Danny Strong has acted in some of the most acclaimed television shows of the past two decades (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mad Men), he created one of the most popular current shows (Empire), and he’s written acclaimed films for both HBO and theaters (Recount, Game Change, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler).
He’s won two Emmys, two WGA Awards, and a PGA Award. But until now, Strong had never directed a feature film. He’s finally added that line on his resume with the J.D. Salinger biopic Rebel in the Rye.
Rebel in the Rye stars Nicholas Hoult as Salinger, Kevin Spacey as his Columbia professor and writing mentor, Whit Burnett, and Zoey Deutch as Salinger’s former flame, Oona O’Neill (real-life daughter of Eugene and eventual wife of Charlie Chaplin). Danny Strong also wrote the film (adapted from the biography by Kenneth Slawenski), and he produced it along with a team that includes Oscar-winner Bruce Cohen (American Beauty).
Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is probably the most famous book to never have a screen adaptation, but Danny Strong was able to use elements of the book for his film—allowing audiences to feel the spirit of Holden Caulfield on the screen for the first time ever.
I sat down with Mr. Strong in January, the morning after Rebel in the Rye premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to favorable reviews, and we had a good conversation about writing screenplays for biopics, assembling a team of veterans, shooting a period piece on a low budget, and the weight and responsibility of bringing such a titanic figure to the screen for the first time.
Daniel Joyaux, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I’d like to talk first about how the idea gestated for the film. You said [in the premiere Q & A] that you bought a book about Salinger and that was what got the ball rolling. With Empire, you’ve said in interviews that you were basically listening to a Puff Daddy song on the radio and the idea just came to you right away. With the Salinger book, how quickly did that happen? Were you 20 pages in and you just thought, I gotta make a movie about this guy, or did it take a while longer?
Danny Strong (DS): I was about halfway through the book. I think once Salinger got to Columbia, and I saw the relationship Salinger had with his teacher, Burnett, I pretty quickly thought, “Oh, that’s kind of like a movie relationship. If you were to make a movie, you’d do that.” And then it just kept getting better and better from there. Their relationship not only had this really great arc to it, but even more importantly, Salinger’s journey from Columbia into World War II, and then coming out of it, overcoming his PTSD, writing Catcher in the Rye… the whole thing I thought was just so moving, I felt like it deserved to be a film.
MM: You’ve written true stories before, such as Recount and Game Change for HBO. The difference I see with those two films is that you’re writing about a specific event that has a more definable beginning and ending. Whereas when you’re writing about the life of someone, you get to choose where it starts and where it ends. What different challenges did writing that kind of true story present for you?
DS: Well, writing true stories certainly has its challenges, because there’s less leeway to make up something that gets you out of a story hole. But at the same time, you’re only doing it because the true story’s really good, and there’s a really dynamic story there. If I feel there’s not enough to transform it into a film, then I just don’t do it. So for me, there’s always enough there that makes me feel that this could really play as a dynamic film.
MM: What came first for you, getting funding or getting a star attached?
DS: Getting a financier attached came first, but you don’t really get the funding until you get the star. But having a financier enables you to make offers at a level that the star takes seriously.
MM: Bruce Cohen is one of the producers on the film, and he’s obviously worked on some major movies before [American Beauty, Silver Linings Playbook], and also Jason Shuman. How did you attach to them?
DS: Jason Shuman I’ve known for 20 years. We went to college together and he’s a really close friend and a really great guy. I optioned the material and wrote the script on my own, and then I gave it to Jason when I had a first draft and he was really excited about it and wanted to get on board. I knew Bruce Cohen pretty well from The Butler, which he worked on for a little bit, and I thought he was great. So I gave him the script and he loved it too, so then I had these two terrific producers.
MM: And when did Nicholas Hoult come into the picture?
DS: Nick came on long after I had set it up with Black Label Media and was actively auditioning people for the film. He came on 2015 after a long search for who was going to play that part.
MM: Nicholas Hoult is a fantastic actor, but obviously he’s British and he’d be playing an American icon. In a situation like that do you have him rehearse to make sure he can get the accent the way you want it, or do you just trust that he’s a great actor and he’ll figure it out?
