When Shane Salerno set out to make a film about Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger, his plan was to spend $300,000 and six months shooting. “I thought it would be easy,” he said, “We would just go out, shoot, and be done.” But today, $2 million dollars, nine years, and hundreds of hours of footage later, Salerno’s film Salinger opens nationwide, following the related release of an eponymous oral history book co-written with Salinger expert David Shields recently. The film contains details about new works by Salinger as well as previously unseen footage and photos of him. It also brings to light many details about the esteemed author’s personal life which have never before been discussed.
Salerno, a producer and screenwriter whose previous credits include Armageddon had no easy path to the new film’s release. When he started sending out requests to speak to people about Salinger, he received more slammed doors than return phone calls, but he kept following up on all potential leads. Eventually people started talking, and each conversation opened up another door or provided another clue, leading to another clue and then another, constantly uncovering more and more about Salinger.
Salinger of course has been the subject of intense media speculation ever since the publication of Catcher in the Rye and his subsequent, simultaneous withdrawal from public view to his home in Cornish, New Hampshire. He stopped publishing in 1965, and gave his last interview in 1980. Speculation, sightings, fan pilgrimages, tell-all memoirs, remained constant ever since. If details of his private life were leaked, and Salinger could trace them back to a given individual, he often shut that person out of his life emphatically. He was also famously litigious, suing the author of one biography about him, and the author of a parody sequel to Catcher called Coming Through the Rye in 2009.
Some of the people who appear in the film include Salinger’s friend A.E. Hotchner, one-time lover and current novelist Joyce Maynard, literary luminaries Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal, John Guare, and EL Doctorow, in addition to celebrity Salinger fans including Martin Sheen, Ed Norton, and John Cusack.
Salerno describes his approach as persistent yet respectful, “It’s a fine line between being incredibly persistent and incredibly nagging, and we walked that line every day,” Salerno says, but he adds, “We were extremely passionate about telling the story, and getting it right.” It’s this approach that he believes earned him the initial cooperation from an unnamed Salinger family member, although that same person later withdrew, but Salerno adds: “They were extraordinarily helpful.” After Salinger’s death in 2010, several subjects who had previously declined Salerno’s requests to speak came forward, but Salerno says that ultimately almost everyone they requested interviews with came through.
One of Salerno’s biggest coups was scoring an interview with Jean Miller, with whom Salinger had a non-physical romantic relationship, starting when she was 14 and Salinger was 30. Miller produced her correspondence with Salinger for the film, which suggests she is the basis for the lead character in the Salinger short story “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor.” Miller had never spoken about her relationship with Salinger and the relationship was unknown even to his family.
Throughout the time he worked on Salinger, Salerno lived in Los Angeles and maintained his day job as a screenwriter and producer with credits including Savages (as screenwriter) and Hawaii Five-0 (as consulting producer) among other projects. However, due to the nature of the Salinger project Salerno says, “I would get a call out of the clear blue and they would say “If you can be in Brattleboro, Vermont, tomorrow at three o’clock I’ll talk to you, so we’d have to mobilize our crew in hours from all over the country.”
Salerno’s career is anything but easy to categorize, starting with a documentary he made when he was in high school called Sundown: The Future of Children and Drugs, which landed him an interview on Larry King to his current new project, the screenplay for Avatar 4, due in 2018. The common thread might not be obvious for everyone to see, but Salerno has fulfilled one of his lifelong dreams in Hollywood, through old fashioned hard work.
Salerno, in a rare Hollywood feat, kept the project secret until 2010. He had the same crew for the entire project, including legendary DP Buddy Squires. While they knew they were working on a film about Salinger, the crew members often didn’t know what interviews they were shooting and were sometimes asked to leave the room during filming. Salerno’s various Hollywood bosses were always understanding and supportive, when he told them he was simply “working on a documentary.” “I think people thought I had a secret life,” Salerno says noting he would often just skip out of town, “I did have a secret life. It was J.D. Salinger.”