Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold (2017) Movie Script

I went to San Francisco
because I had not been able to work
in some months.
I'd been paralyzed by the conviction
that writing was an irrelevant act...
that the world as I had understood it
no longer existed.
It was the first time
I'd dealt directly and flatly
with the evidence of atomization,
the proof that things fall apart.
If I was to work again,
it would be necessary for me
to come to terms with disorder.
When snakes would appear
so much in your...
in your later work,
was that an unconscious...
image, do you think, from growing up?
I think it was an unconscious image
from growing up, yeah.
But, I mean, snakes appeared
in my later work because they just...
They were always on my mind.
You had to avoid them.
- Do you have snakes?
- Hmm?
- You have snakes?
- I have no snakes.
I'm not a big fan of snakes.
Well, how do you know up in the country?
I just take a rake and kill it.
Killing a snake is the same as
having a snake.
- Oh, yes, that's true.
My first notebook was a
Big 5 tablet given to me by my mother
with the sensible suggestion
I stop whining
and learn to amuse myself
by writing my thoughts.
The first entry is a woman
who believes herself
to be freezing to death
in the arctic night...
only to find when day breaks she has
stumbled on to the Sahara desert
where she will
die of the heat before lunch.
I have no idea what turn of
a 5-year-old's mind
could have prompted so
insistently ironic and exotic a story.
But it does reveal
a predilection for the extreme
which has dogged me into adult life.
My Aunt Joan grew up on
stories of the doomed Donner party.
Her family actually
traveled across the plains with them.
They parted company when the Donners
insisted on taking an uncharted shortcut.
Instead, her family followed
the map that they brought
which safely guided them
to the last frontier...
"I was born in Sacramento
and lived in California most of my life.
I learned to swim in the Sacramento
and the American rivers before the dams.
I learned to drive on the levees
up and downriver from Sacramento.
Yet California has remained
in some way impenetrable to me,
a wearying enigma...
as it has to many of us
who were from there."
My family had come to Sacramento
in the 19th century.
They came to it as a frontier.
And it was the last frontier.
Don't you think people are formed
by the landscape they grow up in?
It formed everything I ever think,
or ever do, or am.
I remember once
when we were snowbound,
my mother gave me
several old copies of Vogue...
and pointed out an announcement
the competition Vogue then had
for college seniors, the Prix de Paris.
First prize, a job in Paris or New York.
"You could win that," my mother said.
"You could win that
and live in Paris, or New York,
wherever you wanted.
But definitely you could win it."
My senior year at Berkeley, I did win it.
I got out of Berkeley,
and I was offered a job at Vogue.
So, I moved to New York to take the job.
It was very thrilling to me, naturally.
When I first saw New York, I was 20.
And it was summer time,
and the warm air smelled of mildew
and some instinct
programmed by all the movies
I'd ever seen
and all the songs I'd ever heard sung
and the stories
I'd read about New York
informed me it would never
be quite the same again.
In fact, it never was.
When she was here,
you know, some time ago,
it was at a moment in
Vogue's history when,
if you were an editor,
you'd still wear a hat and gloves.
And if you were just an assistant,
no gloves, no hat.
I mean, it was just a very...
Everyone was addressed by Ms. or Mrs.
I mean, it was a very different time.
It would be exciting,
because Vogue was the preeminent
fashion magazine.
You had to learn to...
write with irony,
or with a kind of humor, you know,
something that would grab the reader.
You had to do it in this short space.
You didn't have the luxury of
writing, and writing, and writing.
They would've been a little daunted
by some of the editors.
Allene Talmey,
whom, uh, Joan obviously knew,
she could be very frightening.
I remember she would have
this big aquamarine ring.
She'd get violently
crossing, x-ing out things, muttering:
"Action verbs, action verbs."
And everybody who lasted with her...
basically learned to write.
The first thing I wrote for Vogue was
"Self-respect, its source, its power."
They had assigned a piece called...
"Self-respect, its source, its power."
They put it on the cover.
And the writer didn't materialize.
No piece came in.
So, I had to write it.
People with self-respect
exhibit a certain toughness,
a kind of moral nerve.
They display what was
once called "character"...
a quality which although
approved in abstract
sometimes loses ground to other,
more instantly negotiable virtues.
"Character," the willingness to accept
responsibility for one's own life,
is the source from which
self-respect springs.
However long we postpone it,
we eventually lie down alone...
in that notoriously uncomfortable bed,
the one we make ourselves.
Whether or not we sleep in it
depends, of course,
on whether or not we respect ourselves.
It seems that would be unusual
for Vogue to have a voice like that,
that personal. Was it?
Well, it was probably...
sort of unusual, yeah.
You might have pieces on ways of
doing makeup or something like that
but these weren't like that.
They were personal pieces.
I started writing a novel, basically,
when I came to New York.
That was sort of what you... did.
You got out of school,
and now you were gonna write a novel.
So, I'd work all day at Vogue
then I'd come home...
and have dinner or whatever and do this.
I didn't have any
real clear picture of how to do it.
So, I would just do parts of it.
And then I would just pin up
these parts on the walls of my apartment.
I think ten people read it.
I think a total of 11 copies were sold.
First time I saw her in print
was probably her first novel
which was Run River.
It's not her best novel,
but it was her first, and it was the, uh...
The, uh, story about people we knew.
It was a Sacramento story.
So, I've always enjoyed that.
