'My Salinger Year' Helmer Talks Creating First Film With Female Protagonist

Philippe Falardeau — Getty — H 2020

Philippe Falardeau, whose film will open this year's Berlin International Film Festival, also discusses capturing 1990s New York onscreen, Margaret Qualley's range as an actress and why Salinger was ahead of his time.

From the moment he read Joanna Rakoff's memoir about literary New York, Philippe Falardeau knew his eighth movie, My Salinger Year, would be his first with a female protagonist.

"I've never been as excited about one of my films, because it's told from a woman's perspective," says the Quebec director, who rose to prominence with the Oscar-nominated classroom drama Monsieur Lazhar in 2011.

Now Falardeau, 52, finds himself opening the Berlin Film Festival with this Margaret Qualley and Sigourney Weaver starrer. Set in '90s-era New York, the film tells the story of an aspiring poet (Qualley) working at a prestigious literary agency who is tasked with answering fan mail directed to the notoriously secretive novelist J.D. Salinger.

A co-production between Canada's Micro_scope and Parallel Films in Ireland, Salinger is Falardeau's third English-language feature following the 2014 immigrant drama The Good Lie and the 2016 boxing biopic Chuck, starring Liev Schreiber and Elisabeth Moss. Memento Films International is handling international sales in Berlin, with UTA taking on domestic.

During a recent conversation, the director talked about capturing 1990s New York onscreen, Qualley's range as an actress and why Salinger was ahead of his time.

How do you make a film set in the 1990s and about J.D. Salinger connect with contemporary audiences?

In the 1990s, it was a time when the internet was gaining importance, and some people were saying this is the future, and others insisting it was just a trend. And in our story the literary world has to position itself for the internet age, and we have an old-fashioned boss, played by Sigourney Weaver, who won't hear about computers and the internet. So it shows a bold literary agency, which used to represent godlike literary names like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie and Dylan Thomas — and Salinger, who was still alive at that time — at a threshold, and needing to survive in a new world. In the film world, we face the same tornadoes with the internet platforms and the Netflixes of this world and an ongoing discussion on how to get our films in front of the public.

How did you capture this era in terms of its look and feel?

There are two worlds. There's New York City in the 1990s, which is a little grittier than now, and there's Manhattan, where Joanna gets into an elevator to go up to the 11th floor and enters the agency. And it feels like she's going back in time, like in Alice in Wonderland. Nothing has changed. It was like that in the book, and I wanted to capture that feeling of timelessness. New York still offers that. There are so many places that seem to be stuck in time, and we love the city for that. But at the same time, you have the newest and the coolest and the tallest in New York. For a young person, it's always been a cool city because of that.

This is your eighth movie and the first with a woman as the main character. How did you approach this shift in perspective?

This is why I'm so excited about the movie, honestly. When I read the book, I saw something I wanted to adapt from the perspective of a woman. I knew I was going in the same direction with all these male characters, albeit my films were all different. And I did want to find something new, and I did find that in Joanna's book. So while writing the scripts, it was important to remain close to the female perspective. It was also important when I found the cast to work closely with them and not try to project a male perspective on a woman's life.

Margaret Qualley's character seems very far from her role in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. What drew you to her?

I had seen Margaret in Novitiate, where she plays a young girl wanting to become a nun. And then I had seen her in a Kenzo ad directed by Spike Jonze. I thought, "OK, this actress has an amazing range." Now people know her from Quentin [Tarantino's] film, and My Salinger Year will only confirm that she's a future star, has range and can do pretty much anything.

Regarding J.D. Salinger, why should we still care about his literary greatness?

A good book is a good book, no matter when you read it. Honestly, I read J.D. Salinger [for the first time] three years ago, at 48. And usually you read Salinger when you're between 14 and 21. So when I read Joanna Rakoff's book, I thought, "I need to read The Catcher in the Rye." I thought, "Oh my God, it's so pertinent, even for today." Because I felt it talks about mental illness, and when Salinger wrote the book, no one spoke about depression and mental illness; it was taboo. That revealed to me this man was way ahead of his time.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Feb. 20 daily issue at the Berlin Film Festival.