'Salinger' Director on His 10-Year Effort to Bring the Private Author's Life to the Screen (Q&A)

Shane Salerno
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Shane Salerno tells THR how he garnered the cooperation of several key figures in Salinger's life, talks about the doc's big revelations and shares his thoughts about the forthcoming works the author wanted published after his death.

On Jan. 25, 2010, Shane Salerno walked out of Technicolor Hollywood, a nearly finished cut of his long-gestating documentary, Salinger, in hand. Seven years after he first began to research the life of the reclusive novelist, Salerno -- the writer of Shaft and Savages -- was ready to unveil his passion project.

Two days later, J.D. Salinger died. It would take Salerno another three years before he finally finished his film and an accompanying 700-page book co-written by David Shields. The book, published by Simon & Schuster, went on sale on Sept. 3 and the film opens in theaters on Friday (PBS will air it in 2014 as part of its American Masters series).

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“Everyone said, ‘Okay, we gotta get it out,” Salerno recalls. “And my feelings were the exact opposite. My feelings were that we should now re-approach all of the people that have said no over the years. We then had to re-cut the entire movie because a number of these people came forward.”

While not all of the reviews have been kind, its revelations have generated serious publicity with the biggest news that Salinger apparently left instructions for at least five new books to be published beginning in 2015.

The film and book make the case that two events transformed Salinger and his work: his participation in World War II and, later in life, his embracing of Vedanta, a religious philosophy related to Hinduism.

“World War II destroyed the man, but made him a great artist,” Salerno says. “[His] religion provided the comfort he needed as a man, but killed his art.”

Salerno began his research on Salinger in 2003 with far more modest ambitions. “When I set out to do this it was a six-month project with a $300,000 budget,” he says. “I went slightly over schedule and slightly over budget.”

In the end, he recouped the more than $2 million of his own money he put into the project when The Weinstein Co. and PBS acquired the film and Simon & Schuster took on the manuscript. Those were the only potential buyers he says he approached, due to his concern for protecting the project’s secrets.

His Salinger obsession sated, Salerno now can return to his day job: collaborating with James Cameron on one of three planned sequels to Avatar. He’s in for another long haul: It won’t hit theaters for at least another six years.

Why Salinger?

Well, it started when I was a kid. You know, my mother was a huge Salinger fan and was always talking about Salinger and was really passionate about his work and turned me onto his work, and I became an incredible fan of The Catcher in the Rye like millions of people around the world and then to The Glass Family, which I just fell headfirst for. And my mom used to always say that the most fascinating thing about Salinger was that there was the man and there was this mystique, this myth that was around him. This great legend of this man who had overwhelming fame and then just said -- you know, what nobody says in that position -- no thanks. And I was really taken by that. I was taken by his story. But I didn’t know anything about his life. Like a lot of people I just accepted the clean story. You know, the clean story was: Man writes a book. Book becomes worldwide phenomenon. He decides, "This is not what I want," and retreats to the woods of New Hampshire. That was the story that everybody knew, and the story is much more complicated than that and much more fascinating.

It’s been reported that you spent something like $2 million of your own money on this.

That’s an accurate figure. But, you know, fortunately it worked out and we were fortunate to have three very significant sales too. And so, we’re ahead, but it was definitely a major risk. This could have not worked out, you know. I mean you also have to understand, we only showed the film to three buyers.

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We only showed the film to three buyers because I had decided that’s where the three places that I wanted to be. There was no -- everybody was saying to us, you know, you have to do an auction. But the problem with doing an auction was that back in January or February [2013], every other studio in town would have known what we had. So that wasn’t possible.

But the funny thing was that -- I’m sorry -- the very tough thing was that if those people had said no, then we were in a really bad spot. And so there was not only a risk of making the film, but there was a real risk in showing it to people. Thankfully all three of those people bought it in the room.

The biggest revelation obviously seems to be the Salinger works to be released posthumously. I mean, do you consider that the single biggest revelation from the project?

No. I think there are a number of revelations that people are going to see. Thankfully some of them haven’t been reported yet.

What’s your explanation for why he stopped publishing and why he arranged for work to be published only years after his death?

There were two emphatic demarcation points in Salinger’s life. World War II was the first, and his immersion into the Vedanta religion was the second. And that’s really important because the second has been particularly unreported. World War II destroyed the man, but made him a great artist. Religion provided the comfort he needed as a man, but killed his art. The Vedanta religion has specific teachings about not seeking fame. Not seeking glory. Not seeking wealth. Not seeking ego satisfaction. And he followed the four, you know, sort of elements, of that religion very strictly. Part One is an apprenticeship. Part Two is householder duty, which is marriage. Part Three is withdrawal from society, and Part Four is renunciation of the world. When J.D. Salinger passed away, his statement that his family released is incredibly telling. He said, “I am in this world, but not of it.” And that was a direct, you know, it comes from the belief system of the Vedanta religion.

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When does he begin to study the religion and embrace it?

Well, what happened is he came out of World War II with post-traumatic stress. Let me just step back one second, OK? He lands on D‑Day. Participates in D‑Day, Battle of the Hedgerows and Battle of the Bulge. And at the end of the war walks into a sub‑camp of Dachau. And he walks into this camp and says years later to his daughter and to Jean Miller that you never get the smell of burning flesh out of your nostrils no matter how long you live. Shortly after that he’s in a mental institution. OK? What’s incredible about that is that he came out of that experience, and that’s where he became the artist that we know. None of the work for which we know Salinger was written prior to World War II. All of the work that we know Salinger for was written after World War II. And that’s where he found his tone. That’s where he found his Salinger voice. People are under this impression that he wrote Catcher in the Rye and disappeared. In fact, he published for 14 more years after Catcher in the Rye from 1951 to 1965. But he was an incredibly battle‑damaged vet and he was always searching for peace and for a cure for that trauma. And he found it in the Vedanta religion. The problem was that the Vedanta religion started to overtake his work to the point that the last few stories that he publishes are almost, you know, religious manuals.

