A self-described “actor’s director,” James Steven Sadwith has been writing, directing, and producing television movies, miniseries, and dramas for nearly three decades—and is perhaps best known for his work on the lives of Frank Sinatra and Elvis. But for Coming through the Rye, his first feature film for the big screen, Sadwith comes closer to home, chronicling in fictional form the journey he himself embarked upon as a youth. It’s 1969, and Jamie Schwartz, played by Alex Wolff, is miserable in boarding school. He writes a play based on J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and dreams of starring as Holden. But first he has to get Salinger’s approval—no small feat given the author’s notorious status as an obstinate recluse. Salinger is played by a surly Chris Cooper and along his Northeastern road trip Jamie partners up DeeDee, another Catcher acolyte, played by the freckly Stefania LaVie Owen.
Coming through the Rye was a long time coming, and speaks as much for the enduring appeal of Salinger as much as anything. The film is playing in select theaters across the country this month.
The Rumpus: Since the author’s death in 2010, a lot of Salinger-related books and films have surfaced—Joanna Rakoff’s 2014 My Salinger Year comes to mind. Why do you think Salinger interest has resurged in the last six years?
James Steven Sadwith: It’s interesting, isn’t it? Here’s a guy who so zealously protected his privacy, but the more he did this, the more public he became—he created this mysterious persona that ultimately made him more iconic than ever.
Maybe when he was alive, people didn’t want to come out with this stuff. He was very litigious, so that was definitely an issue. People have asked me if I strategically waited to make this film till after he died. But actually I wished I could have made the film when he was alive—maybe we would have been in a contact, maybe in the courtroom? [Laughs]
Rumpus: Across generations, young people have sojourned to Salinger. I have a good friend who set off on a road trip to find him after her mother passed away. A lot of people seem to go on these trips because of great loss in their lives. Did you see personal loss as the real emotional climax of the film? It struck me that loss is much more central to the film than actually finding Salinger.
Sadwith: Right. The character has to go through a discovery and transformation and a change—really good movies are about characters, not just events. For me it was important to find something else be transformed by something else than Salinger.
Rumpus: In one scene we learn that 300,000 troops are sent to Vietnam, and Jamie swiftly turns off the TV because the family telephone rings. It seems the intersection of the public and the private—something fairly new at the time.
Sadwith: Yes. But at the same time, I wanted to keep the Vietnam subtext subtle. Media was one way to do that. The thing that’s most difficult about writing is making stuff up. You’re writing a story and you’re wondering, “What’s one more layer that I can add in? What if this happened?”
Rumpus: When it comes to “realness” and authenticity, did you see this film as paying homage to a time in which teens weren’t pressured to cultivate a media persona?
Sadwith: That’s interesting. I wasn’t thinking about teens today or social media pressure when I wrote it. I was just going back to what happened. It was a simpler time—but then, some sort of historic insecurity always replaces another. Before Vietnam we had nuclear threats as background noise. Today we have other types of threats—the pressure of social media, as you said, new political threats, and then nuclear threats again. In any time period, there is always some background noise to make you feel at the precipice.
Rumpus: In a way The Catcher in the Rye seems to have survived—maybe even thrived—in a time when one’s presentation to the rest of the world, via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the like, might be seen as more “phony” than ever, to use Holden’s term.
Sadwith: You’re absolutely right—I hadn’t ever thought of that. Social media is totally “phony.” [Laughs] They still teach Catcher in the Rye in high schools all over the world, so maybe it will resonate with young readers in light of this. I have also talked to a lot of people who don’t relate to it now—and some people say they never liked it, that it’s whiny and cynical. And these days it’s not as groundbreaking for a novel to use that kind of language—slang and profanity, and to break the fourth wall. But that just didn’t happen in 1969. Now young people are less shocked by it.
Rumpus: Internationally, though, it is still censored in some countries.
Sadwith: Yes, and there are some libraries in this country who still won’t carry it!
