As the 40th Annual Telluride Film Festival winds down, The Weinstein Company has kept a relatively low profile for most of the fest. But TWC caused a stir in offering up the World Premiere and first public screening ever of Salinger, writer/director/producer Shane Salerno‘s riveting and stunning portrait of reclusive author J.D. Salinger. The documentary begins its theatrical run on Friday and will appear on PBS‘ American Masters in January. It should be a certain Oscar contender for Best Documentary Feature, not only for its superb execution but also as an investigative piece that has elicited major revelations about never-before-known Salinger literary works left behind by the author who died in 2010, which are scheduled now to be released to the world between 2015 and 2020.
The film got a one-time only “surprise” sneak preview (but was tipped over the weekend by Deadline’s Mike Fleming) at the Palm at 9 AM this morning and was followed by an onstage conversation moderated by filmmaker Ken Burns. Salinger historian David Shields, cinematographer Buddy Squires, one-time Salinger muse and friend Jean Miller were in attendance joined via Skype by Salerno and Salinger friend/one-time editor A.E. Hotchner. Early reaction from the packed screening was thumbs up, even for a movie-satiated crowd who have been watching one great film after another since the festival began on Thursday.
For Salerno, who couldn’t attend in person due to a family health crisis, this years-in-the-making project was a major part of his life and is now finally ready to go out in the world. The film exhaustively and magnificently details Salinger’s life as a young man, World War II vet, budding author and finally reclusive writer who became known as the “Howard Hughes of the literary world”. The story is told through extensive interviews with those who knew him, lived with him and were dumped by him. Much time is spent exploring the personal life he NEVER detailed, via interviews and tales of the many much younger women he would bring into his life before spurning them – a common theme in his life according to many of the subjects interviewed. One writer he nurtured and lived with, Joyce Maynard, was 19 when she met the 50ish author. She has also been in Telluride this weekend for Jason Reitman’s film Labor Day, which was adapted from her own novel. Her story of life with Salinger is fascinating and represents some of the best parts of the film.
During the Q&A Burns, an acclaimed doc filmmaker himself, called the film “extraordinary” and congratulated Salerno on completing the odyssey to bring this man’s life to the screen. Salerno explained his motivation and the way he was able to crack the code of this mystery man whose works, most notably Catcher In The Rye, continue to be so influential. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It consumed ten years and having people speak for the first time was a real challenge. It was a bit like All The President’s Men where the doors kind of just slammed in your face the first couple of years. I was very grateful to finally have people come forward and share their stories. I felt that only the people who really knew Salinger could speak to how complex and contradictory he was, people who had spent important time with him, whether it was Jean or Hotchner or Joyce Maynard. People who had shared real experiences with him at different stages in his life. Salinger had an interesting pattern of having someone in his life for three, four, five years at a time. He would be completely focused on them and then there would seem to be a big blowout and that person would be completely banished from his life for one reason or the other. So convincing people to speak who in some cases were really wounded for 30, 40 or 50 years was really difficult, but to be fair all of them said he was a warm and sweet man and he was ‘Jerry’. No one ever knew him as J.D. It was an extraordinary experience to be part of this,” he said.
Miller, who met Salinger as a 14-year-old girl and served as a sort of muse, emphasized how terrific her time was with him even though she said it “had a dramatic end”. Hotchner, a friend of two years in his early New York days as a young writer, is liberally featured in the doc as is Miller and said via Skype, “this movie so completely captures the dichotomy (of Salinger). I must say Shane has put together an absolutely stunning portrait of a man”.
Some of the Salinger team including Shields and Weinstein publicist Emmy Chang made news of their own Sunday when their plane had a very rough landing, but all are fine and no mention was made of it on stage. Chang said it was a little harrowing. “The pilot announced the left landing gear was not working but that emergency rescue teams would be standing by,” she told me before the film started. All’s well that ends well. By the way, some members of the press were handed copies of the companion book to the film, the thick 700-page volume Salinger written by Shields and Salerno.