For his directorial debut, Danny Strong wanted to get a little more personal. The multi-hyphenate is known for his work on both sides of the camera, from acting in small screen fare like “Gilmore Girls” and “Mad Men,” to scripting features like “Game Change” (the HBO movie that earned him two Emmys), “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” and the final pair of “Hunger Games” films, in addition to creating a little show called “Empire,” but when it came time to direct, Strong sought out something closer to his own experience. A biopic of J.D. Salinger fit the bill.
But when Strong’s “Rebel in the Rye” premiered at Sundance earlier this year, the fact-based feature wasn’t a universal crowdpleaser. Fortunately, that’s not the movie audiences will see when it opens in September, and Strong is hopeful that the new version speaks more clearly to his original intentions when it came to telling the story.
“I was a big ‘Catcher in the Rye’ fan in high school, as many a person is,” Strong said in a recent interview. “The Salinger voice was very influential on me and stuck with me over the years. I think it informed my voice in a way. It was so cool to me, and I liked it so much, and I think it very much got into my DNA. But I didn’t stay an obsessive Salinger fan over the years, it was just something that I really loved in high school.”
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Strong eventually stumbled across Kenneth Slawenski’s biography, “J.D. Salinger: A Life,” which hit shelves in 2011, just one year after the reclusive author passed away. Intrigued by the possibility of boning up on new details about the enigmatic author, he bought it on the spot. “I was so stunned by the story, and so moved by the story, especially his journey to become a writer and to create Holden Caulfield and to write ‘Catcher in the Rye,'” Strong said. “It made me understand not only where the book came from, but what happened to him.”
The filmmaker said that he felt personally close to the material in a way that’s rare for him — as he joked, he’s never worked in politics or hip hop, but that hasn’t stopped him from writing a movie like “Recount” or creating a series like “Empire” — and that he wanted to try out. “Oh, a troubled Jewish writer, huh, well, that sounds familiar to me,” he explained with a laugh. “It made me realize that I should really direct this. I just felt like I knew it.”
Set mostly during Salinger’s younger years, “Rebel in the Rye” stars Nicholas Hoult as the legendary writer, and follows his formative experiences in World War II and his eventual fame after “Catcher in the Rye” became an overnight literary sensation. Kevin Spacey co-stars in the film as an influential professor and fellow writer, while Sarah Paulson crackles as his whipsmart agent and rising star Zoey Deutch plays a heartbreaker of a former lover. For fans of the seminal author, it provides a glimpse inside the events that shaped him both as a person and a writer, particularly his harrowing experience in the war and his inability to fit inside the rigid structure of academia.
The multi-faceted Hoult shines in the role, and Strong’s sense that casting the part was the make-or-break element of the movie proves itself out. Hoult is marvelous in it.
Salinger notoriously removed himself from public life two years after the publication — and runaway success — of “Catcher in the Rye,” abandoning New York City in favor of a tiny town in New Hampshire. While Salinger was initially accessible to fans and other aspiring writers, the publication of an unexpected interview (care of a high schooler he was mentoring) pushed him to adopt the reclusive lifestyle he maintained until his death. For Strong, dramatizing why Salinger balked at his long-sought fame in such a profound manner was the key to the story.
“I felt that, if the audience didn’t leave the movie understanding why he moved to Cornish, New Hampshire and why he stopped publishing, that they would be shortchanging the story,” Strong said. “We have to understand what happened. It was a huge part of what guided me.”
The film bowed during the first weekend of Sundance in January, and though reviews were not exactly glowing (of eight reviews currently posted on Rotten Tomatoes, only two are “Fresh”), IFC Films picked up the feature a few weeks later, with an awards-friendly fall release date set. Strong, however, was eager to rework the feature before its fall release date, and IFC supported the decision.
“I always thought I’d keep working on the film after Sundance,” Strong said. “I had rushed the film to get into the festival, and to me, there was going to be more work done. After seeing it at Sundance a few times, with different audiences, I learned a lot about the film, and I learned what worked and what didn’t work. I knew I really want to make changes.”
He added, “I think I significantly improved it. I’m so happy with it now — not that I was unhappy with it at Sundance, but I wasn’t sure.” He says he is now, and recent responses to the new cut from Hollywood insiders and critics alike have been very positive, indicating that Strong’s instincts appear to have served him (and the film) very well indeed.
For the new cut, Strong re-dedicated himself to his initial inspirations for telling the story. “It’s deeper, it’s more layered,” Strong explained. “I felt that the war story wasn’t clear enough, so it’s now it’s crystal clear. It just got into his head more, a deeper level. And it’s less linear, too. It just gels the film in a way that I thought I was close [to] at Sundance, but I wasn’t quite there. Now it is.”
IFC Films will open “Rebel in the Rye” on September 8. Check out our exclusive new poster for the film below.