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Film interview 2021

Joanna Rakoff

My New York Year

A college grad takes a clerical job working for the literary agent of the renowned, reclusive writer J.D. Salinger.


Hi Joanna thank you for talking to TNC, how are you holding up during the lockdown?

Hi! For me, as for many people, I suspect, this time has been an odd amalgam of highs and lows. I've been sheltering in place with my husband and three kids, ages fifteen, eleven, and four. We live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in a small, urban house, and things have definitely grown quite tense at times, as we're all kind of on top of each other. My older kids have really missed their friends, of course, and were devastated when their overnight camps were canceled. My four-year-old basically stopped sleeping, back in April and May, and my days became a blur of tantrums and exhaustion. 

But at the same time, it's been wonderful to just be at home, without the noise of our normal life. To have time to simply sit and talk. I thought I knew my kids, but I now know them in a much deeper, more profound way.

Is this time offering you with creative inspiration?

Yes and no. My new book, The Fifth Passenger, was originally due this spring and I was scheduled to spend a full month away, at two different artist colonies--MacDowell and Ragdale--finishing up a draft. In March, when we first began sheltering in place, I tried to push forward on the book, but found myself--again, like many people--extraordinarily and uncharacteristically distracted. Practically speaking, things were a bit rough: My husband, Keeril, chairs a large department at MIT and for that first month or so, he was on Zoom meetings all day, from 8am until 5pm. I work in a converted garden shed in our tiny backyard and I'd run out there to work for an hour, but find myself just staring at the wall, or crying, or calling a friend. 

This new book is a memoir, like My Salinger Year, and though it's written in a very similar style--intimate, novelistic, a bit sparse--it covers much more difficult territory: The deaths of my two siblings a year before my birth. Which was kept a secret from me for much of my life. An old friend, who knows me better than anyone except Keeril, posited that maybe this is a hard time to work on something that requires thinking my way through some very brutal passages in my family’s history. She may be right.

But I'm also working on a novel, set in 2010, and centred on the fallout from the global financial crisis. For years--literally!--I'd toyed with setting the novel, instead, in a fictional future, in the aftermath of an even more extreme global disaster. In April, I suddenly realized that the book needs to be set now, right now. And suddenly everything--all the ragged plot elements--began to fall into place. So, that's been exciting! 

And I’m now, actually, back to working on that new memoir. Now that, like everyone, I’ve somehow adjusted to the world as it is now, rather than operating in a state of shock and grief for what it was, what was lost.

In 2019 your debut film, based on your memoir, My Salinger Year opened the Berlinale Film Festival, what was that experience like for you?

Oh my gosh, does it sound naive or childish to say that it was beyond my wildest expectations? I have many friends who work in film—and a few friends who’ve had books adapted--so I kind of thought I knew—sort of—what to expect. But it turns out nothing, really, prepares you for having that kind of attention thrust on you. For walking into a photo call and having dozens of photographers shouting your name. But, the truth is, I loved it, all of it. The Berlinale is such a vast and thrilling festival; this year, it featured so many films from directors I admire—Sally Potter, Kelly Reichardt, Vadim Perelman—and I basically spent the entire festival in a state of happy disbelief that my own film was alongside them in the program.

Did you have any apprehensions or nerves about watching your film with such a passionate film audience?

Not at all. I actually waited until the premiere to see the final cut—though I’d seen a rough cut back in October—because I wanted to experience the film, for the first time, on the big screen, surrounded by an audience. Philippe is a true filmmaker, with a very distinct visual style, and I just thought it made more sense to watch the film in the way he intended for it to be seen. Sigourney did the same, actually, and we both were sobbing throughout. Margaret, who'd watched it in advance, kept squeezing our hands in sympathy.

But I suppose I wasn't nervous because I knew--based on that rough cut and my time on set--that the film was brilliant, and that people would love it. 

What did you think of the response the film got at Berlinale?

Well, the audience response was exactly as I expected. I attended two screenings--the premiere and a public screening, in a 1700-seat theatre--and the audience was very clearly, as you say, completely with the film. Laughing in all the right places, crying at certain points, holding their collective breath in that last scene. At certain points, I heard people gasp! Throughout the festival, everyone to whom I was introduced, said, "I saw your film! I LOVED it!" One night, I attended a large industry dinner party at which I knew no one. I presumed the host had invited me out of pity and I’d just sit quietly in a corner by myself. So, I was kind of shocked when the host took me around, introducing me to people, and each and every one of them, upon hearing my name, said, “I loved your film!”

