EXCLUSIVE: Judging by the J.D. Salinger obituaries and tributes, there is just as much interest in the Catcher in the Rye author after his death as there was during his life when he shunned the spotlight for reclusion in Cornish, New Hampshire. Now I can report that Shane Salerno, a 37-year-old screenwriter who’s currently writing Fantastic Voyage for Fox and James Cameron, has directed and produced Salinger, a 2-hour documentary locked late last year after 5 years in the making.
Salerno financed the film out of his pocket, interviewed 150 sources, and accumulated so much information that he collaborated on a 700-page companion book with bestselling author David Shields.
The 150 sources interviewed in the film either worked with Salinger at The New Yorker or had contact with him otherwise, or were greatly influenced by him. The famous names include Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, John Cusack, Danny DeVito, John Guare, Martin Sheen, David Milch, Robert Towne, Tom Wolfe, E.L. Doctorow, A. Scott Berg, Elizabeth Frank, Gore Vidal, and many other fans, journalists, filmmakers, playwrights, and artists inspired by Salinger’s work.
The film — kept under the radar until now — wasn’t done in time for consideration at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. As a result, the filmmaker hoped to present it at a spring film festival, like Cannes. It will be shopped shortly by CAA and Robert Offer for distribution and remake. The book, also complete, will be shopped by IPG’s Brian Lipson and CAA.
I first learned about the project last year from some sources who’d been interviewed for it. After I approached Salerno for an interview, I saw a nearly completed cut of the documentary on December 9, 2009, in Technicolor’s post-production screening room in Hollywood. I was shown it on condition I waited to write until the film was ready to be unveiled, and that I not divulge all the reveals. Yesterday, after Salinger died, I contacted Salerno and told him I was going to write about the documentary now. He expressed concern that it would seem opportunistic. But by day’s end it was clear to both of us that the secret would not keep.
I found the film, which doesn’t have narration, to be exhaustively researched and arrestingly powerful. Most importantly, it answers a lot of questions I and everyone have had about the author. There is previously unseen footage and photos, and a rich depiction of that unfathomable period in Salinger’s career when The New Yorker magazine was able to publish a new “J.D. Salinger” story fairly regularly.
There also are details of: his WWII soldiering in Normandy and interrogation of Nazi prisoners; his love affair with Eugene O’Neill’s daughter Oona, and the crushing disappointment of losing her to Charlie Chaplin while Salinger fought in Europe; Salinger’s habit of locking himself away in his New Hampshire cinderblock bunker for weeks at a time to write; his penchant for taking a week to craft a single sentence; the damage his silences caused his family; the futile efforts of friends to re-introduce him to the world; Salinger’s protectiveness towards his work; his refusal to sell anything to Hollywood, turning down 8-figure offers and first-class filmmakers like Billy Wilder and Steven Spielberg; his determination to maintain total control over his prose (so that when a New Yorker editor once added a comma, Salinger never spoke to him again).
Even more intriguing, Salerno’s documentary also reports on what J.D. Salinger literary works might be in the famed secret vault, where 45 years of unpublished writings are rumored to be kept.
Salerno told me the project began when he purchased the rights to Paul Alexander’s book Salinger: A Biography and tried to turn it into a feature. He realized during interviews with Salinger’s peers that these 80+-year-old men wouldn’t be around much longer. That’s when he switched focus to the documentary, which was still based on Alexander’s book. Salerno succeeded in getting to many sources just before they died, though sadly didn’t get there in time for others.
A feature would have been a challenge anyway, since Salinger was so litigious and protective of his privacy. (He sued successfully to stop a book that contained his unpublished letters, and halted a Catcher in the Rye sequel novel by another author.) Salinger never sued over Alexander’s book, however.
But other attempts to put Salinger on the big screen have been unsuccessful. W.P Kinsella’s book Shoeless Joe incorporated Salinger as a kidnapped character. When it was adapted for the screen into Field of Dreams in 1989, Salinger was turned into a fictionalized reclusive author “Terry Mann” played by James Earl Jones. In another project, Sean Connery acknowledged that the inspiration for his role in 2000’s Finding Forrester was Salinger, yet that character was fictionalized as “William Forrester”.
Salerno went into the documentary expecting it to be a 6-month project. But it grew into a five-year obsession. During that time, the screenwriter made several 7-figure deals for such projects as the Fox sci-fi fantasy Doomsday Protocol, and the Paramount/Skydance action-comedy License to Steal. So Salerno plowed several million dollars of that money into the documentary, working nights and weekends, and hiring the likes of Buddy Squires, the cinematographer for every Ken Burns documentary.
Why spend all that time and money to reveal information on an author who hated fame? Salerno makes clear his own personal obsession with Salinger, and told me he felt more connected to the writer than any other author’s work. Like Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield, Salerno said he was booted from two schools while trying to find his way. But his connection with Salinger was deeper than that. “I loved his work, and how he had the world at his doorstep, and said no thanks,” Salerno told me. “He somehow understood in 1951 the corrosive effect that fame and money could have on his writing. He was singular, and in this Internet age where people pursue their 15 minutes of fame, nobody did what Salinger did: living in the woods in New Hampshire, writing to please only himself. The biggest challenge was, how far do you pull back the curtain on a mythic figure while preserving his legacy? We answered some questions, but other Salinger mysteries will remain unsolved.”
The obvious question is: did Salerno get Salinger on camera? He would not tell me. But I’ve learned there’s a 5-minute section of the film that was held out of early screenings for security reasons.