Rumpus: In terms of breaking the fourth wall, the film has an intimacy about it in that Jamie directly addresses the audience in the beginning of the film. I noticed this strategy faded away in the second half of the film. What prompted this choice?
Sadwith: Well, as a disclaimer, I wrote the script before House of Cards made breaking the fourth wall so popular. Steven Spielberg and Woody Allen—and Shakespeare!—also did it of course. I chose to do it because Holden did it in the book. I wanted Jamie, this kid who’s so obsessed with Catcher in the Rye, to have that same feeling. In the book, Holden will be talking to Sally Hayes and then turn to the reader and say, “Stradlater is the biggest phony I ever met,” and turn back to describe the scene again. I thought, “I want Jamie to do that.”
Breaking the fourth wall was also a way of conveying his loneliness. He has no one to talk to at school. He’s alone. But on the road, later in the film once he’s met DeeDee, does he really need to talk to the audience? Am I really going to have him comment to the audience when he’s trying to have sex with her, or speak to Salinger? Or don’t we already see his motives?
In the beginning, it was a great conceit, but we didn’t need it later. In House of Cards, Kevin Spacey doesn’t break the fourth wall in every episode, and not in every scene. Some reviews have knocked me for not being consistent with it, and some have said “Thank God it’s not for the whole time.” [Laughs]
Rumpus: During the road trip, he starts to become a different character.
Sadwith: Exactly. He gets out of his own head—he grows. That was why it was difficult to figure out whether to continue the direct address to the audience. At school, when there’s no one to talk to, he can talk to us. He’s in his own mind. On the road, he’s not.
Originally, we were going to break the fourth wall at the end of the film, when he’s leaving the Volkswagon. He was going to say something right to the audience, like, “I feel okay with not being Holden, because who gets to meet someone like Salinger? Or someone like DeeDee?” But the actors said we really don’t need this scene. So we cut it. They were right.
Rumpus: A lot of Salinger fans—myself included—remember exactly where they were when they found out he died. Where were you and how did you feel, especially given your firsthand experience?
Sadwith: That’s interesting. Well, ironically, I lived for twenty years in Los Angeles, writing and directing TV shows, movies, and miniseries. Then in 1988, I moved to Vermont—I missed the East Coast and never loved LA. I was taking my daughter to hockey practice over the river in New Hampshire when it struck me that I was living thirty minutes from Salinger. Why that never hit me when I moved to Vermont I don’t know.
When he died in 2010, I was in my house in Vermont just thirty minutes away. I knew he was in the hospital, and I had a friend who was a nurse who took care of him.
When he died, I felt sad that we never got to reconnect—not that we really ever had a chance to. I used to write him when anything great had happened to me. I sent that tape-recorded account of my Salinger journey to all the colleges I applied to, because I didn’t want to write an essay. And it worked!
It helped me get into Harvard, and I wrote and thanked Salinger for that. I wrote and thanked him when I made my first TV show, and when I got an Emmy. He never wrote back. But I always thought maybe we would reconnect. Of course, I never went back to his house or anything!
When he died, it was the end of that hope. I had a one-way personal relationship with him, ultimately.
Rumpus: I think a lot of people feel that way. When he died I felt like I had lost a piece of my youth. There’s something about the sheer idea of him still living alone in the woods that felt similar to my memories of being young. Untouched, almost. Uncorrupted.
Sadwith: Yeah, it was important to me that the film respect that sense of him. When I showed the film at the White River Indie Festival—White River is the town just across the river from where Salinger lived—during the Q&A, a number of people raised their hands and said, “I knew J.D. Salinger” or even, “I knew his widow. And we were coming here to hate on this movie and thought you had exploited him. But you got it right.”
Salinger’s widow actually attended the screening in Woodstock, New York. I had to wonder, if I had done the movie ten years earlier, when he was still alive, maybe he would have attended. Maybe he would have liked it. Who knows?
Photograph of James Steven Sadwith © Wendy Carlson/The Hotchkiss School.