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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter

My Salinger Year

by writer/director Philippe Falardeau

I recently watched a remarkable documentary called The Painter and the Thief. At the end of the film, I sat idle for many long minutes in my living room, entranced by what I had seen. I felt the urge to communicate my appreciation and gratitude to the director. I was able to locate him on social media and I sent him a short word highlighting what had touched me. The director wrote me back, thanking me and sending news about his beautiful characters. He sounded sincere and the fact that he responded moved me, perhaps because it acknowledged the connection that art creates between people.

Now, you are asking yourself: what does this have to do with My Salinger Year? Nothing really, but perhaps everything in essence. In her lovely memoirs, Joanna Rakoff recounts her first job as the assistant to J.D. Salinger’s literary agent in New York. The year was 1996, and the agency was this old institution stuck in time, having once represented writers such as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie. One of Joanna’s tasks was to read Salinger’s voluminous fan mail. She had to send back a generic response that basically said that Mr. Salinger didn’t wish to receive his mail. Joanna grew uncomfortable with this part of her job. She understood the connection intuitively that art creates between people, and she couldn’t bear the idea of telling readers that Salinger didn’t care.

As filmmakers, the most common question we are asked is: where did you get the idea for your film or, in this case, why did I want to adapt Joanna’s memoirs? Very often, it’s the idea that finds me. When I read Joanna’s memoirs, I was not consciously looking for my next film. But having made films that dealt with mostly masculine characters, I had been looking for a story from a woman’s perspective. I found Joanna’s writing both moving and funny in the smallest of details. I could relate to that uncertain time as a young adult when we have to decide what we want to do with our professional life (and our love life), not completely aware of the range of possibilities.

At first, I centered the adaptation around the coming of age story. Salinger’s fan mail was just one element gravitating around the main narrative line. It took me a long time (and too many drafts) to realize that the fan mail touched on something personal in my own life, and offered me a way to playfully tie the film together. For Joanna, these letters could prove to be overwhelming at times, but they also forced her to connect with some of her own emotions and desires. In other words, the letters triggered conflict and later, inspiration. As a screenwriter and filmmaker, I related to the idea that inspiration often stems from peculiar and challenging sources.

I was 22 when I wrote my first letter to someone whose film had moved me. I was doing a master's degree in International Relations, dreaming of working in foreign affairs, and the thought of making films had never crossed my mind. That person answered me. I remember thinking: wow, I think my letter moved her too. Something shifted. Twenty-five years later, reading Joanna Rakoff’s memoirs uncovered where lay the genesis of my filmmaker’s career. I only realised it very late in the process, perhaps as late as when I finished cutting the film.

- Philippe Falardeau, February 2021

Posted February 22, 2021

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