In terms of the critics’ response, I know it was quite mixed. I actually have a policy of not reading reviews of my own work--meaning, my books--and so I refrained from reading coverage, other than the pieces sent to me by friends, which were largely positive or focused on the remarks made by Sigourney and me at our press conference, about Philippe’s decision to staff his crew entirely with women, at the director level; and about the ways in which this film is that rare thing: the story of a platonic relationship between two women. 

While many of the reviews were raves, I know that some critics—especially in the UK and in some US trade magazines—savaged the film. Friends have suggested to me that British critics were particularly hard on the film precisely because the book was so loved in the UK, which is a delightful thought. But, as I think you know, critics are traditionally very hard on the Berlinale’s opening film, particularly if it’s not a hard-hitting political drama (as it happens, the festival’s new artistic director, Carlo Chatrian, chose My Salinger Year precisely because he wanted to open the festival with a moving, upbeat film that explores universal social themes.)

There’s also—and I’m writing a piece on this right now, actually—the fact that the critics who savaged the film were, to a one, older white men. Who dismissed the film as trivial. I can’t help but think that perhaps an ingrained misogyny guided their take on the film. If the film had been a coming of age story centred on a young man, would their response have been the same? Surely not.

Your memoir was published several years ago and was a great success. What do you think it was about your story that intrigued readers so much?

It’s funny, I actually resisted writing this book—for years and years—because I feared the story was too small, that it wouldn’t resonate with readers! And perhaps indicates my own internalized misogyny. I thought the story—a young woman’s coming of age tale—wasn’t important enough to warrant a whole book. And even after I agreed to write it, even after I’d turned it in to my various publishers, I still had this idea that it was a small book, that would appeal to a tiny segment of the population: bookish girls, people who work in publishing and other literary fields, and perhaps Salinger obsessives. 

So I was, honestly, pretty surprised by, for instance, arriving at a literary festival in India and finding myself mobbed by young women, who recognized me from my author photo, or showing up at a ticketed event in Germany and seeing seven hundred people in the audience. 

Why did the book touch a nerve with so many people? I think, partly, because it’s truly a coming of age tale, in that it portrays the tender, vulnerable nature of being very, very young—and very, very earnest--and trying to make one’s way in the world. And both the glory and the horror of being so very alone in the world. And making mistakes, in life and love, and caring too much.

Though, well, if I’m truly honest, I’ll say this: I attempted to write My Salinger Year as if it were a novel, with a defined story arc and fully developed characters, while retaining the intense intimacy of a memoir. And part of me thinks it's appeal lies therein? In the style and tone? Is that possible?

The book, like the film, creates a New York that is perhaps long gone, a city filled with creative ambitions, dreamers and eccentrics. 

I suppose. Though I think New York will always be filled with dreamers and eccentrics, with artists of all types. I know the standard thinking is that New York has become a city of commerce, a city driven by banking, that it’s prohibitively expensive, that the grind of life kills the creative impulse, that the most exciting art is being made in Detroit and Los Angeles and suchlike. But my own experience has been that New York will always have a pull for anyone with intense ambition in all the arts and related fields, or perhaps in all fields.


My nephew, a filmmaker, and his partner, a photographer, live in Brooklyn, just blocks away from where I lived in 1996, the year My Salinger Year takes place. But my niece, an OB/GYN dedicated to providing health care for women in at risk communities, also lives nearby. She’s a dreamer—in the best sense of the term—and a creative type, in her own way, and she, of course, thrives on New York’s intense, dynamic energy. New York somehow pushes you—to move forward, to make it, to do your best work—in a way that perhaps no other city does. 

"Over the years, we sometimes briefly discussed showing more of Salinger, but we always came to the conclusion that it didn’t make sense to do so."

It is that New York we see in the 90s that really does make you want to move there, how did you manage to so beautifully recapture this period?

