‘Salinger,’ a Documentary Film

May 11th, 2013

LOS ANGELES — J. D. Salinger was good at keeping secrets.

Harvey Weinstein, well, not so much.

But now the film producer may have to adopt the air of mystery for which Salinger was so famous. His company is preparing to offer a peek at a documentary about Salinger that is one of the unlikeliest projects ever to join its menagerie of potential Oscar contenders and box-office bait.

The film, “Salinger,” has been nine years in the making and is scheduled for release on Sept. 6. It is written, produced and directed by Shane Salerno, who is mostly known as a writer of action features like “Savages,” “Alien vs. Predator: Requiem” and “Armageddon.”

Selling the film may test even Mr. Weinstein’s Barnum-like skills. Moviegoers will be kept intentionally in the dark about what new information Mr. Salerno might have about the reclusive writer’s life — Mr. Salinger’s son, Matthew, challenges the notion that anyone close to his father in recent decades cooperated — and the Weinstein Company will have to strike a delicate balance in its marketing. It will have to raise the curtains a little, but not too much, as it seeks to build anticipation for the release.

As Mr. Salerno delivers his final cut, the marketers face particularly tough decisions about how much to show in a trailer. They must also figure out whether a screening at a late summer film festival, where prize contenders often start their march toward the Oscars, can work for a picture that has to protect its secrets while selling them.

It’s a difficult task in an era when fluttering fingers on smartphones can give away all the surprises. “I don’t know how we do this and not rob the audience,” Mr. Weinstein said in a telephone interview.

Associates of Mr. Salerno hint at never-before-seen photographs and interviews with aging intimates of Salinger, as well as secrets that they decline to describe. But there is skepticism. Speaking by phone, Matthew Salinger said that neither he nor his father were involved with the film. Nor, as far as he knows, were the seven or eight members of a small circle of people who were close to J. D. Salinger, he said. “There were barely enough people to form a circle in the last 30 or 40 years,” he said.

Asked whether he was confident that his father had not cooperated with Mr. Salerno, Mr. Salinger laughed. “That would be a yes,” he said.

Still, Mr. Weinstein has a proven track record with documentaries, having brought more than a touch of spectacle to the marketing of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Bully,” “Sicko,” and “Madonna: Truth or Dare.”

Mr. Weinstein snapped up “Salinger” quickly after Mr. Salerno showed it to him at an unusual 7:30 a.m. screening on Feb. 24, the day of the Academy Awards, according to people familiar with the film, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. On his way to the ceremony he sealed a deal for the film that is part of a three-prong strategy, including an “American Masters” TV segment on PBS in January and an oral history in book form that Simon & Schuster is to publish in September in tandem with the film’s theatrical release.

Potential foreign buyers may get at least a glimpse of the film as early as this month during the Cannes Film Festival.

The sell for “Salinger” begins with a tantalizing question: What has Mr. Salerno got that lured the only three prospective buyers who watched a rough version to jump in? People involved with the project offer teasing suggestions of new revelations, but no details.

Buddy Squires a seasoned documentarian who collaborated with Mr. Salerno as a producer and a cinematographer on “Salinger,” said recently in a brief phone conversation that “it is safe to say no one has ever seen a film like this.” He declined to say more.

Jonathan Karp, Simon & Schuster’s president and publisher, said in an interview that the 750-page manuscript for the book “was revelatory, far beyond anything that’s been written about Salinger to date.” But like Mr. Squires, he would not reveal anything specific.

Susan Lacy, executive producer of the “American Masters” series, was just as circumspect. She said she was legally barred from discussing details of the film. But when asked whether it divulged any secrets, she replied, “Yes, I would just say that, yes, there are revelations.”

For the moment Mr. Salerno, who is finishing a final version, declines to be interviewed.

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