Fresh starts in one’s life and career often drive the films of My Salinger Year director Philippe Falardeau. The Québécois director finds tales of encounters in La moitié gauche du frigo as Stéphane (Stéphane Demers) searches for new prospects as an engineer. His Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar poignantly observes an immigrant teacher (Mohamed Fellag) guide his students through trauma. It’s Not Me, I Swear! is a film about coming of age and navigating the confines of one’s imagination, while My Internship in Canada features a political upstart (Irdens Exantus) a Trudeau-ish politician (Patrick Huard) lobbying for his job in a nation hungry for change. Falardeau’s latest effort, My Salinger Year, features elements from all these tales. It adapts Joanna Rakoff’s bestselling memoir about her year working as an intern for a literary agency in New York. For movie about entry-level work, it’s the film of a master’s résumé.
Margaret Qualley plays Rakoff as an aspiring poet who transcends her unchallenging job when she begins answering letters that arrive for the agency’s star client, J.D. Salinger. Under the reluctant guidance of her boss, Margaret, played by Sigourney Weaver in her best performance in years, Rakoff becomes unexpectedly sharp at a job in which she has little interest. My Salinger Year sees Rakoff hone her writing skills as she responds to the Salinger letters in secret, imaginatively identifying with the fans of the elusive Salinger.
Despite the Hollywood star power, the film is unmistakably Falardeau. The director adapts Rakoff’s tale with a light touch offering what feels like a contemporary kin to Little Women as the young writer finds her voice while confronting the challenges of pursuing her desired profession in world that rarely considers writing to be serious work. As Margaret’s escapism and ambitions fuel an unconventional coming of age tale, My Salinger Year is just the ticket for audiences in search of smart, refreshing fun. The film opens in digital release this week after a run on the theatrical circuit that began with the opening night premiere of the 2020 Berlin Film Festival. Little would Falardeau know that his film would be among the last to headline a major festival that year.
That Shelf spoke with Falardeau about the strange experience of finding one’s niche and exploring the world of entry-level jobs, adapting Rakoff’s book, working with Sigourney Weaver, and the joys of fan mail.
The film paints an accurate portrait of an entry-level job and the experience getting your foot in the door of an industry. What was your first job?
The book moved me because it’s about someone who has to make a choice between something that could be interesting and something she could be good at, like working at a literary agency. That could certainly be a coveted job, but that’s not what she wants to do. I studied political science and international relations. I work in a lobbying group in Ottawa when I was very young. The job had me wearing dark suits and ties to go to work and I was 21. One day, I looked at myself in the mirror and said, “Whoa, what is this?”
How did you make the transition to film?
It was certainly a nice job and exciting, but deep down I was too young to be settled in. I thought, “This can’t be it for the rest of my life.” I went to study in Quebec City, but part of me was looking for something else. Then something happened in my life called the Race Around the World, Course destination monde, on Radio-Canada. It was a reality show where they sent all these young people around the world with cameras. We had to travel alone for six months and shoot 20 short movies in 26 weeks and send back the rushes to Canada with our editing plan. They were shot on S-VHS with no time code. We went from one country to another: the Congo, South America, Middle East—all tough, tough places. I learned my craft making this challenge. After that, I knew that I needed to shift my plans and that [filmmaking] is what I wanted to do. So I could relate to Joanna’s journey in the book.
How else did you relate to Rakoff’s book?
I also knew in hindsight that this [being in one’s twenties] is probably the most exciting time of our life. But when we’re in it, that’s not apparent. We are nervous and overwhelmed by all the choices that are in front of us. That’s how I related it to the book and to everything with the fan mail. We make works of art—books, films—and we move people. Some people try to reach back to the authors and this is an important process. It’s not something you can just brush aside. Joanna Rakoff understood that sentiment when she worked at the agency. You couldn’t just send a generic form response, which she had to do when you think about it. They were bound to receive thousands of letters a year and couldn’t respond personally to all of them. I was moved by her willingness to engage with the fans.
Do you receive fan mail?
Yes, and I try to respond to everyone. I don’t receive a lot of fan mail, mind you, but I try to respond to people who reach out to me because they are writing at a time in their life where they feel they have to take a risk if they want to go down a path, and I try to encourage them. I did this myself at the end of my twenties, write to authors and filmmakers. Actually, I still do. I don’t know them, but I write and tell them how their work moved me. I remember when I was 30, I wrote to Bertrand Tavernier and told him I loved his film. He never wrote back, but when he was in Montreal to promote one of his films, he asked his publicist to reach out to me and he invited me for lunch. That made a difference in my career and boosted my confidence, for sure.
Does it surprise you that fan mail still exists in an age when anyone can reach out to celebrities through things like Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram?
If you took a typewriter and wrote something, or even made a hand-written letter, it would probably make a difference. Responding on Twitter or sending a message on Facebook, I don’t think that works. But if you take the time and think about how you’re going to reach out to celebrities, I think it’s still possible to reach artists who move you. Of course, you’re not going to get an answer from Leonardo DiCaprio for obvious reasons, but reaching out to an artist doesn’t mean you need to reach out to a big star. Depending on whom you write to, you might get an answer.
Salinger is a very elusive figure. Even when he’s onscreen, he’s a hidden figure. What inspired that choice?
I didn’t want the film to shift and be about Salinger. His aura and the myth around him are so big. He could gobble up everything if I put too much emphasis on him, but I tried to make it playful. Most importantly, I asked myself whose point of view are we talking about—we’re talking about Joanna’s point of view. When we see the Salinger figure like that, you can’t really see through the window, hidden by the tree leaves. It’s really Joanna’s fantasy that you access in these moments. They spoke more about her than about him.
In terms of the fantasy, I love the sequence in the Waldorf Hotel that transforms into a dance sequence with all the patrons in the hall. Did you consider adding more instances of magical realism to the film?
It’s not contained to that one scene because the boy from Winston Salem appears in Joanna’s life even though he’s not physically there. Also with the fan mail, they’re real letters, but she invents [the people] in her mind. The dance scene was inspired by a passage in Joanna Rakoff’s book when she recalled going to the Waldorf and just sitting there, watching people go by. I tried to imagine and convey what it means for someone to do that while aspiring to something. Contrary to her socialist boyfriend, she didn’t mind this bourgeois environment. She thought it was beautiful, so I tried to convey that idea in a fantasized way.
It was also important to link it with something important in her life—it was sentimental education. I remember when I wrote this scene. It’s not in the book. She used to dance with her father, but I took the father character out of the movie and I made the scene with her ex-boyfriend. It was fun and challenging to do, and Margaret Qualley is such a lovely dancer. She’s physical and danced for many years, so it was fun to integrate that in our movie.
The dynamic between Joanna and her boss Margaret reminds me of the relationship between Anne Hathaway and Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. How did you work with Sigourney Weaver to create a boss for Joanna who was strong and tough, but not a villain? And how much was the literary agent Phyllis Westberg, Rakoff’s employer at Harold Ober Associates, an inspiration for the performance?
It was a bit of both, but Sigourney did her own research about Phyllis. She didn’t talk to her because Phyllis was sick, and I don’t think she would have talked to us because I don’t think she liked Joanna Rakoff’s book. We didn’t want the character to be caricatured. Of course, you have to be hard-nosed.
I don’t think she means to be a mentor at the beginning, but Joanna moves her in that way. Sigourney and I discussed this extensively and we wanted to get intimate with the character, but never sentimental. The scene where Joanna goes to see Margaret at her home is a good example of that. There is a lot of comparison with The Devil Wears Prada. As odd as it may sound, I never saw the film. Sigourney saw it and wanted to go in a different direction and not make the character one-dimensional. There is a little arc to her character and I like that.
The film features a running commentary about the relationship between art and commerce. You’ve done some films with Hollywood recently and you’re working with big stars like Sigourney Weaver here and Reese Witherspoon in The Good Lie. How has working with the more “commercial side” of film influenced your relationship with artistic and commercial dynamics of film?
It’s an “after the fact” discussion. Monsieur Lazhar, which is my biggest worldwide box office success, is nothing of a commercial film. The actors are not known; there are no stars. The premise of the film is that a refugee from Algeria replaces a teacher who committed suicide in the classroom. That’s certainly not the makings for a commercial film and it became a worldwide hit and a big commercial hit in Canada. When I did My Internship in Canada with Patrick Huard, a comedy that I like very much, I thought that would be a commercial film. It completely failed at the box office. There’s no recipe and I think the only way to go about it is to go along with something that inspires me.
I try not to think about a film being commercial or not, but when the budget is high, you certainly feel pressure to make it more “accessible.” I don’t really know what that means, to be honest, and I always get a comment like, “You should do this or maybe it’s a bit too edgy.” We had one conversation for this film. People asked, “Who is going to see a movie about literature?” It’s not about literature. It’s about the moment in life where you need to make a decision and step up. That discussion of this dynamic is always part of our industry, but it’s impalpable. We can have a conversation clearly after the fact, but not before the fact.
How has the journey been on the film festival circuit with My Salinger Year? It opened Berlin, which was one of the last major festivals to run in person before things shut down, and has now been touring Canada mostly in virtual festivals.
It would be tough if it was my first film, but it’s my eighth feature. I’ve experienced all kinds of releases. I can count my blessings that this was shown in front of an audience of 2000+ what feels like six years ago. We were very grateful for that before the universe closed. If there is a certain level of frustration, I’m not the only one. What’s frustrating in Quebec is that we closed down theatres when theatres had no cases.
Theatres were very safe and following the protocols. It’s possible for us to go shopping at the department store and with dozens of people around you, but you can’t go to the movie theatre with only 30% attendance. I don’t understand that. I think they needed to show that they were doing something about COVID and they sacrificed theatres and cinemas. We know that the core of the problem was not that. I’m frustrated, but when you think about the plays and dance shows that were cancelled, I can’t complain. I had a nice run in Berlin. The important thing is that this little film finds its audience whether online or in theaters.