When J.D. Salinger published his novel The Catcher in the Rye in 1951, the author gave voice to a generation of disillusioned young people that hadn’t been as powerfully represented in literature. His protagonist, Holden Caulfield, still one of the most enduringly popular characters in all of American fiction, represented the post–World War II alienation felt by millions around the globe. The incredible success of the novel, and its continued impact on people who wanted to know its author, eventually sent Salinger into virtual seclusion, which only made him more of a mythic figure to his fans.
Danny Strong, a popular television actor known for Gilmore Girls, had already launched a successful directing career on the small screen with Empire and as a screenwriter with Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Now he’s delivered his feature directorial debut with Rebel in the Rye, which examines the young Salinger’s (Nicholas Hoult) relationship with his mentor (Kevin Spacey) and the personal experiences that inspired him to write his seminal novel.
What is it about J.D. Salinger’s life that made it interesting enough for you to write and direct your film?
It’s a really fascinating story — just the bare-bones facts of his life. He lived through so much: his relationship with Oona O’Neill, his experience in World War II, writing the great American novel right after World War II, then essentially going into seclusion in Cornish, New Hampshire, and becoming this mythical figure in American pop culture. I bought a biography of him and was just reading it for fun and thought the story of him writing Catcher in the Rye deserves to be a movie.
When did you first become aware of his work, and what did it mean to you?
When I read Catcher when I was 14, it had a profound effect on me. It was the first time I ever read anything in a voice that related to me. In many ways, it was the voice I heard in my head and the way I thought. It seemed so real, unlike other books I read, which I never thought of as unreal, but they were just stories. Here, all of sudden, was this character that I could relate to in a way I’d never related to a fictional character before.
What kind of research did you do into his life?
First there was J.D. Salinger: A Life that I optioned, and there have been multiple other books written about him. I read several and they were all interesting in their own ways, as well as were many articles. I interviewed people who had some sort of affiliation, such as people who’d worked at The New Yorker. I went to Cornish, New Hampshire, and found people who knew him there. I did various interviews with them and then wrote the script.
How much of his life do you cover in your film?
The plot is basically how Salinger wrote Catcher and what it did to him after. The movie is really about him in his 20s. It’s the portrait of an artist as a young man. It’s really about the birth of a writer and the journey of a writer. As much as it’s a story about Salinger, it’s also a universal story about the creative process. The key relationship in the film is with his writing teacher. The film is as much an artist’s manifesto as it is a film about the subject. It very much takes you into what writers go through. There’s so much that he goes through in the film — the rejection, searching for a story, the disapproval of his parents, the inability to function socially. I don’t really view it as a biopic. It certainly covers biographical aspects of his life, but I view it as an artist’s manifesto and the celebration of the writing process. That’s why I framed the film around the creation of Catcher in the Rye.
There are still a lot of hard-core Salinger fans, and each new generation continues to discover his writing. What obligation do you feel to get his story right?
I think Aaron Sorkin has the perfect quote about making this kind of film, which is they’re paintings, not photographs. It’s not a documentary. It’s very much a dramatization of events that occurred 70 years ago. For me the obligation is to get the essence of the truth.
What sort of insight do you offer into Salinger’s personality?
That he sought the truth in his work. That he was dedicated to the truth in art above all else. I think it’s a pretty profound story of someone who never stopped writing. I think he became the epitome of what I call writer’s nirvana. He spent the last 45 years of his life writing and getting nothing in return. He literally wrote for the sake of writing, just for the sake of the process. He didn’t want money or fame and didn’t even want anyone to read what he was writing. It’s so unique. I think what artists struggle with is their own ego getting in the way, and he goes on this profound journey where the ego is completely released from the art. There’s something oddly inspiring about that. It’s the opposite of what we in American culture expect people to do.
Nicholas Hoult has developed into a very interesting actor. What qualities did you see in him that made him right to play Salinger?
I needed someone who was incredibly talented. My number-one barometer was I needed a fantastic actor, because he goes through so much in the film. It’s an amazing journey from where he starts to where he ends up. I watched a lot of footage of a lot of terrific actors in that age range. When I got to watching Nick’s material and footage from a lot of different movies, I was blown away by his versatility. From his role as a zombie in Warm Bodies to the shy student in A Single Man, he was all over the place. He reminded me of a 25-year-old Gary Oldman. He went to the top of my list. Then I selected a few actors to read for me, and as soon as he finished his audition I said, “That’s the guy.”
The camera loves him. He’s very photogenic and charismatic.
Yes, I was worried he might be too handsome for the part, but Salinger himself was a handsome man — not in the way Nick is, but he was an appealing guy the ladies loved. I didn’t care after the audition. I just thought we’d love watching him.
You’ve been an incredibly successful actor and writer. Why did you decide on this project for your feature directorial debut?
After I did Recount with Jay Roach, I really wanted to direct, and it was just a matter of finding the right story. After I read the biography of him, not only did I think the story of Salinger writing Catcher is a great idea for a film, but it’s a perfect film for me to direct because it’s an exploration of the creative process. I lived that life as a writer. It was nowhere near as dramatic as the life J.D. Salinger lived. Nonetheless, I could relate to so many things he went through that are covered in the film, so I just felt it was the perfect first film for me to direct.
What does it mean to have it premiere at Sundance?
In all honesty, it’s literally a dream come true. I was so excited to get in and with American cinema the way it is — there are so few dramas being made within the system. Sundance is the elite and premiere place to present a film that’s outside the studio system. I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am to have my first film get in.