Griffin Dunne on Making a Documentary About Joan Didion

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Joan Didion is a major writer. She's responsible for some of our most insightful cultural criticism, and has written definitive works about Los Angeles, cultural shifts, and coping (or not coping) with death; it's no stretch to say that she is one of our culture's most important writers. Recently, her nephew, filmmaker/actor/writer Griffin Dunne set out to do what hadn't been done before: make a documentary, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, about her life. We spoke to Dunne about that process, as well as what it was like to grow up with an aunt and uncle that were changing the course of literature. 

Dunne's film, which he is directing along with Susanne Rostock, is live on Kickstarter right now.  

On the project page for the film, you mention that the narrative structure of the film will be dictated by Joan Didion's essays. Is your own experience as her nephew part of that structure as well?

One of the things we have been fortunate about with the structure has always been that one of the initial ideas was to use her work to thread the story of her life. From that, we’ll have tangents of interviews and break down certain articles. It solidifies our original vision that this is very much a film for the fans of Joan. It’s not an exposé, because no one could be more self-analytical and probing about the truth of their own lives than Joan about her own. We’ve been fortunate to have her essays serve as our narration. 

Growing up with both John [Dunne, Didion's late husband] and Joan—they shared this candor in their writing all my life. My brothers and sisters and parents and I would always sort of—I would read in the Saturday Evening Post or LIFE magazine where they each had alternate columns—kind of where they were at in their marriage, or where they were traveling or what was going on in their lives. We’d read about it more than hearing them talk about it. We didn’t know they were having marital problems and thinking about divorce until we read it. For me in particular, I was an early teen in the ’60s, and I was too young to get high and get arrested and participate in demonstrations and hitchhike to Woodstock, but I felt a part of that era because John and Joan were my aunt and uncle—their experiences and where they went and where the culture took them in their journalism—I always felt related to that as well. They were very social, they would give parties, which they would include me in. I went to a party for Tom Wolfe when Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test came out and Janis Joplin was at the party. It was impressionable stuff for a 13-year-old. I eventually even made a movie about it. They were both very influential and never stopped being incredibly impressive to me. It’s an unusual thing to be in constant awe of your relations. They’re my aunt and uncle and now my aunt is surviving—that kind of awe and admiration has never stopped. 

It must have have been strange for you to learn about their lives from their writing.

They would answer questions in their writing that I wouldn’t have had the guts to ask. And I think that kind of style and that kind of self introspection and self-imposed toughness on the questions that they asked themselves. I think all of that was recognized, but when things were absolutely the most terrible in Joan’s life, her style and technique of writing were chained together in a tragic way on The Year of Magical Thinking. Suddenly an entire new generation of readers became aware of her because of that book, and because of what happened that led to that book being written. It’s another wave of people acknowledging that kind of writing. You write about death and how it effects you and how you grapple with it. It’s written in a voice from someone that has to write this in order to live. I mean, Joan used that phrase—she’s written in order to live ever since she picked up a pen and paper as a little girl. A much broader audience found her on The Year of Magical Thinking, but really she’d been writing the way she’d always been writing, she just happened to be writing about John and Quintana [Roo Dunne, daughter of John Dunne and Didion, who passed away in 2005] in this case.

You mentioned finding a new audience for Didion's work, but also, you seem to be surprised that a documentary about her hadn't already been made.

I don’t think she’s allowed it. Not in a JD Salinger-esque kind of way. I don’t think she’s been comfortable with the process of a camera following her around. She’s happy to do it if she’s promoting a book. Actually, not happy, but will do it. She will travel around the country and do the book readings and the Q&As and all that stuff. But that’s a specific mission. It gives her actual migraines after awhile.

Didion is very emotionally honest and open about her life in her writing. It must have been interesting weaving a narrative from that.

It’s going to be hard to find stuff that people don’t know that she hasn’t beat me to the punch about. I think what people won’t know is where she is at in this period of her life that she has decided to allow a documentary to be made—which is probably being made, more than likely, because I am her relative and we had worked together on Blue Nights and she liked the experience very much. I think people are going to see where she is physically and emotionally, and Blue Nights is very much not just about the loss of Quintana, but it’s also about aging. She’s very much in the August of her years—that’s not the part that she shared with the rest of the world, you know? I think you’ll also see that she has such a heart-attack seriousness perception-wise, and yet she has this really great sense of humor and a really funny laugh, and loves to laugh. There’s humor in the interviews as well. We were shooting her and Vanessa Redgrave going through a scrapbook of Vanessa’s daughter’s Natasha [Richardson, who passed away in 2009] wedding to Liam [Neeson]—it was about memories. Two women who survived a terrible loss looking at a book filled with happy memories. There was a lot of laughter and reminiscing. Those are the kind of moments I'm willing to happen.

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

What spurred you to make this film?

When Susanne Rostock and I—who I’m co-directing the film with—when we did Blue Nights together, which was going to be used a promotional tool for the sale of the book, but the publishers gave us more money than they normally would have for something like that. When Susanne had the first cut of the picture, we both looked at each other and said, "This is a feature. Why has there never been a feature about Joan?" After we showed it to Joan and her publishers the next conversation we had with Joan was, "This could be a movie. Can we make a movie of this?" and she agreed. It’s an awesome responsibility, and it’s something I’ve been given permission to do that no one else has. It couldn’t be more clear how many fans are passionate about her work, want to see this, and feel it’s a story that has to be seen. That someone like this hasn’t been honored with a life story documentary is kind of shocking and surprising.

Did your relationship with Didion change in the process of putting this together?

