A Rookie Film Director Takes on Salinger


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Nicholas Hoult, who plays the writer J.D. Salinger.

Credit
Alison Rosa

At the corner of Jersey and Crosby Streets in SoHo, during one of those New York City days when it suddenly feels way too hot, the sun was blazing down and a tang of urine wafted up.

Traffic had been halted, passers-by were hoisting selfie sticks, and, huddled in a building’s shadow, a film crew was taking in a scene from a different time.

Women in pencil skirts and pin curls and men with high-waisted pants and fedoras walked the street, passing an old-fashioned phone booth where a young man — dashing, tall and Brylcreemed — was hollering down the line.

“I thought about it, and I ain’t going to change a word,” the young man thundered into the receiver. “Holden would never approve.”

Behind the camera, Danny Strong, the semi-successful television actor (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Gilmore Girls,”), celebrated writer (“Empire”) and now first-time movie director, nodded. “That was awesome,” Mr. Strong told the actor, the film’s star, Nicholas Hoult, who was playing the writer J.D. Salinger, the man who gave the world Holden Caulfield and almost certainly would have never approved of this project himself.

Based on “J.D. Salinger: A Life” (2010), by Kenneth Slawenski, the film, “Rebel in the Rye,” which was recently shot in and around New York, focuses largely on Salinger’s early years leading up to the publication of “The Catcher in the Rye.” The film follows Salinger as he struggles at school; woos Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, Oona; is cuckolded by Charlie Chaplin; and is nearly psychically shattered after he fights in some of the bloodiest battles of World War II — all the while carrying early chapters of “Catcher” with him.

Mr. Strong had been yearning to direct a movie for years, ever since he spent a week with Jay Roach on the set of “Recount,” the 2008 HBO film Mr. Strong wrote about the 2000 presidential election.

Now 42, Mr. Strong began his Hollywood career acting and turned to writing in his mid-20s to take his mind off the grind of auditions. “It became this kind of therapy,” he recalled, chatting between takes on a dusty storefront stoop on Crosby Street.

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The director Danny Strong, left, on the set of “Rebel in the Rye.”

Credit
Alison Rosa

After “Recount,” he wrote “Game Change” (2012), starring Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin, and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (2013). Casting about for the ideal story to direct, Mr. Strong happened upon Mr. Slawenski’s book, which drew heavily from Salinger’s personal letters. Mr. Strong optioned the book and wrote the script.

Taking on such a hallowed figure as Salinger, who died in 2010, did not feel particularly daunting, Mr. Strong said, even though Salinger’s estate is known for being litigious. (As of now, Mr. Strong said, the Salinger estate has no involvement with the film. Salinger’s literary agency did not respond to several emails seeking comment.)

“‘The Butler’ was the most complicated thing I had ever written — I mean, that was the entire civil rights movement through the eyes of a White House butler,” Mr. Strong said. “Everything feels easier after ‘The Butler.’”

His star on the rise, Mr. Strong sidelined “Rebel” for other writing projects, namely both “Mockingjay” films in the “Hunger Games” series, and then “Empire,” before returning to his film this year. Its success hinged on casting the lead role and, after auditions, Mr. Strong found his Salinger in Mr. Hoult, the polymorphous 26-year-old British actor whose previous roles include playing a lovestruck zombie (“Warm Bodies”), a brainiac mutant (three “X Men” films), conflicted cannon fodder (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) and Jennifer Lawrence’s boyfriend (in real life, until 2014).

“It got me more invigorated about the movie,” Mr. Strong recalled of Mr. Hoult’s audition. “He just crushed it.”

Mr. Strong then excused himself, as his set was being moved to Pravda, the Soviet-themed bar nearby, which was permanently shuttered at the end of June. Dozens of crew members and nattily appointed extras shoehorned themselves into the basement bar. The camera rolled, a jazz band pantomimed playing piano and horns, herbal cigarettes were smoked, and Mr. Hoult’s Salinger downed shots and tried to pick up girls.

Feline-faced, lean as a wolf, and tall — at 6-foot-3, he has about an inch on Salinger — Mr. Hoult was wearing brown contact lenses for the role and had adopted a hybridized accent that was part trans-Atlantic, part midcentury Upper West Side.

Mr. Hoult said he was in awe of Salinger, had researched him exhaustively and was trying to not feel overly freighted by the writer’s fame. “It sounds like an odd thing to say, but caring too much can actually be debilitating at points,” Mr. Hoult said, sitting on a steep staircase in Pravda after the bar scene had been shot. “It’s kind of about cutting through all that superficialness and then just doing the work.” He said the hardest day on set had been shooting a World War II battle scene in Rockland County. The temperature had spiked, and his uniform was woolen, so he had stuffed it with ice packs “wherever I possibly could have them.”

For Mr. Strong, the toughest part about making the film had little to do with being a rookie director — he had directed a few episodes of “Empire” — but with trying to whip through three to four scenes a day. He was used to the quick metabolism of television, but the intricacies of filmmaking on a tight shoot — like setting up the shots and keeping much of New York 2016 out of the frame — left him somewhat breathless, if not overly stressed. The film has yet to find a distributor, but he is hoping to release it next year.

“I never know if I can pull anything off,” Mr. Strong said. “So it’s always a jump off the deep end.”

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