The world is filled with inspiring stories that are yet to reach us. We do need something positive to hear that could uplift our spirits, have our wings grow to finally do something about our deepest desires. There is always a dream we want to come true but we often don’t meet the right person who could push us forward.
The story told in “My Salinger Year” is as true as it could get. It has intelligence, the right amount of humor and wisdom for us to learn. It’s the story of Joanna Rakoff, whose life changed after receiving personal advice from author J.D. Salinger. The story adapted onto the silver screen carries the same depth we need to be inspired by.
Apart from the stellar cast led by Margaret Qualley, Sigourney Weaver and Douglas Booth, the vision of the writer and director, Phillippe Falardeau, is what determines the course of the film that will, rest assured, leave you completely satisfied.
That is why I am proud to present an insightful interview with writer/director Phillippe Falardeau, who dived deep into the concept of the film and fished out the most interesting part you will be amazed reading below.
MOVIEMOVESME: How did you learn about this incredible story?
Philippe Falardeau: I didn’t have an original screenplay in my head yet, and I was looking for something about a woman or written by a woman and I remember that day I bought three books. I bought a book about war photographer Lee Miller, a book about Cleopatra and a Joanna Rakoff book on a hunch and because the synopsis on the book appealed to me. I read it and was moved by this recollection of the moments in our life where we’re young, we’re in our 20s and we are overwhelmed by all the possibilities in life and afraid to make the wrong move, the wrong decision. But in hindsight, it’s probably also one of the best time in our life. So I was moved by that, I could connect with that and it was interesting to me because it was from the point of view of a woman. So I reached out to the author, Joanna Rakoff and explored with her the possibility of adapting her book and pitched her my ideas and she said yes.
MOVIEMOVESME: While writing the screenplay, did you have to necessarily consult the author herself or were you given the full freedom to write?
Philippe Falardeau: Well, both. She understood the fact that when you’re adapting a book, you need to some times restructure, take some stuff out, invent new things that are not necessarily in the book to construct the narrative, but at the same time, it was real-life we were talking about and this is a real person. So it was important for me that she became my first reader from one version to the other, and she did. And she was helpful in steering me sometimes with ideas of like comments, about what it was to be a young woman in New York in the ’90s. She also encouraged me to write more fiction in the film, because I had a few scenes that were not taken from the book that I had written and she enjoyed and then she encouraged me to still invent some more stuff, but it was coherent and in line with what she went through and lived in during those times.
MOVIEMOVESME: Without giving much away to people who haven’t read the book or seen the film, can you tell us more about the fan mails? And the boy from the concert who plays a significant role in helping Joanne develop her character, her story. How did that structure come to your mind?
Philippe Falardeau: Well, it’s fun to learn about the fans… We have excerpts of real fan mail actually, but making the film I was very concerned about how I was going to translate that into the movie because I could have like, maybe Joanna reading a letter out loud, which we have when she’s with her boyfriend, but that would get tiresome. And so I used fans to get inside Joanna’s head because when you’re seeing the fans, what you’re seeing is a representation of what Joanna imagined. Just like when you’re reading a book, you are creating the outline of the characters in your mind. It’s not the author’s character, really it’s a combination of the author’s story and your imagination. So in the film, I did the same. So when you see these fans, they kind of become her ghost and I wanted them to appear at key moments in her professional and sentimental life. But they’re really a product of her imagination based on what’s on real fan letters.
MOVIEMOVESME: I thought that the character of Margaret, played by Sigourney Weaver, is going to be another Meryl Streep type of character from The Devil Wears Prada but she turns into a sweet and genuine woman who is caring too. How did you develop that character to align with Joanne’s, and help her find her voice?
Philippe Falardeau: Well, I think you put your finger on something very true. I never saw The Devil Wears Prada but Sigourney knew about the film and both of us didn’t want to repeat that same character and we certainly wanted a hard-nosed boss but didn’t want her to be caricatured in any way. And so we developed this idea that these two women would get intimate at some point without being sentimental, that even though the boss was not necessarily intending on mentoring Joanna, that Joanna’s behavior and potential kind of brought Margaret to want to mentor her. And by doing so getting two characters a little closer, so I think Sigourney did a wonderful job nuancing this character which I love from the book, but it’s more one dimensional in the book. It’s very funny. She’s very funny, Margaret in the book, she’s called the boss. I gave her a name but Sigourney certainly humanized her in a very, very subtle way.