No, not in a sense. It’s more my own internal relationship, because when I go over for dinner, and I bring up the film, I kind of feel like I’m talking business during dinner. If I had less perspective, I wouldn’t be thinking about that kind of stuff. Or I would have this thought: God, I wish I got what she just told me on camera. The only thing that’s really changed about my relationship with Joan is that as we’ve both gotten older, the people who are our most immediate relatives have passed on. Through that progression, or de-evolution or whatever you want to call it, we’ve ended up in first position right next to each other. When John died, my father became her John—not literally—emotionally, just in terms of the day-to-day relationship, and then when my dad died, it effortlessly became what I did, and it remained that way.

How did you create a timeline? How did you construct a narrative from all these disparate pieces?

We have a timeline chart of her life. An essay actually corresponds to the period in her life. If there is a section talking about her growing up in Sacramento, that would also lead to a conversation with Governor [Jerry] Brown of California, who is also from Sacramento and grew up with Joan’s family. He has known Joan’s family for generations, he can talk about California and the California where Joan is from. And then about their relationship when the governor was first running—for every campaign he’s always come to New York and stayed at John’s apartment or John and Joan’s apartment when he’s campaigning. And when we get to Slouching Towards Bethlehem as a period, we might talk to Jann Wenner about her contribution as a journalist and maybe he will reference one of her essays or pieces from The White Album about a particular murder, and then we’ll break down what that story is about, and show her unique perspective on an incident—big or small—but how it effects the national consciousness. Why that story about a woman who burns her husband alive in a car speaks to the kind of evil of the Santa Ana winds that were sweeping the nation when the '60s had gone bad post-Manson, post-Altamont. 

She was a social barometer for when wicked things come this way. I want to convey that point of view that Joan has that is so unique. That involves snakes being run over in deserts and poisonous spiders—these portentous images that run throughout her fiction and nonfiction, and use archival footage to illustrate our point. It would be kind of a tapestry of a person’s life that also talks about the changes of the country, from the New York of the ’50s when she was at Vogue through Vietnam, Manson, up to Reagan, Patty Hearst…her life in relation to all of these milestones. 

You mentioned the archival images would be a huge part of the film. A lot of people now come to Joan Didion through her iconography. Why do you think she’s turned into such a visual icon?

I think the internet has a huge amount to do with it. There’s an Instagram page that is also going to inform our documentary. The social media, which was never part of our vision for the movie, has to be recognized in it now. When I go through these pictures, I keep thinking I’ve seen just about everything and then I see an Instagram, and there are pictures I've never seen before, and someone has also used their favorite quote of hers. It's an interesting device, like a dust bunny or something. One thing picks up another, picks up another, and it just gets bigger and bigger. Images beget more images beget more images and then somebody comes along and says, "Oh my god! Is that Anna Wintour? No! That’s what Anna Wintour looks like." She has that look. She was Anna Wintour before Anna Wintour was Anna Wintour, and it was an entirely organic, spontaneous natural way that she dressed. She decided what to wear on her first day of work at Vogue. I think her stature —the usual words that come up: tiny frame, birdlike, with those big glasses—it’s just irresistible. People respond to that the way that they would respond to looking at a picture of Miles Davis without hearing his music, going “Who is that man?” Because of social media, people are drawn to her visually, and then want to know who she is.

Do you remember your first experience of reading her work?

I do. I was a terrible student. I was pretty severely dyslexic so reading was a real chore. I did like reading, I knew I was growing up in a pretty literary household, or at least a storytelling household in terms of being a family of film, television and novelists. But reading—I remember vividly how effortless it was to read Slouching Towards Bethlehem. One story after another completely engrossed me. The violence and the tone of violence and the tone of evil—these characters who I didn't know anything about. Someone who is murdered by these two guys on Fountain Avenue, and I grew up in LA, so I knew exactly the building. I could picture the violence of these two guys beating this [other] guy to death. It put in perspective later when Manson was killing — I thought of that. Joan was predicting a change in counterculture a year or two before that change actually happened, based on a violent incident. 

I remember being in our house in Los Angeles, reading it however slowly it was, just not getting up from the chair, just reading it all the way through. I can’t remember what room I was in, but I remember it getting darker and having to turn on the lights. It was a “Where were you when you read this?” moment. That’s a question we’ve asked many other people. It pinpoints people in their lives. Last night, Vanessa Redgrave’s agent Chris Andrews told me something that I hear all the time from different people, where they were in their station in life. He moved to California because he read Joan, It was "Lifestyles in the Golden Land" [The first section of Slouching Towards Bethlehem] I believe, that’s what drew him to Los Angeles as a very young man, and he stayed ever since. He credits Joan’s writing being the impetus of why he moved. It’s very rare that a writer can have an effect on so many people that they actually put their own lives in context.

Photo by John Bryson
Photo by John Bryson

What's your favorite piece of her writing?

There is a piece about Reagan that always—it was called "Many Mansions"—it is about Reagan as a governor. She just had his number from the very beginning. You know, Nancy Reagan was famously quoted as saying, “I don’t like that woman.” She just saw something in him that few people had seen before, that people weren't prepared to see. She understood his enormous appeal, that it would go to a national level. For the majority of her life, Joan has been a Republican, grew up in a very conservative household, which surprises a lot of people. But I think it served her very well in writing about politics. She doesn’t spare anyone, whatever her politics are. When she was at Berkeley she voted for [Barry] Goldwater. I like that essay because it deals with [Reagan] as a man before he’s going to become the man he’s going to be. It’s yet another time where Joan sees it before everybody else.

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