What the Director of 'Dear Evan Hansen' Thinks About the Movie Musical's Haters
And how he wanted to change the end of the Tony-winning musical for the screen.
When the first trailer for Dear Evan Hansen, the movie adaptation of the Tony-winning Broadway musical, came out, there was some confusion echoing around the internet. That's what that is about? It seemed the common perception from those who weren't theater nerds was that Dear Evan Hansen was just a simple story about bullying and redemption. But as they quickly found out, it's a lot more complicated than that.
In Dear Evan Hansen, which was written by Steven Levenson with songs by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the titular character (Ben Platt) is an anxious teen with a cast on his arm who is instructed by a therapist to write letters to himself explaining why "today is going to be a good day." On his first day back to high school after summer break, Connor Murphy (Colton Ryan), the school outcast, signs his name on Evan's cast and finds Evan's letter in the library printer, taking it home with him. Then he commits suicide. The letter addressed to Evan is all that's on his body, so his parents believe Evan was his secret best friend. Instead of disputing this assumption, Evan, too nervous to contradict the family, begins an elaborate lie, which gives Connor's family, including his sister and Evan's crush Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever), solace.
Director Stephen Chbosky—best known for adapting his own beloved work of teen fiction, The Perks of Being a Wallflower—saw the musical and thought it was like if Heathers was a "tearjerker." If Dear Evan Hansen was ever going to be a movie, he had to direct it.
Following its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, the reactions to the movie have been impassioned, to say the least. Here, Chbosky talks about how he wanted to rewrite the ending of the musical to redeem Evan and what he thinks of the "haters."
Thrillist: You are a writer of teen fiction—what initially struck you about Dear Evan Hansen and made you want to sign on?
Stephen Chbosky: I saw the show about three years ago and I loved the writing. I loved it. I thought the characters were memorable, I thought the message was powerful, but the way that they executed it was just a very surprising, very original idea. I never knew what was going to happen next. It was almost like somehow they figured out a way to make Heathers a tearjerker. It's almost like a page-turner thriller, but it was about a kid lying in high school with these great songs, and then you're crying at the end. I just thought it checked every box I could possibly think that a piece of material could check. The next day I called my team and I said, "If they ever make a movie of this, I want to meet with them. I would kill to do it."
I wanted to pick up on something you said, calling it Heathers, but a "tearjerker." Why did that reference come to mind and how did you want to balance those elements?
Whether as an audience member or as an artist, I always try to look at the light with the dark or the happy with the sad. The duality is what is the most interesting to me. Unless, of course, something is just purely escapist and that's the point, that's great, then I love those movies and those shows as well, but the art that stays with me the longest is the type that has both. So I loved it right off the bat. I thought, here is this show that was dealing with mental health and was dealing with suicide and all these other subjects, but doing it in a completely unique way, whether some people felt that way was a poor taste or not—a lot of people thought a lot of people thought Heathers was a poor taste. I thought Heathers was brilliant. And so my approach was to try to go in with as much empathy as I possibly could.
I always feel like it's my job—especially if I'm not writing, if I'm just directing—to help to contextualize a character's behavior for people that may not readily get it. Some people will never get it. They will simply dismiss [Evan Hansen] as a liar. They will be very, very judgmental of him from a moral point of view. I did everything I could to not make a movie about a liar. I did everything I could to make a movie about a troubled kid who really needs help. And what I would say to all the haters is there are two lies being told in this movie. There's, of course, the lie that Evan tells the family and the community that he was friends with Connor, but there is an equally important lie, in my opinion, that this young man tried to kill himself three months ago. And he is in a lot of trouble. No one knows. And he has nobody and that needs to come into the light as well.
Can you elaborate on what you mean about trying to add that context for Evan and his decisions?
Well, I just feel whenever I do anything, empathy is what I lead with. There's a moment in the principal's office where Evan—who has terrible social anxiety, who doesn't mix with people a lot as it is, [who] meets the girl of his dreams, and instead of shaking her hand, he has to run away—is a young person with fear. He's introduced to people he's never met before. He doesn't know them. And they tell him the most horrible tragedy of their life. And he is the hope. So he just says, "Oh, Connor didn't write this. He didn't write this." He says the truth right there.
So here's the empathy part: Cynthia, brilliantly played by Amy Adams, is like, "No, this is all we have left. No, no, no, it can't be." And here's this moment where, if Evan were not socially anxious, if Evan didn't have fear, if Evan had more social grace or wasn't so mixed up himself, he might say, "Listen, I'm so terribly sorry. But yeah, this was an assignment." He would confess and he would say what the truth is. But he can't let this woman down. And she is a grieving mother and then when he goes to the dinner, he's going to tell the family the truth there. They're fighting and they're screaming at each other and he feels compelled to just not have them hate each other. So everything is done with a sense of a greater good, but he just does it in the worst way.
I do want to ask about the change to the ending between the stage show and the movie. There is an added section where you see Evan digging into Connor's life, and then you hear a song Connor wrote. Were those parts added to give Connor more of a voice, and to, again, further contextualize Evan in this denouement?