DS: Well, he auditioned for me, and when he auditioned his accent sounded great. And I’ve seen him in a number of films where he had a really good accent. So I wasn’t worried about the dialect because I had seen him pull that off.
MM: And what about the rest of your great cast—Kevin Spacey, Zoey Deutch, Sarah Paulson, Hope Davis… Who was the last domino to fall in place?
DS: Sarah Paulson. I had written that part [Dorothy Olding, Salinger’s literary agent] for Laura Dern, and Laura helped me develop the script. She’s a dear friend of mine and an amazing person. And then about three weeks out Laura couldn’t do it because her scheduling on the next Star Wars changed. So she had to drop out and we were both so bummed because we were very close. Then I called Sarah Paulson on the phone and said, “Hey, I wrote this for Laura Dern, it’s a neat part, not very many days, just six or seven really great scenes.” And she said she didn’t even need to read it, that she’d do it. She’s a dear friend and it meant a lot to me.
MM: You’ve previously directed three episodes of Empire. In what way did directing for TV prepare you for directing your first feature, and in what way did you find it didn’t really prepare you?
DS: It prepared me in every way, for sure. I learned so much directing those episodes. But where it didn’t prepare me is I didn’t have nearly as much time as I thought I would. Setting up the lighting takes more time because you’re not on pre-lit soundstages; you’re in a new location every day starting from scratch; so I just had significantly less time than I thought I would.
MM: How long was the shooting schedule?
DS: Twenty-six days, which is really tough.
MM: And are you allowed to tell us the budget?
MM: As an actor, you’ve worked with some of the most lauded showrunners of the last few decades in Joss Whedon and Matthew Weiner. What did you feel like you learned from them, or how did that prepare you for taking on a project like this?
DS: There’re no specifics that I’ve gotten from them, but I really admire their writing, so I’m sure I’ve been subconsciously affected by that, definitely.
MM: There’s famously never been a Catcher in the Rye film, and there’s even a line in Rebel in the Rye where it’s mentioned that Billy Wilder and Elia Kazan both tried to option the book, but Salinger just wasn’t having it. While you didn’t specifically make a Catcher in the Rye film, it uses elements from Catcher in the Rye, and the film opens with the opening passage of the novel. Was that in the screenplay from the very beginning, or did you feel like you had to almost work up to opening the film like that?
DS: That was from my very first draft. It just felt like that opening is such a perfect way to open a story about a character, and especially because there are these parallels between J.D. Salinger and Holden Caulfield—it was a character that was very much him. So it just felt like the right opening.
MM: Well, there’s even a line in the film where Salinger says he wouldn’t want anyone to make a film of Catcher in the Rye because only he could play Holden and he’s too old now. Was that from the biography?
DS: Yeah, it’s quoted that he says that. You never know with J.D. Salinger [laughs], but it felt very right for the character in the film, for sure.
MM: The film ends with a brief scroll of information on the screen. How do you decide as a writer where you want to end, but also what additional information you want the audience to have? And how difficult is that end information to write?
DS: It’s actually very difficult in this case. It’s not always difficult; sometimes it’s kind of obvious. Usually, when I’ve done it in the past—and I think I’ve only done it on one other project—it was over-written and then we pared it down. But for this it was actually very challenging because I didn’t want it to have the feel of, “Well, here’s the movie, and now here’s some more information to end the movie.” I wanted the information to continue the story all the way until we cut to black and the film actually ends.
MM: I thought that worked perfectly, that there are still definable shots during the end scroll.
DS: Yeah, so that the end scroll was a continuation of the story we were telling.
MM: So you’re obviously shooting a period piece in New York City in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, but also the war in Europe. What was the biggest production challenge of shooting so much period detail?
DS: It was extremely challenging on a low-budget film to capture the period. It couldn’t be more difficult. When you’re on a smaller budget, you just have to be very economical and very cagey about how you do it. On a normal budget film we’d have 10 or 20 cars, but we had two cars, so you have to put the cars in the smartest places you can so they fill the frame and the audience doesn’t even think about it.
MM: And when you were writing was it a conscious effort to include as few war scenes as possible, knowing the budget might be an issue?
