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Inside the Essential New Joan Didion Documentary

We chat with filmmaker Griffin Dunne about chronicling the life of his legendary aunt.

Esther Zuckerman

Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne, Quintana Roo Dunne. Photo courtesy of Netflix

Griffin Dunne has been observing Joan Didion for most of his life. Before he was an actor known for his performances in After Hours and, more recently, I Love Dick, he was the nephew of the writer idolized for her generation-defining prose. The author of Slouching Towards Bethlehem mitigated his childhood embarrassment at a family function—and one of her events, a party for Tom Wolfe attended by Janis Joplin, served as inspiration for his own work.

Now, Dunne is sharing some of that vantage point with Didion's fans in Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, which premiered at the New York Film Festival and is out on Netflix today. The film, which was funded via Kickstarter, takes a broad look at Didion's vast oeuvre and impact, touching on her early days at Vogue, reporting on 60s counterculture, and Hollywood connections. (Harrison Ford was her carpenter!) It also delves into her relationships with her husband, John Gregory Dunne, and her daughter, Quintana Roo, whose deaths were the subjects of her memoirs The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights.

Dunne spoke with me last week about how he wanted to capture his aunt and how his personal memories shaped his movie.

VICE: At any point in the process of fundraising, were you surprised at the response Joan engenders among her fans?
Griffin Dunne: What initially made me ask Joan if she would give me permission was that I had an instinct that there would be a real hunger for this. I was surprised that no one had made a documentary about her before, but I was still blown away by the global viral response when that trailer came out. I was getting emails and press requests from Japan, from every country you can imagine. While I know her importance in the world, I still was surprised at how huge it was.

Joan has written about a range of human experiences, including her own. What challenges did that present?
One of the advantages was also one of the challenges. I had the narration to her whole life story just by from pulling from what she's written about her life. But what could I do so it wouldn't just be an audiobook for the eyes? For the sections that I knew I would be reading, I would try to put them in context with what was going on in the world and where she was in her life in a visual way, and then reinforce what she was saying on the page with the interviews that people had about her at those times in her life. I always had hope that the movie itself would feel very much like a tapestry.

How did you see your role in the making of this? Your personal connection gave you access to Joan, but how much of yourself did you want to include?
It was a constant work in progress. It went from literally doing just what I said I was afraid of doing—what I didn't really want to do, which is string her prose all together and tell a story with pictures and never hear my voice—to realizing, Why am I covering up? It's not a secret that we're related. She gave me permission to make the movie because we're related, and I happen also to be a film director. I was witness to many of the moments in her life, the family events, and a participant. Our two families were incredibly close growing up.

If it wasn't directly related to Joan, it didn't end up in the movie. A film I admire very much, was exactly the kind of film I wanted to not make, is My Architect. It's not My Joan; it's Everybody's Joan. I felt a certain obligation and responsibility to show Joan, not just the Joan that I know, but also the Joan that has written all these works and talk to people who can talk about her work and the importance it had to the time, and the lasting quality of her work, and the influence her work has on so many people.

Were there any instances in the making of the film where you felt possessive of the familial relationship that you have with Joan and had to step back and look at it from a more journalistic eye?
I talked about being at the Janis [Joplin] party, and I talked to Joan about being there. I was 11 years old, and it made a huge impression on me this party, so much so that the very first film I directed was about that party. It was a personal thing for me that in the editorial process I had to put it out there in order to take it away.

As I got to know my film more, it became clear what should be there and what shouldn't. The thing I grappled the most with was talking about meeting Joan for the first time. [But] I just love her laughing, and it spoke to her character. It's exhibited in her writing. She doesn't write what the mainstream media are saying or what the pundits are saying—she's writing what's underneath that. She's not the person who's going to laugh at a little boy, and she doesn't participate in the crowd reaction.

How much of what's in the documentary did you already know, and how much came to you in your research process?
On the personal family side, I always knew I'd have John christening Quintana. I always knew I would talk about the Janis party. So much of our interviews was us talking about people I'd grown up with—some that are here, and some no longer. The conversation became so familiar you couldn't even tell who the hell we were talking about. We forgot the cameras were going.

But I also knew that I would always use "Goodbye to All That," because it personally spoke to me so much about the excitement of arriving in New York, and the moment of when it burns out and you think of leaving. I never left. It's her personal trajectory and then her life of enthusiasm and disillusionment over the course of time. It just related to so many people; it's one of her most quoted works. I think that's why she could write about losing a husband and losing a daughter, and write it only as she could experience it, writing it to understand what she was experiencing, without the intention of it being so embraced in such a deeply personal way by so many people who had also experienced loss.

One of the most striking moments of the film was David Hare talking about feeding Joan while they were working on the play based on The Year of Magical Thinking. Why did you want to include the worry and concern that her friends had over her weight at the time? Did you receive any pushback from her?
I never received pushback or one note, for that matter. I showed her every cut, way earlier than I would show an investor or a normal subject if I were to do a documentary about somebody else. She first saw a three-hour cut, and I just wanted her to have the opportunity to go, "OK, this is not what I want," so I could find out right away.

Joan says about herself and me: How her weight has been a concern of her friends forever. She gets quite annoyed about it, because she's never been on the heavy side, but she was particularly thin during that time. I think David is talking not just about food but about bringing her back into the world through a collaborative process, and she went to every rehearsal and every performance, and Joan loved to work and work really saved her. She got a lot of just creative nourishment from that and from being out in the world. That's what prompted me to ask if she'd let me make the documentary. It came about because she asked if I would do a promotional video for Blue Nights. It's one of the saddest books ever written, and it's very, very tough on her as a mother and about aging and all these huge life events that were terribly tragic and sad. However, making the short film she loved getting in the van, getting to the next location, the crew lunches, the involvement of making a movie. It was just really fun for her and for me.

How did you strive to balance the many elements of her work—her political work, her Hollywood work, the story of her own life? Was there any thought of making it less all-encompassing? And, if not, how did you figure out how to weave it all in?
Well, I hoped to maybe sort of touch on every book, fiction or nonfiction, but it took on a sort of laundry list character after a while. Miami was a whole section, and I worried that somebody would say, "But you didn't do my favorite one, you know, Democracy." I kind of looked at it as a "greatest hits" album. I chose the pieces that she's most known for and the result has been, to my delight, what isn't in there many people's first response is to want to go to a bookstore and get the books that they haven't read. So leaving people wanting, in this case, turned out to be a really good thing.

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