Writer-director of ‘Rebel’ finds his passion in Salinger
A writer can take several years to arrive at the truism “write what you know.”
Danny Strong, writer and director of the new film “Rebel in the Rye,” was doing just fine writing what he found interesting but didn’t know. Since earning an Emmy nomination in 2008 for his first produced script, the HBO political drama “Recount,” the Manhattan Beach native and USC graduate built a successful career out of diverse material.
He followed up “Recount” with the Sarah Palin drama “Game Change,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” both parts of the third “Hunger Games” film “Mockingjay” and multiple episodes of the music industry drama “Empire,” which he also co-created with Daniels.
Strong’s film writing — he also has an equally bustling acting career — earned him critical acclaim, box office success and a certain amount of industry clout. But when he came across Kenneth Slawenski’s 2011 biography “J.D. Salinger: A Life,” for the first time he felt a personal connection to his subject.
“I had no background in anything that I’ve written about — politics or civil rights or hip-hop or any other subject matter,” Strong said in an interview. “But a story about a troubled Jewish writer? I just felt, ‘Well, I know that pretty well. That reminds me of someone I know.’ ”
Strong, 43, made “Rebel” his feature directorial debut. “I thought this is a film I should direct. It just seems a very personal story and a very doable story, budgetwise, for making my first film,” he said.
As “Rebel in the Rye” demonstrates, there’s a “troubled writer” and there’s J.D. Salinger. Salinger, born and raised Jewish, was no mere struggling scribe. He labored for years before getting his short stories accepted for publication in The New Yorker magazine. He fought in World War II and returned with a severe case of post-traumatic stress disorder that very nearly short-circuited his literary career. He also was jilted by actress and socialite Oona O’Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill.
With the publication of his novel “The Catcher in the Rye,” Salinger created, in Holden Caulfield, a character that changed the postwar literary and cultural landscape. After “Catcher,” a disaffected Salinger published a few more stories before leaving New York for an estate in Cornish, N.H., and almost vanished from the public eye, refusing to give interviews or publish further.
Taking Slawenski’s book as its inspiration, “Rebel” depicts Salinger’s life from his university days to the height of his post-“Catcher” fame. The British actor Nicholas Hoult plays Salinger, with Sarah Paulson as his literary agent and Kevin Spacey as Whit Burnett, editor of Story magazine and Salinger’s longtime mentor.
In Hoult’s performance, Salinger is a hard, frequently unforgiving man who wrestles with intense personal demons and can’t deal with the recognition he so ardently had pursued. As beloved as “Catcher” and Holden Caulfield are, several biographical accounts have depicted the author as something of an unlikable person.
“It wasn’t my goal for him to be likable,” Strong said. “My goal was more for you to empathize with him and to understand the writer’s journey, the struggle he went through, not only in his life but just to create that book. I find the story inspiring, even in its darkness.”
In addition to conducting his own research and interviews on Salinger, Strong met with Slawenski, keeping the biographer in the loop creatively and showing him drafts of the script. Since Salinger’s death in 2010, there had been a lot of interest in the author’s life. Between Slawenski’s book and a 2013 documentary produced by Shane Salerno, along with a companion book, a lot of new biographical material was coming to light. Salinger’s will dictated that “Catcher” could never be a movie, but Strong and Slawenski knew that a film about the reclusive author was inevitable.
“A few companies were interested in adapting the book. Danny was the only one who asked to meet with me,” recalled Slawenski, who curates the Salinger website Dead Caulfields. “We went into Manhattan and had lunch and talked about ideas, and I saw immediately that, yes, he gets it. We’re on the same page.
“Danny and I have the same attitude when it comes to the movie: Someone is going to do it,” he continued. “It’s better that someone does it responsibly with some sensitivity.”
Strong grew up in the South Bay community of Manhattan Beach, identifying culturally but not religiously as Jewish. “I sort of rejected religion at an early age,” said Strong, who observed many of the holidays but did not have a bar mitzvah. He studied theater at USC’s School of Dramatic Arts and started booking roles almost immediately after his graduation in 1996. His roles included stints on the series “Mad Men,” “Gilmore Girls” and, most famously, playing Jonathan Levinson for six seasons on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
Screenwriting success was more elusive. Strong spent several years pitching broad comedies that he thought would sell, only to have them rejected. Ultimately, he decided to stop working on subjects that he thought others would like to see and directed his attention to projects that he found personally interesting. The Florida recount after the 2000 presidential election sparked his interest, and he started cold-calling people and conducting interviews.
In the case of “Recount,” Strong switched his thinking from “write what you think will sell” to “write what you’re passionate about.”
“I thought it would be a terrific movie,” he said of the film, which earned him a Writers Guild of America Award. “I could talk about things I was passionate about and angry about. I just sort of abandoned trying to sell something and really focused on a story I was passionate about. That ended up being the first thing I sell and the first thing that gets made. So it was really a major lesson to me and I’ve mostly stuck to it over the years as a writer.”