"Here was the story
about my father.
There was about him a sadness so pervasive
that it colored even those moments
when he seemed to be having a good time.
He could be in the middle of a party at
our own house, sitting at the piano,
a bourbon highball always within reach.
The tension he transmitted
would seem so great
that I would have to leave,
run to my room and close the door."
My father was severely depressed.
I didn't realize that at the time.
I thought...
this depressed behavior
was totally normal.
"We went to the movies
three or four afternoons a week.
And it was there that
I first saw John Wayne.
I heard him tell a girl in a picture
he'd build her a house
at the bend in the river
where the cottonwoods grow.
Deep in that part of my heart
where the artificial rain forever falls...
that is still the line I wait to hear.
As it happened, I did not grow up to be
the woman who is the heroine in a Western.
All of the men I have known
have had many virtues
and have taken me to live in
many places I have come to love,
they have never been John Wayne.
They have never taken me to that bend
in the river where the cottonwoods grow."
He's, you know, a protector.
You married a protector.
I did.
Also... Also a hothead.
- Quick with a gun.
- Yeah.
I met John Gregory Dunne at
TIME magazine.
We were sitting in this building,
late at night
with too much to drink.
And, so, there were a lot of
affairs going on.
But people were very quiet about it.
John was a great gossip...
and, uh, always came into my office...
and held up his hand and said,
"This, you will not believe."
I made him a character in a novel
about working at a news magazine.
The beginning of the book had a claimer
instead of a disclaimer. And it said,
"The character of Andy Wolferman is
based on John Gregory Dunne,
though it tends to flatter."
Later, he said,
"Calvin, I was wondering, what's the...?
Why was I Jewish in the book?"
And I said,
"That's the 'tends to flatter, ' John.
You don't want to be a
lace curtain Irish all your life."
As Irish Catholics become assimilated,
they lose something.
They lose their Irish
which makes them, uh, unique.
It's sort of a very sort of
dark, uh, sense of humor that they have.
The Irish sense of humor is
"A man kisses the Blarney Stone
and falls and fractures his skull."
That makes the Irish laugh.
There is that sense of storytelling,
and the Irish are great storytellers.
As Joan's family
crossed the frontier,
John's grandfather came through
Ellis Island at the age of 11
with only a 3rd-grade education.
It was his love of storytelling that John
said influenced him to become a writer.
He'd offer the kids a quarter,
a lot of money at the time...
to recite a Shakespeare sonnet or poem.
John went on to write 13 books,
both fiction and non-fiction.
His older brother
and my father, Dominick Dunne,
also became a journalist and novelist.
I went to Hartford and
fell in love with his family...
and determined that I was
gonna marry him...
and did.
I don't know what "fall in love" means.
Um... It's not part of my...
But I do remember having a very clear
sense that I wanted this to continue.
I liked being a couple.
I liked having somebody there.
I could not have been with
somebody who wasn't a writer
because that person
would not have had patience with me.
In the spring,
after we got married,
Joan and I got fearfully drunk
at this party.
And the next morning,
uh, we had breakfast at a...
On Madison Avenue.
At a coffee shop, a drug store.
And Joan started to cry at breakfast.
And so I had to go to work.
I got into work. I called her.
"Would you mind if I quit?"
And she said, "No."
I said, "We'll figure out
what we're going to do."
And I went in and gave my notice.
End of story. End of time.
It's easy to see the beginnings
of things and harder to see the ends.
I remember now
with a clarity that makes
the nerves on the
back of my neck constrict...
when New York began for me.
But I cannot lay my finger
upon the moment it ended.
All I know is that it was
very bad when I was 28.
Everything that was said to me,
I seemed to have heard before.
And I could no longer listen.
I hurt people I cared about...
and insulted those I did not.
I cried until I was not even
aware when I was crying.
Cried in elevators, and in taxis,
and in Chinese laundries.
That was the year, my 28th, when I began
to understand the lesson in that story...
which was that it is distinctly possible
to stay too long at the fair.
Then we decided to
move to California for six months.
I put an ad in the Los Angeles Times.
"Writer, wife, desire house." You know.
And the writer and wife...
specifically desired a house
on the west side of Los Angeles.
And we wanted to pay...
something like $300 for it.
I mean, the whole thing was ridiculous.
We finally got a house. Your mother
went out and looked at it for us.
That house in Portuguese Bend.
Only your mother would drive 60 miles
to look at a house for somebody.
We loved going to Portuguese Bend.
Their house was on a bluff
overlooking the Pacific.
Joan would point out migrating whales.
And John would take my sister, Dominique,
my brother, Alex, and I down to
these tide pools
where we'd catch sand crabs.
There was this cave, and we would swim.
You had to get into
the water at a certain point
and get beyond the... The surf.
"The tide had to be just right.
And you had to be in the water
at the very moment the tide changed.
We had to be in the water
at the very moment the tide was right.
Each time we did it,
I was afraid of missing the swell,
hanging back, timing it wrong.
He never was.
You had to feel the swell change.
You had to go with the change."
He told me that.
Do you remember...? Do you remember
meeting me for the first time?
Maybe it was at Portuguese Bend.
Here's my, like...
five-year-old memory of meeting you.
We were at the pool.
Alex and I had matching swim trunks,
these tight, like, bicycle pants
with gold buckles on it.
And, uh, we were, uh...
This is how... This is during
our leisure time in our matching...
