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Danny Strong On His Sundance Debut With J.D. Salinger Film, Donald Trump & ‘Empire’ Spinoff

Deadline logo Deadline 1/22/2017 Dominic Patten
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“That phone call was one of the most exciting things, for me, in my career, at this point – and I’ve had a lot of neat stuff happen,” said Danny Strong of hearing his feature directorial debut got into the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. As the co-creator of Fox’s blockbusterEmpire, Strong now will see his Rebel In The Eye premiere at the Park City fest on January 24.

Based on the Kenneth Slawenski biography J.D. Salinger: A Life, the Strong written and directed film stars Nicholas Hoult as the aspiring and struggling writer who would pen the seminal The Catcher In The Rye. The Kramer Morgenthau DP’d movie also features Emmy winner Sarah Paulson, Zoey Deutch, Victor Garber as Salinger’s father and reunites Strong with Recount star Kevin Spacy, who plays the writer’s mentor.

With the premiere just days away, Strong chatted with me about how and why the 2010 biography became his step into the big screen director’s chair and what it means to him to debut at the Robert Redford founded fest. The Emmy, WGA and PGA winner also discussed the fate of his new legal drama at Fox, the election of Donald Trump, what that could mean for the Lee Daniels co-created Empire in future seasons and a spinoff of the hip hop drama.

DEADLINE: What was it like getting your directorial debut into Sundance?

STRONG: I have to say, getting the film into Sundance, to premiere my directorial debut there, was a dream come true. I mean that phone call was one of the most exciting things, for me, in my career, at this point – and I’ve had a lot of neat stuff happen.

DEADLINE: What kind of feedback have you received privately otherwise fromRebel In The Rye?

STRONG: Here’s to me what is also so wild – I finished the film on like December 21. I literally just finished it. Maybe eight or nine people have seen, including me and my editor and my financier. One of my producers hasn’t even seen the final cut.

Out of that small group, we haven’t shown it to anybody. We really have not shown the film to anyone. There is some very cool interest, from some terrific companies, all my top choices, but we’ll just see what happens when we screen it at Sundance.

DEADLINE: So, what’s your take on the film now it’s all done? Was it hard to know when to know it was really done?

STRONG: (laughs) Well I love the movie, and I’m really proud of it. I’m excited to show it to people.

As for your second question, I’m constantly trying to find the movie, I guess, or just try to make it better every single step of the way. Certainly, for me, and it’s gone this way on every project I’ve worked on, the “writing” never ends until you’re done with the movie. So I was making changes to the film, from a fundamental story place, all the way to the very end, even changing things with sound design. I remember, in the last day of my final mix, I was making decisions that were wildly important to the emotional core of the film. It’s like there’s never a moment where you’re just crossing a few t’s and dotting some I’s, you know, you’re literally making crucial decisions all the way until they drag it out of your hands.

DEADLINE: Besides being your directorial debut, this is a very different film in some ways from past features you’ve written and TV…

STRONG: You know, everything I’ve written up to now, hasn’t had anything to do with my life really. I mean Empire has nothing to do with my life, and The Butler is not related to my life. Recount and Game Change were expressions of my anger at the political system, but I have not worked in the political system.

Also, Catcher In The Rye was very influential, on me, the way it is on so many people, but it’s not as if I’ve spent my life obsessing over JD Salinger. So, I bought Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life biography to just kind of read the story. But pretty early on in the book, I started thinking there was definitely a movie in this. That should be a movie, and I should direct that movie because it’s about a writer. To me, it seemed like the perfect first thing for me to direct.

DEADLINE: Why?

STRONG: Reading what he went through as a young writer trying to find his voice, the rejections, taking notes, the dysfunction in your relationships because of what writing does to you. I just thought, “This is not just him or me. This is like every writer I know.” There’s this universal story here, and what is exciting to me is it’s about the creative process. It’s about how a writer writes and what a writer goes through, and the film is, in many ways, this artist manifesto, as much as it is the story of JD Salinger writing Catcher in the Rye. I’m able to tell the story, of the writer and the writer’s struggle, through telling the story of JD Salinger, which I couldn’t think of a cooler way to tell the story.

DEADLINE: When you made that decision to direct this movie, honestly, did you feel ready?

STRONG: I felt like I was ready because I had directed several Empire episodes too, but it was definitely some trial by fire too.

DEADLINE: How so?

STRONG: What was so different was on the production side. Stuff that I didn’t know until I got there. Directing those Empire episodes, I’m working on pre-lit soundstages, right? We’re jumping from scene to scene fairly quickly because we’re on this very contained safe environment that they’ve been working on for weeks or months. Rebel, I had to shoot almost, entirely on location.

I was only on soundstage one day, so every single day was like we were starting from scratch. It’s time consuming, and I had this shot list of all these shots I had to get every day. I soon realized this is wildly unrealistic. I’m never going to be able to do this. I had to cut down my shots and really be unbelievably precise in the coverage. At the same time you don’t want to diminish the artistry of what you’re doing. But just being kind of thrown into the deep end of the pool, because in some ways I prepared myself with a false reality of how much time I would have every day.

But I will also say, I loved it. I loved, at the end of the day, being the person who was making the decisions.

DEADLINE: Stepping back a bit – after you optioned Lewinski’s book, when did actually write the script?

