'Salinger': Shane Salerno says documentary answers 'big questions'

Screenwriter Shane Salerno ("Savages," "Shaft") has spent close to a decade on a singular obsession: the reclusive late author J.D. Salinger. Now his work is finally coming to fruition. Via a flurry of deals the filmmaker struck in March with the Weinstein Co., PBS' "American Masters" and Simon & Schuster, his exhaustive work on the "Catcher in the Rye" author will debut in September.

The Weinstein Co. on Thursday debuted the first trailer from "Salinger," the documentary about the mysterious writer, ahead of its Sept. 6 release date. And the project is indeed being framed like a mystery, with the main question centering on why Salinger suddenly stopped publishing in 1965,  at the height of his fame. As the voiceover says, "He became a modern-day Howard Hughes."  According to the trailer, which features interviews with Ed Norton, John Cusack and author Tom Wolfe, among others, the film will tackle Salinger's intense combat experiences in World War II, his personal demons and the fallout from his groundbreaking novel "The Catcher In the Rye."

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Whether or not the filmmaker was able to actually speak to Salinger before his death in 2010, or if he has new information about what Salinger continued writing for the next 40 years, remains unclear. 

To coincide with the theatrical release, Simon & Schuster will release a book -- "The Private War of J. D. Salinger," which Salerno co-wrote with David Shields -- on Sept. 3.

We caught up with Salerno on Thursday to discuss the details of his long-gestating documentary.

Question: What propelled you to spend $2 million of your own money and nine years of your life to make this film?

Salerno: Salinger is a massive figure in our culture and yet remains an extraordinary enigma.  The critical and popular game over the last half-century has been to read the man through his work because the man would not speak, but the untold story of his life is more dramatic than anything he ever wrote. And that's the story I wanted to tell: his life. Not the myth that has burned so brightly for nearly 50 years. I had three questions when I began this project nine years ago: 1. Why did J.D. Salinger stop publishing?  2. Why did he disappear? 3. And what has he been writing for 45 years?

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Can you give us some details on how you made your deals with the Weinstein Co., Simon & Schuster, and "American Masters"/PBS? Our understanding is that these are the only three parties you showed the film to.

That's true.  I showed the film to only these three companies because they were my ideal homes for the movie and book. The negotiations were highly unusual and required a number of people to keep every aspect secret.

Why did these distributors clamor to get the rights? Are there any details of the documentary you can share with us?

When I was kid, there was a lot more mystery when you went to the movies. We have lost a lot of that mystery: moviegoers today know almost everything about a film before they go sit in a dark theater.  "Salinger" is a totally immersive experience and we have worked very hard to preserve the mystery of the film and the book until they are released in September. 

As a result, you're not going to see the best parts of the film in the trailer, you're not going to know months ahead of the release the names of Salinger's friends who speak for the first time, and we're not going to release galleys of the book.  A lot of the media around the film naturally is focused on "The Catcher in the Rye," which has sold more than 65 million copies, but Salinger had a fascinating life before "Catcher" was published and an even more fascinating life after.  The moments that truly defined Salinger -- from the beaches of Normandy, where he landed on D-Day, to a bunker in New Hampshire, where he lived with the Glass family -- are covered in unprecedented fashion. 

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Were you surprised by what you uncovered in research? Is Salinger the same man you thought he was when you started your project?

At this point I would say that making the film and co-writing the book with David Shields strengthened many beliefs I had about Salinger and changed many others.  He is an infinitely richer, more complex, more contradictory, and more fascinating human being than I could ever have imagined when I began this project. It's the complexity that stays with me: Salinger produced exquisite works of fiction while in perpetual freefall. I'm struck by the myriad connections between Salinger's personal life and his strikingly autobiographical art.  I'm thrilled that people are so excited about the trailer, but the trailer is only a small glimpse of the film.  

Give us one reason why non-Salinger fans would want to see your movie.

This is not a literary biography designed to play only to die-hard Salinger fans.  This is a mystery thriller.  For two hours in the film and 750 pages in the book, you are on an investigative journey, putting the pieces of the puzzle together one by one.   This is history through a contemporary lens.  The big questions are what happened to J.D. Salinger and why, and the film and book answer those questions and many others. 

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Shane Salerno's J.D. Salinger documentary to hit theaters Sept. 6