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

Shane Salerno
Shane Salerno
 Getty Images

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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