STRONG: I had written it right after I finished a long series of studio writing assignments, and culminating and writing two Hunger Games movies back to back. I needed to, for my artistic soul, eliminate everyone from my life and go write a script. No producers, no feedback, no notes, no being micromanaged, and so I didn’t take any other writing job and I just said I’m just going to do this.

DEADLINE: So this was pre-Empire?

STRONG: I wrote the first draft pre-Empire, and it might have been made a little quicker had Empire not happened. But you just never know if these things are going to go or not, you know – Empire did go.

DEADLINE: So, now you have been bitten by the directing bug and got a feature under your belt, is it something you want to do more of?

STRONG: Without a doubt. I mean I loved writing and directing a film, just doing it in tandem. You know, I don’t see myself directing things I don’t write because, to me, directing was just an extension of the writing process.

DEADLINE: Talking about directing as an extension of the writing process, you have Kevin Spacey in Rebel, who you worked with on Recount back in 2008. Besides the obvious difference of you now directing, how was this collaboration different, or was it?

STRONG: I’ll say this, he was really cool on Recount. He would re-tweak dialogue and I found his contribution always helpful because he’s a brilliant guy.

Kevin is one of those actors whose voice is in my head. I write parts sometimes with a Kevin Spacey-esque voice, and I certainly did it for his part in Rebel. He is the mentor to Salinger, and it’s “the love story” of the movie. It’s the key relationship of the film. The guy showed up with his game face on and just hit the ball so hard, you know. I think it was a personal story to Kevin because he, himself, is a teacher. He loved, I think, playing this teacher, and you know, it was just a great relationship. He just like literally just showed up and just killed it, take after take, day after day.

DEADLINE: On the note of killing it, where are things at with your legal drama pilot for Fox with Jessica Sharzer?

STRONG: I’ve written a few drafts and we’re going to be waiting to hear if they’re going to shoot the pilot. So I might even hear next week, or the week after. But we’re very close to finding out one way or the other.

DEADLINE: You’re being very tight-lipped, aren’t you?

STRONG: (laughs) Well, it’s about a small boutique law firm dedicated to civil rights cases. So, there’s going to be a very hot button civil rights and social issue that is going to be explored every week. But then there’s also going to be an ongoing Snowden-esque, you now, whistleblower government conspiracy thriller case. So there’s going to be a legal procedural with a kind of John Grisham-esque tone I would say.

DEADLINE: Will the whistleblower plot be one that continues throughout the first season if it gets one?

STRONG: I don’t know yet. It will be an ongoing case, but who knows? Maybe by episode five we’ll be done with it and create a new ongoing arc. It’ll probably be depending on how long it works for.

I’m really excited about it because, A, I think it’s a show that we need right now. I mean when we saw this very racist election that we just had, and we had this racism rise up in the mainstream, so to have a show about civil rights lawyers feels very appropriate for this era. Also, I think we’re heading into a level of mistrust, of the government where we wonder if the FBI swayed the election? Was there a faction in the FBI that pressured Director Comey into doing that letter because they wanted to work against Hillary Clinton? I mean that was certainly a mainstream news story. Mark Halperin, one of the prominent political journalists around, called it, “the most irresponsible act in the history of the country.” So I think that this show is very much a show that would be very well suited to the Trump era. To have a show have lawyers fighting civil rights cases week in and week out, I think it’s exactly what we need.

DEADLINE: Are we going to see a reaction to Trump’s Presidency on Empire in the rest of Season 3 or in Season 4?

STRONG: I think that’s a very good question, but you know we’re still finishing Season 3. We haven’t gotten through the finale yet, but of course, how can Trump becoming President not affect a show like Empire?

DEADLINE: And where are things with this Empire spinoff that Lee (Daniels) recently confirmed at TCA was in talks at Fox?

STRONG: It’s still early going, but it’s definitely in the mix. You know, they had talked to us about doing it at the beginning of Season 2. Lee and I were very uncomfortable with it, at that point. We’re like, “We’re just starting Season 2, and we’re talking about a spinoff? Let’s just keep the show going for a while and focus on this show.” I think going into Season 4, where we are now, it doesn’t feel wrong at all.

DEADLINE: How much of your focus is more Empire?

STRONG: Literally, the legal show is what I’m focused on right now, writing wise. I’m working on multiple theater projects too, which are very slow going, Starting something new theater wise, and then feature wise …you know, this was an intense year making this movie

DEADLINE: About that, a lot of less experienced filmmakers are at Sundance this year, like every year, hustling with their first project, looking for interest. With the breadth of your career, what advice would you give them?

STRONG: You can do it, you just have to do the work. I wrote scripts for six years, before I sold my first project, before I got paid to write a script. That’s a long time to do something and get nothing back for it, that’s the entirety of high school and half of college.

I stuck to it for many of the reasons that I explore in the movie, as far as the principles of writing, what it means to be a writer. It’s very much a lot of these issues that I was dealing with, in my 20s, and that other writers I knew were dealing with. The exciting thing about today with the Internet, streaming, and YouTube, is you can just go do it. You can go make a short and put it up, and it, very well, may be seen. You can create your own Internet series and just put it out there. It wasn’t like that when I was in my 20s. People weren’t doing this sort of thing – now they can and they should try it.

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