- Uh...
bathing suits. And everybody was very
excited about you and John coming over.
Mom was kind of nervous
and was telling us about
we're gonna meet John's wife.
I'm meeting you.
And, uh, John... says, uh...
"Griffin, you got a little... You got a
little something poking out of there."
And I looked down and one ball
has come out of the seam
that was broken in the tight bathing suit.
And Dad, and John, and I think
my mom roared with laughter.
And I was scarlet.
I was so embarrassed.
You were the only one that didn't laugh.
You just kept right on going, just like...
With a totally straight face.
I always...
I always loved you for that.
But John, of course, was relentless.
Six months at Portuguese Bend
became a year.
John was writing a book about Cesar
Chavez and the California grape strike.
Joan traveled through the central valley
to help with research and reporting.
To pay bills, they wrote magazine articles
for the Saturday Evening Post,
Holiday, LIFE, and Esquire.
At one point, they even shared a column.
And despite how different their styles
and points of view were,
they would never turn in a piece
without running it by the other
for a final edit.
They were each other's
most trusted reader.
Were you thinking about
children at that point?
I was thinking about children.
He was thinking about children.
But we couldn't have one.
Suddenly, we got offered one.
What do you mean?
I mean...
the phone rang one day.
"I was taking a shower and burst
into tears when John came in to report
what the obstetrician
who delivered her said.
'I have a beautiful baby girl at
Saint John's, ' is what he said.
'I need to know if you want her.'
Later, we stood outside the window
of the nursery at Saint John's
looking at an infant...
with fierce dark hair...
and rosebud features.
The beads on her wrist
spelled not her name
but NI for 'No Information.'"
Well, I mean, there was no question.
This baby was gonna be ours. Yeah.
Almost everybody I know who has ever...
had a child...
is afraid before the baby comes
that they won't be up to it.
The reality couldn't have
been more perfect.
I remembered leaving the hospital
with her and driving.
We were on the
San Diego freeway going home.
I always thought of myself as
bonding with her on the San Diego.
These pictures are from
Quintana's christening,
two months after
John and Joan brought her home.
John might have been a lapsed Catholic,
but he was Catholic to his core.
The idea that something could happen to
Quintana during those two months,
sending her to limbo, was a risk
John just wasn't willing to take.
So, on their first night home...
unordained John
waited until Joan was asleep
and he snuck Quintana into the bathroom
and baptized her
right there under the sink.
We had to move out of the house at
the beach because they didn't want a baby.
We were not "writer, wife."
We were "writer, wife, baby."
In the years I'm talking about,
I was in a large house
in a part of Hollywood
that was once expensive
and was now described
by one of my acquaintances
as a senseless killing neighborhood.
Since the inclination to rent
an unfurnished 28-room house for a
month or two is a distinctly special one,
the neighborhood was peopled mainly by
rock 'n' roll bands, therapy groups,
and by my husband, my daughter, and me.
They had this wonderful old
Hollywood house on Franklin Avenue.
Big, not too much furniture.
I lived there a while. I was trying
to remember why I lived with them.
She would come down
fairly late in the morning.
I'd be in the kitchen.
She'd have a cold...
Coke in the bottle from the refrigerator.
She'd be wearing sunglasses... silent.
I had to have Coca-Colas
in the refrigerator.
And they had to be really cold.
And if anyone took my last Coca-Cola,
we would have a scene in the kitchen.
There was always a big case of canned...
uh, salted almonds
which her mother sent her,
I think, for Christmas each year.
It had to be more often
because she ate them so quickly.
And she would open a can, I remember
the sound. You know that sound.
I'd sit there with my coffee.
And she'd sit there in her sunglasses
with the Coke and the nuts.
But neither of us speaking.
I like to sit around
and watch people do what they do.
I don't like to ask questions.
Jim Morrison, I did a piece on.
Rock 'n' roll people
are the ideal subject for me.
They will just
lead their lives in front of you.
- Did you like The Doors?
- I was crazy about The Doors.
- What is it about The Doors that drew you?
- Bad boys.
I was doing a piece on
the Haight-Ashbury in 1967.
And it seemed to me that we were
seeing the tip of something important
that wasn't about "hippies," you know?
That it was about
disaffected children, Let cetera.
The idea that you could
write the history of your time,
which, I think, is what Joan has done
through the essay,
and could be a form
which would be as supple,
and as versatile,
and as nuanced as fiction,
is something extraordinary.
She makes it do things that
nobody ever made it do before.
The center was not holding.
It was a country of bankruptcy notices,
public auction announcements,
commonplace reports of casual killings,
misplaced children,
and abandoned homes and vandals
who misspelled even the
four-letter words they scrawled.
It was a country in which
families routinely disappeared,
trailing bad checks
and repossession papers.
Adolescents drifted from
city to torn city,
sloughing off both
the past and the future
as snakes shed their skins.
Children who were never taught
and would never now learn
the games that had held society together.
Children were missing.
Parents were missing.
Those left behind filed
desultory missing persons reports
then moved on themselves.
I had a 2-year-old at the time
I was working on that.
So, it was particularly vivid to me
to see these other children.
It was vivid to me
because I was away from the 2-year-old...
and feeling slightly
cut off from her, yeah.
When I finally find my contact,
he says,
"I got something at my place
that will blow your mind."
When we get there,
I see a child on the living room floor
licking her lips in concentration.
The only thing off about her is
that she's wearing white lipstick.
