The world of legendary writer J. D. Salinger is brought vividly to life in Rebel In The Rye by writer-director Danny Strong, whose first experience with Salinger was at age 14, when he read The Catcher in the Rye.
“It was the first time I had read anything that reflected how I felt,” Strong recalls, “the voice of the character felt so real and truthful to me in a way other books didn’t feel. And it was also the funniest book I had read at that time. It still might be.”
The story of The Catcher in the Rye and its author stayed with him through the years, and he eventually bought the rights to Kenneth Slawenski’s book “J.D. Salinger: A Life,” a biography of the famously elusive author turned American icon.
“I related to many of Salinger’s experiences as a writer: trying to find an idea, using your own life for inspiration, dealing with rejection, getting notes, and how writing affects your personal life,” Strong says, referring to the process of adapting the book into a screenplay.
“There are many universal experiences for many writers in telling his story. At the same time, the events of his life were extremely dramatic and unique.”
Set amidst the colorful backdrop of mid-20th century New York City, Rebel in the Rye is a revealing look at the experiences that shaped one of the most renowned, controversial, and enigmatic authors of our time. It follows a young Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) as he struggles to find his voice, pursues a love affair with famed socialite Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch), and fights on the frontlines of World War II. It’s these experiences that will inform the creation of his masterpiece, The Catcher in the Rye, bringing him overnight fame (and notoriety) and leading him to withdraw from the public eye for the rest of his life.
Strong teamed up with Jason Shuman to produce the film
“I was boiling over with excitement to read it and see how we could get the movie made,” says Shuman, who had been made aware of the project while the screenplay was still being written. Together they sought out powerhouse producers Bruce Cohen (American Beauty, Milk, Silver Lining’s Playbook) and Black Label Media, comprised of Molly Smith, Trent Luckinbill, and Thad Luckinbill. Black Label Media (Sicario, Demolition, La La Land) immediately got to work to secure financing and dive head-first into the casting process.
One of the unique aspects of the making of this film is the connection the cast and crew have to the subject matter.
While the film gives audiences a taste of J.D. Salinger and his life – relationships, triumphs, and tragedies – it is ultimately a tale about an artist who strives for integrity and truth in his work.
Starting with Danny Strong, those involved in the project are all acutely aware of how difficult the creative process is and the kinds of sacrifices that need to be made in order to commit to art.
“Danny has been a prolific actor for many years and started to write on his own, so a story about someone creating one of the most ultimate works of art of the twentieth century seemed not only one that Danny would understand, but one where he could bring his own passions and understanding of that kind of a story,” Shuman says.
Strong adds to this “I would hope that this film inspires future artists of any kind, because this movie is about creating great art, and that can be in any form. I hope people can be inspired to go out and want to be the next Salinger in whatever field they want to be in.” On the challenges he faced in directing his first film, Strong muses “Everything was challenging. It’s the hardest (and most rewarding) thing I have ever done creatively.
Bringing The Characters To Life
Known for being as reclusive as he was enigmatic, Rebel In The Rye introduces Salinger as an anxious yet very charming twenty-year-old. He is struggling to find his place in New York City’s literary scene but nevertheless is full of life, outgoing, and completely unafraid. As Salinger’s character comes of age, he is thrust into the horrors of World War II, an event that would have a lasting impact on his writing career and overall quality of life.
In adapting Slawenski’s biography to a screenplay, Strong came to understand how the events in Salinger’s life (both bad and good) impacted his creative process and shaped his body of work.
“I was looking for someone that could exude brilliance, and Nicholas Hoult was the young genius that I was looking for to bring this character alive,” says Strong, who wanted to show audiences the rebellious, angry side of Salinger and how that contributed to his work.
The producers agreed that Nicholas Hoult was the right choice, after reviewing his past works and testing a few other actors. “In his short career, Nick has already shown such tremendous range,” says Shuman. “He really embodies the spirit of J.D. Salinger – he’s charming, he’s sarcastic, he’s brilliant. Nick was far and above the best choice and the clear choice,” Thad Luckinbill adds. “He’s so passionate and committed to this role.”
There are a few rare photos of Salinger and several biographies, but there is no video footage or recordings. While challenging, the lack of known information about Salinger also provided Hoult with the freedom to create his own vision of the character based on the biographies he read and the screenplay itself.
Though Hoult was a fan of Salinger’s work prior to joining the project, preparing to play his character proved to be a daunting task.
“To bring someone to life who’s a real person with so much intensity and passion and who’s wonderful at what they do, it’s exciting, but also very scary,” Hoult says. “He’s uncompromising in his style, what he wants to do, and how truthful he wants his writing to be,” Hoult says of the icon he portrays. “He is unrelenting and unforgiving with people who either don’t agree with him or don’t want to help him.”
After being kicked out of a few schools and doubting his place as a writer, Salinger enrols at Columbia and meets Whit Burnett, a professor who immediately understands him and helps refocus his energy towards something productive.
Strong describes Whit Burnett’s character and the decision to cast Kevin Spacey for this: “The story between Whit and Jerry Salinger is so fascinating – the interest he took and the tough love he gave him – when you wrap all that up, there is really no better actor to portray it than Kevin Spacey,” he says. “He can play tough, but he can also do it with such sincerity and genuine passion.”
