How PBS Landed the Rights to Sought-After J.D. Salinger Documentary

JD Salinger 1952 - H 2013
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

JD Salinger 1952 - H 2013

"American Masters" executive producer Susan Lacy pursued filmmaker Shane Salerno for three years. "It was like I was Harrison Ford and she was Tommy Lee Jones,” said Salerno, referring to "The Fugitive."

Shane Salerno’s long-gestating documentary about influential and reclusive author J.D. Salinger has generated tremendous interest – both in Hollywood and New York literary circles. So when PBS’ American Masters landed the domestic television rights for a reported low-seven-figure sum (a mountain of cash in the world of public broadcasting), many industry watchers wondered how the non-profit sealed the deal before more deep-pocketed competitors even had a chance to make an offer. Enter Susan Lacy, the creator and executive producer of American Masters, a PBS staple since 1986. 

Days after news of Salerno's project first surfaced in January 2010, “Susan called me out of the clear blue," said Salerno. “I answer my own phone. She started talking when I said ‘hello’ and I don’t think she stopped for 25 minutes. And she really made an incredibly coherent and intelligent case for why this had to be on American Masters."

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Salinger will air in January 2014 as American Masters’ 200th installment, joining a long list of previously profiled literary giants, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tennessee Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Louisa May Alcott, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Ellison and Eugene O’Neil. And in March, American Masters will bow Philip Roth: Unmasked.

“I thought Salinger belonged among those artists. I felt very strongly about that. And Susan was unique in her pursuit. It was like I was Harrison Ford and she was Tommy Lee Jones,” said Salerno, referring to the cat-and-mouse feature The Fugitive. “She was so relentless and single-minded about it."

In fact, Lacy’s tenacity is legendary in industry circles. She called Jeff Rosen, Bob Dylan’s long-time manager, once a month for 10 years to persuade him to help her persuade Dylan to submit to the American Masters treatment. Rosen had amassed a treasure-trove of video interviews with Dylan. The resulting film, No Direction Home, was directed by Martin Scorsese and aired on American Masters in 2005. 

Asked if Lacy called him once a month for two years, Salerno replied: “It was really more aggressive than that.” Once a week? “It was sometimes more aggressive than that. But never bothersome. And I learned a great deal on those phone calls."

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American Masters also has profiled publicity-shunning director Woody Allen and mercurial record-industry mogul David Geffen. And Lacy persuaded Neil Young and Don Henley, both of whom endured legal skirmishes with Geffen (who infamously sued Young in 1983, claiming that Young’s albums for Geffen Records were “unrepresentative” of his previous work) to be interviewed for her Geffen documentary.
Roth appeared via satellite at last January’s Television Critic’s Association press tour in Pasadena to cheerfully answer questions about his decision to retire entirely from writing. When one reporter asked how retirement was going, the formerly prolific 79-year-old offered: “I get up in the morning. I go to the kitchen. I get a large glass of orange juice, and I go back to bed and read for an hour and a half. I never have done that in my entire life. So I’m doing fine without writing. Someone should have told me about this earlier.” And he’s not the only one: Geffen also submitted – in person – to the TCA treatment during last summer’s semi-annual conference.

The long-running PBS series confers an imprimatur of quality. And shortly after the American Masters deal was finalized, Simon & Schuster announced a book deal with Salerno. The Private War of J.D. Salinger, which Salerno is writing with David Shields (Black Planet, Remote), is due out in September.

Salerno -- a Hollywood screenwriter whose credits include Armageddon, Shaft and Savages -- has interviewed many of Salinger’s Hollywood admirers, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Martin SheenEdward Norton, John Cusack, Danny DeVito, David Milch and Robert Towne, as well as writers Tom Wolfe, E.L. Doctorow, A. Scott Berg, Elizabeth Frank and Gore Vidal. He is currently negotiating theatrical rights to Salinger, looking for a wide release (unusual for a documentary) to coincide with the book launch in September.  
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Salinger died on Jan. 27, 2010, at the age of 91, 30 years after his last interview and 45 years after his last published work. The iconic Catcher in the Rye was released in 1951 and has sold more than 120 million copies worldwide. Salinger rebuffed repeated offers from A-list producers – Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, Steven Spielberg and Harvey Weinstein – who wanted to adapt Catcher in the Rye for the big screen. The only authorized film adaptation remains the atrocious 1949 film My Foolish Heart, based on Salinger's short story Uncle Wiggily Goes to Connecticut. The movie, starring Dana Andrews and Susan Hayward, was bad enough that Salinger never allowed another adaptation of his work. In 2009, he sued to enjoin the publication of a sequel to Catcher, featuring a 76-year-old Holden Caulfield, by a Swedish author.

Lacy harbored desires to profile Salinger well before Salerno’s film came to light. But, she said, “I didn’t even try when [Salinger] was alive. I knew there was no way we could do it because there were such restrictions on the writing and what you could use. I tried to get the rights after he died, and that led me to Shane’s film. And I have been pursuing him for three years."

For Lacy, acquiring a film rather than producing it on her own is unusual but not unheard of. Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam Twenty was an American Masters acquisition. So was When You’re Strange: A Film About the Doors from Living in Oblivion writer-director Tom DeCillo.

“It’s not something we do a lot,” conceded Lacy. “We’re really out front getting rights, making these things happen, and it’s hard enough for us to do it, let alone independent filmmakers. I’m out raising money for these films all the time. So when there is one that gets made and it's great, I’m right there."

The public broadcaster has a four-year exclusive domestic broadcast window on Salinger and is still negotiating streaming rights for 

Certainly, interest in Salinger has remained high, a result of his aversion to publicity and rumors (however unsubstantiated) that he continued to write after he retreated from the literary world. But what makes this film so special? Salerno contends he got "over the wall." But he would not elaborate on exactly what that means. And only a handful of people have seen the film (Lacey, Simon & Schuster publisher Jonathan Karp). In 2010, he released a photo to Newsweek that shows Salinger in his Cornish, N.H., home in 1968, 15 years after he left New York for the solitude of New England. 

"I made the decision to give one photo to Newsweek, and the reason I did that was to say to people, this isn’t hype, we have been diligently working on this for years and we do have some incredible things. We’re just not able to talk about them yet,” said Salerno. “We hoped that the photo, which was incredibly intimate and in his bedroom at the height of his reclusiveness, was an indication that we were over the wall.”

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