The book, in part, came out of my desire to write about that period! Or 1996, specifically. The year in which the media world—and, well, the world itself—was about to dive off a cliff into the digital era. I had been thinking, constantly, about phones and the way they’ve changed the way humans experience daily life. Which led me to thinking about that year, 1996, which seemed to me the last year in which I could be completely and utterly alone in the world. 

All of which is to say, I spent a lot of time thinking my way back into that period. For about a year after I agreed to write the book, I just sat at my desk, writing about that year without thinking too much about it, without trying to shape actual scenes, just trying to remember my way back inside the story and the era. I wrote something like two hundred pages that never made it into the book, but that allowed me to understand the setting and the story and the characters.

I also, of course, did a lot of research. I interviewed everyone I worked with during that year, as well as people who worked at Ober in different eras, and various Salinger experts; and I read back issues of Vogue and The New Yorker and the Times, and read a lot about what was happening in publishing and media at the time, so that I could better understand my own experiences.

Had you always hoped that you would be able to turn your memoir into a film?

Okay, it’s impossible to answer this question, because, you see, the film rights for My Salinger Year were initially optioned—by River Road Entertainment and the screenwriter Emma Forrest—based on my proposal, shortly after I signed a contract for the book. So as I was writing the book, I knew that it would be adapted for film, though this didn’t effect my writing at all (other than to make me feel a bit more nervous and pressured).

How did My Salinger Year, the film, come about? 

Well, I’d presumed that Emma would begin work on the screenplay once she received my manuscript. And that we’d likely work together, closely, on rewrites. There’d been, to be honest, a lot of interest in the proposal and I’d spoken to a lot of screenwriters and producers, some of whom had kind of crazy ideas, which had made me very excited to work with Emma, because I felt that she truly understood the story and I also just liked her, personally. 

But one day, perhaps seven months after I’d signed the film contract—and a full year before I was due to turn in the book!—I woke up to an email from her, saying she’d just turned in the script. The proposal, just so you understand, was twenty-five pages long. And really just presented an overview of the story. So I was pretty shocked. I didn’t understand how she could have written the script without the book on which it was meant to be based. 

It turned out, I guess, that…she couldn’t. River Road rejected the screenplay outright; they didn’t offer her the chance to rewrite it. And the presumption was that they would wait until I finished the book before hiring a new screenwriter. 

But before they could do so, their option expired. By this time, the book was out in a lot of the world. And my agent thought it made sense to cast our net widely. So I, again, spent a lot of time on the phone with producers, who, this time around, were all pretty great. One day, as we were going over my calls, my agent said, “so, this is a strange coincidence, but a really amazing French Canadian director actually called us, inquiring about the rights to the book.” The director was Philippe Falardeau. It turns out he’d picked up the book, at a bookstore, to bring with him on vacation, in part because it sounded interesting, in part because it sounded like it might make a good next film for him. He called my agent having no idea she was in the middle of auctioning the film rights. “He’s more of an indie filmmaker,” she said. “But I think he’d be a great choice.” She sent me screeners of his last two films—Monsieur Lazhar, which was nominated for an Oscar, and The Good Lie—and I loved them.

A few days later, he flew down to Cambridge to meet with me. We spent hours and hours talking; and as I walked home, I called my agent and said, “he’s the one.” He just understood the story in the most profound way. And I also found it incredibly easy to talk with him. He’s a great listener. Which is partially what makes him a great director.


You serve as EP on this film but you didn't write the screenplay, did you have any doubts about handing over your story, your life, to another writer?

I didn't, honestly. I trusted Philippe, completely. In part because he made it very clear—in that first conversation--that he wanted the screenplay and the film itself to be a collaborative process. He said, over and over, "I'm a filmmaker--and a storyteller--but I'm not a writer" and "this is your story, so we'll want you--and need you--to be involved at every step of the way." And that turned out to be true. Philippe hired me as a consultant, which meant that he sent me drafts of the script every six months or so and I sent him back copious notes, which sometimes (perhaps to his annoyance!), included entire scenes of dialogue, and reams of background on publishing, on Williamsburg in the 1990s, on what two twenty-three-year-old women say to each other when they’re alone versus what they say when their boyfriends are around, on what they wear to watch tv, on what I was reading at the time and what I was writing. And he incorporated it all.  

