Joan Didion’s Documentary Is Going To Be Huge

Photo: By Julian Wasser; Courtesy of Joan Didion.
Joan Didion has lived almost too many lives. It's impossible to calculate her impact on American culture and individual expression. Her ability to shine a light into all the curious and dreadful corners of human experience is what endeared her as a kindred spirit to all readers and the indelible icon of her generation.
We know Joan through the stories she's told us. Now, someone's telling her story.
"You feel kind of stupid around her," says Griffin Dunne. "I don't know anyone who doesn't."
Yesterday, Dunne announced the Kickstarter for We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live, the documentary he's producing with Susanne Rostock. Unbelievably, this film is "the first and only documentary about Joan Didion."
Dunne is Didion's nephew, an actor and filmmaker (and, ahem, the hot teacher in My Girl) Dunne grew up amid the heyday of his family's enormous success. The son of another legend, Dominick Dunne, Griffin was especially close to his aunt and uncle (Joan's husband, writer John Gregory Dunne). It was he who maintained the connection between the two sides of his family during their public feuds and long silences.
"It was an awkward position to be in," says Griffin. "But, nothing like a heart attack to bring a family together." The final reconciliation came only months before John's death, followed by that of Quintana,John and Joan's only child. It was this nightmarish year that inspired Joan's book The Year of Magical Thinking and later, Blue Nights. Griffin made a short film based on the latter, and shortly thereafter, Joan agreed to let him make this documentary.
"She’s always had a strong affinity for the Dunne side of her family, and I think she liked the connection that I would be the one telling her story."
But, the arc of the film is told through Joan's own voice and words. Always a thin, tiny woman, Griffin argues that "frailty" is one of the great misconceptions about her.
"People have assumed that she was frail and too skinny all her life, yet her stature in the room is formidable," he says.
Also undeniable is her iconic style: the hair, the lean, the big eyes masked by even bigger glasses (two pairs of which are being given away as Kickstarter rewards!).
"Whenever I see Anna Wintour, I’m always struck by it," says Griffin. "That’s Joan’s look decades earlier. She has her own sense of style that came to her in an organic way." Busted, Wintour.
Joan is a figure we've known for decades but still something of a mystery as a person. We know her in the context of the eras she captured, the cities she inhabited, and the tragedy she suffered. But, this documentary aims to chronicle that mythic arc of her life and bring her intimately to an audience that only knows the legend.
"I think people will be pleased and happy to see that Joan is funny, and to see her laughing," says Griffin.
Joan herself is largely unconcerned with her lionized status, Griffin notes. "She knows intellectually, but it isn't something she dwells on a whole lot. I think that’s why she’s able to maintain her voice." But, even she is thrilled to see the public response this film.
"They’re watching the Kickstarter page go crazy! She’s just beaming," says Griffin. "She’s thrilled."
Make that ALL of us.
You can contribute to Griffin Dunne and Susanne Rostock's Kickstarter for We Tell Stories In Order To Live, until November 21.

More from Books & Art

R29 Original Series