Yeah, well, that section came from a lot of different discussions for a lot of different reasons. Musicals are a traditional two act structure; movies are a three act. And so we needed to flesh out the third act in order to make it a movie. There was also the fact that because we knew that the convention on the stage show, where Connor comes out and talks to Evan, almost as Evan is talking to himself, works brilliantly on stage. I love the convention on stage and it's really well directed by Michael Greif, it works great. It doesn't work at all in a real bedroom. It's not abstract in movies; it's literal. So it doesn't work, which means that there is now an absence of Connor. And so now we need to find a third way to talk about Connor Murphy, the way that the stage show brilliantly does with the alter ego part.
Then there was the fact that, on stage, the entire cast represents the entire community, so [when Evan] confesses, he basically confesses in front of all the characters that we see. But now, because we've added at least a dozen recognizable kids in the high school, and the online component became bigger. He has to confess to everybody. It all started when, I remember, the very first time we all sat together at the offices at Platt Productions, and I just said, "Guys, my only quibble is I just want him to confess to the community." And it is implicit, it is implied on the stage. You have to be more literal on screen because I just said, "Look, I think it's lovely that the family does not expose him. I mean, that's very classy of them and I love that. But if he's still pretending to be Connor's friend at his tenth high school reunion, and if the answer is "no…," I just wanted Evan to be free of the lie. And he cannot be free of the lie without confession. So all of these things kind of mix in together and the way that Levenson, Pasek, and Paul executed I thought was brilliant.
Was there an effort to redeem Evan in this section?
Yes. We all felt that in the movie— and because movies are able to have montages—you're able to show a year in the life in the way you can't on stage—it was important to redeem Evan. To have him actually do the thing he should have done from day one, which is get to know who Connor was to whatever capacity he could. And that's, I think, one of the larger messages of the film at large, which is, get to know each other and reach out and ask questions and find out what's going on because you could save a life, or you could certainly change one. That scene in the library with Connor, between Ben and Colton, is so lovely. I love the way it's written. It's like they should be friends, and yet they're not. I almost feel like when Evan sits down and reads the ten books, that it's his one way of getting to know him. He did mention that in the show. We actually see him do it and actually see him seek out Connor I felt was very redemptive and was part of his ultimate coming of age.
What were the discussions around what Connor's song should be in those final moments?
Since the Connor alter ego idea could not work, that meant that the song "Disappear" could not work, which left a vacancy of one more Connor song, but also left a vacancy of the idea of "Disappear." That was remedied through the new Alana song, "The Anonymous Ones." It actually gave Alana more as a character, which was very exciting, but it left a vacancy for Connor, and we felt like it just couldn't be a new song and there would be something to accompany the montage. It should be Connor, and I think it was either Benj or Steven Levenson, I forget which one, but one of them said, "Wouldn't it be great if you heard the song? And then he revealed that it was actually Connor singing." I thought that was fantastic. The way I built the entire sequence was for that reveal. And I wanted the reveal to just hopefully really surprise the audience and allow for this one glimpse of the potential of that young man, his artistic potential. One moment of genuine vulnerability, because in the movie at the beginning he is so angry and combative and he is so volatile. And then in the fantasy, he's just a song and dance man. Where's the glimpse of the Connor that it's shame people didn't get to know? And that was the glimpse.
You mentioned the "haters" earlier. What has been your reaction to the harsher reviews out of TIFF?
I haven't given it a lot of thought, because... how do I put it? And I don't want this to sound glib because it's the furthest thing from it. I love the show. I love the character and I love the story. I love the songs and I love the performers and I love the singing. And what I thought that my job was, as I mentioned earlier, was to adapt and translate it as much as I could to help mitigate the hate and to help people understand where Evan was coming from to the best of my ability. It was something I was raised with. I literally did the best job I could've possibly done. And there's nothing that anyone could say that could change that, if that's the best I got. That's very freeing to me. It's what I was raised with: If you did the best you could, then that's the best you could.
But I will say, though, as a fan of the show, as a fan of the cast, everybody else, is: The movie is about so many things. And I can't argue with anybody if they like a song or don't like a song, that's not criticism, that's opinion, or this actor versus that, whatever it is that they might be talking about. What I will say is I really didn't make it for the haters. I made it for young people and their parents who're trying desperately to connect and understand. That's who the audience is. And if it gets other people, then god bless them, great. If it doesn't, then it doesn't particularly matter to me because it was never meant to be. It's like, if people see this movie and they can't find something remarkable in it, whether it's a single performance or a song that's incredible, or a shot that they love or an interesting original story, then they were never going to like it in the first place. It doesn't do me any good to waste what little emotional energy I have, since my family comes first, to spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. I just wish that people would judge the movie on its own merit and leave it at that.
You said your job was to "mitigate the hate." Were you anticipating some of the responses? Or was that something you were thinking about later?
I didn't look at it that way. I wanted people to understand Evan as much as they possibly could. And that was my job, and that's what I did.