Philippe Falardeau My Salinger Year

Sigourney Weaver in My Salinger Year

Philippe Falardeau on depicting the aura of a lit legend in My Salinger Year

The Quebec director stumbled upon the story in a Montreal bookstore.

My Salinger Year, directed by Quebec filmmaker Philippe Falardeau, is the story of Joanna Rakoff (Margaret Qualley), an aspiring writer and poet living and studying in Berkeley who decides to move to the big city to chase her literary dreams. In doing so she also leaves behind a boyfriend (Hamza Haq) that she never really breaks up with in a rather heavy example of pre-internet ghosting.

In New York, she meets Don (Douglas Booth), a pontificating would-be writer in his own right, and gets a job at a prestigious literary agency run by Margaret (Sigourney Weaver), a strict and old-fashioned industry lifer who runs the agency with an iron fist and an arcane set of rules. As the lowest rung on the ladder, Joanna is tasked with managing fan mail — most importantly, oodles of fan mail addressed to the agency’s most famous and most reclusive client: JD Salinger. Forbidden by Margaret to give any of the letters the time of day, Joanna nevertheless takes it upon herself to answer some of them.

My Salinger Year Philippe Falardeau
Margaret Qualley in My Salinger Year

My Salinger Year is based on a book by the real Joanna Rakoff, who did indeed work at a literary agency in the mid-’90s that handled Salinger’s business.

“I came across the book entirely by coincidence, in a bookstore,” explains director Philippe Falardeau. “I was going to see a film downtown and I had arrived early, so I went to a bookstore. I was in a period of my life where unconsciously I was looking for material for a film, but for the first time, I was drawn to a female perspective. I had bought three books: a book about the war photographer Lee Miller, a book about Cleopatra — I don’t think I’ll ever make that movie — and this one. The title and the summary on the jacket were intriguing to me because I knew it would be about that time in our lives, in our early 20s, where we’re not too sure where we’re going and there’s an anxiety about all of it that we look back on when we’re older with a much more positive outlook. After I read the book, it confirmed what I had hoped to find. I was charmed by it and made my producers read it, and then we got the go-ahead from the author.”

The famously reclusive author (who is heard and glimpsed in the movie, but isn’t really in the movie so to speak) and his estate aren’t generally too chuffed about letting people adapt, depict or even mention his work in other works. This didn’t prove to be too much of a stumbling block when it came to adapting My Salinger Year. 

“I wanted to be able to film the real book jackets,” says Falardeau. “I wanted the first cover of The Catcher in the Rye with the carousel on it and that required their approval. We had to talk to his son, and he wanted no part of it. He knew about Joanna Rakoff’s book, though I don’t think he had read it, but he was against the very principle of it. That was coherent, I think, with his father’s philosophy. We decided in the end that, because our character was reading the book but we were using none of the content, we could call it an “incidental capture’ and go ahead with it. The same thing happened with his photo, that we see throughout the film — we paid rights to the photographer, but we didn’t ask for the approval of his family, because we knew they’d just say no.”

As My Salinger Year is set in 1995, it is officially considered (to our great dismay) a period piece. Montreal stands in for New York throughout most of the film, with a few scenes shot in New York. I asked Falardeau if he faced any particular challenges in shooting a period piece that seems, relatively speaking, in the recent past. 

“Any period film is difficult, period, especially in the city,” Falardeau explains. “Whether it be the lampposts, the cars, obviously… that’s the type of difficulty we can handle, depending on resources, because it’s our job to do that. I wanted to be able to do it without just shooting everything in very tight close-ups of faces. I hate that! There are lots of American films that film in Montreal for New York, and when you see the film, they haven’t really tried very hard. We worked very hard to find locations that we could film as much of as possible. I needed a few shots in New York, and I went down there and did them.

“That wasn’t the hardest part, as far as I’m concerned,” he continues. “For me, the hardest part was our memory of the ’90s. I thought that 23 to 25 years ago is long enough ago to be considered a period piece, but not long enough ago to be part of our emotional memory in the same way that the ’60s, ’70 and now ’80s are. It’s still stuck in-between. Things are just less spectacular. I made a ’70s movie — Chuck, which was set in 1970s New York — and everything about it was more spectacular. The clothes, the style, the colour of the cars… everything is so much more spectacular because it sends the viewer back to something they either never lived through because they’re too young or it sets off nostalgia. I think the ’90s are almost there, but not quite. The other thing is that the ’90s are getting more and more popular as a setting for films, and the price for songs from the ’90s in the last two or three years have shot way up. If I had made the film four years ago, I could’ve bought the songs I wanted for $700, but now they’re all 25-grand. I couldn’t get all the music I wanted. That was the really hard part.”

This article was originally published in the Oct. 2020 issue of Cult MTL, which can be read in the Magazine section. My Salinger Year by Philippe Falardeau is in Montreal theatres now. Watch the trailer here:

My Salinger Year, directed by Philippe Falardeau

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