His mom works all the time. He’s alone in that house all the time. He’s so alone in the world, and he becomes this thing for this family with no malicious intent. He loves them and they love him, and yet it’s an unsustainable thing because it’s based on a lie. And what we need to do is be true, and then be loved for that.” That, to me, is the ultimate message. And I think the way that the three authors told it was just fantastic.

Dear Evan Hansen hits theatres Friday, September 24

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