MOVIEMOVESME: What was it about JD Salinger? Obviously he did not want to reply back to fans because he’s busy but do you feel it’s disappointing when, in the end, you get a reply from someone not even related to the writer or director?
Philippe Falardeau: Yeah, well, that was important for me. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to make this film. Of course, I’m pretty sure that Brad Pitt gets a lot of letters and he can’t answer them. When you’re a star like that it doesn’t become possible to read it all and to answer it all. But I did write to authors and filmmakers when I was younger and some of them answered me back and made a difference in my life. And we don’t have to always write to big stars. I mean, Salinger was a particular case because he became a huge star, but he was a recluse at the same time, which kind of fueled his stardom in an ironic way. And I understand why it would be this general, generic kind of form response. But at the same time, understand why Joanna doesn’t want to send those response, that because she understands intimately what the readers are going through and that they’re trying to connect with an artist and this is important.
And we make art. We write books, we make films, we write music to connect with people. So it’s understandable that some people want to connect back with us, but it’s for some, I mean, some level of stardom it just becomes so overwhelming and impossible to answer back. So I could relate to what Joanna was doing. I do it in my own life. I do get some fan mail and I try to answer back as best as I can but like I said, I’m not a star, so it’s still manageable. So what happens when it’s a bigger than life character, it becomes just impractical.
MOVIEMOVESME: Another really interesting thing about Joanne is that she doesn’t just take time to eventually get what she wants, her biggest desire is to write. So, how did you envision her while writing the screenplay because you could have helped find her voice earlier or later? When do you know is the right time to let the character reach their goal?
Philippe Falardeau: That’s a good question. Because when you read the book, it’s not so clear cut and there are many things going on in her life, not just the professional life, it’s her sentimental life also. And you go through a sort of identity crisis when we’re talking about coming of age. And I tried to synchronize all that. I mean, what was happening at the workplace, what was happening in her personal life with her boyfriend and her ex-boyfriend and then her intention to write.
Taking the perspective of a young woman in the ’90s was interesting that she wants to write. And what does she do? She gets hired as an assistant, as a secretary. What does her boyfriend do? He stays home or he goes in a cafe all day and he writes, he just likes it… and it seemed that it’s probably not true anymore, but it might still be true in some environments, but there was a double standard for women and boys and I wanted it to show that like there were too many male secretaries or personal assistants at that time. So this was also important to show because it is a film about emancipation.
MOVIEMOVESME: This film is truly inspiring to watch. Despite our ups and downs, we know what we want to do but we always find excuses to go on and on, not doing what we really want. As a writer and director, what will you recommend someone who is an aspiring writer and/or director but feels they don’t have the DNA to do it?
Philippe Falardeau: Wow! I mean, that’s a tough question. I mean, if I understand correctly your question is that if someone wants to do something, but still they don’t have the right DNA to do it? Well, first of all, I studied political science and international relations and to this day I still have imposter syndrome. I don’t know that filmmaking is the right thing for me and I don’t know that I’m good at it completely. I know that I can manage but I still not. I still fear someday someone in the room is going to stand up and point at me and say, “you, you’re a fraud and we all know it.” So there’s that fear in all of us that we don’t have the right DNA, but I can’t. So I think you need to move from one experience to another.
I would never discourage someone to do what they want, but I would certainly ask them to be lucid about it and try to contemplate other forms of art. If we’re talking about like film, for example, I get a lot of people who want to direct films and they might not have the right stuff, but I tell them there are so many interesting and rich professions in filmmaking, whether it’s director of photography or editor or sound or production design. And those are not subordinates of the director they’re equals. So we have to contemplate all our possibilities as well.
Working with actors, I mean, if I find that an actor doesn’t have the right stuff, I’m not going to be the one breaking his or her dream. But if the person asks me, do you think I have the right stuff? I’m going to tell them that to just to be lucid and know where their own limits are and not because there’s nothing worse than just being said no all the time. So you have to know where your limits are and have a plan B and I do have a plan B. I always said, okay, if film doesn’t work for me, I have a plan B.