For a documentary filmmaker, does it help or hurt to be related to the subject of your film? For Griffin Dunne, the answer was a little of both.
The subject of Dunne’s new documentary is Joan Didion, the celebrated American writer known primarily for her literary essays, chronicling everything from the hippie movement in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” to a Central American civil war in “Salvador."
Didion is also Griffin Dunne’s aunt. Her late husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, was the brother of Griffin Dunne’s late father, the journalist Dominick Dunne. So although she’d turned down other documentarians looking to make a film about her life, Didion had a different reaction to her nephew’s request.
Known mainly for his acting roles in films like “After Hours” and “An American Werewolf in London,” and more recently for TV shows like “I Love Dick,” Dunne is also a producer and director.
He’d worked with his aunt before on other projects, including a short film to promote her book, “Blue Nights.” But “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold” was his first foray into documentary film.
The documentary chronicles Didion's life and work — from her relationship with her husband John and their daughter Quintana to the origins of her novels and essays.
Dunne spoke with The Frame's John Horn about "Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold."
Joan Didion is your aunt. On the one hand that probably makes things easier in a way because you know each other so well. But, on the other hand, I wonder if it presents problems about what you feel you know, but may not want to ask readily about?
Yeah, well that's exactly what I've dealt with. I've often thought [that] the good news is she's giving me permission because I'm related. The bad news is I'm related and it's going to be very difficult for me to ask questions about loss, about Quintana, about John, who I grew up with, who I love deeply, who I watched her suffer through and asked her to relive it. And it was really difficult, but I think she's a journalist. She knows it's my job to ask that. And so she fully expected me. She probably would have lost respect if I didn't go there. But on a personal level I wished I was just an outsider, dispassionate journalist and just keep probing and picking.
How did you figure out the balance between what she did journalistically and what she did personally and what the work-family balance of the film would be? Because the work-family balance is a huge part of this documentary.
So much of the work also was about her writing about her life personally. And even when she was writing about Haight-Ashbury, it was it was still so much from her personal point of view — San Francisco in the Summer of Love. So I always envisioned it to be a tapestry of a life that would that would go from her personal essays and then expounding on what was going on in her life and what was going on in the country. And then, as she got older, incidents that would happen in American history or civil war in El Salvador would be following her life in tandem with what was going on in the world.
David Hare, the screenwriter and author, is interviewed in the documentary and he has this great line. He calls it, "The horror of disorder," and that's part of what she was attracted to in the stories that she wrote. It could be Dick Cheney, it could be El Salvador — she had a way of looking at complicated issues and crystallizing them in ways that ordinary observers wouldn't. As a filmmaker do you look at what she does as a journalist and see it as a way of the artist looking at the world around him or herself and putting it in order to tell a story?
Absolutely. She's drawn to disorder. She doesn't like a disorder in her own life. She's a meticulous person in trying to control the events. She writes, as she says, "to know what I think." There's a sequence in the movie where she's trying to find connective tissues that led up to the Manson killing and she's interviewing Linda Kasabian, but she makes a connection at that time, of the disorder of that time in 1969, between the wedding dress that she bought for her wedding and all the connective things that happened to that dress being spilled on with red wine by Roman Polanski. Then she finds herself interviewing and staying — pretty much living — with Linda Kassabian. And she goes, I'm trying to find the connective... these seeming unrelated things. I'm trying to make sense of but there really is no way to make sense of it.
There's no way to make emotional or intellectual sense. I guess the physical way to make sense of it is that Roman Polanski's wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by Charles Manson. Linda Kasabian was a follower of Charles Manson. So there is the kind of logistical connection, but what is the existential connection?
And that is one of those essays where she says, "I'm coming up with nothing," right? Because the times make no sense.
In "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," she writes about being in San Francisco at a party and she sees a five-year-old who is either taking, or on, LSD. And you ask her about that. She says: "Let me tell you, it was gold. I mean that's the long and the short of it. You live for moments like that if you're doing a piece." I was taken aback by that. What did that story mean to you when she was relating it?
That was the last thing I thought she would say. ... And of course I'm waiting [for her to say it was] the most horrible thing [she] ever saw. But her answer that it was "gold" is to me pure Joan, because she is a mother. While she's writing that piece in San Francisco, she's left her two-year-old daughter in Los Angeles, who she misses desperately. But here she is seeing a child not much older and she is able to make that division in her mind. This as a journalist is an unforgettable moment that sums up the thesis of her essay, that this world will fall apart. The center will not hold. This is families that have fallen apart. The family structure as we know it is forever changed. Other people are looking at hippies and thinking it's all love, but she's looking at runaways. She's looking at the drugs that are going to have this lasting effect on people's lives. She makes the division.
Let's talk about her relationship with her late husband, John Gregory Dunne. You probably have a perception, in your child's-eye view, of watching your aunt and your uncle and their relationship. What did you learn about their relationship that you didn't know about?
John-and-Joan was one word when we were kids. They were inseparable. I always thought of them as probably the most successful couple I had ever seen. The way they could work together. And when you talk to one on the phone, Joan would be on the other handset. But I didn't know, for example, that their marriage was in trouble or that they were thinking of getting a divorce. None of us did in our family until we read [her story] in Life Magazine. And then, of course, I find out [that] John actually edited the piece. While she's writing, I'm thinking of leaving my husband, he's the editor. So I got a really strong sense more than ever of their collaboration.
There is a moment where she also references his temper and about the fights that they would have. Was that something you knew about growing up?
I did. I produced a script, we didn't get to make, of "Vegas," that John and Joan wrote.
This is when their marriage is on the rocks and John Gregory Dunne moves to Las Vegas.
That's what that book was about then. Years later, they asked if I wanted to produce an adaptation of "Vegas." So I would see John on a working level. And when he got pissed, it was something to behold. Later in life, he learned that when he wrote one of these letters, they were devastating if you received them. I got one once in my life. Instead of sending it, he would put it in a drawer. He would have to do that because when he lost his temper, you know, it was an Irish temper. Long-held grudges would just come flowing out of him.
Why do you think she stayed with him?
I think that they were ... Joan, as she says in the doc, I don't know what falling in love means. That's not in my vocabulary. And I could never be with someone who wasn't a writer. I think they saw that they would never find anyone else who could put up with each other. Joan, I'm sure, would have her moments of being terribly distant and I think they would go two or three days without even speaking [while living] in the same house. But then they would get together. But they understood that they made each other's work better. And then they had a daughter that they both were devoted to. And since that [Life] article, I don't think they ever really thought about seriously breaking up again.
Toward the end of the documentary a couple of really tragic things happen in short order. Their daughter Quintana gets sick. She recovers, she gets sick again. And her husband, John, gets sick and actually dies. Then Quintana later passes away. When you're going into the story you know that these events have happened. You obviously want to talk about them. What is it you're looking for in terms of her perspective on these two losses?
I guess I wanted to see what the difference would be, the way she would just talk about them to me — who knew them, loved them — and see what the differences between how she vocalizes it and how she writes it. I think that there's still a sort of removal. She says to me [that] the first call she made when she came back from the hospital and John had died, she said, Well, I called your father and had that obligatory conversation. And it's very sort of matter-of-fact. Although, it was not emotionally matter-of-fact at all. But again, it's that division. I think what she poured her heart into was writing it, not telling it.
To listen to the full interview with Griffin Dunne, click on the player above.