Danny Strong first read “Catcher in the Rye” when he was a student at Mira Costa High School. As with countless teens since J.D. Salinger's novel debuted in 1951, its main character, the cynical and rebellious Holden Caulfield, “spoke” to him.
But it wasn't until he read Kenneth Slawenski's biography of the famously reclusive author that he knew he wanted to write a screenplay based on the author's life and the writing of the iconic novel. “The Rebel in the Rye” hits theaters in limited release in Los Angeles Friday, Sept. 8.
“Salinger had written the book after he had experienced horrors of World War II,” Strong said. “I thought that was fascinating and profound … it seemed to me that wow, that's a really interesting story that needs to be told.”
Strong, a Manhattan Beach native who was inducted into Mira Costa's Distinguished Alumni Hall of Fame, first had success in Hollywood as an actor in such shows as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” He's gone on to a thriving screenwriting career with films such as HBO's “Recount” and the Emmy-winning “Game Change,” as well as the feature films “The Butler” and the two-part “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.” Strong is also the co-creator and a screenwriter for FOX's “Empire.”
Strong used “Empire” to break-in as a director. He took 24 days to shoot three episodes of “Empire,” while “Rebel in the Rye” was shot in 26 days. He called shooting a film much more challenging, but he was grateful for the experience on “Empire.”
“I don't think I would have been able to pull it off … you're in charge of everything, hiring all the department heads, you're setting the looks for everything,” Strong said.
The biggest challenge he had was finding the right Salinger. He cast Nicholas Hoult (“X-Men” films, “Mad Max: Fury Road) because of the talent and versatility in his previous work.
“When he auditioned, I just thought he exuded the intelligence and sort of the intensity of the character,” Strong said. “He's just a terrific multi-dimensional actor.”
“Rebel in the Rye” follows Salinger's life from rebellious student who discovers he wants to write, through the horrors of World War II, and the aftermath of the culture-changing success of “Catcher in the Rye.”
In addition to the biography of Salinger, Strong said much research was needed to write the screenplay, which is based on true events.
“I don't know what people said to each other,” Strong said. “I don't have an account of the dialogue exchanges and some scenes didn't take place as is, but nonetheless, there is still a truth in the scene. It's certainly a film, it's not a documentary … but I think it captures the essential truths of what happened.”
Strong said the Mira Costa Drama Department, with the help of drama director Carol Mathews, helped develop his love of the arts and theater, which continued at USC. He landed some small roles in TV and film before being cast as the geeky Jonathan Levinson on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which he worked on from 1997 to 2003.
A friend and fellow actor, Michael Bacall, had success screenwriting while Strong continued to battle through audition after audition. Inspired by Bacall, Strong wrote a screenplay for himself to star in. Encouraged by the positive response of his writing, he spent six years pen to paper, but making no money. Eventually he pitched the idea of “Recount,” which detailed the recounts in Florida following the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, to HBO. Strong was nominated for an Emmy for “Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or a Dramatic Special.”
“Recount” was followed by HBO”s “Game Change,” which chronicled John McCain's selection of Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running-mate and McCain's loss to Barack Obama in the 2008 election. “Game Change” brought Strong two Emmy wins, “Outstanding Miniseries or Movie” and “Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries, Movie or Dramatic Special.”
That success was followed by his first feature films, “Lee Daniels' The Butler” and the last two “The Hunger Games” films, which made more than $1.4 billion in world-wide box office.
Strong, who continues to act and appears in Showtime's “Billions,” said he never has had a master plan when it comes to his career.
“I'm not interesting in displaying variety or versatility. I just get interested in different things and that's what I want to work on. It's really project by project basis.”
“Rebel in the Rye” also stars Zoey Deutch, Kevin Spacey, Sarah Paulson, Victor Garber and Hope Davis. The film opens at the Landmark Theatre, located at 10850 W. Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles, on Friday, Sept. 8.