Writer-director Danny Strong talks about diving into the life and times of author J.D. Salinger for his directorial debut 'Rebel in the Rye.'

Danny Strong’s Rebel in the Rye, a biopic about American author Jerome David “J.D.” Salinger (1919-2010), will open this Friday. While Salinger had 22 short stories published before retiring at the height of his fame in 1965, he is best-known for his novel, The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951. It is a first-person tale of the disaffected, 17-year-old Holden Caulfield, considered by many to be one of the most important characters in 20th century American literature, although over the years, he has mostly appealed to male readers. 

Salinger refused all offers of stage or screen adaptations of the character he admitted was autobiographical, entering into lawsuits to preserve the novel’s literary integrity. Like the more sympathetic James Dean character in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Holden evokes youthful disillusionment in post-World War II America. No doubt Strong’s title for this biopic evokes the connection between the two. 

In an August interview, the writer-director explains that while he conducted original research and read all the Salinger biographies, he optioned Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life (Random House, 2010) to write his screenplay. The award-winning actor, producer and screenwriter (The Butler, 2013) is best-known to TV audiences for his roles in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and, more recently, Gilmore Girls. Strong makes his directorial debut with Rebel in the Rye, notable for a performance by Nicholas Hoult in the title role that lends dimension to a difficult character. While this credible first feature elides Salinger’s affairs with much younger women (the one with 19-year-old author Joyce Maynard when he was 53 is beyond the movie’s time line), it provides a snapshot of his explosive personality, as well as his troubled second marriage to Claire Douglas in 1955.

Rebel in the Rye condenses Salinger’s life into a brisk 105 minutes, beginning with the author’s teenage years, and his acceptance to Columbia University, where he was a student in Whit Burnett’s (Kevin Spacey) writing class. An editor at the prestigious magazine, Story, along with his wife Martha Foley (and later, his second wife, Hallie), Burnett honed Salinger’s narrative skills. Story was the first to publish Salinger’s work. The movie depicts World War II’s interruption of the author’s education, and his subsequent hospitalization for battle fatigue. After the war, Salinger suffered from bouts of depression and insomnia. The film briefly chronicles the writer’s lifelong professional relationship with his literary agent Dorothy Olding (Sarah Paulson), and his famous love affair with Oona O’Neill, the daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill. It ends with Salinger’s retirement from writing for publication.

Strong recalls reading The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager: “I loved the Holden Caulfield character. Holden’s voice was very influential in my voice as a writer.” Before embarking on the making of Rebel in Rye, he directed a few episodes of the TV series Empire, that he created along with producer and film director Lee Daniels (Precious, 2009). “Holden’s attitude toward high school was probably not too unlike mine,” he says, referring to the character’s disdain for formal education. “I was not an obsessive Salinger fan, but in the 1980s when I was in school, he was a real American enigma,” Strong recalls. “It was before the Internet, and nobody knew where he was or what he was doing.” Salinger rarely granted interviews, living out the rest of his life in the small village of Cornish, New Hampshire. 

Director Danny Strong and Nicholas Hoult in Rebel in the Rye

Writer-director Danny Strong and Nicholas Hoult, who stars as J.D. Salinger in 'Rebel in the Rye.'

Strong, who shot the biopic on-location in New York City, praises his British star who is known for his recurring role as Beast in the X-Men films. Hoult will appear later this year as the inventor Nikola Tesla in The Current War. In his direction of Hoult, Strong admits that while he had “over-arching” ideas about the Salinger character, his experience as an actor led him to put those aside on-set. “I really needed someone who exuded this scholarly intelligence,” he says, “and Nicholas has that, so what I really strove for, scene by scene, was catching the emotional reality because the character goes through so much in the course of the movie.” 

Strong’s take on Salinger’s withdrawal from the New York literary scene is similar to Slawenski’s. “The aftermath of the war,” the filmmaker says, “really affected him in the way it affected so many veterans who had no help because PTSD did not exist yet.” Slawenski details Salinger’s service, which was with the 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, a unit that liberated concentration camps. The New York City-born author, whose father was Jewish, also fought in several major battles, including D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. For a brief period after the war, he served in a counter-intelligence role in Nuremberg. In Rebel in the Rye, Salinger’s recurring memories of the camps and of his time as a soldier, seen in flashback, led him to seek spiritual guidance, at first in Zen Buddhist meditation. 

The author found relief from his PTSD in Zen practice, beginning in 1946, although later he would dabble in many spiritual disciplines, including Scientology, one of the contributing factors in Claire’s decision to divorce him. About midway through the movie, Salinger’s yogi suggests that he write for himself, and not for publication. “Seeking out isolation and the act of writing and not showing anyone the work, writing for the sake of writing, I think there is something very healing in that,” Strong opines. As the biopic illustrates, shortly after the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, Salinger purchased the 90-acre property in Cornish, and gave up his apartment in the city. “People think of Salinger as a recluse but he wasn’t,” Strong says. “He was very much part of this artistic and educated community.” 

Kevin Spacey and Nicholas Hoult in Rebel in the Rye

Kevin Spacey as Whit Burnett and Nicholas Hoult as J.D. Salinger in 'Rebel in the Rye.'

While he may not have been a hermit, Salinger obsessively guarded his private life, although two recent memoirs have proved damaging to his reputation, Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World (1998), and his daughter Margaret Salinger’s Dream Catcher (2000). The latter pictures Salinger as an abusive husband and father, a circumstance alluded to in Rebel in the Rye, while Maynard’s marks him as a predator. Curious about the author’s life in a small town, Strong visited Cornish and interviewed residents there. During Salinger’s lifetime, they were notoriously protective of their famous neighbor, often misdirecting visitors in search of his house. A Californian by birth, the filmmaker sounded like a New Yorker when he described the town’s dirt roads, and reflected on Salinger’s flight from the city. “I imagine in 1951,” he says, “Cornish was the end of the earth.” 

Salinger died in Cornish at the age of 91, survived by his third wife, a nurse 40 years his junior whose maiden name, ironically, is O’Neill, that of his first love, Oona, who jilted him during the war to marry Charlie Chaplin. Stay tuned for more on the Salinger legacy: Among many others, Salinger rebuffed producer Harvey Weinstein’s offer for a screen adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye. In 2013, Weinstein purchased the rights to Shane Salerno’s mediocre documentary Salinger (2011) that aired on PBS. 

'Rebel in the Rye' opens in theaters on September 8th.