It’s been a wild decade for Danny Strong. Once known primarily as a character actor on television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls, he burst onto the screenwriting scene with 2008’s award-winning HBO film Recount, then garnered acclaim for 2012’s Game Change and 2013’s The Butler, co-wrote the final two Hunger Games movies, and made a strong impression on network TV by co-creating Empire for Fox. Now, he’s expanding his career yet again by directing his own screenplay for Rebel In the Rye, a biopic about J.D. Salinger, in which Nicholas Hoult plays the famously private author during his formative years as a writer and combatant in World War II. We caught up with Strong to talk about misconceptions about Salinger, his frustration with Empire’s critics, and the possibility of him writing a movie about Donald Trump.
There’s a scene in the movie where Salinger’s mentor, the Kevin Spacey character, straight up asks J.D. why he feels he has to write. I want to direct that question to you.
Well, when I started writing, it was very therapeutic for me, because it took my mind off my auditions and gave my creative energy an outlet away from acting. I think I was 30, and I was having a little bit of a 30-year-old nervous breakdown. I was an actor going from show to show, and unemployed most of the time, but lucky enough to have a few jobs here and there, and I remember thinking, What do you want? I woke up in the middle of the night and literally asked myself, What do you want? And the first thing that popped in my head was, I want to affect the national debate. [Laughs.] Which was the most random thing to pop into one’s head when one is guest-starring on TV shows. Recount came not too long after that, and it was a big national discussion. Long answer, but I really like, in my writing, when I get to have my say about something.
Do you still feel like you want to affect the national debate? Can we expect a Trump movie from you at some point?
I’d like to. I mean, for me, the Salinger movie is a discussion that I think is worth having: the recovery of the veteran, and what the veteran can achieve, and the care of the veteran. Because here was a veteran that was ignored, as they all were, because no one even knew what they were suffering from. That was definitely a driving point. As far as a Trump movie goes, yeah, I’m certainly interested in doing it. I don’t know what it is. We’re so in the middle of everything right now and it’s quite a bit of chaos, so it’s hard to see a quote-unquote “story” right now, but that doesn’t mean I won’t see one at a later date.
What do you think the biggest misunderstanding about Salinger is?
That he was a recluse. He wasn’t a recluse. He was a part of the community up in Cornish, New Hampshire. He’d come back to New York City from time to time and meet friends for lunch. He’d go on vacations. I mean, he certainly was isolated and wanted to be in a quiet environment, which is consistent with other veterans. I really think his wartime experience and his PTSD is what led him to the country, and what led him to basically being extremely content writing for himself for 40 to 50 years. That’s my own personal opinion.
One of the differences between the writing environment today and the one Salinger came up in is that writers have to fight tooth and nail for people’s attention in our insane media environment. As a TV writer, what have you learned about how to grab and keep people’s attention over a sustained period of time?
I think it’s almost impossible. I just think it’s impossible. You’ve got so much content, and a TV show that’s able to maintain viewership at a high-pitch level after season one is a real accomplishment. You look at Game of Thrones, how people just love it so much, season after season. What an unbelievable accomplishment that is. And going into season two of Billions, the show seemed to gain even more energy. It’s just so difficult. I think when you press to go like, I’ve got to razzle-dazzle the audience so they won’t go away to the new Netflix show or something like that, then I think it kind of backfires too. My hat’s off to people that are pulling it off season after season. I still think Empire is a terrific show, and we’re certainly not the hot-button new kid in town like we were in season one, but I think we’ve maintained a really nice quality and consistency. But we’re not going to be able to recapture the electricity that we came out of the gate with for the first season. I just don’t see it happening.
So the trick is to just keep going? Salinger-esque perseverance?
Yeah, I think so. I think it’s to keep going and not press too hard. I think that we mostly do that on Empire. To me, the few episodes I don’t like are when we’re pressing, when we’re trying to recapture the electricity of season one, because it was electric because it was so new, not because we were … Actually, we were doing pretty crazy stuff. But it’s just really difficult. It’s a really difficult job. People are so fucking nasty about it. They’re so catty, and snarky, and condescending, and it’s just … All of us on the other side are just working so hard to create really strong content. It’s like everyone acts like it’s the easiest thing in the world, and are like, “Why are you screwing it up?” It’s so funny to me.
When you say “people,” do you mean critics, or just people on social media?
All of the above. I mean critics and people on social media. The snark is so intense! Like what we’re doing is just baking a cake and we’re just baking it wrong that day. It’s really, really challenging.
How many seasons do you see Empire going?
I hope many. That would be terrific. I’ve been really impressed, because I was heavily involved in the first two seasons, and took a back seat in season three. I was really impressed with, for the most part, how Ilene Chaiken and the writing staff and the actors were all able to just keep the story moving in a way where it was still fundamentally the show that we all had worked on those first two seasons. And I’ve seen episodes in season four and they’re continuing that. It’s such a difficult show to execute because it’s not a procedural. It’s not a case of the week. Every episode has its own sort of dynamic engine to it, and it’s very, very challenging to write and pull that show off week after week.
When were you first exposed to Salinger, and what did you think of his writing?
I was first exposed to him when so many people are: freshman year of high school, when you have to read The Catcher in the Rye. I read it and was very taken by it the way many a 14-year-old is in the United States. It just seemed to really speak to me. I really identified with its alienated character, and it was the first time I’d ever seen emotions, feelings, thoughts that I felt expressed in literature in that way.
When did you start to learn more about Salinger’s life?
I knew very little about his life until I read the biography on him [J.D. Salinger: A Life by Kenneth Slawenski] about five years ago. That was part of what drew me to this story, was that he was such an American enigma. When I was growing up, everyone was just fascinated with, “Where’s J.D. Salinger? What happened to J.D. Salinger? Why did J.D. Salinger stop writing?” It was a real American mystery, and there was no internet to just go get some fast answers.
When you read that biography, what struck you about his life? What made you think, “Oh, I want to tell this story?”
Well, there were a few things. First off, it was knowing that he was this ambitious, struggling young writer in New York City desperately trying to publish and become successful. It reminded me of, not only myself, but so many of my friends that are writers. So to know that J.D. Salinger, the famous recluse who didn’t want to publish, was a young, hustling writer was fascinating to me. Then, when I read that he was a veteran in World War II and that he was writing The Catcher in the Rye while he was overseas in Europe, and stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day with six chapters of it in his bag — I just thought the story went from personal and interesting to truly profound. And the tale of how The Catcher in the Rye was written by a veteran that had just experienced the horrors of war, and would go on to create something so impactful and beautiful for decades to come seemed to me like, really, a story that deserved to be told.
I’m sure you could have written it and gotten someone else to direct it. Why did you want to do it all yourself?
Well, when I immediately thought, This is a movie, my next thought was, And I should direct it. I think because it was a story about a writer, and I’m a writer, and I’d been looking for something to direct, and it felt to me like this was the perfect first film for me to do: something that was so personal and something I knew so intimately.
What was that directorial learning process like? What were the biggest challenges to directing a film?
Well, I just had half as much time as I thought I would every day. It took twice as long to light than it did lighting on Empire, and my crew was going fast. They were really hustling. So I just had to learn to be incredibly economical with my shots and my coverage, and to really get what I needed. I only had 26 days to shoot the movie, which was so challenging, and was very much being thrown into the deep end of the pool.
Did you have any qualms about telling the story of this person who wanted to remain somewhat out of the public eye? Was that something that you had to think over?
No, because there was already a documentary about him. The cat was already out of the bag. There’s been multiple books on him. But I also felt that it would have been not a very nice thing to do while he was alive, because it would have been so the opposite of what he wanted, and it probably would have been very emotionally painful for him. But now that he’s no longer with us, he’s a major historical figure, he deserves to be explored, and I think his story is really inspiring and can really inspire people. It already has. I mean, I’ve already been getting feedback from veterans that have seen the movie that are so taken by knowing that Salinger went through what they’re going through, and yet was able to write this masterpiece, and they continue writing.
Have you had any interaction with the Salinger estate?
