The New Joan Didion Documentary Shows the Warmer Side of a Cool Icon
Producer (and Didion’s grandniece) Annabelle Dunne discusses Netflix’s ‘Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold’
For much of the past five decades, Joan Didion has been both subject and curator of her own work. Whether mining her own insecurities to talk about self-respect or plumbing her own loss to ponder the meaning of grief, Didion’s books have nurtured a particular idea of “Joan Didion.” But now, in her 80s, she’s begun to see others take the reins to tell her story. On the heels of The Last Love Song, Tracy Daugherty’s 2015 biography of the California native, comes the Netflix documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold.
Featuring interviews with writers David Hare, Hilton Als, editor Shelley Wanger, as well as candid one-on-ones with Didion herself at her New York City apartment, the new documentary offers a personal look at the onetime Vogue copywriter. This may be the only film where you get to see Didion prepare herself a sandwich, talk at length about why her forays into fiction never quite worked the way her nonfiction seemed to, and later engage in a touching conversation with Vanessa Redgrave (who played Didion in the theatrical adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking) about their gone-too-soon daughters. Like Didion’s best work, the documentary manages to paint a portrait of an artist who constantly felt the need to turn to the blank page to make sense of what was happening, both inside and outside herself.
I got to talk to Annabelle Dunne, who produced the documentary alongside her cousin Griffin Dunne (Didion’s nephew — it truly is a family affair!). In our conversation, Dunne talks about the many obstacles she and Griffin faced in first getting the project off the ground, shares the most surprising thing she learned while working with Joan for so long (it involves a freezer), and why she thinks Didion remains such an iconic American presence, both timeless and timely.
Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold is available on Netflix starting October 27, 2017.
Manuel Betancourt: Let’s start at the beginning. I wanted to hear about how it all began, how you guys ended up going the Kickstarter route, and how that lead to its release this month.
Annabelle Dunne: It began almost six years ago. We’ve sort of lost track exactly when. Right after Blue Nights came out. Knopf, Joan’s publisher, had approached Joan and Griffin, her nephew, about doing a short film that would accompany the release of the book. It was something that they would play when she went on book tour because it would ease the necessity for long-drawn out production on her book tour. So we did a one day shoot in New York. It was really really fun. Griffin approached her after that and said, would you be open to doing a documentary? She agreed and we then spent a considerable amount of time trying to find a home for that documentary. We knew we definitely wanted to do it, and it’d be a great opportunity — she’d never said yes to anyone before and we felt she wouldn’t, so we needed to seize that opportunity. But we had a hard time finding full financing. We had interest here and there but we had a hard time finding the amount of money we needed. I had some friends who had done Kickstarter campaigns. So we decided to do a campaign. It was a really incredible experience. To be honest, it didn’t actually fully finance the film. It was probably one tenth of our budget but what it enabled us to do was a kind of marketing campaign. It got the word out that this was something we wanted to do. Based on the incredible reaction to the Kickstarter we met our goal in 24 hours. Then we went on to get a lot of money over the course of the campaign and a lot of support and press. It was clear that there was an audience for a movie about Joan. With that in tow we then were able to get Netflix to come on board and fully support us. It was a long road and there were a lot of different people who were involved at one point or another but we ended up with Netflix which has just been great.
MB: Especially because it’s going to reach so many people.
AD: For sure. That was really wonderful about working with them and knowing that it would be global and that all these people would see it. It was important that it be something that would resonate with people who were familiar with Joan and her work, but that it would also hopefully attract a new group of readers, a new generation of people who didn’t know her yet or who are older but who may have known her later work but didn’t know her earlier stuff.
MB: That was my experience. I’ve read The White Album, The Year of Magical Thinking, and some pieces here and there but if there’s something you really get a sense of in the film is just the sheer amount of work Joan has written over the years — which is also all over the place in terms of genres and themes. Was it hard to winnow her canon down and choose what we eventually see in the documentary?
AD: Yeah! It was. We knew we weren’t going to be able to look at all of her work. We knew that, from a family perspective, it was always going to be a personal movie. So we knew that we were gonna have to be very judicious about what we covered. And we really tried to pick a variety of pieces. Also, things that had a through-line. Central Park Five [Didion’s “New York: Sentimental Journeys”] feels as relevant now — if not more! — than it did back when she wrote it for different reasons. So we really tried to find things that had been true then and were true now. Things that spoke to the spirit of her as a person. But it was tough. Griffin tried to take them as needle drops on an album. That was the thinking. But it was definitely hard and daunting. Because there’s a lot of people out there who know a lot about her work — certainly more than Griffin and I do! So we were intimidated by some of the more scholarly aspects of dealing with this person’s canon.
We knew we weren’t going to be able to look at all of her work. We knew that, from a family perspective, it was always going to be a personal movie.
MB: She has been around long enough that many people have pored over what she’s thought and written. Which brings me to something I also wanted to ask you about. How did you decide who would be the talking heads in this film? We see David Hare, Shelley Wanger, even Vanessa Redgrave at one point.
