Rebel in the Rye: Sundance Unearths J.D. Salinger

February 8, 2017
Actor, writer turned filmmaker Danny Strong recruits Nicholas Hoult to bring to life the enigmatic author of Catcher in the Rye.

Here’s a brief extract from one of the most popular books in modern literature.

“What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”

J.D. Salinger’s classic novel Catcher in the Rye, an expression of teenage angst and rebellion, narrated in the first person by New York teenager Holden Caulfield, was first published in 1951. The novel was included on Time’s 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923. Its enduring popularity and the mystique surrounding its author are what prompted Bleecker Street productions and actor turned writer and director Danny Strong (actor in Gilmore Girls, writer of the Hunger Games) to put Salinger’s story on screen as Rebel in the Rye.

The movie premiered at Sundance and is a fascinating account of Salinger’s life, with a perfect sense of period and a faultless lead performance by Nicholas Hoult. The story begins as the budding author embarks on his writing career and enters into a tumultuous relationship with young starlet Oona O’Neill (who later turned him over for Charlie Chaplin). Having tried to establish his career in New York’s literary circle in the late 1930s, but with numerous rejections and with no prospects for success, he enlists in the army to fight in WWII. It is on the battlefields of Europe that Salinger begins writing the iconic novel which would ultimately become The Catcher in the Rye.

Suffering PTSD, the writer turns to meditation and later seeks peace through retreating to a semi-reclusive life in the woods. His writing continued but he turned away from his phenomenal success, saying that being published was ‘a distraction.’

Another fascinating real life character in Salinger’s story was his teacher at Columbia, Whit Burnett, who mentored many significant writers of the generation, including Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams as well as Salinger himself. Burnett is portrayed in a strong, likeable performance by Kevin Spacey.

Speaking from the red carpet ahead of the premiere, writer/director Strong said “it’s thrilling, a dream come true. It came about when I read a biography on Salinger, especially the part about his early years and his struggle to succeed as a writer. I just thought it was a beautiful inspiring story and it deserved to be a film.

“The casting was crucial. I was incredibly methodical, I just watched all this footage of all these young actors in their 20s, so many talented actors, but when I got to Nick Hoult I was blown away by his versatility and his chameleon like character acting abilities. I felt like I was watching a 25-year-old Gary Oldman. I got it down to five actors who auditioned but when Nick auditioned I thought, ‘we’re done, that’s my man.’

“I love Catcher in the Rye. I haven’t read it since high school but it was one of those important books that stick with you. I reread it when I was working on the script and it was great, I was blown away by it, how funny and poignant it is, and how much he made me laugh. It was just really insightful and incredibly truthful, just as profound now as when I first read it. 250,000 copies of it are still sold every year and it’s still the seminal book for teenagers to read. I’d say it was the first book I’d ever read where I felt a personal connection to this character and the way he thought and felt about things. I’d never read anything like that before.”

Strong has had years of experience in front of the camera before he came to writing and directing. When asked what sort of a director he was he explained, “I love actors. I cast great actors so I don’t have to do a lot, I just take a light touch when they need it, give them something to play with and make it creative for them and try not to tell people what they’re doing wrong. I try to give them something to do that can hopefully move the scene around.”

According to composer Bear McCreary (The Walking Dead, 10 Cloverfield Lane), Strong was deeply involved with all aspects of the filmmaking process including the musical score.

“The score is blisteringly fast, I used this idea that Salinger’s a complete genius, that his ideas are flowing so quickly that the score is just trying to keep up with him. It’s an emotional parallel. Danny was very hands on, which I needed because he understands this material better than anyone, he came to every recording session. He understands the importance of the music for emotional tone. I ended up using a lot of period music. It was a daring decision to replace all of the source material with original music, so every piece of big band music is mine. It was an incredible challenge to make something that feels appropriate for the period but also helps tell the story in a very specific way.”

At the audience Q & A after the screening, Strong explained that as well as Salinger’s amazing story, he also identified a wider narrative that he wanted to explore in the film, and also describes how his own writing process has become more honest over time.

“Salinger wrote this book that changed the country and at the same time there was also this other story which is the universal story of what it means to be a writer and what it means to be an artist. I’m a writer so to be able to dramatise what you go through as a writer, everyone who’s an actor or painter, who goes through all these things that he goes through in the movie, I thought this deserves to be a film.

“For me, the easiest part to translate to film was the Columbia University years because it’s very well documented but also that process of going to school and trying to become a writer, I did that, it was something that I lived, so it was personal and fun to write.

“The trickiest part was the last section of his life. In a traditional film you write to a climax, ‘save the hostages’ or whatever, but Salinger goes to the woods and isolates himself more and more. It’s challenging for a screenwriter to make that dramatically engaging and you don’t want your movie to fade away in the last twenty minutes, you want it to stay engaging and interesting.

“The writing never ends through the whole film process, you are writing all the way through to post production because you’re editing and constantly changing things, things are shifting. In this case I was adding voiceover and trying to make the arc clearer and clearer.

“Before I sold my scripts I was writing for six years and I used to watch a ton of movies in the style of the story I was writing and my script became derivative of those movies. Then I learned to be true to the story I was telling, just write the script – which I did in this case.”

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