The Heartland Film Festival presented the world premiere of "Coming Through the Rye" on Oct. 25 as its closing night feature. Before the screening, the film's director, actors and co-producer lined the red carpet for interviews. We spoke beforehand with director James Sadwith and lead actor Alex Wolff about the making of the film below.
Just two years after publishing “The Catcher in the Rye,” renowned author J.D. Salinger retreated from the public sphere by moving to a remote cabin in New Hampshire. Here, he withdrew from the spotlight, cut back on all communication, and successfully escaped his growing fan base--well, except for James Sadwith.
“Coming Through the Rye” tells the autobiographical story of director James Sadwith, a longtime TV producer and Holden Caulfield sympathizer. Throughout the film, Sadwith captures his own true story searching for the reclusive Salinger out in the countryside. Driven by the desire to play Holden Caulfield in a theatrical adaptation of the novel, actor Alex Wolff plays a young Sadwith as the character of Jamie, a 16-year-old boy who feels misunderstood and rejected at his boarding school. After much difficulty, Jamie runs off to find Salinger, played by Chris Cooper, at his home in the woods. Oddly enough, the film wasn’t Sadwith’s first attempt at telling the tale.
“I never thought it was a movie,” said Sadwith. “I tried writing it as a book...but eventually, I finally decided I wanted to do a feature.”
As a director, Sadwith explained that writing descriptions and narration never appealed to him; it was always about the dialogue and action. What started as a novel became a screenplay, and from there it was all about taking it to the screen.
But this wasn’t without difficulty. With a background in TV production, Sadwith quickly learned the obstacles of creating an independent film set in the year 1969.
“One of the most difficult things about filming was that it’s more expensive to film a period piece,” said Sadwith.
To his benefit, finding the school at which the story begins was the least troublesome location. More than 45 years later, some things at boarding schools don’t change much: old tile hallways, dorm rooms, boys in uniforms, and auditoriums with wooden pews. The real difficulty came when Sadwith and his crew began searching for “Salinger’s house,” or at the very least, a location that Holden Caulfield would’ve deemed suitable.
“It needed to be in a field on a hill surrounded by woods but not in them, as Holden said, so it would be sunny as hell all of the time,” Sadwith said in an FAQ.
The house ended up being so vital to shooting the film that they put out a $1000 reward for whoever could find the right location. But, as things often seem to go in the film industry, the location nearly found them. Less than a week before filming, Sadwith found the home he was looking for. It was perfect--all except for a few extra trees that were disrupting the “sunny as hell” ambiance.
“We paid for the trees to come down, but they let us use the house for free,” Sadwith said. “The wife had been wanting to take them down anyway, so it really worked out well.”
Casting Holden Caulfield
Although no one plays Holden directly in the film (except in the play), Sadwith’s younger self, Jamie, is about as close as you can get. Sadwith explained that he felt strongly about casting a teenager for this role, describing the importance of “innocence and freshness” in his characters. And after auditioning Alex Wolff for the role, he knew he’d found someone up to the task.
“He’s a 16-year-old,” Sadwith said with a laugh. “He brought a lot of energy and enthusiasm to the set.”
In some ways, Wolff’s role as a boy aspiring to be Holden Caulfield acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy. “The Catcher in the Rye” has been a family tradition in his family for as long as he can remember. His grandfather gave the book to his father after reading it, who handed it down to Wolff’s brother Nat, who eventually gave it to Alex. Each reader signed his name in the cover upon finishing it; and when Alex Wolff came to audition, he brought his tattered copy of the novel along as proof.
So why the family fascination with Salinger’s masterpiece?
“I think it’s because we’re all these intense, sort of neurotic people,” said Wolff. “We’re all artists, we’ve all been artists, and it’s just the sort of tough, straight to the point writing that sort of seems like our family. We’re all kinda like that.”
Some might call this an understatement. Born to actress and writer Polly Draper and jazz pianist Michael Wolff, Alex Wolff seemed destined to receive either acting talent from his mother or the musical ability of his father. But instead, he got both.
Wolff started writing songs at the age of five and soon after began collaborating with his brother Nat. The two got their jumpstart in pop music stardom from their 2004 film debut, “The Naked Brothers Band: The Movie,” which would eventually go on to become a TV series on Nickelodeon. Since then, the brothers have ditched their original name for a simpler title: The Nat & Alex Wolff Band.
Wolff seems to be maturing on-screen as well. In contrast to his debut on “The Naked Brothers Band,” his role as Jamie in ‘Coming Through the Rye’ requires an intensity and level of emotion not previously seen. For Wolff, the film acted as a pivotal learning experience.
“I learned the sort of depth I can go as an actor," said Wolff.
For the most part, going deep into this kind of role is unfamiliar territory for Wolff. But once on set, even Sadwith couldn’t deny his talent for shaping a scene. Occasionally, the experienced director found himself on the receiving end of advice about how to read a certain line or how to shoot a scene.
“A couple of times, we went head-to-head on a few things,” said Sadwith. “Not in a bad way…he was very trusting. And believe it or not, [in post-production editing] almost 50 percent of the time things ended up going his way.”
In the name of Salinger
Whether you call it fate or just good planning, Sadwith credits the success of his film to the unpredictable collaboration that occurs when making a movie. Before filming began, none of the producers or actors had worked together previously.
“The really amazing thing about making a movie is that everyone brings their world to it," said Sadwith.
But perhaps a better way of putting it would be that each person brought his or her perspective to Sadwith’s world. Wolff contributed his own history with “The Catcher in the Rye” by drawing from past experiences with the book. Steffania Owen, who plays Deedee, a “quirky townie” who befriends Jamie, spent long hours in the car with Wolff working on line delivery and chemistry. And Sara Timmins (co-producer) brought to the set her expertise in production and knowledge of the Virginia landscape, where the film is shot.
“Working with Jim was quite an amazing opportunity because it was Jim’s story; it’s very personal to him,” said Timmins. “And so when I joined up with Jim, I took some of the resources I had from filming in Virginia in order to bring his vision to fruition.”
Clearly, it was a team effort. But at its core, the personal meaning and significance of Sadwith’s own coming-of-age tale, his dramatic search for Salinger in the woods, and the experience of talking with the author face-to-face acts as the anchor of the whole story.
Throughout adulthood, Sadwith wrote Salinger a few times, thanking him for the experience. But he never got a response. Maybe Salinger felt that his privacy had been invaded.
So then, what would a man so determined to be out of the spotlight have to say about being portrayed in a feature film? That’s something Sadwith has wondered himself. Salinger passed away in 2010, but even if he hadn’t, his tendencies hint that the world would never have had a chance to find out.
Regardless, Sadwith believes that the film portrays “the man [he] met quite accurately.” The rest of his crew agrees. With or without his approval, “Coming Through the Rye” captures what Sadwith felt, and what America felt, when he first discovered the phony-hating, world-weary Holden Caulfield.
“I kind of fell in love with it again working on the film and seeing how it touched Jim," said Timmins. “J.D. Salinger said to him: go ahead Jim, you’re a really smart boy, go make something of your own…. This film really is the testimony where he can say, ‘OK, Salinger, I did it. This is my own, my stamp in the world, my vision.’"
"Coming Through the Rye" is currently on the road, hitting film festivals around the country. See their schedule below.