Danny Strong: Rebel With a Cause

On this edition, I talked to actor/screenwriter/producer Danny Strong. He is making his directorial debut with “Rebel in the Rye” starring Nicholas Hoult, Zoey Deutch, Sarah Paulson and Kevin Spacey. Author J.D. Salinger leads a reclusive lifestyle after the success of his popular and controversial novel “The Catcher in the Rye.”

What lead you to make Rebel in the Rye your directorial debut?

When I read a biography of JD Salinger, I was so taken by his story and it was fascinating to me. I knew nothing about it. It was not just the story of a struggling writer trying to make it and his ambition which reminded me not only of myself but all of my friends that are professional writers. Then the fact that he was able to ultimately find his voice and create his masterpiece after serving in World War II and was in some of the darkest most violent chapters of that war. He was institutionalized after the war and then came out of it not only a transformed writer but was able to create this work of art that would inspire people for decades & decades to come and I just find that a very beautiful story.

I take it that “Catcher in the Rye” was one of your favorite books by J.D. Salinger, is that correct?

Well of JD Salinger, absolutely and of my high school years, I would say definitively.

I loved the scene that Salinger’s mentor played by Kevin Spacey asked J.D. “why he feels he has to write”. Now, I ask that same question to you.

That’s a good question, good question because I have a lot of creative energy and writing is the way that I can release it. I don’t need permission to do it. To direct a film, someone has to give you millions of dollars. To act on a TV show, someone has to hire you but as a writer, I can just sit down and write. Also, I think it’s a great way for me to have my say for me to speak about things that are important to me and to put them into a story that can perhaps translate to other people and have them hear my point of view for me to express something that I want to express about any given subject matter but to do it within a story that’s hopefully entertaining and engaging.

And hopefully make that story likable for people to read it

Yeah, or watch it.

Watch it, that’s it. So, let’s go back to the very first thing you have written. What was it?

The first thing that I wrote that got made or the first thing that I wrote?

I say both.

So, the first thing that got made was the HBO movie called “Recount” which was the story of the Florida Recount and the first thing that I wrote ever was a play that I wrote about four people in a mental institution. I don’t really remember what the subject matter was entirely. I just wrote this play.

(At this point, I was telling Danny one of the first things I wrote – an article about my experiences at Advanced Space Academy in the Spring of 1999. Danny asked me questions about my Space Camp adventure.)

Speaking of Kevin Spacey, tell me about the wonderful cast we have in the movie. We have Nicholas Hoult who plays JD Salinger. We have Zoey Deutch, Sarah Paulson and Kevin Spacey who you worked with in “Recount”.

They were incredible, I mean these are the best of the best. I just think the cast is so talented and they are all really cool people too. When I want to get with the actors, it’s really just about making the scene work and trying to fulfill the dramatic and emotional potential of the scene. So, we just kind of dive in there and do it. It’s not as if you were micromanaging their performances. If I had adjustments it’s just a light touch, sometimes just to try new things.

Now, how did you work with Nicholas to bring Salinger’s essence to life on screen?

It’s really about capturing the character that I had written in the script that was very much based upon all the research that I had done on him. You know there are some things that are daunting about him because there are no recordings of him.

Really, no recordings at all?

Yeah, there are no recordings but there is sort of freeing because it enables you to let your imagination go but it’s a very dynamic role in the film because he goes through so much. He’s this cocky brash Holden Caulfield character before the war and then after the war he’s someone who has PTSD symptoms and was trying to find his voice again, find his religion and spirituality. It’s quite a dynamic arc.

I understand that you got Salinger’s biography for your source of the film. I like to know what was the biggest takeaway you got from Salinger that you never knew before going in.

It was really the war, that he was transformed by the war and that the war transformed him as a writer and as a person. He was writing Catcher in the Rye in France and in Germany during World War II. That he stormed D-Day with six chapters of Catcher in his bag. I just think that’s absolutely fascinating. It makes so much sense to me why the book is what it is, why Holden Caulfield is the character that is and why he ended up going away to the woods and had to leave the city. To me it seems to be clear signs of untreated trauma. And the inability t function in the city which is especially odd when you are a creature of the city before you had gone to war. He’s a very charismatic, brash, cocky, charming sarcastic character of the figure in New York City going to clubs and picking up girls. Then after the war, he moved to Cornish, New Hampshire, which is the polar opposite of the experience he grew up.

Its amazing how one experience can change your total outlook on life.

Yeah, but I think it was stained over several months and they say when you’re in combat that it changes you. And he was there for much longer than that and he was in D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, the Hercan Forest. He was at the first wave that came to the concentration camp to experience concentration camp when you didn’t know that existed.

Thank you Danny for the wonderful interview, Rebel in the Rye is in theaters TODAY!