Did you ever consider writing the screenplay yourself?

I did. One of my not-so-secret secrets is that I started off, as a writer, wanting to work in film. Back in 2011, when my agent first sent the proposal out to producers, I asked her about the possibility of writing the script, and she told me—point blank—that there was absolutely no chance anyone would allow me to take a stab at it. No chance. None.

It's funny, because now it’s completely normal for writers, particularly women writers, to adapt their own books for film and television, to become showrunners or head writers or at least be in the writers’ room. I think about Lindy West or Erin Michelle Dean or Megan Abbott. Now, producers, and networks, are actually looking to work with writers, particularly women writers, to make up for the inequities of the…entire history of the industry. But ten years ago, the standard line was: A writer can’t adapt her own book. She’s “too close” to the material. I knew I could adapt my own book. I knew I wasn’t too close to the material. But my then-agent—she’s since retired--truly believed that writers of books just weren’t equipped to write screenplays. 

In the end, I feel like I got the best of both worlds: I was given the chance to work closely with a visionary director. Who treated me with the respect of a peer. Working with Philippe—and his incredible producers, Kim McCraw and Luc Dery—was basically like a crash course in filmmaking. And I feel set up to write the screenplay for the next book (which I think is much more suited to television).

The film features two incredible performances from Margaret Qualley and Sigourney Weaver, how did you go about casting for the film?

About three years ago, the script was in a good enough place to begin casting the role of Joanna. Philippe and the casting director, Billy Hopkins, asked me to make a list of dream actresses for the role. Philippe felt very strongly that the actress must be the correct age for the part--twenty-three or twenty-four—in order to convey the character’s intense vulnerability and earnestness. But when I sat down to make a list of potential actresses, I found there weren’t all that many who were the right age and also had the box office draw we needed.

My husband and I were, at the time, watching The Leftovers--HBO's adaptation of the Tom Perrotta novel--in which Margaret Qualley kind of steals the show from Justin Theroux, who plays the main character. Keeril turned to me and said, "why can't she play you? She's perfect." 

I'd actually been thinking this myself but was too afraid to say it out loud, because she was indeed so perfect. As Jill, she literally vibrates with intelligence and her face registers every emotion with incredible depth and honesty. I loved her. But we'd never seen her in anything else. Keeril and I looked her up and saw that this was indeed her first major role. 

The next day, when Philippe and I spoke, I mentioned Margaret, nervously. Sure he was going to say that we needed a bigger name. But he didn’t. I think, at that point, everyone in the industry knew she was about to break out. Not long after, she was cast. I’m honestly still in a bit of shock. Because she is, indeed, perfect.

The role of Margaret was a bit harder. A year or so later, Kristen Scott Thomas was cast and the film went into pre-production. We were set to begin shooting in late spring 2018. In early spring—April?—Kristen pulled out, as her mother became ill, and she didn’t want to leave Europe. Philippe tried to recast, so as not to lose our production dates, but it was just too late. And then, nearly a year later, Sigourney signed on! And we all, instantly, couldn’t imagine anyone else in the role.

What was it like meeting Margaret and Sigourney for the first time?

It was incredibly emotional, for all three of us. I was on set for the last week of production, when all the scenes that took place in the Agency were shot. The production had, actually, taken over the entire floor of a historic building in downtown Montreal—designed by the same architect who designed the Empire State Building—and turned it into a simulacrum of the Agency’s offices circa 1996. So I arrived on the set and, basically, walked into my past, which was emotional in and of itself! 

Margaret and Sigourney knew I was arriving that day, but not what time, and I think I arrived a bit earlier than they expected. And when Philippe walked me over to Margaret, she kind of stared at me, in shock, for a moment. Then her eyes filled with tears and she said, “I can’t believe you’re here! I can’t believe you’re here!” And hugged me. At which point, my eyes filled with tears. As they would, constantly, in the days that followed, as I watched Margaret and Sigourney both play these roles I wrote and, simultaneously, re-enact these moments I lived.

