There are certain images that one associates with Joan Didion, the prolific American writer: Didion in front of a 1969 Corvette Stingray. The packing list she kept taped inside her closet door, so that she could depart for any reporting trip at a moment’s notice. A spate of photographs that, in their consistency, might as well be one, in which her gaze is fixed doggedly, unwaveringly on the camera. Often, half her face is eclipsed by dark sunglasses. She is nearly always smoking.
When Didion’s nephew, actor and director Griffin Dunne, set out to make a documentary about her, this iconography, and Didion’s stature as a beloved literary icon, loomed large.
“When you have a subject that people are so personally invested in and really take ownership in, [there's] a very small window to get it right,” Dunne tells realscreen.
Directed and produced by Dunne, with Mary Recine and Annabelle Dunne serving as producers, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold premieres on Netflix tomorrow (Oct. 27th). The film attends to the challenge of chronicling a figure whose life narrative has long registered as canonically as her writing.
Didion was born in 1934 in Sacramento, California. In 1956, during her senior year at Berkeley, she won an essay contest sponsored by Vogue, and, in New York, spent seven years at the magazine before moving back to California with her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne.
The couple spent the following decades living between New York and Los Angeles. It was during this time that Didion published the works — essays that would eventually be collected in her non-fiction books — that would establish her as one of her generation’s most distinctive voices: reporting on the Haight-Ashbury district in the 1960s (“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” for The Saturday Evening Post), the Central Park jogger case (“Sentimental Journeys” for The New York Review) and the United States’ involvement in El Salvador (Salvador). She also penned a spate of fiction novels, most of them set in California, several of which were later adapted for film.
In 2005, following the death of her husband, Didion published the Pulitzer Prize-nominated The Year of Magical Thinking, a meditation on grief. In 2011, she published Blue Nights, an account of the death of her daughter Quintana.
It was during the promotional stretch before the publication of Blue Nights that Didion asked her nephew, whose recent directing credits include the 2013 scripted comedy feature Movie 43, to direct a short film to promote the book.
“We had a lot of fun making it,” Dunne recalls. “And during that process, I became aware that there’d never been a documentary about her before by her own choice. So I thought I’d push my luck and ask if I could make a feature-length documentary about her. And she said something like, ‘Uhh… okay.’”
That Didion has never participated in any other autobiographical project – in 2015, a biography, Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song, was published without her cooperation – does not mean that she’s had no hand in propelling her own myth. Perhaps the most celebrated facet of Didion’s career is her collection of personal essays. One of the reasons that her life’s story has long resonated in the public imagination is because it’s been mostly told in the distinct cadence of her voice.
Dunne has known Didion most of his life. One of his aspirations for his documentary – which covers Didion’s life and career, beginning with her origins in Sacramento, through to her present in New York – was to offer another dimension of the writer which viewers have little access to. “I wanted people to actually see Joan the way I get to see her,” he says, “in her apartment and laughing; the ease that she has that sort of belies so much of the darkness of her material and the grief in the later work.”
To this end, The Center Will Not Hold makes substantial use of family photographs and home movies; a bevy of footage depicting Didion in her everyday routines – assembling cucumber sandwiches, watching the news – buttresses interviews with New Yorker writers Hilton Als and Calvin Trillin, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and actor Harrison Ford, among others.
“The interviews, both with other people and with her – I wanted them to reinforce what was the story behind the story,” Dunne explains. “To hear other people talk about her change from the personal essay to writing about American politics and global conflicts. To make a collage or a tapestry of a long life lived.”
Following a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the documentary in the fall of 2014, in which the US$80,000 goal was raised in a single day, Netflix came on board for the project.
The partnership, Dunne says, has lent clarity to what felt like a very personal film. “I needed, and [Netflix] provided, real cold, hard objectivity to not let things stray too far from the subject, from Joan,” he says. “They allowed the personal aspect to come in, but also honored her work.”
Ultimately, though, Dunne believes that it was his capacity to look at Didion through an intimate lens that convinced her to participate in the project in the first place. “What made her say yes? I think quite simply that we were close and related,” he says. “I knew and loved the people that she knew and loved.”