My Salinger Year is based on Joanna Smith Rakoff's time at a literary agency

In her early 20s, the young woman who would become New York Times contributor Joanna Smith Rakoff took a job with a small literary agency in New York. For Rakoff, an aspiring writer, it would be the chance to meet writers and move in their world.

Rakoff's job was to answer the correspondence addressed to the agency's biggest and yet most reclusive literary star, the author J.D. Salinger, who wrote The Catcher in the Rye. Salinger wouldn't answer his own mail and in fact had no interest in it, and yet the young Rakoff felt conflicted reading the private and innermost thoughts Salinger's fans would share with him, knowing her job was to simply mail the exact same form letter back.

In 2010, Rakoff recounted the experience for BBC Radio 4 and was encouraged to turn the experience into a novel, which in turn has been adapted by Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau into the charming feature film My Salinger Year. It stars Margaret Qualley as the young Rakoff and Sigourney Weaver as her curmudgeonly boss.

My Salinger Year made its debut opening the Berlin Film Festival in February last year. COVID has significantly delayed the film's cinema release but Falardeau's film opened in Australia this week and will open in other countries as their cinema industries regain their confidence and audiences.

"We played to packed cinemas in Berlin," Falardeau recalls.

"I introduced the film to a theatre of 2200 and then someone came to snatch me and we ran to another theatre where 1700 people were waiting to watch the film.

"It felt like we were one of the last films to get a proper opening with a real audience," he says, "because then we came back home and the Earth just closed."

The film is set in New York but Falardeau shot it in his home town of Montreal.

"Parts of Montreal have a 'soft New York' feel so we looked for authentic-looking streets and high rises," he says.

Falardeau and his lead actress did shoot guerilla-style in the New York subway, but for the office of the agency Rakoff works for, his team found an empty seventh-floor office in an Art Deco building they fitted out to mid-1990s aesthetic.

"When Joanna Rakoff visited us on set she started crying," Falardeau recalls.

"For her it was a trip back in time," he says, noting that his production designer Elsie de Blois built the set not from images of the actual office but entirely from the visual observations Rakoff paints in her book.

"There was a nostalgic feeling in the book about a period of New York that was over but also a timeless atmosphere in the agency, which came from another time altogether," he says.

In the film, Sigourney Weaver's literary agent Margaret is resistant to the computer technology changing the world around them, and Qualley's Rakoff is forced to hand type every response to Salinger's fan mail. Margaret is a formidable figure which has led to a number of reviewers comparing Falardeau's film to The Devil Wears Prada. However, Weaver's performance gives Salinger real heft. Margaret has seen young office staff come and go, but something in Rackoff makes the mostly off-screen Salinger (Tim Post) take a shine to her and encourage her own literary ambitions.

Falardeau has worked with some internationally recognised names in his films, including Reese Witherspoon in The Good Lie, but he says that meeting Weaver left him star struck.

"She is a lady in every sense of the word," he says, "with a panache and charisma that explains a lot of things, actually.

"We met in New York to discuss the script and at some point she stopped me to confirm that I was actually offering her the role, and I couldn't believe when she said 'Absolutely.'"

Weaver grew up on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and Falardeau explains, "She grew up in that milieu, she knows people who worked in that literary world, and she related to the strong figure of Margaret."

This was Falardeau's second adaptation of an existing work, his first being the Evelyne de la Cheneliere's play that became his Oscar-nominated 2011 film Monsieur Lazhar.

"Being a writer myself I know how much work goes into it and felt it is important to not say something different with your film than what the book expresses," Falardeau says.

The filmmaker had to take some license for this story and shared an early draft with Rakoff, who told him she enjoyed the invented material and felt like there should be more of it.

Margaret Qualley in My Salinger Year. Picture: Palace

Margaret Qualley in My Salinger Year. Picture: Palace

"This really freed me," he says, "to build up moments that were inspired by small passages in the book."

As an aspiring filmmaker he wrote to the French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier who asked his publicist to find the young Falardeau and invite him to lunch when he came to Canada on a film junket some years later.

The filmmaker says he does get some fan mail of his own, though nothing like the volume of Salinger's. As he has made a number of films about the immigrant experience, he says a lot of correspondence is people sharing their own experiences, sometimes sharing their grief.

"Sometimes it is people looking for meaning in your films, or misunderstanding my meaning."

But, he says, "any art creates a whole peripheral industry of speculation. That's what makes it so rich and fascinating to write and shoot and edit a film about one thing, but then read a critic and think, 'Yes, it's about that too'."

My Salinger Year is now in cinemas.

This story Bringing a literary world to life first appeared on The Canberra Times.