"Five years old," the contact says,
"on acid."
What was it like
to be a journalist in the room
when you saw the little kid on acid?
Well, it was...
Let me tell you, it was gold.
I mean, that's the long
and the short of it is...
you live for moments like that...
if you're... doing a piece.
Good or bad.
Obviously, we being repressed,
dank English folk,
we loved the sound of hippiedom, you know?
Uh, we thought San Francisco
sounded absolutely great to us.
And so, you know, Joan Didion
reporting from the heart of, um,
Haight-Ashbury about
what it was actually like
came as a bit of a bracing shock to us.
That's not how we thought
the whole thing should be seen.
But I can see that very early on
in that early reporting,
there's a sort of horror of disorder...
which is very much
a feature of Joan's writing...
and Joan's personality.
I was living in Los Angeles.
And the magazines I was
writing for were in New York.
And so, I was reporting on
a lot of stuff that they weren't seeing.
Sometimes, you hit a piece that seemed...
That it could take a longer length
than a magazine could give you.
I might do a non-fiction book someday,
but I didn't do one for a long time.
It comes from that Yeats poem,
When what rough beast slouches
Toward Bethlehem to be born
It was reviewed by someone
in The New York Times.
They said what made this book special
is it emphasized
what used to be called character.
And it was boom.
And all of a sudden, you were a figure.
Someone once brought Janis Joplin
to a party at the house
on Franklin Avenue.
She had just done a concert,
and she wanted a brandy
and Benedictine in a water tumbler.
Music people never wanted ordinary drinks.
They wanted sake,
or champagne cocktails, or tequila neat.
Spending time with music people
was confusing.
That party was...
Was maybe the biggest party we ever had.
About midway through the party,
we realized that people
were missing their cars.
I pointed this out to the parking guy,
and he said, "What can I do, Mrs. Dunne?
How did I know you lived in
a terrible neighborhood?"
The horrible thing I remember is
going up to Quintana's room just to
check and make sure that
everything was okay.
there were drugs on the floor.
I couldn't believe that
anybody would do that.
There were a lot of drugs
around town at that time.
And the presence of these drugs
became all that was on anybody's mind.
You wanted to get rid of them.
You wanted them out of your house.
Friday night in Los Angeles,
a movie actress
and four of her friends were murdered
and the circumstances were lurid.
This was at the home
of Roman Polanski.
And it was his wife, Sharon Tate,
who was one of the victims.
She too had been stabbed,
repeated stab wounds.
One of the victims had
a hood placed over his head,
and the word "pig" was
written in blood on the door.
Many people I know in Los Angeles
believed that the '60s ended
abruptly on August 9th, 1969.
Ended at the exact moment when
the word of the murders of Cielo Drive
traveled like brushfire
through the community.
Where were you
when you heard about Manson?
In your mother's swimming pool.
Your mother was wearing
a Pucci bathing suit.
The phone was ringing.
She answered the phone.
- And it was Natalie.
- Natalie Wood.
And Natalie was calling to tell her
that this terrible thing
had happened the night before.
Before the Manson case,
everything seemed explicable.
And suddenly...
the Manson case happened
and nothing was making sense.
Tiny Linda Kasabian,
20 years old and 7 months pregnant
with her second child,
already has pleaded not guilty
in the murders of Sharon Tate
and six other persons.
Linda Kasabian, the person I was
interviewing on the Manson case,
told me they had gone by our house
which was spooky.
What was it like
interviewing Linda Kasabian?
Well, I spent quite
a bit of time with her, actually,
both when she was in jail
and before she testified.
That was a weird... situation.
Finding myself cooking... dinner for...
Linda Kasabian and her child.
And the child was...
The child had to be bathed, and...
You know, the whole thing was weirdly...
It was weirdly normal...
and yet it was not normal
in any way at all.
In this light,
all narrative was sentimental.
In this light,
all connections were equally meaningful
and equally senseless.
Try these.
On the morning of
John Kennedy's death in 1963,
I was buying,
at Ransohoff's in San Francisco,
a short silk dress
in which to be married.
A few years later,
this dress of mine was ruined
when at a dinner party in Bel Air,
Roman Polanski accidentally
spilled a glass of red wine on it.
On July 27th, 1970,
I went to the Magnin High shop
in Beverly Hills and picked out,
at Linda Kasabian's request,
the dress in which she began her testimony
about the murders at Sharon Tate
Polanski's house on Cielo Drive.
I believe this to be an authentically
senseless chain of correspondences.
But in the jingle jangle morning
of that summer,
it made as much sense
as anything else did.
The White Album,
I think those pieces are
about the late '60s, early '70s.
The Beatles album
figured in the Manson Trial.
It was a kind of dark album.
And that was the period.
On The Beatles' album,
The White Album,
there's ballads, and there are
sound experiments by Lennon.
There are soft songs,
hard songs, instrumental.
She does a very similar thing
in that essay
which I find... profound,
and it took ten years.
If you look at the date, I think it's a
ten-year period where she worked... on it.
You couldn't make a narrative
about the times.
The times weren't cohesive.
So, she found this way, which is to
kind of make a verbal record of the times.
I am talking here about
a time when I began to doubt
the premises of all the stories
I had ever told myself.
A common condition,
but one I found troubling.
I suppose this period began around 1966
and continued until 1971.
During those five years,
I appeared, on the face of it,
a competent enough member
of some community or another.
