Interview: Writer/Director Danny Strong of “Rebel in the Rye”

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Danny Strong has appeared in “The Gilmore Girls” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” wrote the “Mockingjay” films that finished the “Hunger Games” series, co-created “Empire.” He wrote and directed “Rebel in the Rye,” with Nicholas Hoult as J.D. Salinger, now in theaters. It is a touching, thoughtful story of a young man who is passionate about being a writer but only after the searing trauma of military service in WWII is he able to fully find his voice to write one of the most influential novels of all time, Catcher in the Rye. Salinger also wrote some acclaimed short stories and novellas, and then moved to New Hampshire, and made almost no other appearances in print. In an interview, Strong talked about why Catcher is his favorite of Salinger’s works and about telling the story of a man almost as famous for his decision to stop publishing as he is for what he wrote.

Do you have a favorite Salinger book?

Catcher in the Rye. I think it’s the best work but there’s sort of an intellectual bias against it. I reread it when I wrote the script and it was terrific. I loved it. It was so funny and insightful and Holden was just a terrific character. Certainly a scholarly point of view is that the later works are better, Seymour: An Introduction and Franny and Zooey. But for me Catcher is the richest as a story as opposed to just a philosophy. There are long religious passages on Franny and Zooey where we’re out of the story range and into the philosophizing range which some people enjoy in their literature. I read this letter of his that he said “sometimes I wonder if I’m propagandizing for the religious point of view” although he says it in a different phrasing, and then he says “but I just can’t help it when I just sit down and what’s inside of me comes out.”

Salinger was supported by and influenced by his professor Whit Burnett, who tells him that the story is everything. Is that right?

Yes, and there is something in the swami’s line about “Do you write to show off to your talent or to express what’s in your heart?” For me it’s the story and what happens and when I see a film that’s what I value most. The characters’ arc is the story. That’s the difference between plot and story. The plot is what happens and story is what this is all about, what you’re trying to say, what you take away from it. So the character journey is to me what’s ultimately the story. And then what makes a story good is when you have terrific characters in it that are dynamic and they’re entertaining, insightful or interesting; all of those things.

Salinger famously prohibited a film version of Catcher in the Rye, even though some of Hollywood’s top directors were interested. Could it be a movie?

People have asked me if I could make that would I? No. I don’t think it would be very good. What happens is he wanders around New York City and he encounters people and he’s antsy. I mean literally it’s the internal monologue and it’s the way he phrases things that makes it so engaging and entertaining and what happens is fine but it’s not cinematic to me.

For a man who was cynical and sarcastic, he was almost obsessed with innocence.

You can be sarcastic and still have “innocence,” right? I mean for me it was more of a loss of youth that was ripped away from him because of the war, because of trauma, because of seeing dead bodies in the Holocaust and nearly freezing to death, as he said, the smell of burning flesh that you can never get out of your nose. But you look at his writing before the war which wasn’t nearly as sophisticated, but nonetheless was very witty and had that sarcasm and was an exploration of Upper East Side life in a way that is quite fun to read. It just doesn’t have the depth that he hit after he experienced what he experienced.

It’s just a small body of work and it’s fascinating to me how obsessed people are with him over this the small body of work and how meaningful it is, people’s attachment to him and protectiveness of him over such a small body of work.

Why did he isolate himself?

He was part of the community in Cornish and he’d come back to New York from time to time and go to the same bookstore and vacation in Florida so he wasn’t a hermit, but he seemed to have an inability to really function socially and needed to be isolated. I view that as just another symptom of untreated PTSD and untreated trauma. I think when you look at someone who writes for forty to fifty years in a room by himself and never shows that work to anyone I view that as therapy, as someone who it’s therapeutic for them and it’s healing for them. In the case of the film and the story in the film t’s a triumph for him to a certain extent, that he’s become the ultimate writer, that he can just right for the sake of writing and he needs “nothing in return” and that’s the journey.

It is a Zen type journey which I believe is completely accurate for him. I think that that was him and that’s who he became. His writing became this meditation that was some sort of relationship with a higher being. I think maybe that’s intellectually how he talked about it, but for me I just see it as therapeutic; as someone who has a racing mind, a troubled soul who’s trying.

