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Writer-Director Danny Strong Imagines JD Salinger’s Writing Life in Rebel in the Rye

September 20, 2017 | By

“He is this reclusive figure,” said writer-director Danny Strong about the subject of his new film, Rebel in the Rye, that being author J.D. Salinger, whose book Catcher in the Rye is still widely read and considered one of America’s classic 20th century novels. Strong’s screenplay was based on Kenneth Slawenski’s biography, J.D. Salinger: A Life. “When I read the biography, I was blown away by the real story; found it completely fascinating. Was very moved by it.”rebel_in_the_rye_slate

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Strong soon optioned the biography but was not able to start writing his screenplay for a year-and-a-half. “It was about four-five months,” Strong said of the amount of time he devoted to scriptwriting Rebel in the Rye. “It was daunting at times, but it was completely fascinating—I loved working on the piece.”

According to Strong, the major events in his movie are all true – all of the story beats actually happened. Alas, within those events, the dialogue and happenstance in the scenes themselves are fictionalized. “I don’t know what anybody said to each other,” Strong confessed of Salinger’s encounters. “A few things were actual quotes. The film is based on the biography; the era before [Salinger] went to New Hampshire is pretty well-documented.”

Indeed, when Salinger retreated to a country estate in New Hampshire, following the massive publishing success of Catcher in the Rye, he entered a largely unknown reclusive period.  In one moment during the New Hampshire scenes, Salinger’s creative writing teacher at Columbia University and first publisher, Whit Burnett, played by Kevin Spacey, visits Salinger, played by Nicholas Hoult. “My gut is it was all done by letters,” Strong said of the Salinger-Burnett relationship after Catcher in the Rye. “We turned it into a scene. It’s truthful, but it’s all a fictionalized scene. I have no idea if they spoke after or wrote letters after [Salinger moved to New Hampshire].”

danny_strong_nicholas_houltDecidedly a low-budget film, with only 26 shooting days, Rebel in the Rye was assembled with the total commitment of all involved. In casting Hoult as Salinger, Strong watched reels of dozens of actors in Salinger’s rough age range in the story – from early 20s to mid-30s. “This kid is a 25-year-old Gary Oldman in a leading man’s body,” said Strong of discovering Hoult. “I put him on a short list. I asked five different actors to come read for me—four of them did. Nick auditioned and got it the old-fashioned way.”

To immerse Hoult in Salinger’s world and mindset, Strong instructed the actor to take yoga, write short stories, and visit locations in New York City that Salinger traversed. The result is Hoult’s convincing, believable performance as the iconic author. “He captured the emotional truth of what Salinger was going through in the film,” Strong stated. “Moment to moment, capturing the reality of what Salinger was experiencing. I rehearsed every major scene in the movie—that was very helpful.”

In Rebel in the Rye, Strong positions Salinger’s duty in World War II as being a transformative experience in his life. “That’s the theory of J.D. Salinger,” Strong claimed, “that he was a very different writer after the war. A whole new layer of depth that is the darker point-of-view, combined with that sarcastic whimsy that he had before the war.”rebel_in_the_rye_set rebel_in_the_rye_set_B

One of the undeniable charms of Rebel in the Rye is its portrayal of the circumstances surrounding Salinger’s writing of Catcher in the Rye. “He had been writing Holden Caulfield stories before the war and during the war,” Strong said of Salinger’s most famous manifestation, the main character in Catcher in the Rye, noting that those short stories culminated in the 240-page novel, though there was a long gestation period from character to book. “He wasn’t able to write it for several years after the war; he wasn’t writing for a year-and-a-half after the war ended.”

For the innumerable fans of the Catcher in the Rye, Strong’s film might represent the rare occasion to see a dramatic movie about its creator. “It’s a really interesting and really inspiring, beautiful story that I think people will be very moved by,” Strong revealed. “The birth of this book and the birth of this artist and his journey—to see how art is created from trauma. The extent of what he did to create something that people loved so much is very powerful.”

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