I wrote a couple of times a month
for one magazine or another,
published two books,
participated in the paranoia of the time.
The weirdness of America
somehow got into this person's bones
and came out on
the other side of a typewriter.
What was going on
in your marriage?
Well, he was not happy with...
what he was doing, and what was going on
in our marriage was we were not happy.
He had a temper, a horrible temper, yeah.
I didn't.
- What things would set him off?
- Everything would set him off.
I want you to know
as you read me precisely who I am,
and where I am, and what is on my mind.
I want you to understand
exactly what you're getting.
You're getting a woman,
who for some time now,
has felt radically separated
from most of the ideas
that seem to interest other people.
You're getting a woman
who somewhere along the line,
misplaced whatever slight faith
she had in the social contract...
in the whole grand pattern of
human endeavor.
I had better tell you where I am and why.
I'm sitting in a high-ceilinged room in
the Royal Hawaiian hotel in Honolulu,
watching the long translucent curtains
billow in the trade wind...
and trying to put my life back together.
My husband is here
and our daughter, age 3.
We are here on this island
in the middle of the Pacific
in lieu of filing for divorce.
Did he read that?
He edited that.
He edited it? So, how does that...?
What was the...? Was it...?
What was your agreement
about just writing about...
your inner public life?
It was... We didn't have an agreement.
We didn't have...
We didn't see it as a deal,
you know... or a deal-breaker.
We thought, generally, that you...
You wrote what...
You used your material.
You wrote what you had.
That was what I happened
to have at the moment.
At that moment.
He rented an apartment in Vegas.
It was a nightmare apartment.
He never stayed in it.
He never spent one night.
He would go over there,
and he would stay at...
At a hotel.
It was not a good time.
Actually, it was a wonderful book,
it turned out.
You and John were both
writing dark stuff?
Well, it was a dark time.
She's in there, in the world,
and she's writing about
all sorts of ugly things.
Look at Play It As It Lays.
Yes, the style is a very refined style,
but the subject matter is not at all.
And so there's this odd contrast
between subject matter and style.
Maria drove the freeway.
She dressed every morning with
a greater sense of purpose
than she had felt in some time,
for it was essential
that she be on the freeway by ten o'clock.
Not somewhere on Hollywood Boulevard,
not on her way to the freeway,
but actually on the freeway.
If she was not, she lost the day's rhythm,
its precariously imposed momentum.
Maria is detached in the way
that a reporter is detached.
Play It As It Lays is about
what Maria sees
and what she feels
which is... trying not to feel.
Maria was quite a bit of myself.
Obviously, not line for line.
What Maria is going through in that book,
she is coming to terms
with the meaninglessness of experience.
That's what everybody
who lives in Los Angeles
essentially has to come to terms with
because none of it seems to mean anything.
Once we moved to the beach,
I felt particularly good.
Joan Didion lives hard by the sea
about an hour's drive north
of Los Angeles.
She shares life along
the coast of her native California
with husband John Gregory Dunne,
who is also a writer.
The day would start with
John getting up and building a fire
and making breakfast for Quintana
and taking her to school.
Then I would get up, have a Coca-Cola
and start work.
Everybody had their own thing.
How important is it
to live here?
I like to look at the horizon.
I mean, that is nice.
It is always there, flat.
I like the way it feels here.
I got back to New York
from the interview and wrote to her.
I sent it to "Joan Didion,
somewhere in Malibu Beach."
That was the address I had.
'Cause I didn't have anything with me.
And she got it.
I was a carpenter
to do a renovation
and expansion of their home in Malibu
overlooking the ocean.
And I spent a couple of months there...
in their house,
first thing in the morning, last thing.
The end of every day...
explaining why we hadn't
made more progress...
and how it was gonna cost even more money.
There was a room that was developed.
And there were bookshelves.
There were decks
and a wall of doors and windows.
I had a young family.
I think I became their carpenter
for the same reason I became
their friend, is that I was, uh...
out of my depth...
kind of...
Didn't know where I was going,
how I got there.
Joan always had an Easter party.
My family and I were always invited.
I always felt
everyone there was smarter than I was
and more cultured than I was.
But I was always made to
feel welcome and comfortable.
It was not the way
you think of Malibu.
It was very out there.
It was far away.
And it was shacks.
And it was small houses.
And it was people living very separately.
And it was very...
Everybody and their brother
showed up at this house.
Brian De Palma,
Steven Spielberg, Marty Scorsese,
Warren Beatty.
Warren Beatty had
a tremendous crush on Joan.
She was well aware of it, as was John.
And John used to...
John used to be very amused by it.
And if I had a dinner party,
Warren would say to me,
"Please, please, will you put me
next to Joan? Please."
It was a very hot atmosphere.
I don't mean "hot" like "sex hot."
I mean "hot" like... "creative hot."
Everybody was talking movies.
Everybody was arguing about movies.
John, being the great raconteur
that he was,
he was gathering material,
and Joan was gathering material.
And they actually were
interested in what we thought.
And they were interested
in, uh, the ideas that we had.
Fade in. Interior subway, day.
The camera holds very tight on her face
as she hangs from a strap
in the crowded subway.
She looks ill, drawn,
scarcely able to cling to the strap.
I had read this book
by James Mills.
It was developed from some pieces
he'd done in LIFE.
It just immediately said "movie" to me.
I had John read it and Nick.
Each of the three of us put in $1000.
You had to go to the producer and...
And describe the movie in one sentence.
And their sentence for
Panic in Needle Park was
"It's Romeo and Juliet,
but they're junkies."
When writing Play It As It Lays,
did you see it as a movie?
You surprised it was made into a movie?
No, I wasn't surprised that
it would be made into a movie.
I wish it was made
into a better movie.
It was just different. It was different.
The characters were different.
The point was different.
Everything was different
even though I wrote the screenplay.
We work in films in an odd way.
One of us writes the first draft,
and the other functions as really
kind of a super-editor
and writes the second draft.
In the end, you can't really
tell who has done what.
Writing scripts allows us to do
other things. Writing scripts is also fun.
I suppose if they had...
a religious belief,
it was in the
Writers Guild medical insurance.
They spoke about
the Writers Guild medical insurance
almost in reverential tones.
When they discussed it,
it was like in almost hushed tones.
The Writers Guild, "Medical insurance.
You've written fiction,
and you have written truth.
Why do you write films?
I like it. It's fun.
It's not like writing.
- Pays good money.
- It's like making notes for a, uh...
Making notes for a director.
It's a...
It's an entirely other form of, uh...
Of, uh, something to do.
- It is.
- It also helps finance
- what you really like to do.
- Yeah.
- To write books.
- No doubt about that.
This book, Book of Common Prayer,
is very complicated
with a lot of layers,
and yet it all flows to a common point.
When you write a book like that,
do you keep notes over a period of time
and then begin to see
the story unfold in your mind?
It unfolds as you write it.
I mean, that's something I never believed
before I wrote a book...
Um, but it does.
Well, as you know,
Joan's a complete perfectionist.
If she's thinking about something
and feels she's stuck,
she'll put it in the freezer.
- Do you know that?
- That's not a metaphor?
- That's...
- No, in the freezer.
- She would put the book...?
- The manuscript in the freezer,
in a bag, and, um, then go back to it.
The morning the FBI men
came to the house on California Street,
Charlotte did not understand why.
She had read newspaper accounts
of the events they recited,
she listened attentively
to everything they said,
but she could make no connection
between the pitiless revolutionist
they described and her daughter Marin.
Who, at 7, had stood on a chair
to make her own breakfast...
and wept helplessly
when asked to clean her closet.
Sweet Marin.
Or so the two FBI men
tried to tell Charlotte.
I realized... some years after
A Book of Common Prayer was finished...
I realized that it was a...
That is was about my...
anticipating Quintana was growing up.
- I was anticipating separation.
- Her leaving.
Yeah, and so I was actually
working through...
- that separation ahead of time.
- Mm-hm.
So, novels are also about things
you're afraid you can't deal with.
I realized Play It As It Lays
had been about mothers and daughters,
on a certain level, as Common Prayer
is about a mother and a daughter...
and the separation between them.
In that sense that a novel
is a cautionary tale...
if you tell the story
and work it out all right,
then it won't happen to you.
After The White Album,
were you interested in moving away
- from the personal into the larger world?
- I was bored with it, yeah.
I wanted to move into...
stuff that was beginning to
interest me more.
It was a hard transition to make
until I found...
The New York Review.
I asked her, I said, "How did you...
start writing these pieces
about politics and...
Salvador and Miami and so on, because
you talked about how insecure you were."
She said, "Bob Silvers."
That was her answer,
was that he gave her the confidence
to not even question her doing it.
I remember reading some
of her things, I believe, in LIFE magazine
where she was a kind of
special correspondent,
and I thought, "What a fresh... voice."
But she hadn't written about
domestic politics
or from war zones before.
How did you know she could do that?
Well, just from talking to her
and reading her work,
I saw that she was
immensely knowledgeable, perceptive.
A sharp observer.
And I wanted to know,
as a matter of my own curiosity
as an editor and as a friend,
what she thought.
Have you ever visited a morgue?
I remember spending some time
in the L.A. County morgue,
and immediately the minute you walk in,
you make an accommodation so that...
if a body suddenly presents itself to you
or touches you, you're not going to...
Or if you have to watch an autopsy,
you're not going to get sick. Um...
And I think that's what's
happened in El Salvador.
It's quite a brutalizing experience.
There was a...
This awful civil war in Salvador.
The Americans were supporting
a very, very brutal...
terrible government.
We talked about it
and the idea was that she would go there.
She wanted to go there.
She wanted to get in on that.
You'd pick up the paper
and these horror stories would be there
and you kind of had to
get to the bottom of them.
- Was it dangerous?
- What, El Salvador?
It... It was the most dangerous place
I've ever... I ever hope to be.
I mean, it was terrifying.
I had never covered American politics.
It simply was outside
my whole interest range.
It seemed to exist
only to maintain itself.
I mean, it didn't seem to have
any relationship
with the people
who hung around gas stations.
It didn't seem to connect
with the rest of the country.
They tend to speak
a language common in Washington
but not specifically shared
by the rest of us.
They talk about programs and policy
and how to implement them.
Or about trade-offs
and constituencies
and positioning the candidate...
and distancing the candidate...
about the story and how it will play.
They speak of a candidate's performance,
by which they usually mean his skill
at circumventing questions.
Not as citizens,
but as professional insiders...
attuned to signals pitched
beyond the range of normal hearing.
Her piece on Cheney...
is enormously foreseeing...
of the whole course...
of Bush politics and the Iraq war.