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And his last story, Hapworth 16, 1924, was dismissed by everyone as being sort of not believable and completely consumed with theology. So it’s an interesting journey because he needed the work to become the artist that he became. But that work -- and the trauma that that and the war caused, set him on a path of seeking cures through religion that ultimately destroyed his work.

Have you read any of work that he wrote to be published after his death?

Here’s what I can say right now. There are -- just to be clear about this -- there are a number of witnesses from the 1960s to 2000, who have, on the record, you know, said that they’ve seen the work. And Joyce Maynard said she saw two manuscripts and heard typing every day, as she tells us in the film, and was shown a full genealogy of The Glass Family. Then there are friends who saw the work. Other family that saw the work. And no question that he’s been writing. He told The New York Times in 1974 that he’d been writing every day.

But given what you say is the influence of the religion on his later work that was published in his lifetime, what effect do we think it would have had on the work that’s going to be published in the next few years? Will it be remarkably different from the work that made him famous?

I think that’s a great question, and I think this is my answer. I think that the fears that people have about the work are rooted in a belief that because he was locked away from the world, the work won’t have the world in it. And one of the myths that we really destroy in the film and certainly in the book is that J.D. Salinger was a recluse. There was actually nothing reclusive about J.D. Salinger at all. What J.D. Salinger was, was extremely private. There’s a huge difference. I mean J.D. Salinger traveled the world. J.D. Salinger communicated with friends on a daily basis. Our book and film are filled with his letters and photos. And he was a man about town. He would attend plays in New York. He would go to bookstores in New York City. What he wanted to do was communicate with the world on his terms. And that’s what was fascinating about Salinger. He was very aware of his public image. And in some cases, perpetuated the myth of himself as a recluse.

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But while it’s true that the fear about what the work will be like is partly based in the idea that he was cut off from the world, given how the last work that he did publish in his lifetime was received critically, isn’t there a natural concern that the later work won’t hold up?

I think that it will certainly reflect his interests post‑Catcher in the Rye. I believe Catcher in the Rye was a highly specific book. A deeply, deeply personal book and deeply autobiographical book about his life and his growing up in New York. I think after Hapworth received the negative reception that it did, coupled with his religious beliefs, he was always going to stop and he was always going to “leave the world,” quote unquote. And that was the great mystery. That’s what sent me on this detective story for nine years. And it really was a detective story.

Was there any kind of turning point in your search?

Well, there were several major turning points. Certainly the first was Jean Miller. This was an extraordinary story. Her full name had never been disclosed in a single Salinger book or article. She had never spoken anywhere. For 60 years, she was just a ghost. And I always knew she existed. You know, people told me it was a story. It didn’t really exist. It wasn’t real. And she was kind of like, you know, our version of the key witness in the case.

Here’s what’s extraordinary about her. In 1949, she’s 14 years old and she’s sitting at a hotel pool in Daytona, Fla., in Daytona Beach. And a 30‑year‑old man sitting at the pool starts up a conversation with her. And that man is J.D. Salinger. So he begins this dialogue with her. And a nonsexual romance begins. And it’s a very interesting romance. They spend the next 10 days together. Every day they walk down to the pier. They eat popcorn together. She goes into the beach. They really have this kind of magnificent, pure time together. On the last day there, he says, “You know, I wish I could kiss you. But, you know, of course, I can’t.” And then walks up to her mother and says, “I’m going to marry your daughter.” And for the next five years, not only communicates with her by letter, but visits her. She visits him. They meet in New York. She comes to Cornish, N.H., and stays with him. She meets his friends. And she has the privileged point of view of knowing him before Catcher in the Rye and knowing him after Catcher in the Rye. She knew pre‑fame Jerry and she knew post‑explosion from fame Jerry. And they had an extraordinary romance that ultimately did become a physical relationship. And she had never told her story anywhere for 60 years. So finding her was an incredible journey, and then convincing her to share her story with us was an incredible story.

And the story, too, of what happens after he takes her virginity, right?

Right. He had a pattern of seducing very young girls -- and “girls” is the right word. Because they were always girls on the cusp of womanhood. And once he consummated those relationships, he had very little interest in them and could be particularly cruel sometimes. And there’s a pattern that runs throughout the book and throughout the film where people were extremely close friends of his for three or four years, and then they were just gone. They had sort of been banished. And in the case of a number of women, they were the most important thing in the world. They were the center of his universe. And then they were dismissed.

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Did Margaret, his daughter, cooperate with you?

What I think I’m permitted to say by the team of lawyers is the following: We had initial cooperation from some members of the Salinger family that ultimately did not continue going forward. But we have some initial cooperation and it was incredibly helpful.

I understand that your knowledge of him changed obviously because you knew so much more about him by the end of this process. But did your view of who he was as an artist and as a man change fundamentally or not at the end of those nine years?

I would say that certain elements of my view of Salinger changed. But I think what was amazing was understanding that this was a deeply contradictory, extraordinarily complex human being.

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