Meet my aunt, the queen of dark­ness

An Amer­i­can Were­wolf in Lon­don star Grif­fin Dunne talks to about his fa­mous fam­ily and his friend­ship with Car­rie Fisher.

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Grif­fin Dunne hadn’t al­ways planned to make a film about his aunt, the cel­e­brated es­say­ist and nov­el­ist Joan Did­ion. But when they col­lab­o­rated on a trailer for her 2011 mem­oir, Blue Nights, he re­alised Did­ion was long over­due for the doc­u­men­tary treat­ment.

‘‘I asked her and from the mo­ment she said ‘yes’, I said, ‘Oh, boy, I’m in for it now. This per­son means a lot to a lot of peo­ple’,’’ re­calls Dunne. The years-long labour of love, aided by a Kick­starter cam­paign, has fi­nally re­sulted in Joan Did­ion: The Cen­ter Will Not Hold, which is now screen­ing on Net­flix.

The ac­tor-di­rec­tor-pro­ducer has cre­ated a some­times sur­pris­ing por­trait of an au­thor known for writ­ing about the cul­tural dis­in­te­gra­tion of the 1960s and ‘70s and, more re­cently, the deaths of her hus­band and daugh­ter. ‘‘She laughs a lot, she’s re­ally funny — that was al­ways some­thing re­ally im­por­tant to me to show, rather than ‘the queen of dark­ness’,’’ he says.

As the film cap­tures, Dunne grew up sur­rounded by bold-faced names. His fa­ther was TV pro­ducer turned writer Do­minick Dunne, who chron­i­cled high­so­ci­ety crime in the pages of Van­ity Fair. His un­cle (and Did­ion’s hus­band) was nov­el­ist John Gre­gory Dunne. That car­pen­ter who fixed up Aunt Joan’s Malibu deck one sum­mer? Some guy named Har­ri­son Ford.

Dunne, who rose to fame in An Amer­i­can Were­wolf in Lon­don and Af­ter Hours, has been on a roll of late in a num­ber of other streaming projects. He ap­peared in I Love Dick for Ama­zon this year and is film­ing Gore, about writer Gore Vi­dal, for Net­flix. be­cause they were John and Joan. I rarely saw them separately, it was al­ways like talk­ing to two peo­ple. As a teenager, I was too in­tim­i­dated to have a writ­ing dis­cus­sion with Joan. ‘‘When you say ‘things fall apart’, what do you mean, Aunt Joan?’’ The White Al­bum. That one I think I read in gal­leys. At Christ­mas we’d get first edi­tions of what­ever book ei­ther of them had out and it would be in­scribed. Now I have all those and all the ones writ­ten to my sis­ter and par­ents. Un­like Slouch­ing To­wards Beth­le­hem, where she was talk­ing about the Haight in ‘67, with The White Al­bum, I had the Doors’ and Jo­plin’s records on my book­shelf, the Sharon Tate mur­ders hap­pened right up the street. Oh, yeah. I showed her a three­hour cut. I thought what if she just hates it – or worse, it bores her. I think she al­lowed me to make it be­cause I was her nephew, but not in a nepo­tis­tic way. She also knew I was a di­rec­tor. She watches films, and she knew ex­actly what she didn’t want – some­thing dry, aca­demic, ob­se­quious. And she knew she wouldn’t get that from me, be­cause if you’re mak­ing a movie about some­body you’ve known all your life, you’re go­ing to have a dif­fer­ent take. She does. I’ve showed her early cuts of movies I’ve di­rected, and I will get pages of type­writ­ten notes. So I ex­pected that and was pre­pared for what­ever. But if she said it on cam­era, she owned it. She’s just as tough on her­self as she is on (Dick) Cheney. She doesn’t have any sort of re­gret. I think she was very moved by the movie. I read all her books in or­der, not just books, ar­ti­cles too, which start with (the Vogue es­say) On Self-Re­spect, which she wrote maybe when she was 22, 23. What struck me was how lit­tle she changed. She ar­rived in New York fully formed, and formed not as a New Yorker, but as a Cal­i­for­nian, as a de­scen­dant of home­stead­ers and with the prac­ti­cal­ity of be­ing from a fam­ily that said, ‘‘no, we’re not go­ing to take the short­cut.‘‘

She’s strong. And not just tough-minded, gim­let-eyed, shrewd. Just for­mi­da­bly strong. (When I was 16), my younger brother, Alex, came home and said, ‘‘I have just met the most amaz­ing girl. Stay away from her.’’ And this girl came in, re­ally beau­ti­ful but re­ally funny. We just made each other cry with laugh­ter. It was love at first sight – friend­ship love. We both were wit­ness to each other’s great­est and worst mo­ments.

We were room-mates in New York for a long time. I was a pop­corn con­ces­sion­aire at Ra­dio City Mu­sic Hall while she was off act­ing in a movie in England. She’d call me in the middle of the night from Lon­don. I’d go, ‘‘How’s the movie?’’ She’d say, ‘‘It’s the stu­pid­est piece of crap ever. I’m run­ning around with a big mon­key.’’ ‘‘What’s it called again?’’ ‘‘ Star Wars.’’ It is like camp. I think Kevin (Ba­con) and I were the old­est peo­ple on the set and had cer­tainly been act­ing longer than ev­ery­one by a long shot. We would look at each other with big grins on our faces, this is just like act­ing school.

Joan Did­ion: The Cen­ter Will Not Hold is now streaming on Net­flix.

Joan Did­ion is an Amer­i­can au­thor best known for her nov­els and lit­er­ary journalism.

The Did­ion-Dunne’s Malibu deck was fixed up by a car­pen­ter by the name of Har­ri­son Ford.

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