At first glance, it may seem that My Salinger Year may seem like an odd choice for writer/director Philippe Falardeau to choose to adapt.
That’s certainly not to suggest that he would not have the sensitivity or skill to do so. As the director of such stunning narratives as Monsieur Lazhar and The Good Lie, Falardeau is no stranger to writing complex characters who are struggling to find their way in a new world. However, when telling the story of a young woman stepping into adulthood, an adult male such as Falardeau simply may not immediately come to mind. Even so, as he read the material, he felt that he connected with her story in ways that he did not expect.
“The question of me choosing that book is always interesting to me,” explains Falardeau. “It’s more the other way around. The book [chose] me in the sense that I [was] reading it at a particular and specific time in my life where I kind of recognized myself in Joanna. I could relate to that specific moment in life in [your] early twenties where you have ambitions, but you’re not quite sure you can achieve them, (or you’re not even sure if you are allowed to achieve them). So, I think I was at a good place to reflect back on that moment and knowing that people could also relate to that. But, specifically the book touched on something that moved me. The way she has attention to small details in a very feminine perspective and I had been looking for a female character… because all my films are from the point of view of a male character. So, all of this came together.”
Beautifully written and directed by Falardeau, My Salinger Year is the coming-of-age tale of Joanna Rakoff (Margaret Qualley), a young woman who decides to skip graduate school in order to follow her dreams of becoming a writer. In order to make ends meet, she takes a job as an assistant to Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), a prominent New York City agent who clings to the way things used to be, whether it’s typewriters or three-martini lunches. Of all her clients, her most high profile is reclusive author J.D. Salinger and Joanna is tasked with processing his continuous stream of fan mail. Working long hours and living in a sink-less apartment with her socialist boyfriend (Douglass Booth), Joanna finds herself torn between her calling as a writer and living someone else’s dream for her career.
“Honestly, I had to do what Joanna did,” continues Falardeau. “I had to, at one point, decide what I wanted to do in my life. I think we all did to a certain extent. In my case, it’s even more dramatic because I was studying international relations when I was 22 and I thought I would work in foreign affairs. At one point, I saw this short film on television and I was very moved by it. I wrote to the director, who I [didn’t] know. She’s in Japan and she writes back. I thought, ‘Wow, her film moved me and my letter moved her. There’s a connection.’ I think that was the genesis for my career as a filmmaker. So, it connected with the book because Joanna takes care of all these letters that are supposed to go to Salinger and her job is to stop the letters from going to him. She thinks, ‘You can’t do that’ and she starts answering the letters herself. So, I think I was really touched by that.”
As Salinger’s fans put their countless pleas to paper, Falardeau’s story takes place at a time when communication felt more personal. With the internet mere moments away from taking hold of the world, he latches onto the tension between the future and the past and honours the effort taken in the written word.
“I think the letter process was a more profound process when, as a fan, you took the time to sit down and write something, put it in an envelope and put a stamp on it…,” Falardeau observes. “If you got an answer, you probably got a genuine answer, unless it was a generic form response like Joanna was supposed to do. The film takes place in the 90s where everything is shifting. Internet is coming and cell phones are there, but it’s not widespread yet. You can sense that things are not going to be the same. It was true for the literary world, but it was also true for… the way people were going to see our films in the future. Art versus commerce. All of this was embedded in the film. Even though it’s about the literary world, it could be about many, many fields.”
Beginning as a memoir, My Salinger Year tells the real-life story of Joanna Rakoff as she navigated the literary scene in her early 20s. Asked whether or not it was difficult for him to adapt someone else’s experiences for the screen, Falardeau argues that it’s more challenging when the author is still living.
“It depends who wrote the memoirs and if that person is still alive,” he considers. “If it was a pure novel, you could say ‘loosely inspired by’. But it’s a memoir, so I couldn’t say that… I needed to make sure I was not stepping over the boundaries and I asked Joanna to read my various versions. She came in to help. It was important for me that she would recognize herself in the movie, even though I took some liberties. She read the script and said to me, ‘I like what you wrote that is not in the book. Can you go there more or further?’ That was very liberating but I kept asking her. For instance, the very last thing she does in the office, I asked Joanna [if it was] alright if I do that. She said, ‘Yes, because it’s something I might’ve done if the occasion occurred.’ In Berlin, after the premiere, she said to a journalist that, when [she] watched the film, sometimes it’s unclear what happened and didn’t happen because it makes sense.’ So, everything that I invented stems from very strong details in Joanna’s book.
Though he never appears onscreen, the legacy of J.D. Salinger looms largely in the film. Known best for his iconic book Catcher in the Rye, Salinger endures as a voice that challenges and connects with youth throughout the generations. For Falardeau, the primary reason that Salinger continues to resonate with audiences is the rebellious spirit embedded in his writing.
“I think [Salinger] came at the right time,” he begins. “When an author becomes so big so fast like that [with a] certain generation, I think it’s because people were longing for that kind of literature for a while, and then it happened. When you analyze Catcher in the Rye, you understand why the youth and the teenagers like it. It’s a non-conformist point of view and about someone who just doesn’t want to belong to the older, adult world. It’s someone that doesn’t want to grow up. He’s afraid of growing up. But if I had read it myself back then when I was 15, I don’t think I would’ve gotten it really. I read it after writing the first version and I tried to put myself in the same shoes as Joanna and I was amazed when I read it. First of all, I thought, ‘Wow, it is not what I thought at all.’ And then second, I thought [it was] interesting that it’s considered a teenage book because I would have been lost as a teenager reading that. I thought it was about a mental illness about depression in a time where people never talked about depression and put a word on it. So, in a sense, he was 40 years in advance. He was way ahead of his time.”
Somewhat surprisingly, one of the more interesting themes within My Salinger Year is its willingness to explore issues of mental health. Set in the mid-90s, Falardeau recognizes that this was a time where topics such as depression and anxiety were not discussed in the same manner that they are today. However, he also believes that issues such as these can also find a voice through the arts and allowed that to be expressed through his characters.
“I know that the letters are central [to the film’s conversation on mental health],” clarifies Falardeau. “Salinger certainly is not central to the movie. He is important and he’s a key. It took me a while to figure out how to stage him. It is about the literary world, but it’s not the core of the movie. It is about the coming of age but, for me, it’s about the power of the written word and the power of art. It can bring people together. Joanna understood at 22 that you cannot send back a letter to a fan saying, ‘Salinger will not read your letter.’ It is better not to receive anything. It is better not to know that he’s not going to read it. Why? Because, to these people, art is something that can heal. It can bring people together. But [it can make you] ill also.”
“This brings us to the question of mental illness. I think art has a role to play in our mental health and in opening channels to communicate. By blocking that channel, this is something that becomes very poisonous and dangerous. I think deep down inside, that’s what moved me in Joanna’s memoir and in the journey of the characters. It’s the same thing with her relationship with her boss. [Margaret] was kind of like idiosyncratic and very bossy and a bit cold, but I needed to create an arc with that character. That came with Joanna’s empathy and sensibility. So that’s why I added scenes that were not necessarily in the book where you see Joanna go visit her boss at her home when she’s grieving. For me, it’s the same quality inside Joanna that makes her do that that makes her answer the letters.”
Young and enthusiastic, Joanna has an energy about her that’s infectious. Coming of age both as a writer and as a woman, her heart yearns to be ‘extraordinary’ and leave an impact on the world around her. As Falardeau considers what that idea means to him, he recognizes that such ambitious qualities were not always admired in young women during a time of masculine dominance.
“I needed to address the question of ambition but, from the female perspective,” says Falardeau. “Ambition is something that has been considered good and strong when it’s portrayed or verbalized by a man. You see Don at the beginning, [who says] as a matter of fact, ‘I’m writing a novel.’ That sounds kind of weird to say that to a stranger, but he was writing a novel. She thinks he’s a bit cocky when he’s saying that but, at the same time, she admires that because she would never do that. I think that’s a big difference between men and women, especially at that time. Nowadays, the gap is closing, but certainly, in my generation, a guy who wants to become a writer doesn’t get a job as a secretary. Just never happens. You go in the cafe and you live poorly and you write like a Bohemian. That’s what you do. That’s the ‘man thing’ to do. But for a woman, the path was a bit different. So, I liked this idea with the characters saying, I want to be extraordinary because I wanted to address the idea of ambition in the woman’s point of view.”
“I think it’s also my own ambition. I’ve always been very ambitious and then your ambitions, they hit a wall or a ceiling and you have to accept that also. It’s funny because, doing My Salinger Year, I think I hit that wall in many ways. It’s very difficult to do a film that is not story driven. There are no big plot points. There is no big tension. There’s no big drama. There’s no big mystery. It’s just you following a character. It’s very difficult to do and I had big ambitions for the movie. It’s always like that. When you finish your film, as a film director, you measure the gap between your ambitions and your actual talent.“
My Salinger Year is available in select theatres and on VOD now.
To hear our conversation with Philippe Falardeau, click here.