'Joan Didion: The Center Will not hold'

 

 Interview by Zonia Pelensky

An exceptional documentary, a must see.

"One character trait that’s in the Donner party passage of the Didion ancestors is ‘don’t take any shortcuts in life.’ And that’s a trait that I also see in Joan regarding her work discipline, her discipline of self-examination. Her research is so thorough that she would never take a shortcut to get a result.

In fact, if she is working on something and it’s not where it should be — and to stay with this Donner party metaphor that ‘Winter is coming’ — she will take the manuscript that she’s working on and literally put it in her freezer and wait until the time is right, you know, until spring, ‘Until it thaws’.

I feel that it’s sort of a spirit, a self-reliance kind of spirit — to get to the other side of the mountain — you do what it takes.  And I see that legacy in Joan’s character where I’d never seen it before as just a kid growing up with my aunt Joan." — Griffin Dunne

 

Directed by Griffin Dunne

Produced by Annabelle Dunne & Griffin Dunne

Now Available on Netflix.

Read our 2015 interview with Griffin

Zonia Pelensky: What was your vision going into the making of Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold?

Griffin Dunne: Joan and I did a short film to promote her most recent book Blue Nights, where the concept was to put her prose to visuals. When she agreed to let me make a feature length film, it was an extension of that same idea — to create a lifetime tapestry-like structure featuring her prose, her life going through a sea of changes, global events and American politics.

ZP: You’ve worked on this for six years, having tons of footage to work with. Was there anything that did not make the final cut that you would have loved to see in the film?

GF: Well, there’s nothing on the cutting room floor that I regret not being in the film. I think everything that’s in the film is what should be. The editorial challenge was finding the balance of distinctly honoring the work, her writing, and also showing Joan as a person, as a mother, a wife.

So what ended up on the cutting room floor were some pretty interesting things, particularly of interest to me, but they threw the structure out of balance.

ZP: Are there any plans to do something with the things that were left out?

GF: I was very aware that I wanted to have the footage — the things that didn’t make it in. You know, a sort of continuing record of not only Joan’s life… but there’s also a great deal about my family that didn’t make it into the final cut — about my father’s and uncle’s relationship and their love and animosity for each other, and stories about my mother and my brother and sister.

My family, my nuclear family, was a constant presence throughout making this movie. At this time, I don’t have any specific plans to do anything with that footage — but I’m really glad I have it!

ZP: Some people may wonder why the loss of your sister, Dominique, was never mentioned in the film. I, of course, have seen other cuts and I know that you did deal with the issue in some of the earlier, rougher versions. And perhaps she’s not, in the most obvious of ways, in the film but to me, at least, she has a strong presence. Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to ultimately not go with that earlier footage?

GF: Yeah, it was a very difficult decision because, you know, it was a… it was a horrific point in my and my family’s life and also in John and Joan’s lives because Dominique was so close to them. She worked for them as an assistant and was, at the time, just a little bit older than Quintana, with whom she was also very close. So, it was a difficult thing to take out because it was the loss of a child, a child that passed before the parents… and a tragedy that was to befall Joan decades later.

We had a scene where we shared this sort of loss in common. But I think it was such a huge subject and such an enormous overpowering tangent to Joan’s story that I felt I had to take it out. I think by leaving it in, I think it would…. I’m doing a lot of Q&As now and I can just see how that aspect would lead to a lot of follow-up questions and things that wouldn’t have to do with John and Joan and Quintana but more to do with me and reliving aspects of my life.

ZP: Joan’s ancestors travelled across the planes with the Donner party and then parted ways so as not to take a shortcut but to stick with a map that ultimately guided them safely to the last frontier. You had mentioned that this trait, this pioneer woman, is something you became increasingly more aware of in Joan while making this film.

GF: One character trait that’s in the Donner party passage of the Didion ancestors is ‘don’t take any shortcuts in life.’ And that’s a trait that I also see in Joan regarding her work discipline, her discipline of self-examination. Her research is so thorough that she would never take a shortcut to get a result.

In fact, if she is working on something and it’s not where it should be — and to stay with this Donner party metaphor that ‘Winter is coming’ — she will take the manuscript that she’s working on and literally put it in her freezer and wait until the time is right, you know, until spring, ‘Until it thaws’.

I feel that it’s sort of a spirit, a self-reliance kind of spirit — to get to the other side of the mountain — you do what it takes.  And I see that legacy in Joan’s character where I’d never seen it before as just a kid growing up with my aunt Joan.

ZP: As a filmmaker usually working with scripted narratives, is there anything you found particularly enjoyable or interesting about making this documentary?

GF: I found that the interview process is rather torturous, to tell you the truth, because my background has been with narrative, where I’m working on scenes, where I know that there’s a conclusion. When interviewing, I’m never really sure if I got it. I’ve never left with that ‘I-totally-have-it’ feeling. That only kind of comes once you’re in the editing room and you sort of see what you have in relation to all of your other interviews…. it was a very unsettling feeling.

Now, having said that, I found editing a documentary even more enjoyable than editing a narrative for the exact opposite reasons because I love not knowing quite where I was going and letting the film take me.

ZP: If you were going to make another documentary, what would your dream subject be?

GF: I don't know what the subject would be but like with this film, I felt guided by my own instincts. I just knew what was right and what was wrong and what worked and what didn’t. So I’d like to find a subject, whatever it would be, where I would develop the same relationship.