While Whit is in many ways a larger than life character, he also knows what he hasn’t accomplished. “Spacey has the range of bringing this bravado to the role while also being able to go in reverse and become very small, having regrets about his life and how it came out,” Shuman says. “It’s wonderful to see Kevin play that kind of range in a supporting role.”
Whit is responsible for helping shape J.D.’s voice and starting his writing career, but Dorothy Olding, his agent, kept pushing Salinger’s career forward. Like Salinger, Olding is in many ways ahead of her time: she is running a company in a nineteen-forties male-dominated publishing world. It was decided almost unanimously that dynamo actress Sarah Paulson was perfect for the intensity of this role.
“We got lucky we got Sarah,” Strong says. “She brings that tough grit, and she doesn’t take anything from anyone.” Shuman adds his praise by noting, “She’s so perfect – her look, her mannerisms, how she plays off people like Nick and Kevin to bring that character to life was just genius.”
While Salinger becomes romantically involved with several different women over the course of the film, the relationship that he is most affected by in the movie is with his first love, Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch).
“It was more serious than he expected, a very tumultuous relationship where she broke his heart,” Hoult says. O’Neill, the beautiful young daughter of the famous playwright Eugene O’Neill, was in fact seeing several people at the time that Salinger meets and falls in love with her. Salinger expects to come home to her after the war but instead finds out that she has married famed actor Charlie Chaplin while he’s away. Though he gets into other relationships afterwards, he remains deeply affected by Oona’s betrayal and incorporates this heartbreak into his work.
Thad Luckinbill describes the decision to cast Zoey for the role by saying, “Zoey is fantastic and such a great young actress. I was fortunate to be in one of the casting sessions and I got to watch her read and play with the role, which was phenomenal. She just brings that old-world New York that we haven’t seen in a while, and for such a young person to be able to do that is amazing.”
Another tumultuous relationship that provides insight into Salinger’s work is that with his father, Sol, played by Victor Garber. Sol is hard on Salinger and has trouble understanding his decision to become a writer. Their relationship is complicated and nuanced, and Garber is able to artfully master the character and his relationship with his son.
“Victor did a fantastic job of balancing the character out. Sol makes Salinger very unhappy in ways, but Victor managed to keep the character from becoming the bad, evil father and instead showed that he was still caring and kind,” Hoult says. “There is a very complex but interesting evolution of their relationship that I find one of the most intriguing of the whole movie,” added Strong. “Garber really brings an authoritative figure right away. His presence is felt even if he isn’t saying anything – he commands the screen.”
Though Salinger struggles to see eye to eye with his father, he and his mother Miriam (Hope Davis), share an extremely close relationship.
“The Miriam character is really a lot of the heart of the movie because it’s that mother son relationship that is the one consistent thing throughout Jerry’s whole life,” notes Strong.” She was completely behind him as a writer, even though the war, and she stood by his side. It’s heartwarming to see that relationship connect through all the ups and downs and tragedy of Jerry’s life.”
When it came to casting many of the smaller parts in the film, Danny Strong looked to his theatre network in New York City to source local talent. “Once we solidified that we were filming in New York, Danny knew he wanted to take advantage of the wealth of actors living here. He reached out to theatre people who he knew or admired” recalls Shuman. “One after another of these lauded theatre actors are coming in and just nailing their scenes which is so exciting and really makes it authentic.”
It is ultimately a tale about an artist who strives for integrity and truth in his work.
The World Of Salinger
While the film takes place long ago, Danny and the creative team wanted to be sure the film wasn’t categorized as just another period piece.
Strong notes, “Our goal was to establish the period, but at the same time to give the story a timeless quality. We wanted to remain authentic, but to emphasize that the message of the film can be about any writer, in any time or place.”
While shooting in New York City can present its challenges, the production team knew that it was crucial to achieving the authenticity they were striving for. Strong notes: “I was extremely inspired by the photography of Saul Leiter and the way he captures personal isolation in the human maze that is New York City.” Dina Goldman was brought on to execute the set design, and she immediately began researching photographs from the 30s, 40s, and 50s and going to the locations within New York – Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and upstate – where they were shooting.
Drawing inspiration from photos of the real Salinger home in New York City and Salinger’s home in New Hampshire, Goldman was able to transform a Brooklyn townhome into the Salinger family home and create a wooden structure to use as Salinger’s writing studio in New Hampshire.
Goldman describes the process: “As with everything in the film, the research that was out there was a terrific stepping off point for the movie. We made a decision that we weren’t going to be slaves to copying something exactly as it was because that’s not what the movie is about.”
Writer-director Danny Strong
Strong is the co-creator and executive producer of the hit Fox drama Empire, of which he has written and directed numerous episodes. He created the show with director Lee Daniels, whom Strong worked with on the film The Butler as producer and screenwriter. Strong was also a co-writer of the Lionsgate franchise films The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part I and II)
Strong began his writing career writing and producing the HBO films Recount and Game Change about the 2000 and 2008 elections. Strong also won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing, a Writers Guild Award, a Golden Globe, the Producers Guild Award, a Peabody and the Pen Award for Recount and received the Writers Guild Award for the Game Change.
In addition to his thriving career as a screenwriter and director, Strong is also an actor with extensive credits in film, television and theater, and has appeared in many of the most famous television shows of the last two decades. He is best known for the five seasons he played Jonathan on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the four seasons he played Doyle on Gilmore Girls. On stage, he has appeared in over 50 plays and musicals in regional and LA theaters.