Nicholas Hoult as J.D. Salinger in Danny Strong’s “Rebel in the Rye.” Photo by Alison Cohen Rosa. Courtesy of IFC Films.

Writer-director of ‘Rebel’ finds his passion in Salinger

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.”

Green Party’s Jill Stein requests recount in Michigan presidential vote

Jill Stein, the presidential nominee of the Green Party, has requested a full hand count of Michigan’s presidential vote.

Stein made the request on Wednesday in the state where President-elect Donald Trump defeated Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton by less than 11,000 votes, or two-tenths of one percent of the state’s nearly 4.8 million votes.

Stein, who is Jewish, has already requested vote recounts in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

In Wisconsin, Trump defeated Clinton by some 22,000 votes. In Pennsylvania, Trump defeated Clinton by about 71,000 votes, or one percent of all votes cast.

Trump currently leads Clinton in the Electoral College by 306 to 232. Clinton leads Trump in the popular vote by more than 2.3 million votes.

It is unlikely that the recounts will overturn the election’s results.

Capriles, grandson of Holocaust survivors, calling for recount after losing Venezuelan presidency

Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles, the grandson of Holocaust survivors, is calling for a recount after narrowly losing the country’s presidential election.

Nicolas Maduro, the acting president and the preferred successor of late President Hugo Chavez, was declared the winner of the April 14 election with 50.7 percent of the vote, compared to to 49.1 percent for Capriles, representing a difference of 235,000 ballots.

In calling for the recount, Capriles cited voting irregularities. He has not accepted Maduro’s declaration of victory, Reuters reported.

Iranian unrest prompts calls for more U.S. pressure on regime

With unrest mounting in Iran over official claims of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection, U.S. Jewish organizational leaders were calling for more American support for the protesters and more international action to stop the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

Since Ahmadinejad was declared a landslide winner June 13, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets in protest.

As the first signs of a violent crackdown came Monday, some Jewish communal officials—including Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Malcolm Hoenlein of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations—questioned whether the United States should be doing more to show solidarity with the demonstrators.

Foxman said he had “not heard America embrace” Ahmadinejad’s main challenger, former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Moussavi.

Hoenlein said he understood why the United States “doesn’t want to become a factor” in the process, but added, “When do the young people feel they’ve been abandoned” by the West?

Talking to reporters Monday, Obama said “it is up to Iranians to make decisions about who Iran’s leaders will be” and the United States wants to avoid “being the issue inside of Iran.”

“What I would say to those people who put so much hope and energy and optimism into the political process,” he added, “I would say to them that the world is watching and inspired by their participation, regardless of what the ultimate outcome of the election was.”

The protests and crackdowns in Iran are likely to reignite the debate over the best way to stop Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and support of international terrorism: Negotiate a deal with the country’s current Islamic rulers that helps prolong their political survival, or ramp up support for forces seeking to topple the regime?

While Israeli officials and Jewish organizations have yet to weigh in strongly on the question, for weeks they have been asserting that it doesn’t matter whether Ahmadinejad or Moussavi is president because the final decision-maker is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—and by most accounts he is a strong backer of Iran’s current nuclear policies and support for terrorist proxies such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

But in recent days Moussavi, the prime minister during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, has sided unabashedly with the demonstrators, even as they have appeared to be challenging the legitimacy of the regime. This, coupled with his calls for better relations with the West and less support for Hamas and Hezbollah, has many portraying Moussavi as a true reformist candidate who could potentially trigger significant changes on some fronts.

But Dan Mariaschin, international executive director of B’nai B’rith International, cautioned against losing sight of the fact that Moussavi was the prime minister when Iran’s nuclear program launched.

“Those who think there are sharp differences” between Moussavi and Ahmadinejad are “certainly taking a leap of faith,” Mariaschin said.

In the end, said David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, in a statement, “The re-election of Ahmadinejad underscores why the international community must do all it can to deny the Iranian regime the means to carry out its dangerous and destabilizing ambitions.”

Tight Races

Initially, one cannot help but think that the surge of retired, elderly Jews to Florida, augmented by this year’s Lieberman Factor, has redefined Florida politics into an Israel-style method of governance. While the rest of America was voting and deciding on Tues., Nov. 7, Florida was telling us – just as Israel runs under Barak – “Wait 48 hours, and then we’ll decide.” Two days later, as the last recount came in from Seminole County with Bush a nose ahead, Florida essentially told us, “Well, wait 48 more hours, and then we’ll really decide.” Even today, Nov. 17, with all the incoming mail ballots from those Floridian voters stationed out-of-state in the military and on campuses tallied, we still have the proverbial 48 hours and more. Recounts. Manual recounts. Just like Barak’s Israel.