DS: Yeah, absolutely. My original drafts had more war scenes, but I couldn’t do it. So I just kept cutting them and cutting them and I kind of reimagined the sequence as this more lyrical nightmare. Because what was important was that he was experiencing the trauma of war, mentally descending because of it. We were leading to a mental breakdown—he was institutionalized right after the war from shell shock, or whatever they called PTSD back then. “Battle fatigue,” that’s what they called it. So I just wanted to show that, to get a sense of the breadth of what he was experiencing, and that he was writing throughout it.
MM: The film also uses smoke in a really great way. In 2017, do you have to teach actors how to smoke and make it look natural?
DS: Not with these actors. [Laughs] They knew what they were doing.
MM: One of the things that struck me most about the film was the score by Bear McCreary. How did you first encounter his work and what input did you have? Did you give him ideas on the score or just let him run loose and say yes or no to things?
DS: Bear was a real treasure on this project—he’s a talented and lovely guy. I know his agent, and I was talking to his agent about what I was looking for, but I wasn’t even really sure. I wanted something with some real melodies, more of a classical score. I talked about To Kill a Mockingbird. I love movies with themes. And he told Bear, who was his client, what I was looking for, and Bear interned with Elmer Bernstein when he was a teenager. So he was very excited about this and he made demos for me based on the script—not even seeing any footage—and the demos worked beautifully in the cut, unlike almost anything else that I put into the cut. So I just thought, “Well this is the guy.”
MM: It reminded me of Alexandre Desplat’s score for The Imitation Game, which definitely covers a similar period in history.
DS: Yeah, yeah, that makes sense.
MM: There’s a line in the film where Salinger is talking about having written a lot of The Catcher in the Rye during the war, and he says “the book saved my life.” You haven’t fought in a war, but is there any writing you’ve done that you sort of felt metaphorically saved your life?
DS: I wouldn’t go that far. I think that the first two scripts I wrote, Recount and Game Change—and particularly Recount, which was the first script I wrote—I was so filled with rage over the Iraq War and the Bush Administration, and I think when I wrote that I was able to kind of let go some of that rage. So that was very helpful to me.
MM: In the Q&A last night, you made a comment that “talent is only as good as its challenged,” in talking about the relationship between J.D. Salinger and his teacher (played by Kevin Spacey). Who challenges you?
DS: Everybody. I mean literally everybody. The scene where the guys from The New Yorker give him notes on The Catcher in the Rye and tell him how bad it is, that’s my life. Every draft I turn in, some people will love it, some people will hate it, and it’s very challenging. It’s sort of a never-ending process of people telling you what you’re doing wrong over and over again.
MM: What was the most helpful note you received on the Rebel in the Rye script?
DS: People were really taken by the script pretty early on. It was one of those scripts that was more well-received than most that I had written. So I can’t really remember any big notes with it.
MM: Do you remember the least helpful one?
DS: [Laughs] Nothing’s coming to mind, but I just discard them when I get them in real time when they’re not good, so I don’t dwell on them. So nothing’s like really sticking with me.
MM: Speaking about discarding things and not dwelling on them, I read in another interview that the first script you ever wrote was about two guys murdering someone for a rent-controlled apartment.
DS: That’s right! Die Harry Die.
MM: You obviously have a lot more industry cache now than when you wrote that script. Have you thought about trying to go back to that project?
DS: I reread it… Oh god, about five or six years ago, and I felt it was best suited to the drawer that it was in.
MM: Is it hard to let go of something like that?
DS: No [Laughs]. I’m glad that it wasn’t made, because it wouldn’t be a very good movie.
MM: You wrote films on both the 2000 election and the 2008 election. Has HBO already called you to finish the trilogy? There’s a lot of material.
DS: Yeah, we’ve talked about it, but for me, it’s very early. I don’t know what the story is yet, and I would need to read some historical accounts. That’s what I did on the other projects, that made me see it in its totality. So for me, I need a little more perspective on it before I can see if I think there’s a movie I can write.
MM: And what’s coming next? Anything you can tell us about?
DS: I have no idea. I literally have no idea.
MM: Well we wish you the best of luck. MM
Rebel in the Rye opens September 15, 2017 courtesy of IFC Films. Photos by Alison Cohen Rosa, courtesy of IFC Films.