She undertook to write
about the Bush administration,
the Bush war and, above all,
Cheney, who she saw...
as a decisive...
and bullying...
and really quite brilliantly evil figure.
Cheney reached public life
with every reason to believe
that he would continue
to both court failure and overcome it.
Take the lemons he seemed determined to
pick for himself and make the lemonade...
then spill it...
then let somebody else clean it up.
"Wilding." New York City police say
that's new teenage slang
for rampaging in wolf packs,
attacking people just for the fun of it.
A woman jogging in New York's
Central Park last Wednesday night,
raped and nearly beaten to death.
She is a white
Wall Street investment banker.
Police said the youths were joking
about the crime in their jail cell.
What drew you
to the Central Park jogger case?
Oh, it was just a natural story for me.
Everything about that story...
was a lie.
She was deeply suspicious
about how everyone was leaping into this...
These... This double image
of evil and good.
To understand is to forgive.
I don't wanna understand what motivates
someone, uh, to engage
in this kind of horror.
Calling us animals
is not going to get problems solved
- and this is what we want to do.
- You better believe I hate the people
that took this girl
and raped her brutally.
You better believe it.
One vision, shared by those
who had seized upon
the attack on the jogger
as an exact representation
of what was wrong with the city...
was of a city systematically ruined,
violated, raped by its underclass.
The opposing vision, shared by those
who had seized upon the arrest
of the defendants
as an exact representation
of their own victimization,
was of a city in which the powerless
had been systematically ruined,
violated, raped by the powerful.
I was just this kid living in Flatbush...
um, reading these very elegant words.
When you're on that side of being
described based on your skin color,
you read very cynically.
And so I read reports
in the New York Post, the Daily News,
The New York Times, very cynically.
And it was almost as if I was waiting...
for Joan to write the piece
that I needed to read.
Um... Because it was something that...
any reasonable person,
once they had stripped...
Um, as she would say,
the narrative of its rhetoric...
Um, the story was of old grievances,
Old political grievances in the city.
I, myself, have always found
that if I examine something,
it's less scary.
We always had this theory that
if you kept a snake in your eye line...
the snake wasn't gonna bite you.
That's kind of the way...
I feel about confronting pain.
I wanna know where it is.
The doctor told you,
"John, the ticker's bad"?
The ticker is bad and that I was
a candidate
for a cardiovascular catastrophe.
And, uh, so, it tends to focus
and concentrate the mind very well,
so, I began to think about...
who I was, how I got to this point
and how it affected my life as a writer.
What made you move to New York?
John wanted to move.
He was restless.
He felt as if he was stale.
His plan was to spend
more time in New York.
You have a little resentment?
Actually, we never had
any of those feelings.
People found it hard to believe,
but neither John nor I
was ever jealous of the other's work.
I was happy to see him back in New York.
His exercise was walking
in Central Park in the mornings.
Sometimes he'd picked up,
not only the gossip from the dinner party
the night before, but the gossip from
whoever he ran into in Central Park.
John would roll his calls every morning
with fresh gossip
to a group of his friends.
And if any one of us had gossip for him,
he would yell "Joan, pick up!"
Even though her office was next door.
But if he did that...
the gossip had to be really good.
When my wife was alive,
we were couple friends.
We often went to dinner with them.
Among all the married couples I knew...
they were the ones
who were almost always together.
I always said...
They're the sort of married couple that...
finished each other's sentences.
Although, John finishes Joan's sentences
more than Joan finishes John's sentences.
When you talked to them on the phone,
you realized
they were just sitting
across from each other.
People often said that he
finished sentences for me, well, he did.
He was between me and the world.
He not only answered the telephone,
he finished my sentences.
He was the baffle between me
and the world at large.
You know how children are,
they always feel left out.
Once, we talked about
what kind of mother I had been, and...
she, to my surprise...
said, "You were okay,
but you were a little remote."
I didn't think this at the time.
I didn't see how it was possible,
because her father and I
so clearly needed her.
Which is kind of the way
we tend to deal with our children.
Later, we realized that maybe
we haven't been listening to them at all.
We'd been listening to the very edge
of what they say...
without letting it sink in.
- And Q got married.
- Mm-hm.
How soon after they met
did they get married?
Quite soon.
I wonder if you were
concerned about her.
We were concerned about her.
not so much that she was getting married.
That seemed like...
At that moment, it seemed like
a good... thing for her to do.
What was...?
What more were you concerned about?
I was concerned because she was
drinking too much. That was...
the first concern.
She called me and said, you know,
"I... I... Susan, I... I have this...
I have a new boyfriend."
And I said,
"Oh, wow, well, that's fantastic."
And she said, "Oh, my God, he's...
He's just amazing and I'm so happy,"
and I said, "Well, where...?
Where did you meet him?"
She said, "You're not gonna like it."
And I said, "Well, what?"
She said, "Well, he works at
a bar down... That I go to sometimes."
"My parents love him, my dad...
They're really happy for me."
She said,
"If you take this away from me,
this is the greatest thing
that has ever happened to me.
I really...
I don't even think I can... I can...
talk to you...
if you can't be happy for me."
Oh, they were so pleased and happy,
and Quintana looked so happy.
Everything seemed to be going so well,
and then we all,
you know, trooped over
to the parish part of the house
for a little wedding reception.
We wished them happiness,
we wished them health...
we wished them love
and luck and beautiful children.