Critically, the deadlock that marked the presidential voting also spilled over into splitting the United States Senate and the House of Representatives. An interesting quirk, as the Senate totters on a 50-50 split – and that possibility will continue as Americans monitor the health of two elderly Carolina Republicans in the upper chamber – is that if Bush ultimately emerges the uncontested winner, then Vice President Dick Cheney could be in the Senate casting tie-breaking votes until the next election. The impact of such a situation cannot be underestimated, although everyone in the meantime is underestimating it. Traditionally, vice presidents stay in the shadows and bide their four or eight years until they get to run for president. But if Cheney casts tie-breaking votes in the Senate, he will become a powerful force. Imagine if he casts the deciding vote to confirm a Supreme Court justice – or an arms sale to Saudi Arabia.

Another impact of the close Senate result is that, at least for the next two years, every Republican Senator will have great, inordinate power. That is, as long as the GOP holds the Senate by 51-49, or if it goes 50-50 with Cheney casting tie-breakers, all it takes to switch the majority is for one or two Republicans to “vote their consciences” on a bill. So, liberal Republican senators will become a major nuisance for Trent Lott and will have huge power, as will the Democrat conservatives in their party.

As a result, presidential leadership will be minimized, avoiding dramatic initiatives, and that will redound to Israel’s benefit, especially if James “F— the Jews” Baker III is back in the equation. In Israel’s time of great crisis, in the era of Oslo’s collapse, the gridlock will make it difficult for an American president to impose brutal concessions on Israel. Look for adherence to the polls. As a result, these will be the years of cautious moderation, and that will help Israel. Ironically, the necessarily practical course will make the new president wildly popular over the next two years, artificially reassuring independent voters that he can be trusted to “steer the course.”

Jews lost a few good friends and a few enemies in this election, as we usually do. Florida’s Sen. Connie Mack had been a strongly supportive Republican voice in support of Israel; he has retired, and we shall see whether and hope that Senator-elect Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, takes care not to offend Florida’s Jewish Democrats on Israel. Jim Rogan of California was a top-drawer Republican Congressional supporter of Israel. He is replaced by Adam Schiff, a liberal Jew, who will follow other liberal Democrat Jews in Congress – backing whatever the Israeli government does or fails to do, whether it be Oslo or whatever. In New York, Rick Lazio already had been named by Arabs to their “Congressional Hall of Shame,” so we lose a good friend in the House. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton is a political mercenary, so she may very well become a strong “friend of Israel” in the coming months. The bad news on Hillary has been that she was among the first to back an independent Palestinian State, that she hugged Suha Arafat while the Palestinian First Lady was accusing Jews of horrible things, and that Hillary had received lots of bucks from Hamas supporters. But the good news is that she easily backtracks on her principles as the situation requires. Consequently, Arabs have lost a friend, at least until she seeks a higher office, when she no longer will need to rely on Jewish voters in New York, much as former New York Gov. Franklin Roosevelt progressed once his constituency expanded. She has begun her White House march by quickly proposing to abolish the Electoral College.

In addition to Hillary’s temporary conversion to Israel, the Arab side apparently has lost another friend with the fall of Republican Spencer Abraham in Michigan. Abraham, a Lebanese American, was one of only two senators who refused to sign the recent Senate letter supporting Israel.

Sen. Jon Kyl’s huge reelection numbers in Arizona are encouraging because he has been a wonderful friend of Israel. Dianne Feinstein’s victory in California was good news, too, because Republican Tom Campbell overtly supported Arab aspirations against Israel during his campaign. We have friends and ill-wishers in both parties. The election results demonstrate as much.

As for the electoral college, I kind of like it. It allows states like Florida, Oregon, New Mexico, Iowa and Wisconsin to be taken seriously. It also forces national candidates to make promises on Israel to Jews in New York. That is a powerful motivator for the candidates and their advisors to learn about Israel early, to study the issues and to make informed decisions as to where they will aspire to stand. Ultimately, their views change, in the face of Arab oil pressures, the sheer number of Arab countries, and the United Nations factor. But the electoral college system forces them to come out for Israel early because there are lots of Jewish votes in New York, in California, in New Jersey, in Pennsylvania – and in Florida. Therefore, like every Jew who values higher education, I endorse that college. I am not married to it, but I like it.

Nevertheless, we may remain concerned – especially if Oregon still goes to Gore – that, with Bush coming out of Florida with 271 electors, one or two of his electors may decide to show Mom and Dad back home how famous he can be, or try to impress Jodie Foster with how powerful she is, and decide to vote for Gore, making it a tie, or otherwise throwing the results askew. It just may happen -because this is America, where tabloid papers sell briskly at supermarkets and where everyone in the country except me watched “Survivor.” If such a thing happens and the Bush elector who throws the election to Gore-Lieberman turns out to be a Jew, it will not be funny at all. So if Dubya wins Florida, may he win New Mexico, too.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, a board member of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Jewish Community Relations Committee and national vice president of the Zionist Organization of America, practices complex civil litigation and First Amendment law at the Los Angeles offices of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld.