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J.D. Salinger in the Age of Donald Trump: ‘The Rebel in the Rye’ Debuts at Sundance

Writer-director Danny Strong (Empire, The Butler, Game Change) on why his J.D. Salinger biopic The Rebel in the Rye, which just premiered at Sundance, is so timely.

01.28.17 5:01 AM ET

“What makes you think that you have anything to say to people?”

It’s a crushing line, delivered from father to son, in writer-director Danny Strong’s new J.D. Salinger biopic The Rebel in the Rye, which chronicles how Salinger’s time fighting in World War II and ensuing PTSD played backdrop to his writing one of the last century’s most popular and important novels, and eventually played a part in the writer spending the last decades of his life a recluse in New Hampshire.

“It just felt to me like the worst thing he could have said to him,” says Strong about the line, delivered to Nicholas Hoult’s Salinger by his dad, played by Victor Garber. 

Is it the worst thing someone could have said to Strong, as well? “Maybe,” he says. “It was actually an anecdote that somebody told me that their father said to them. I thought, God, that’s horrible. So I put it in the movie.”

The truth is that Strong has a lot to say to people, and we have been listening. Closely.

While the Rebel in the Rye premiere at the Sundance Film Festival marks Strong’s directorial debut, he co-created the Fox juggernaut Empire, wrote the decades-spanning 2013 civil rights drama The Butler, scripted the final two installments of the blockbuster Hunger Games film franchise, and wrote HBO’s duo of ripped-from-the-headlines TV films about our country’s political circus: 2010’s Game Change and 2008’s Recount.

Strong and I have talked before about how, if one could possibly pinpoint a throughline in all of that wildly different work, it’s that each tells a story that could be described, in their own respective ways, as “epic.”

The Rebel in the Rye certainly fits that bill, too. “The creation myth of one the most acclaimed and influential novels of all time and the fact that it came from someone who experienced the trauma of World War II, to me, is a huge story and I think an epic story,” he says. “And then to be able to give you some insight into why he went away, too, and being a recluse.”

Believe it or not, Strong is not obsessed with J.D. Salinger and Catcher in the Rye. Given how many Americans are, especially American men, it would be surprising that someone who spent years researching, writing, and directing a movie about the author is not.

Strong certainly liked Salinger enough to, while walking past Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life biography in an East Village bookstore, pick it up and become engrossed enough in the story to see it play out on screen. 

He understands why Catcher in the Rye has had such a profound influence on so many people. Once upon a time it did on him, too. That’s why, with Salinger and his estate so vehemently against adapting the work into a movie, a film about crafting it might just be the next best thing.

“It gives you a sense of identity, in a way,” Strong says about the novel. “You’re a freshman in high school and you read this book and here’s this character you’ve never seen before, and you feel the way he feels about so many things. I think it makes you feel good about yourself that there’s someone out there who feels the same way, and he’s kind of cool.”

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It’s an intense experience at any time to debut a film at the Sundance Film Festival. But this year’s events were cloaked with more explosive emotions than usual: anger, frustration, dread, fear, and sadness, with the inauguration, the Women’s March, and an endless onslaught of horrifying news serving as a backdrop to the erstwhile Park City madness.

Whether or not there was a conscious intent for it to be this way, each of Strong’s previous projects have premiered at times in which their content is culturally resonant and on the pulse of societal tensions and political issues. 

There’s the ways, both loud and nuanced, in which Empire addressed race, masculinity, homophobia, and privilege, and at a time when visibility desperately mattered. The Butler’s grand approach to civil rights arrived in a story that was cleverly personal, making its impact so too. 

The Hunger Games barely disguised pointed messages about female power and government corruption in its otherwise mass-entertaining popcorn-flick virtues, and Game Change and Recount were expressions of anger at the political system that were all the more powerful because the historical context was so fresh.

“I think the story of how art is created and how a masterpiece was created through trauma is a timeless story,” Strong says about The Rebel in the Rye. “But I do think that, as a character, he was so driven by the truth, and having his work portray the truth realistically. He was a rejection of what he viewed as saccharine, phony portrayal of teen life. We’re living in this warped anti-truth moment, so to have a story about someone whose entire existence is a dedication to the truth I think is timely and a story to be told for what we’re living through right now.”

Strong only likes to write things when he feels like they’re tackling important issues, he says. Attacking homophobia, for example, was an agenda when he set about creating Empire. It’s not hard to see how Game Change’s depiction of Sarah Palin, for example, has something to say about our society and politics, and The Butler as well. 

“For me, in this project, it was the story of PTSD and the creation of art through trauma,” he says.

It’s on the topic of the creation of art through trauma that we start discussing Donald Trump.

Surely, given his work on Game Change, which went behind the curtain of Sarah Palin’s disastrous debut on the vice-presidential Republican ticket, and Recount, which chronicled the weeks after the 2000 election and recounts in Florida, he’s been thinking about a Trump movie. 

He has.

In fact, any time there’s a big political event, he receives an deluge of emails in real-time asking, “Where’s the movie? Where’s the movie?”

So what would it take for there to be a suitable one about Trump’s rise? Is there a certain amount of time that must pass? A certain amount of perspective?

He wrote Recount five-and-a-half years after the election, Strong points out, and Game Change about two. So there was perspective, not to mention a number of historical accounts of what happened that he could parse through. 

He remembers when Sarah Palin was in the news, Jay Roach, who co-wrote the novel Game Change, kept reaching out to him and telling him there was a movie to be made, and Strong repeatedly said no. It wasn’t until he actually read Roach’s historical account of what happened in the Palin chapters of Game Change the book that he realized Roach had always been right.

“Could there be a movie about Trump? Absolutely,” Strong says. “But for me, until I read some accounts, which I bet you there will be some coming out in the next three or four months and I read the behind-the-scenes of what happened, then I’ll be able to determine if I think there’s a movie I can write from it and if there’s a story I can tell.”

In other words, if he’ll have anything to say to people.