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When Griffin Dunne was 13 years old, he received a Christmas present from his aunt: a signed copy of a book she’d recently published. That book was the 1968 essay collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and his aunt was Joan Didion, who would go on to establish herself as one of the most formidable writers and journalists of her era.
“I would always get a signed copy of her books for Christmas,” the filmmaker and actor told DEPARTURES. “And as I got older, I would get the galleys, which were loose pages in a shoebox. I always felt pretty honored to read [a text] so early… but she didn’t ask me for editing points”—Dunne laughs—“Don’t get me wrong.” (Today, two shelves of his bookcase are filled with signed copies of her first editions, including the ones she gifted his parents and siblings.)
Though Dunne was just a young teenager when he read Slouching, the book gave him a visceral first impression of his aunt as a writer. The non-fiction collection is centered on her experiences in 1960s California; its title essay details San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood during its prime as a drug-fueled counterculture mecca. “I was too young to be a participant in the hippie movement,” Dunne says. “I was more the age of the kids that she was writing about, who were running through the streets of San Francisco, being fed acid by their parents. But I was sort of mesmerized by reading about that.”
“I was aware that [Didion] was writing pretty dark stuff," he continues, “...which was a pretty big contradiction to my Aunt Joan, who I would spend so much time with, who was also incredibly funny, and laughed so much. My impression of her was somebody who was incredibly present, laughing, loved cooking and entertaining, and loved being a mother and a wife.”
For decades, Dunne has observed his aunt’s life and work. In 1996, he based his first short film, the Academy Award-nominated Duke of Groove, on his experiences as a 12-year-old attending a party hosted by Didion and her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne. (“I was terrified that [party guest] Janis Joplin would ask me who I came with,” he says of the evening, “and I’d have to say I was there with my mother.”) But now, in 2017, Dunne plays his most active role yet in telling his aunt's story, as the director of the documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, premiering October 27 at the New York Film Festival and on Netflix.
Though Didion resisted being the subject of a documentary for years, The Center Will Not Hold materialized in a natural way. In 2011, she and Dunne worked together on a short film to promote her memoir, Blue Nights. They both enjoyed the process so much that Dunne asked if she’d like to continue and make a documentary. To his surprise and delight, she agreed. In the fall of 2014, Dunne launched a Kickstarter for the film; it met its $80,000 goal in just 22 hours. In 2016, the project was picked up by Netflix. “It’s a big subject,” says Dunne. “You know, a woman who means a great deal to a lot of people. I want to get it right. It’s an enormous responsibility to tell her story. She’s never given anyone else permission to do it.”
Though Didion has chronicled her own life extensively in her writing, the film gives her another dimension through a wealth of never-before-seen material: personal photos, archival video footage, and on-camera interviews with her family members, contemporaries, and friends. (Author and New Yorker staff writer Hilton Als provides additional commentary.)
But fittingly, the film’s primary narrator is Didion herself. Passages from her fiction works and essays are woven throughout in voiceover, read by both the author and her editor at Knopf, Shelley Wagner. The latter was a choice of Dunne’s: “[Wagner] can read her work in this very understated way—the way that Joan would read it. They’re very close.”
Viewers won’t be the only ones to learn more about Didion through the film. Dunne did, too. For example, in Wagner's on-screen interview, she informs him that when Didion feels stuck on a manuscript, she physically places it in her freezer. (“That was me learning right on the spot,” Dunne says with amusement.) But, in a larger sense, the filmmaking process led him to see a common thread in his aunt’s work: “I hadn’t realized, having gone through my own research and reading her books, rereading them all … there’s always a daughter,” he explains. “There’s always a child. Either an autistic child in Play It As It Lays or a fugitive terrorist [daughter] in A Book of Common Prayer. Or, she’s looking at the little girl who’s taken acid [in San Francisco].”
“She writes almost as a cautionary tale of things she doesn’t want to have happen, as if she can control what will happen. The terrible irony, [given] the hand that was dealt her, is that, of course, you can’t write those things away,” he says.
The latter half of The Center Will Not Hold deals heavily with Didion's writing on grief—or, this hand that was dealt her. In 2003, her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, died of a massive heart attack, while the couple’s daughter, Quintana Roo, was hospitalized and in an induced coma for a virulent form of pneumonia. Less than two years later, Quintana died of acute pancreatitis at age 39. Didion’s 2005 memoir (and best-selling book to date), The Year of Magical Thinking, deals with the former; Blue Nights deals with the latter. “In terms of dealing with John’s loss and then Quintana’s,” Dunne says, “It had to go in order, emotionally, for her. As she says in the film, she didn’t write as a coping mechanism, but that’s what it turned out to be.”
Yet when it came to writing this film, Didion took a laissez-faire approach, insisting her nephew take the reins: “Her thing was, ‘This is your movie—do whatever you’re going to do,’” Dunne said. “She didn’t really want to play any role in [the filmmaking decisions]. That’s the sort of detached side of Joan that, you know, can also be a little unnerving. Where you can’t tell if she really gives a shit or not—and she’s not going to state it one way or another. But I think also, she recognized—which moved me enormously—that she thinks of me as a director and a storyteller.”
Dunne and Didion have a charming, easy rapport in the film, no doubt bolstered by their decades-long camaraderie. Currently, Dunne is one of a core group who frequently dine with Didion at her apartment on New York City's Upper East Side. The group also includes Didion's grandniece (and the film’s producer) Annabelle Dunne, talent agent Boaty Boatwright, and writer Calvin Trillin. Once-in-a-while guests include Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Didion’s childhood friend from Sacramento.
Though Didion's life remains full of family and friends—she's surrounded herself with a vibrant and diverse cast of characters all her life—the film ends on a quiet note. With her back to the camera, Didion pads lightly down her apartment hallway, her hands clasped behind her back, holding her eyeglasses. “Remember what it is to be me," she says in voiceover. "That is always the point.”
Dunne chose this conclusion because he was deeply moved by the way she read the line. “She’s walking away from us, and she’s saying, ‘Everything I’ve done, I’ve written to know who I am and how I feel about things and how I observe the world.’ Everything that she writes comes from her: her particular point of view, her history as a Californian, her life experiences of loss and victory. Everything is there in all her books—it’s an entire life. She writes to remember. She writes to not forget. She writes to refine her voice and who she is. It’s where her strength comes from. It’s why she’s still with us.”
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold premieres October 27 at the New York Film Festival and on Netflix.