Movie News & Reviews

Didion remains a crowd-pleaser

Joan Didion, shown in a Corvette in this undated photograph, is the subject of a planned documentary that has drawn impressive support in a Kickstarter campaign that runs through Nov. 21.
Joan Didion, shown in a Corvette in this undated photograph, is the subject of a planned documentary that has drawn impressive support in a Kickstarter campaign that runs through Nov. 21. Sabrina Dax

The team behind a planned documentary about Joan Didion is using Kickstarter, a crowdfunding site more associated with indie films and bands than with literary legends.

The pairing of Sacramento’s most esteemed daughter – a novelist, screenwriter, memoirist and one of the 20th century’s most artful social critics – with the 21st century bank-roller has been highly successful, if incongruous.

A team that includes director Griffin Dunne, 59, and producer Annabelle Dunne, 32 – cousins to each other and nephew and grand-niece by marriage to Didion – surpassed its $80,000 goal 25 hours after its Kickstarter campaign went live Oct. 22. The campaign, which ends Nov. 21, thus far has yielded more than $195,000 in donations.

Didion, 79, supports the Kickstarter approach, Annabelle Dunne said by phone from New York, and the novelist, like the filmmakers, is pleased by the “huge” response from supporters.

Several “rewards” for contributions come directly from Didion.

For instance, she gave two pairs of her signature sunglasses to the campaign, to accompany $2,500 donations. (They have been claimed).

“We went to her beforehand and asked her permission,” Dunne said. “She is absolutely cooperative and flexible.”

Didion already has sat for hours of footage shot by Griffin Dunne, a veteran actor (“After Hours”) and TV director (“The Good Wife”). Son of the late writer Dominick Dunne and nephew of Didion’s late husband John Gregory Dunne, Griffin Dunne is co-directing with veteran documentary editor Susanne Rostock.

Griffin Dunne “self-financed a lot of the work we did” before now, Annabelle Dunne said, which includes footage of Didion in her New York City apartment and elsewhere. The Kickstarter money is for other interviews, with Didion’s friends, colleagues and other context providers.

News of the Kickstarter campaign raised a few eyebrows; the family is not known for being strapped for cash. But many wealthy artists, including Neil Young, now use crowdfunding to finance projects.

Also, “it is harder to get a film made than you think,” said Annabelle Dunne, who works with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter on his film side projects.

It will cost much more than $195,000 to complete the documentary. But crowd-sourcing campaigns also serve as “a great tool to get people excited about your film,” said Alex Daly, the film’s Kickstarter campaign manager and a former documentary producer. “You can count on the fact that the people (who donate) also will go out to see it when it does go to theaters.” (The Didion filmmakers are aiming for a late-2015 release.)

Pre-Kickstarter attempts to find funding from traditional sources met with responses ranging from lukewarm to enthusiastic but not deep-pocketed, Annabelle Dunne said. Now, rather than just telling potential investors there is a market for a Didion film, the team can point to the Kickstarter campaign.

Having provided or raised a big chunk of money themselves also helps them “maintain some creative control” of a film about a family member.

It is not an official family portrait, Annabelle Dunne said, but rather an outgrowth of a smaller project. Griffin Dunne directed a short promotional film with Didion tied to the release of “Blue Nights,” Didion’s 2011 memoir about the 2005 death of her 39-year-old daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne Michael.

“Blue Nights” was a kind of companion piece to Didion’s National Book Award-winning 2005 memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking,” which chronicled Didion’s reaction to her husband’s sudden death and her daughter’s health crisis.

“It is very tough subject matter,” Annabelle Dunne said of “Nights.” “It is one thing to put it down on the page but another to speak (it) in front of a camera. She trusts (Griffin).”

Annabelle Dunne worked with her cousin and aunt on the three-day shoot. “Once we had this sort of discourse with her over three days, Griffin asked if she would ever think of doing a full film together, and she said, ‘Fine,’” Dunne said.

Didion is likely to be more forthcoming in the documentary. Griffin Dunne, in a video for the Kickstarter campaign, said he wanted to make a film partly because many people do not know what Didion, a tiny woman who he calls “a voice of moral authority, and a deeply intimidating figure,” sounds like off the page.

Didion will read from her own work as the film tracks the McClatchy High School graduate’s move from clear-eyed essayist on topics such as the illusion of flower-power utopia in 1960s Haight-Ashbury (title essay from her 1968 collection “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”) to Hollywood screenwriter. (She and her husband co-wrote such films as the 1976 Barbra Streisand version of “A Star Is Born”).

His uncle, and his aunt – famous in the 1970s for her Corvette Stingray, big sunglasses, chic dresses and constant cigarette – were “probably the hippest people on Earth,” Dunne says in the video.

Annabelle Dunne, whose late grandfather, Richard, was brother to John and Dominick, was not yet born in the 1970s. She understood her aunt’s standing in the literary world only after reaching adulthood, she said. Dunne family gatherings of her youth contained a few famous writers. Didion was the quietest.

“She wasn’t outsized about her work,” Annabelle Dunne said. “I was shocked that the star, all this time, has always been Joan.”

Her own adulthood has coincided with Didion’s late-in-life success as a memoirist. But “she has been so relevant for so long,” she said of the writer who dissected the 1960s and, in the early 1990s, questioned the verdicts in the the Central Park jogger case – long before the five defendants were exonerated.

Annabelle Dunne was perhaps less aware of her aunt’s fame when she was younger than some others her age. “She really is such a touchstone for so many young writers,” she said.

No less a millennial-generation totem than Lena Dunham (“Girls”) cites Didion’s famous essay “On Self-Respect” in her 2014 essay collection “Not That Kind of Girl.” The shout-out happens in a piece carrying the highly direct, non-Didion-esque title “Girls & Jerks.” But the sentiment is there.

Didion has referenced her own life, from her Sacramento girlhood to her recent personal losses, throughout her writing career. What can a documentary add?

“We are bringing in all the other people who are in her world,” Dunne said. “Not just her fans but her critics – people who were peers, people that she was covering, people who were not so enthralled with her.”

Sacramento will figure in the film, Dunne said, noting that her aunt keeps daily track of the weather in her home state. “We have talked about Sacramento and the drought,” she said.

Annabelle Dunne recently worked on a documentary about the late author Nora Ephron. “It is going to be fabulous, but I wish I could have talked to her,” she said of the Ephron film.

Didion did not make it to Sacramento last month for the ceremony marking her induction into the California Hall of Fame. But although Didion, who will be 80 in December, “has limited her travel considerably,” she is not in poor health, Annabelle Dunne said.

Still, there is “some urgency” to get a film made, she said. If only to educate more members of the “selfie” generation about a writer who uses the first person less to glorify herself than to illuminate universal truths and socially relevant issues.

Today, “we are so inundated with social media, that we are trying to find the meat,” Annabelle Dunne said. “This is the meat.”

Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB.