As an actor, Danny Strong was a fan favorite on shows like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls. His ‘Jonathan’ episode of Buffy is an all time classic. Who actually starred in The Matrix, anyway? Strong still acts but he’s established quite a career as a screenwriter, having written the two-part Hunger Games finale, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Daniels’ series Empire.
The Sundance Film Festival premiered Strong’s directorial debut, Rebel in the Rye, for which he also adapted the screenplay. Nicholas Hoult plays famed author J.D. Salinger in the film based on Kenneth Slawneski’s biography, J.D. Salinger: A Life. Strong is also no stranger to true stories, having written the HBO films Recount and Game Change, about the 2000 Election Recount and 2008 Republican Presidential Campaign respectively.
Strong spoke with cinemathread about his writing process and take on Salinger. Of course, we tried to get some Empire scoop, but he shut it down. Look for Rebel in The Rye in theaters after Sundance, and Empire returns March 22 at 9PM on Fox.
cinemathread: Has feature directing been on your mind for a long time?
Danny Strong: Yes, absolutely. After the first week on the set of Recount, I knew I wanted to direct a film and it just took a while to get it going.
CT: Was doing Empire episodes practice for directing Rebel in the Rye?
DS: Yeah, they were, exactly.
CT: Did you ever speak to Lee Daniels about directing?
DS: Yeah, totally. You know who was really instrumental, was Jay Roach. I did two movies with Jay Roach. I did Recount and Game Change and he was like a mentor to me. I was by his side for everything so that was an amazing relationship and really helpful to me.
CT: How different was the historical narrative of J.D. Salinger to the recent histories of Recount and Game Change?
DS: Well, Recount and Game Change, there’s dramatization but they’re very, very close to the actual events. They’re modern day docudramas. Rebel in the Rye is events that happened 70 years ago. It’s very much in the model of when Aaron Sorkin makes a historical film, he says, “It’s a painting, not a photograph.” That’s very much what this is. It’s not a beat for beat recreation of what happened. The events of the film are all true but there’s definitely dramatization. It’s also not just the story of J.D. Salinger writing Catcher in the Rye, but it’s this artist’s manifesto of what it takes to create art. It’s the story of the artist in the universal sense as well.
It’s also not just the story of J.D. Salinger writing Catcher in the Rye, but it’s this artist’s manifesto of what it takes to create art. It’s the story of the artist in the universal sense as well.
CT: Do you relate to that as a writer, even though you write in a different medium than Salinger?
DS: I mean, what he goes through in the film as a writer is what myself and so many of my friends have gone through, which is why I wanted to do the story. It just reminded me of me and so many people I know. The struggles of trying to find a story, of getting rejected over and over again, of finishing something and then no one wanting it, becoming socially dysfunctional and having a hard time relating to people because you’re so caught up in the work. It’s very much, ,I think a universal story.
CT: Do you have a very different writing process than the one depicted in the film?
DS: Absolutely. I think all writers have their own writing processes that are very specific to them as far as when they write and when they actually get their pages done.
CT: Salinger was so reclusive—was there enough documented material to draw on?
DS: Yeah, the majority of the film is before he goes to Cornish, New Hampshire. So it’s actually quite well documented, the events of the film. It starts when he’s 19/20-years-old in Columbia Writing School. So there are multiple accounts of this that have been written. Even though the film is very much based upon Ken Slawenski’s biography, it’s sourced from many different accounts.
CT: As an actor yourself, did you find that your cast had different preferences for how they wanted to be directed?
DS: I think every actor has his own preferences to how they want to be directed. I try to direct actors with a light touch. I don’t want to micromanage them. I don’t want to get in their heads. I want them to feel free and loose. Slight adjustments here and there, but it’s not about me. It’s about them.
CT: As a producer on Empire, do you already have plans for the fourth season now that Fox picked it up again?
DS: You know, vague areas, but we’re still finishing season three.
CT: What can we look forward to this season?
DS: Well, I can’t give too much away and half of the season has already aired. So we’re in part two of season three which will start airing in March.
CT: Your last season finale was a mystery death. Do you have to top that with this season finale?
DS: No comment. I hate spoilers. It’s so much work coming up with the story. I’m not day to day on it anymore the way I was on the first two seasons. Ilene Chaiken and the writing staff and Sanaa Hamri do so much amazing work. Who am I to just give it away?