Peter Bart: Can Re-Edited J.D. Salinger Pic Thrive After Mixed Sundance Reception?
Will they be praised or pummeled? That’s the question awaiting those brave filmmakers who plunge this week into the high-risk exercise known as festival season. Each year the field at Toronto, Venice, Telluride or wherever seems to become more crowded and the outcome more extreme: Will the verdict be a rich deal or oblivion?
Even as Toronto begins this week, a small film will be released Friday that sets out to prove there is life after festivals. Rebel In The Rye, focused on the life of J.D. Salinger, received the sort of mixed reception at the last Sundance that drives filmmakers crazy: a standing ovation followed by flaccid reviews. And there were no instant offers from distributors.
“You ask yourself, ‘What just happened’?” recalls Danny Strong, the director. “So you get very drunk and then set about the job of re-thinking and re-editing. A festival can help, hurt or just baffle you, but you have to seize control and build on it.”
The end result is a film that is at once profoundly moving and stubbornly literary. Rebel has several issues working against it: it is, after all, a film about a writer, and writers, who are both self-obsessed and narcissistic, tend to be lousy subjects. Salinger, to be sure, met both criteria but ultimately surpassed normal “writer” status. Catcher In The Rye, published in 1951, still sells 250,000 copies a year and remains on the reading list of every school in America. In tackling his story, Strong, himself a writer, understood his challenges. Strong’s writing credits include the brilliant HBO political dramas Recount and Game Change; he’s also the co-creator (with Lee Daniels) of the hit show Empire. “Everyone believes they know Holden Caulfield as a result of reading Catcher, but no one knows Salinger or his extraordinary story,” Strong says.
Coincidentally, Salinger also was the subject in 2013 of an intricately researched and widely praised documentary (titled Salinger) produced and directed by Shane Salerno and distributed by The Weinstein Company. Salerno and David Shields also wrote a 700-page bestseller to accompany the film. Salerno’s docu was shown earlier this year on PBS’ American Masters series.
Salinger was an ambitious young writer who struggled with rejection and writers block before he found a patient tutor (played in the movie by Kevin Spacey) and also discovered his fictional protagonist, who would become the legendary Holden Caulfield. Just as his career was gaining momentum, however, Salinger was called to the front lines of World War II, landing on Utah Beach on D-Day. His unit fought the Battle of the Bulge and liberated the prisoners at Dachau. He returned a shattered man, unable to write or re-connect with society. His girlfriend, the beautiful Oona O’Neill (daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill) had married the legendary Charlie Chaplin. His family resisted his return to writing, believing that the world of commerce would more effectively re-introduce him to reality.
In re-editing his film after Sundance, Strong expanded the World War II combat scenes and explored Salinger’s retreat into Buddhism. Slowly Salinger managed to find himself again and also re-discover Holden. By 1951 he finished his novel and, after further rejection, even found a publisher (Little Brown).
But then came further crisis: Just as the war had disrupted Salinger’s life, publication of his book completely exploded it. “Salinger’s life became one of fulfillment as a writer but isolation as a human being,” Strong observes. “The sheer magnitude of his celebrity prompted him to retreat into himself yet again.” His new legions of readers would relentlessly track Salinger down, seeking his wisdom and insights. The idolatry threw Salinger into depression. He was a sudden rock star but had no Graceland or Neverland to retreat to. Instead he left New York, taking refuge on a farm in New Hampshire, refusing to write anything for publication during the final years of his life. He died in 2010, leaving a maze of confusion about the fate of his final writings, if any. Rumors persist that further Salinger novels will be published in future years after legal constraints are lifted.
Strong and his lead producer, Jason Shuman, were well aware of their storytelling problems when they undertook the project but felt their film would find an audience. A fellow believer was Molly Smith, a scion of the FedEx family, who was building a slate of films. IFC Films ultimately came aboard as the distributor.
The decision to go to Sundance seemed inevitable as that’s where indie films find acclaim: witness the $17.5 million paid for rights to Birth Of A Nation in 2016 or the $12 million for The Big Sick a year later. Still, distributors last season were wary about committing major money to a literary subject in a crowded indie marketplace.
Strong, upbeat and high spirited by nature, realizes the odds are still stacked against his Salinger film. He and Shuman are themselves paying the tab for their pre-release screenings and will then have to mobilize support for an awards campaign. But they also are convinced that they are telling a powerful story about a brilliant writer who had to overcome appalling problems to fulfill his destiny. And despite getting tossed around by their festival upheaval, they are determined to beat the odds and find a following for their film.