As a teenager, James Steven Sadwith traveled across New England in search of the reclusive author J.D. Salinger. Over 45 years later he has put his story to the screen in the form of the feature film Coming Through The Rye, opening in select theaters on October 21. We had the pleasure of talking with Mr. Sadwith about what it was like working on the film, what his inspirations were, and the impact the film is having on those who see it.
Prior to Coming Through The Rye, you had only directed for television and for television films. Is that different from directing a feature film?
JAMES STEVEN SADWITH: No. The budget is about the same as a TV movie or a miniseries. The schedule is about the same, so logistically it’s about the same. The different thing about this one is that I was a producer. So when I’m working on TV, I’m just a guy for hire. Here I have to raise the money, make sure the checks are coming in, and be responsible for absolutely everything, especially in post-production. I’m the office manager, the production assistant, the producer trying to get this thing into as many theaters as possible.
You worked with some fairly young performers as the leads of your film. Is that at all different than working with adults?
No. These guys were 16 when I hired them, but they were really professional. I mean, Alex [Wolff] had done a number of movies, as had Stefania [LaVie Owen]. So they were extremely professional and trusting. Maybe that’s where it was different; they were very trusting. Sometimes you work with actors who’ve had a long career and have worked with directors who made them look ridiculous, and so they’re less trusting of directors. I haven’t had too much of that, but on occasion I have. But yeah, it was simple. It wasn’t any different. They were very open to everything because they were learning. We’re always learning, but especially at that age their craft is just beginning.
Since this film is based largely on your own experiences, how accurate is the film to your personal search for J.D. Salinger?
Well, I get that question a lot, and I divide it into two parts. Everything with Salinger: Looking for Salinger, starting with going to the post office, that entire search, those questions with Salinger—that’s 99 percent what happened. Tiny little details are different. The other half of [the film] is about 85-90 percent; those things actually happened to me. It might not all have happened during that search (the motel scene was a year or two later). So there were some things that I experienced in my life that I used within the film but didn’t necessarily happen with the context of the search.
I take it then that The Catcher In The Rye is as formative to your development as the film implies. What is it about that book that draws you in so much?
I identified so much with Holden Caulfield. I was a fish out of water. I was that kid in the boarding school getting bullied, and I thought they were all phonies and mean guys. And before I had gone to boarding school I had a lot of friends and had a pretty happy life. But I got there and it didn’t work out so well, so by the time I read that book, it really resonated with me. It’s so out of context now, but back then nobody talked like that in books, especially books you were supposed to read. Nobody swore like that in books. That book was banned in the years leading up to ’69 when I read it. But that was kind of fresh because that was the way we talked. We were probably a little less profane, but it was just so relatable. So that’s why it was transformative to me.
So do you think the book still has something to say to a modern teenage audience?
I spoke to a lot of people who came in for auditions and have talked with a lot of people since. I think it still resonates with people because, especially at that age, you do feel somewhat alienated. You’re searching for what your role is in the world, and the reality you’re starting to learn is all sly and things aren’t necessarily supposed to be fair, even though you were taught as a child that things are supposed to be fair. You’re bumping up against the reality that isn’t the reality that you were taught. In that respect I think it does resonate, but in other respects it’s less sensational. The language stuff is mild now. Going and getting a prostitute, back in ’69 it was like, “Oh my god! Are you kidding?” Or going to a bar and getting a drink and traveling around New York alone was out there. Now it’s less so.
Are you hoping to bring The Catcher In The Rye to a new audience that might not otherwise discover it? Are teenagers your primary audience for the film?
When I made it, I wasn’t thinking about an audience. I just wanted to tell the story. I thought it would be a story for any audience. Then we did 20 film festivals all around the country, and all ages do like the story. I think the people the film resonates the most with are baby boomers and high school kids. I didn’t start with a mission. I did feel that because high school kids were assigned The Catcher In The Rye still every year, they’d find our movie because there is no movie of The Catcher In The Rye, and this is something that could almost be like the companion piece. And I didn’t realize until it was finished just how much of a love poem to The Catcher In The Rye it really is, but when you stand back and you watch it, it really feels like that. A lot of people who watch it say, “Oh my god, I haven’t read the book,” or “I haven’t read the book in a long time. I’m going to go read it now.” So it’s an unintended consequence that it will get people to read the book.
Do you think your film is primarily geared toward a male adolescent audience, or do you think young women have something to gain from it too?
If you go to IMDB and you look at the breakdown of who’s rating it, what rating they give, and who watches the trailer, the people who are going to it are women. So really, it’s a chick flick! High school girls and women over 45 seem to be the ones who really respond to it. I think the reason is that DeeDee is such a strong character. She’s a real interesting role model for kids. Stefania was saying that she doesn’t feel like DeeDee is sexualized. She’s adventuresome, and she wants to experience life, but she’s not sexualized as a character. That’s one of the things she really loved about the character.
There’s a lot of interesting music in the film. Can you tell me something about how you put together the soundtrack?
Well, we can’t really afford a ’60s soundtrack. I had Beatles songs in the script, and Rolling Stones, but those are half a million dollars or a million dollars a piece. So I wanted a soundtrack that at least felt ’60s and had that ’60s sensibility without just doing sound-alike bands. I also wanted it to appeal to young people today, so we decided on an indie rock soundtrack. I got an amazing music supervisor and we were able to put together the soundtrack. Some of these indie rock bands have been on Letterman and Colbert and all the night shows. Edward Sharpe And The Magnetic Zeros do the main title song and they’re really big. The Head And The Heart. Alex Wolff and Nat Wolff had a song in there, and the Barr Brothers are amazing. Five of the cues in our soundtrack are their songs. They’re just terrific. And I found a couple of great composers. One guy is Heath McNease. I get asked, “What’s that song in the trailer?” and that’s Heath McNease, an up-and-coming composer, rapper, and musician. Jay Nash has more of a country style, and he did some of the score.
Besides J.D. Salinger, who do you consider to be your literary and cinematic inspirations?
Well, it’s pretty eclectic. I really like character-based films. When I was learning to make films and thinking about whose films I really respond to, I called them Sidney films—films by Sidney Lumet and Sidney Pollack—because they’re such strong character-based movies. That’s been pretty much the kind of material I’ve worked with. One of the reasons I’ve always wanted to do features was, until recently, TV has always been a small campus and often domestic drama. I just like David Lien visuals. You know, Dr. Zhivago or Bridge On The River Kwai, Lawrence Of Arabia. So I got a chance to do one TV movie like that, and I was able to just let a car drive across a lonely landscape. It’s something you really don’t get to do in TV, and I feel like I got to do a bit of that here. Though this is a small, intimate drama, it felt like I got a little bit of cinematic scope in their travels.
So what’s next? Any plans to keep directing features?
I’ve been working on this since 2012, so there are a bunch of projects still on my shelf that have always been pet projects. I might have written them as a pilot for television or a miniseries. The whole TV landscape has changed since I’ve been working on this. When I started, they were just starting to talk about Netflix and Amazon and Hulu series, and now that’s a big reality. Some of the most interesting stuff on TV is being done in that arena. I’d be tempted to go back into that. Network television doesn’t hold a lot of appeal to me, but for me it’s project-driven, so if there’s a project with great characters that speaks to me, I’ll do it in any format. Do I want to do a feature again? Absolutely. Do I want to raise money for an independent feature again and do this by myself? Not any time soon. My number one task now, since we’re distributing this independently, is to get this into as many theaters as possible. One of the ways we’re doing that is that we have an IndieGoGo campaign.
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