And Sigourney, well, I will confess I was a little scared to meet her. For days, I had been, basically, freaking out about what to wear and how to present myself, in general. But once Margaret and I parted, she hugged me, too, and whispered, “thank you for this role,” in my ear. Over the days that followed, I spent a lot of time with her, and, well, she’s the best. Deeply intelligent, funny, kind, patient. She talked more about her daughter and husband—and her parents—than about herself. I felt silly for being so nervous beforehand.


There is a scene with Margaret Qualley and Sigourney Weaver on the stairwell before she leaves she gives her a hug, which is an incredibly heartwarming and a powerful moment in the film. It seems to really sum up and capture the closeness and respect that you had for her. What was your relationship like with Phyllis Westberg?


I love that scene and, apparently, can’t sit through it without bursting into tears. Perhaps because in real life, Phyllis Westberg and I never hugged, not even on my last day in the office. Phyllis was very much a product of a more formal era. Who did not believe in physical contact with one’s employees.That said, there are different ways of being close with people. Phyllis made it very clear that she was my boss, not my friend, and, thus, we rarely—perhaps never—discussed anything personal. And, yet, through working closely with her—and working diligently, but with intelligence, and following her rules—we developed the sort of closeness that comes from mutual respect. When I first began working with her, I was terrified of her and also mystified by her. I didn’t understand why she conducted business the way she did, adhering to a professional code that seemed outmoded, at best, and counterproductive, at worst. I grew to not just to understand her approach to work and life, but to love and respect it. I wish I could hug her now! And tell her how grateful I am to her, for taking me on and teaching me so much, not just about publishing and literature, but about how to be a grown up, and how to be a woman in what was still then—and this appears, sort of, to be changing—very much a man’s world.

How close did the production design team get your office in the film?

Very close. I mean, it’s perfect. The production designer, Elise de Blois, and the props master, Simone Le Clerc—both actual geniuses—consulted with me on even the tiniest details, from the office’s layout to the carpeting and ceiling to the types of phones and index cards and desk blotters. (I have much email from Simone, saying, for instance, “I’m scouting phones. Take a look at these photos and tell me which one most resembles the phones at the Agency.” And I’d get to take a break from my new book and look at vintage phones for fifteen minutes.) As I said, I almost passed out when I stepped onto the set. I honestly didn’t realize it would be possible for them to recreate the Agency in such detail!

In My Salinger Year we never see Salinger's face which retains his mystique in a way, was this a decision you were happy with?

I was very happy with it! Philippe presented me with this idea in our very first meeting, actually. Over the years, we sometimes briefly discussed showing more of Salinger, but we always came to the conclusion that it didn’t make sense to do so. The film, like the book, is largely about Joanna’s experience. We see the world through her eyes. To open it up and make it more about Salinger would be to make a very different sort of film.

Do you have a favourite scene in the film?

It’s hard to pick just one! But there’s one scene that’s pure invention, which Philippe and I worked out together, in which Joanna is out on an errand for her boss—dropping off a package—and she walks by the elegant restaurant at which her boss is having lunch with a group of people. Her boss’s boyfriend—in the movie, he’s a fixture at the office; not the case in the book or in life—invites her in and Joanna, well, I don’t want to give too much away, but let’s just say she has an awkward conversation with an unexpected person.

And, of course, the scene in which Joanna goes to see her college boyfriend—he’s called Karl in the movie, but in real life he’s Keeril, my husband—just about killed me. Each time I watch it, waves of emotion wash over me. The actor who plays Karl, Hamza Haq, has a similar quality to Margaret; an emotional transparency. He’s just wonderful. And the scene is truly heartbreaking.

Is there a Salinger quote that you're quite fond of?

I’m not a huge quote person, to be honest. My favourite moments from Salinger’s work all concern small moments and observations. I love the moment in “Franny” when she asks Lane if he got her letter and he says, “what letter?” Even though he’s read it a thousand times. I love Franny’s rant about, essentially, all the outward markers of success are meaningless. And the moment, after, when she says, basically, “Oh, don’t mind me. I’m horrible. I’ve been like this all week.” I love every single sentence of The Catcher in the Rye. Can my favourite quote be the entire book?

And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from My Salinger Year?

I suppose what one takes away from any great film: I hope they’ll be moved by it, that they’ll leave theatres seeing the world slightly differently than when they came in, that they’ll see their own lives with a renewed perspective.

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