Their Love Letter to Aunt Joan (Didion)
Though fans admire Ms. Didion’s ability to write coolly about matters of the heart, Mr. Dunne said that he could not separate his emotions from the filmmaking. “It was always going to be a love letter,” he said. “She’s my Aunt Joan.”
In the new film, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” which reaches theaters and Netflix on Oct. 27, Ms. Didion’s notably distant cool is immediately apparent when she discusses her classic 1967 essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” which chronicled the dark side of the hippie movement in San Francisco. While reporting on free love and flower children, Ms. Didion encountered a harrowing scene inside a flophouse, where a 5-year-old girl was tripping on LSD. When Mr. Dunne pressed Ms. Didion to describe this incident for the documentary, she said, “Let me tell you, it was gold. That’s the long and the short of it, is you live for moments like that if you are doing a piece. Good or bad.”
Ms. Didion’s candid comment, recorded during a long conversation in 2013 that makes up the bulk of the documentary, reflects the levelheaded yet ambitious tone that made “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and her first essay collection of the same name a national sensation in 1968. Though she had already published one novel, “Run River,” in 1963, it was her nonfiction that turned Ms. Didion into a writer-celebrity, a glamorous cultural space she still occupies five decades later. In her long career, Ms. Didion has published more than a dozen books, written or co-written six screenplays, and received the National Book Award and the National Humanities Medal.
Still, Mr. Dunne said, she waited a long time to consent to a documentary. “She kept saying no,” he said. “It wasn’t until she asked me to film the trailer for her book ‘Blue Nights’ in 2011 that I started to think about being the one to do it. I saw how much she loved the process. I thought, this is all going so great, why don’t I just ask her?”
To his delight, she said yes. Writing via email, Ms. Didion said: “I’m still not sure it is the right time. Six years ago, when I said yes, it did not seem possible that the time to actually do it would ever arrive. I’m naturally skeptical that these things can work. But here we are.”
Ms. Dunne said with a laugh, “Of course, neither of you knew what you were getting into,” and Mr. Dunne agreed.
“The gravity and the burden of responsibility only kicked in later,” he said, after it became clear how much interest there was in a Didion documentary. A crowdfunding campaign for the film reached its goal in one day and news that the project was in the works made international headlines. He realized, “I better not screw this up.”
Mr. Dunne, who has directed five features, including “Practical Magic” (1998), said that while Ms. Didion “is no chatterbox,” he felt that there was a cathartic effect to asking her about her past. Ms. Didion agreed, saying by email: “I felt at home with Griffin and Annabelle from the beginning. Feeling at home was most important. It was nice at the very least to talk to someone who knew John and Q. I couldn’t have described either of them to another interviewer.”
“John and Q” were Ms. Didion’s husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, who died in 2003 after a sudden heart attack, and her daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael, who passed away as a result of an infection in 2005 at only 39. Mr. Dunne and his cousin have also experienced their share of grief — Mr. Dunne’s sister, Dominique, was killed in Los Angeles in 1982, and both of his parents, including his father, the longtime Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne, are gone.
“It was torture.” Mr. Dunne said of approaching the last quarter of the film, in which he raised the subject of loss with Ms. Didion, who had written two books exploring the tragedies, the best sellers “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005) and “Blue Nights.”
“I think it was easier for her than it was for me,” Mr. Dunne said, adding, “For me, the good news was I’m related, so I got permission to make this movie. The bad news was I am related, so I know all the people she lost. Quintana is my cousin, John is my uncle, and I have to make her go through it all over again. If I was a more dispassionate, regular documentarian, that would be questions on the clipboard.”
Still, Ms. Didion, who saw several cuts of the film along the way, said, “I did find it fortifying to know that I was telling these secrets to people who regarded them as such.”
The feeling was mutual. “I was really conscious of how just through attrition, there was just Joan and I in the room,” Mr. Dunne said. “It’s probably one of the reasons she let me make the movie. I know all those people who are not here, I loved all those people, we share that love.”
“Without being too mystical, I was always aware of my parents, and John, and Quintana, in the editing room,” he added, his chin shaking, fighting back tears. “And I think they would have liked it.”
via NYT http://nyti.ms/2gVZ2VB
October 24, 2017 at 04:42PM