Joan Didion has been at the center of our cultural and political life for more than five decades, writing incisively on everything from war to rock music to murder in books such as “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” “The White Album,” and “Salvador.” As an essayist, novelist, critic, and screenwriter, she’s inspired a passionate following that is nearly unmatched in American letters. That status reached near deification levels with 2005’s “The Year of Magical Thinking.” In it, she reflects on her own personal tragedy, recounting her grief after the death of her husband John Gregory Dunne, and her struggle to deal with the fatal illness of her daughter, Quintana Roo. By writing so unflinchingly about such a painful topic, she formed an even deeper connection with her readers.
It took her nephew, the filmmaker Griffin Dunne, to convince Didion to do what she had long resisted — sit down and share her personal and professional remembrances on camera. The fruits of their labor, the brilliant new documentary, “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” premieres at the New York Film Festival on Wednesday. It debuts Oct. 27 on Netflix. Dunne spoke with Variety on the eve of the film’s festival launch.
How did you get the idea to do a documentary on your aunt?
It started six years ago. Joan asked me to shoot a promotional short movie that her publishers wanted to promote her book “Blue Nights.” We had a good time doing it and she loved the process. I pushed my luck and said, “what about doing a documentary?” No one had done one — her choice, by the way. She agreed and then I thought, “Oh boy, I’m going to have to get the God damn money to do it the right way and the way she deserves.”
So you went to Kickstarter?
Yes, so I went to Kickstarter. I was conservative and asked for a lot less than what I needed. That may have been a mistake, because by lunch time on the first day we had reached our limit. So armed with that response and with the trailer I shot for Kickstarter, which had gone viral, I went to Netflix. They came on and were able to give me a proper budget.
Why has Joan opted not to do documentaries?
It’s not that she avoids publicity. Every time she has a book come out, she stomps around and promotes it. But I think she presumed rightly that if she let someone make a documentary about her, and that someone didn’t know her well, it would be more of a full-time commitment. She was also concerned it could end up being kind of a dry, academic kind of exercise.
How comfortable was she talking about her life on camera?
Nobody’s ever accused Joan of being a chatterbox. She sometimes answers in two or three words and that’s the end of that, not out of real reluctance, but out of a natural brevity that’s like her writing.
She did open up to me. One of the aspects that touched me and that I’m most proud of is the difference in expression when she’s talking to me in interviews and the archival footage of her on talk shows. There’s a very different expression on her face when she’s being interviewed by someone she doesn’t really know.
I asked her once in an email why she was letting me make a movie about her and her response was, because I couldn’t think of a compelling reason to say no. That’s pure Joan.
Were there any topics she insisted were off limits?
None. Her attitude was I’m a writer, you’re a filmmaker. I don’t tell you how to make a film and you don’t tell me how to write a book. She’s also written extensively about loss and family and grief and good times and bad times. She expected me to go there.
What was your first exposure to her work?
It was reading “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” I was too young to be a participant in the ’60s, but I was fascinated by these hippies she had ingratiated herself with and who let her hang out with them. She told this story about a little kid on acid that left a huge impression on me. I remember thinking, as many people who were adults did, that it didn’t seem like all fun and games or peace and love and understanding. Even as a 12 year old, the darkness of that environment really came through. It wasn’t the image that commercials were putting out there.
Readers seem almost possessive of her work. Why does she inspire such an intense feeling in her fans?
One of the burdens in taking this on is that people have such an intimate relationship with her work. It’s the same kind of personal relationship that others feel to Bob Dylan or J. D. Salinger. It’s like her essay about leaving New York — she writes something about an individual experience that’s totally relatable. It’s about outgrowing a city and moving on with life and going to the next chapter.
Things only get more personal with “The Year of Magical Thinking.” She wrote about her grief, as a reporter would write about the subject. It resonated with millions of readers who had experienced their own losses.
Throughout her career she also seemed to have a knack for writing on topic. She was so keyed into the cultural and political conversation.
She seemed to be writing about events that people were living through exactly at that time. Be it the Manson murders or the Iraq War or Salvador or the Central Park Five, she had insights and observations that gave texture and meaning and depth to disorder and chaos, and were quite prophetic. She helped people make sense of their times.
Is it possible for a writer to have that kind of profile today?
Christopher Hitchens, in his time, gained that kind of national attention with his curiosity, his passion, and his anger. That’s the exception to the rule. In the film, I show Tom Brokaw interviewing Joan in 1977 for a four-part series on “The Today Show.” That would never happen today.
She also had the advantage of having great photographers take pictures of her that are as iconic as those Che t-shirts. Before people read Joan, they’ve seen photos of her.
She also wrote screenplays with John Gregory Dunne for films like “Up Close & Personal” and “The Panic in Needle Park.” What attracted her to Hollywood?
She always loved movies. As a kid, she’d go to her father’s base and watch John Wayne movies. That made a huge impression on her. She also realized that you could make more in Hollywood than as a novelist. But she and John loved screenwriting. They loved sending pages back and forth. They also loved the game and the social etiquette of Hollywood. John knew all about the art of the deal. They always had great gossip and knew who was up and who was out at Warner’s or Columbia. They found great humor in the work and they dug the money.
Since this film will be streaming soon, does Joan use Netflix?
Like too many people in my family, Joan is a serious Luddite. She has an assistant who has hooked up all that stuff for her, but she prefers looking at DVDs.