I had some off-the-record conversations with them.
Okay, fair enough. How did you get a genuine Salinger out of Nicholas Hoult, given that there isn’t much in the way of footage or memoir from Salinger? How do you impersonate someone about whom so little is known?
I think we just tried to really play the emotional reality of what he was going through, scene by scene, so I could dive into it as fully as possible. There were certainly clues to the character as far as him being thrown out of schools, and there’s very much an autobiographical element to The Catcher in the Rye, which he admitted himself in an interview, so there’s certainly clues there. And I was able to read a ton of his letters; that was really helpful.
What do you remember about working with Sarah Paulson for the movie?
Sarah’s the best. Both Kevin and Sarah, I had worked with before on Recount and Game Change. Sarah’s just the absolute coolest. She’s really funny. She does impressions on set. So does Kevin, actually. It’s very interesting how they both love doing impressions.
Who were the impressions of? Were they of you?
[Laughs.] No, nobody did me. I don’t even know how you would. Kevin does Jack Lemmon and Johnny Carson a lot. Those are kind of the two standards. Sarah does this hilarious Holly Hunter. It’s so funny, and so random, because she’s doing Holly Hunter. That would come out from time to time.
What’s it like working with the composer, Bear McCreary? He’s so talented.
He hadn’t done a ton of movies. He’s huge in television and really wanted this job and was really aggressive about it, and kept sending me these demos. And, lo and behold, the demos worked better in the cut than anything else I was trying. So I just thought, I need to hire this Bear guy. His stuff is just really great for the film. And when I started to go through his TV work, it was so the polar opposite of the demos he sent me. That’s when I started to get really impressed with this guy, when you see that kind of versatility. So I hired him and I think we had a really terrific collaborative experience. We were in it together, and he just writes beautiful music. He’s just a very talented guy, and he’s so open to notes, and changes.
Who else do you want to do a biopic of?
I think I’m going to skip the biopic genre for a little while.
Why? Just because you had your fill?
Yeah, I think I’m good for now. It’s very difficult to do and it’s a little thankless, and it’s artistically so challenging to pull off. When I was in post-production, I just thought, This is so hard. The nuances are so hard, and people come to it so loaded with pre-expectations about people, and I don’t think I’ll be doing it anytime soon.
Now that you’ve entered the club of people who are smart and have directed one movie, you’re eligible to be one of those directors who gets immediately called up to the big leagues. If someone asked you to direct a superhero movie, would you do it?
No? Simple as that?
Yeah, I’m not into them, so I wouldn’t do a very good job. I just wouldn’t be good at it. I’m not a fan of the genre. I think Wonder Woman is one of the only ones I’ve really liked. And I dug Iron Man 2. [Laughs.] It’s very specific, the ones I’ve actually enjoyed. I’m just not into it. It’s not my jam.
Is there a franchise of some other kind that you would jump into? Are you a Star Wars fan? Would you take Episode IX?
No. And no one’s asking. I wouldn’t be good at doing Star Wars, either, although I loved the J.J. Abrams movie. That was thrilling for me. I mean, it brought out my inner 6-year-old, watching that movie. I’m not big into fantasy/sci-fi. It’s not my jam. I do so many true stories, and it’s because that’s what I love, as an audience member. I love documentaries, I read mostly nonfiction. Nonfiction movies are the ones that, when I see a trailer for them, I’m most excited to see. So anything that’s sort of in the fantasy world, I’m just not going to be very good at. Part of me jumping onboard on the Hunger Games franchise was, it’s grounded in a reality. It’s an alternate future, but it feels very real, what they’re doing, and there’s a very strong political metaphor at the core of it, so that felt right for me to work on. But I can’t … Nothing’s coming to mind. I’d like to do a detective story. But is there a big franchise like that? Do they even make those movies?
You could direct a season of True Detective.
That’s cool. I’m good.
Okay. We’ll stick with the Salinger until then.
Yeah, why not? I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.
You’re doing great.
But I’m so burnt out from making this movie that I kind of just want to nap.
This interview has been edited and condensed.