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Interview: Ron Hall of “Same Kind of Different As Me”

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Copyright 2012 Ron Hall
On the Huffington Post, I interviewed Ron Hall, whose wife inspired him to befriend a homeless man named Denver Moore. Their book, Same Kind of Different as Me: A Modern-Day Slave, an International Art Dealer, and the Unlikely Woman Who Bound Them Together inspired a film starring Greg Kinnear, Djimon Hounsou, and Renee Zellweger. It will be in theaters this fall.

He wasn’t really looking for any friends. He considered himself like the lion in the jungle. He had this very angry persona that was his protection and his self-preservation. I wasn’t looking for any friends like him either, truthfully, I was only doing this to repay Debbie for the forgiveness that she had shown me after my infidelity. At her insistence I pursued him for about five months until I finally got him in my car. I took him to breakfast and he thought I was in the CIA. He said, “Why would some rich white man be trying to follow me around?” We ordered breakfast and I found out a lot more about him. He came from a plantation and he had never been to school in his life. He said “Well, so what is it you all want from me?” I said, “Well, I just want to be your friend. Straight up, that’s all I’m looking for.” That in a way was kind of a lie. I was wanting to be more friendly, I wasn’t really wanting to be his friend in the real sense.

That’s how arrogant I was. I didn’t think he had anything to offer me in a friendship. In my mind if he cleaned himself up a little bit, behaved himself I would let him hang out with me for lunch and things like that, and take him around and show him a few nice things and try to make him feel bad about making all the bad decisions in his life that keep him from being like me. I didn’t have any respect for homeless people at the time because I felt most of them laid their own bed and they will have to lay in it.

Anyway after a couple of weeks I saw him taking trash out of the dumpster so I stopped by and I said, “Hey, you want to go get some coffee?” So we were sitting there at Starbucks and I’m trying to explain to him what an art dealer does and he was totally uninterested in that so after a few minutes of me talking he said, “Are you through talking? Tell you the truth there’s something I heard about white folks that really bothers me and it has to do with fishing.” He said, “I heard when white folks go fishing they do this thing they call catch and release.” I said, “Yeah, Denver, they sure do because it’s a sport, don’t you get it?” He said “No, no man I don’t get that at all. Back on the plantation where I grew up we’d go out in the morning, we’d get the cane poles, dig us a can full of worms, we’d go sit on the riverbank all day long and when we got something on the line we were really proud of what we caught and we’ll share it with our folk. It occurred to me that if you are a white man that’s fishing for a friend to catch and release, I ain’t got no desire to be your friend.” My mind flashed back to Debbie’s dream of a poor man who was wise. If I ever heard from God in my life it was at that moment and I knew that I had to accept that friendship and I had to catch and not release. I said, “Okay Denver, if you will be my friend I will not catch and release,” and he said to me “You have a friend for life;” and I said, “Okay, you do too.” The fear I had of him or becoming his friend evaporated.

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Interview: “Glass Castle” Writer/Director Destin Daniel Cretton

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For WheretoWatch, I interviewed Destin Daniel Cretton, writer/director of “Short Term 12” and now “The Glass Castle.”

It’s not necessarily experiences that we have all gone through but I do think that there is something about The Glass Castle that still resonates and feels very familiar. We may not have gone through something to that degree but I think everybody has a Rex Walls in their life. Everybody knows what it feels like to want to love somebody so badly and have the struggle of how difficult that can be with someone who is either an alcoholic or has ups and downs in their life or who can’t be what we need from them. And it’s incredible to watch somebody like Jeannette go through something like that and come out the other end, not just learning how to accept that part of it but to take it and make it something that makes her so much of a better person. That’s really inspiring to me.

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Brian Selznick on “Wonderstruck”

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For Rogerebert.com, I spoke to author/illustrator Brian Selznick, who has written the screenplay for the film adaptation of his book, Wonderstruck. I was fascinated by his description of casting deaf actors as hearing characters in the silent portion of the movie.

I realized that with a silent section in our movie it gave us the opportunity to hire deaf actors to play hearing characters. Deaf actors were hired all the time in the silent movie era because they were so expressive. They knew how to tell a story without spoken language. And so we used six deaf actors as hearing people. We had these amazing days on the set with hearing actors, deaf actors, sign language interpreters. The rest of the cast, the crew and everybody worked together.

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