AD: It just ended up being a group of people that are or had at one point in their lives been incredibly close to Joan. We talked to a lot of other people that didn’t end up in the movie. People who had known her personally and who hadn’t known her personally. We talked to people about her style. About her impact on New Wave Journalism. People from a fashion perspective: we talked to photographers and designers. We talked to people who were young up and coming writers on the impact she’d had on them, almost like a Greek chorus. Ultimately, those things didn’t make it into the film because it became much more personal. We felt like it served it better in the end have it be a very small core of people who clearly had had a meaningful past with her personally. That seemed to work. But that was hard — it’s hard to cut a lot of people out! Certainly we were very grateful for their time and their energy.
MB: It’s okay, I won’t ask you to name names.
AD: (Laughter) Well, that’s when you just have to look at the Thank Yous in the credits, you know?
MB: But the set of people you landed on does make it all feel like a rather intimate affair. What did you and Griffin hope they (and the documentary itself) could tell us about Joan that we wouldn’t perhaps get from her writing?
AD: How warm she is! I think she gets a very severe reputation. She’s seen as cold or remote. Or private. Those may all be true in a sense. But she’s incredibly warm. She has a great sense of humor. She’s incredibly loyal to her family and her friends. We knew that that would come through. Clearly in any of the interviews she does with Griffin you can see that. That was something that was important to us. I was surprised at the how harsh she is on herself with regards to everything that happened with Quintana, which comes through in the film a bit. She’s clearly feeling guilt. That surprised me, that that came up.
She’s seen as cold or remote. Or private. Those may all be true in a sense. But she’s incredibly warm.
MB: There is a way the film turns into a rather melancholy portrait of Joan-as-mother, especially in her discussion of Blue Nights. Was there anything else that surprised you as you were working on the film?
AD: What else was surprising? The fact that she put her manuscript in the freezer was truly surprising. I loved hearing that — that was kind of funny. There were a lot of things, and we worked with her for such a long period of time. I was surprised at how supportive she was, even when it went on and on. I’m sure she wondered privately if we were ever going to finish it. But she let us keep going which was really cool and nice.
MB: And has she seen the film?
AD: She saw an early cut, when it was really long and rough (about 3 hours long!) So she saw that and then she saw later cuts. She’s seen various versions.
MB: What does she think? I can’t even imagine looking at something like this about my own life and work.
AD: I think it’s really weird to see your life in front of you, while you’re alive. Most people don’t have that in their lifetime. I think that was really intense for her. But she’s been incredibly supportive and encouraging. She really took both Griffin and me in. I think she likes the film, it’s safe to say. Or, it passes muster!
MB: The one film it reminded me of, and which I only later realized you’d also executive produced, was the Nora Ephron documentary directed by her son Jacob Epstein, Everything is Copy. In my mind they’re almost like twinned films about these wildly talented women being captured by those closest to them.
AD: Yeah, there’s a lot of similarities. You know, both Jacob and Griffin were first-time directors — this is Griffin’s first documentary and it was Jacob’s first feature, period. I know that they both were very very clear that they didn’t want — well, Jacob always said, “I don’t want to do a hagiography.” We felt the same way. We wanted this to be a personal look at this person’s life but we also wanted to keep it fair. Both Griffin and Jacob had incredible relationships with their editors who really helped them, because they were a degree removed and weren’t related and hadn’t known the subject the entire lives. They were instrumental in helping to tell that story from a perspective that felt real but fair. Obviously, with this movie we had the advantage of still having Joan. We didn’t have Nora anymore when we started Everything is Copy. And that was hard — it’s hard for a number of reasons. The interviews are tainted. It’s very hard for people to speak candidly about someone that’s gone if they don’t have the best things to say. I think Jacob did a really good job of painting an accurate portrait of his mom despite all that. And we did have all of her books on tape, which was helpful. Because you hear her voice in the same way that we do with Joan. I do wish — I mean, there are so many questions I wish we could’ve asked her!
She’s always been herself. And herself is just this very unwavering, tough, spare, elegant being.
MB: Oh, especially about, well, the end of it all. It’s funny, I’d never quite thought of Didion and Ephron as contemporaries but it did strike me that these two films end up being portraits of women who blazed trails by being quite candid about their own lives.
AD: Yeah. I think they were both fiercely ambitious, even if they may have revealed that to different degrees, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being ambitious. They both clearly valued the work. Both seemed to find salvation through work. They worked through things that were hard in life and found answers in working it out and writing it out. That’s what I think they both share: they clearly both worked from a very very young age to, well, I mean, Joan is still working! It’s something they both valued a lot. Like they have to think through writing.
MB: You truly get a sense of that in the film. You get a peek at the Joan behind the page. In that sense, what do you think it is about Joan that so captivates readers to this day?
AD: She’s herself. She’s always been herself. And herself is just this very unwavering, tough, spare, elegant being. She looks the way you think she’s gonna look and you want her to look. She photographs the way she — it’s all very much in keeping with the work on the page. If you track her work, it’s always been like that. And we try to show that with “On Self-Respect.” I mean, that’s her voice! Her voice evolves and matures but that’s really her voice on the page, from the very first thing that she writes. I think that’s what keeps people coming back. She’s always been that and will continue to be that way for people.