Griffin Dunne, Actor, Director, Writer & Producer
9.26.15 Dutchess County, N.Y.
"You know, when you open a film, and it's an indie, it's hard to get a lot of exposure. So, if a festival invites you and it says 'Woodstock Film Festival' on the invite – you say yes."
Whether it be his roles as Paul in Scorsese's 'After Hours', Jack in John Landis's 'An American Werewolf in London' or as the expatriate physician, Dr. Vass, in Jean Marc Vallee's 'Dallas Buyers Club', Griffin Dunne leaves a lasting impression. Being raised among America's literary elite, he is also a captivating story teller. On a steamy hot day in late August, we hang out with a tanned and relaxed Dunne to discuss unicorns and movie making.
MC: So, Griffin, what originally brought you upstate?
GD: I had been a serial houseguest of my great friend and writer, Scott Spencer. I'd always loved his place so I told him I wanted to look around for a place of my own.
One day he called me, I was in a meeting, and he said, “I have found your house but you have to leave now, it’s not on the market yet. I’ll pick you up at the station.” And I said, "I'm in a meeting here, I can't..." and he goes, "Then you're not serious." and I said, "I'm serious, I'm serious!" and I cut the meeting short.
He picked me up and we drove to the house. I just looked out over the pond and there were these two Adirondack chairs… I sat down, and had goose bumps. I said, "Scott, I mean this is it... this is where my daughter's going to raise my grandchildren.” And he looks at me, and says, "You know, you can get those chairs anywhere." (Laughs)
I love that it's just a solid and informal farmhouse, nothing fancy — it's got a very laid back vibe. I love the big picture windows that look out onto the pond and the little nooks where you can just sit and write and read for hours on end. It started out as a dairy farm and then, in the late 19th century, the farmer needed some extra income and turned it into a room & board for people traveling up the Hudson to Albany.
MC: Your film 'Fierce People' with Kristen Stewart, Diane Lane, and Anton Yelchin was the first of several films that you have shown at the Woodstock Film Festival. How does the WFF differ from other festivals?
GD: They've got such great films. Meira Blaustein, the co-founder and executive director, has done a really great job. She started it off at a very high level and I’ve watched it grow over the years.
It’s so damn beautiful up here, and the thing with most film festivals is that the location is as important as the quality of the films. Having filmmakers and the audience come upstate for a long weekend of seeing great films and exploring this breathtaking region is a win / win for everyone. Of course Woodstock is a scene like other festivals but it's way more laid back, more intimate. It's just got its own sort of unique country flavor to it.
I always know someone whose film started there. You know, when you open a film, and it's an indie, it's hard to get a lot of exposure. So, if a festival invites you and it says "Woodstock Film Festival" on the invite – you say yes.
MC: Tell me about your documentary 'We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live'. Why did you decide to make the film? Why now?
GD: It's a documentary about my aunt, the writer Joan Didion, that I've been working on for a while. Joan has never allowed a film to be made about her. It's just not her thing. But some years ago I worked with her on a piece that had her reading from her last book, ‘Blue Nights’, in different areas of New York. Her publisher used it as a promotional tool and it was very successful and a really great experience. So, it was natural to make it into a documentary and see if Joan would be on board, which she was.
But in terms of raising money… I'd been to the usual suspects and everybody was fascinated and intrigued with the project — and suddenly very broke.
MC: I thought that doing the Kickstarter campaign was a very ballsy move. But I think what was great on your part was that you understood the massive appeal that Joan has right now.
GD: The Kickstarter campaign definitely hit a nerve with people. Since ‘Year of Magical Thinking’ she has gained an entirely new audience that wasn’t familiar with her work. That book was not expected to be the bestseller that it was. So many people of every generation read it, because everybody's lost somebody. It helped a lot of people with their grief.
With the success of the Kickstarter campaign we saw that we had underestimated the passion that people have for knowing about her life — and her work — so there was a lot of interest in this picture being made. The fashion house Celine recently featured her in their advertising campaign and now there is a biography out — the momentum is just building. I think that she has given so much of herself and has been very forthcoming about her life. People really feel that she needs to be honored with a film.
MC: Your family has been very open and honest about revealing their feelings. I mean, your father wrote the Vanity Fair article about the murder trial of your sister's killer and your aunt has opened up about pain and grief over the loss of her husband and daughter. What do you want to reveal in this movie?
GD: Well, I think you can't tell the story without dealing with pain and grief. Because I am not just a documentarian talking about what happened in her life. I'm talking about my aunt and her aging, and my uncle — who had died so suddenly, and my cousin who I grew up with... these are people I've known. They're the closest members of my family, which is why, I believe, Joan has allowed me to make it in the first place.
I think in Joan's essays she just describes these states of mind and her feelings and transitions of feelings — because she has to know what she's feeling herself. She's the kind of person who needs to write it down to know, to understand. I'd like my journey as a filmmaker to be somewhat parallel.
MC: Would you say being true seems to be a Dunne family motto?
GD: My father was not always that way and he struggled a great, great deal before he became a writer. He became a writer by coming to terms with the fact that he had not been particularly true to himself. And he really examined himself and managed to write himself out of a hole — by writing the truth about himself and how he sees society.
MC: The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
MC: So you have described your aunt and uncle as "the hippest people on earth". How cool were they?
GD: Oh yes. I mean I was a terrible student, and I had dyslexia and reading issues but the moment I picked up John's and Joan's books I understood the rhythms, the ideas and the sentences. John's humor was so biting and outrageous — and his temper was so hilarious and it showed in his work. And Joan's description of people and the times that we were living in — just came to me so easily.
Of course, I saw the effect of that success. They threw the best parties with a really interesting mix of people from rock stars to film directors to cops and famous actors. Well, with all the drugs, not many cops came to the parties during the ‘60s.
Once, they gave a party for Tom Wolfe’s book ‘The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test’. I went with my mom when I was 11 or 12, because Janis Joplin was going to be there.
I didn't know who Tom Wolfe was — but I couldn't wait to meet Janis. But I never did because I had to go home early to be ready for school the next morning. But I got to recreate that party in a short film of mine called ‘Duke of Groove’ with Tobey Maguire. It’s what got me into directing. The film got nominated for an Academy Award and was Tobey’s first film appearance. He played a version of me, an outsider, who never got to meet Janis either but he was at the coolest place on earth.
MC: You had great access.
GD: Incredible access. The people that would attend their parties, they were all my heroes!
MC: And it wasn't intimidating for a young kid?
GD: Not particularly, I didn't feel I needed to talk about my work, which, back then, would have been my homework from school. (Laughs) I was just there to watch.
MC: Now you’ve also called your aunt "the moral voice of her times". What do you think makes her voice so powerful?
GD: Her observations. For instance, in '67, when other people were into the Peace & Love movement where everything was “groovy” and even Madison Avenue was using hippies in advertising to make everything seem cool… she would see teenage runaways and parents giving their kids acid. She saw the raw underbelly of the hippie culture that was brought on by drugs and addiction. But her observations were not really in tune with the time. Only after the Manson murders in ’69 did Joan's writing about the pain and darkness underneath all the loved-up imagery seem all the more poignant.
MC: 'We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live'. What does the title of the film mean to you?
GD: It's too long of a title to put on a marquee, I'm gonna have to change it.
But I'll tell you anyway… I'm from a family of writers, of storytellers. I've inherited that need to tell and collect stories. I'm not suited for anything else unless it's portraying a character or writing a script… or directing a movie or television project that has a story that drives me or that I can connect to.
However, Joan writes in order to live. She writes to know how she feels about the world around her. If she wasn’t writing she wouldn't know what she'd be doing. She has a line: "Life isn't worth living if your ideas don't evolve." Thought, ideas, criticism, fiction, and storytelling; they’re the things she needs to live.
MC: Where are you with the film right now?
GD: We're about half way through. The majority of documentary filmmaking is in the editing. I have an idea of how many more interviews I need to do. I have an idea about the shape. But I also know enough about the documentary film process — it can all change. Right now we're following a particular through line but once we have it all together we might find a better, a more exciting way to tell it. I’d like to show it to distributors within the year. It'll be up to them when to release it.
MC: Tell me about your menagerie, you’ve got your buddy, ‘Dr. Doolittle’, here.
GD: Oh yeah, that’s my best friend, Charlie Wessler, a producer for the Farrelly brothers. He’s been like my brother since we where kids so it was a given that he would move in when I got the property. He had just finished “There’s Something about Mary” and coincidentally brought along both Cameron Diaz’s location trailer and the breakout star, Puffy, the dog. He parked the trailer down by the stream and lived there along with Puffy for years…
Whenever we went into town, people didn’t know whom I was, but they recognized Puffy, “Check it out, that’s the dog from 'Something about Mary'!” (Laughs)
MC: And Irwin the ostrich, and the unicorns?
GD: One day, Charlie asked, “What would you think if I got a couple ostriches?" Well, a couple turned into a lot more, especially after he started to incubate the eggs. Irwin is really more of a generational name. He’s named after Charlie’s stepfather who was lovely, unlike our grouchy bird! When one dies, the next one takes over as the alpha. This one is our fourth Irwin.
MC: And the unicorns?
GD: Those I got from a friend whom was downsizing. He had all these ponies “You can take them right? You already have a lot of animals, who cares?” So, I had a special effects guy make a set of unicorn horns. (Laughs) We strap them to the ponies whenever kids are around, and the kids flip out! Of course, adults, as you know, can't see unicorns… so we just say, "What are you so excited about? Those are just ponies." (Laughs)
MC: (Laughs) What else is in the pipeline?
GD: Well, as an actor, I've been very busy. I've spent most of the summer in New Mexico on a the second season of a series called ‘Manhattan’. It's about the Los Alamos project — the making of the Atomic bomb. I am also developing a series to direct and produce for Amazon that is based on ‘The Ethicist’, Randy Cohen’s iconic New York Times column.
Now, I'm off to London to be in this movie with Brad Pitt, which I'm very excited about. It's called ‘The War Machine’. It's about all the machinations that went into the war in Afghanistan. It's funny, it's a satire.
Don't miss Griffin Dunne, along with Katie Holmes, in East Coast premier of 'Touched With Fire' Directed by Paul Dalio at WFF15!
Tickets available now for 2015 Woodstock Film Festival September 30th to October 4th.
Join Griffin Dunne for the 'Actor-Directors Talk' on Sunday 10/4/15 @ 10.00am at Kleinert James Art Center in Woodstock. Tickets here.
More about Dunne's projects