On that wedding day, July 26th, 2003...
we could see no reason to think
that such ordinary blessings
would not come their way.
Do notice...
we still counted happiness
and health and love and luck
and beautiful children
as ordinary blessings.
Quintana had been too sick
on Christmas Eve to come to dinner.
In the morning she called
and said she could hardly breathe.
She had gone to the emergency room
the night before,
but it was back again.
By the time she got to the hospital...
she was in need of dramatic care.
She was very near death then.
Quintana had been taken in with...
With something that seemed...
not that serious, like the flu, or...
Or something like that.
But it had quickly developed into...
Into something else, and she...
was in the ICU, and she was...
She had a tube down her throat
for breathing and... And, um...
So, when... And John...
talked about all that,
and talked about it in detail, but, um...
His voice just sounded different
from any time I'd ever heard it.
John's voice just started to break
and I've... I've never...
I had never heard him like that.
He was sobbing and saying, you know,
"Quintana is so sick, I just don't know...
I'm just so worried."
We sat down.
My attention was on mixing the salad.
John was talking, then he wasn't.
His left hand was raised
and he was slumped motionless.
I remember saying, "Don't do that."
When he did not respond, my first thought
was he started to eat and choked.
I remember trying to lift him
from the back of the chair
to give him the Heimlich.
I remember the sense of his weight
as he fell.
First against the table,
then to the floor.
That night I got a call saying...
"Listen, uh, I just spoke to Nick Dunne,
I have something terrible to tell you."
And I said, "Oh, my God, Quintana died."
And she paused and she said,
"No, not Quintana, but John."
On the night that he died...
I came back here.
There was... not much...
There was not much else to...
To do, you know? I called your father.
That was the first thing I did.
I had that obligatory conversation and...
that was it.
After John died, you know,
it was... It was like a...
It wasn't like an Irish wake,
it was like a Shiva.
There were people at the house...
all the time,
until you told them to leave.
I was up there a lot
for the next couple of weeks.
Her daughter was in...
Still in intensive care and...
And John was gone.
And I remember we were
all concerned she wouldn't eat and I...
I found that she would eat congee.
Uh, so, I would go to Chinatown
and get congee,
which is sort of a... A rice porridge.
And finally she said, "Calvin,
I think we've had enough congee."
By that time,
I had gotten married to Rosemary.
We lived around the corner.
Often, Rosemary would come over,
but this particular night...
which I think was fairly early in the...
In the going...
we went into, uh, John's office
and Joan opened one of the closets.
She was just standing there,
thinking for a while.
I'm looking at all this stuff assuming
we're both thinking the same thing,
that you have to
get rid of these clothes eventually.
She said, "But what if he comes back?"
all I remember is that...
at that moment,
it didn't seem far-fetched to me at all.
In fact, it seemed plausible.
There couldn't be
a funeral for John
until Quintana was well enough
to go to it.
For the funeral she was not...
You know, she didn't seem too strong.
- Yeah.
- You know, then.
And, uh...
you know, she made a plan to...
To go to Los Angeles...
- the next day.
- I hate to say,
but I encouraged her to go to Los Angeles,
I thought it'd be good for her.
I mean, I was totally wrong.
On the other hand,
it could've been a pretty idea.
The day in Malibu, right?
But it wasn't.
That's what she wanted?
To go to Malibu where...
Where she was raised.
Yeah, of course.
She came off the plane
and fell and hit her head and...
You know, she thought she was okay and...
- As those kind of brain injuries,
- Mm-hm.
Suddenly, she wasn't okay.
The fall at the airport
sent Quintana into a coma.
Two years of rehabilitation followed,
but at the end,
she lost her will to fight back
and her health rapidly declined.
That summer, she just finally let go.
Grief turns out to be a place
none of us know until we reach it.
We know that someone
close to us could die.
We might expect to feel shock.
We do not expect this shock
to be obliterative,
dislocating to both body and mind.
We might expect to be prostrate,
inconsolable, crazy with loss.
We do not expect to be literally crazy.
Cool customers who believe their husband
is about to return and need his shoes.
Nor can we know the unending absence
that follows, the void...
the relentless succession of moments
during which we will confront
the experience of meaninglessness itself.
The reason I had to write it down
was nobody had ever told me
what it was like.
It was a coping mechanism, it turned out,
but I didn't plan it that way.
The manuscript
kind of just showed up.
I knew she was working on something,
but she doesn't really talk about
what she's working on.
I took it home, and, well,
you can imagine, it was...
It was an incredible thing and unexpected.
And I...
I think she felt she had to do this.
This was... She had to kind of get it down
to understand it...
as what... But it was amazing
the two events happening, you know?
John and then Quintana.
And, of course,
Quintana is not in the book,
even though she had died that August
and I got the book in October.
It's the first book about grief...
not by a believer.
Joan Didion, goodness knows,
believes in human achievement.
For someone with that perspective
to write about coming up
against this great big wall of loss,
void, the person she loved
most in the world disappearing...
speaks to a whole section of people
who have had nothing to read
at all on that subject.
Who knows what to do
or how to do it?
You could be grieving your wife,
who died a month ago...
and everybody else has moved on...
and everything is normal.
A matter of months has gone by,
and I guess
you're supposed to be just normal.
Again, she wasn't writing
through the haze of romanticism...
she was writing through
the deeply felt poignancy
of someone who could report on grief.
It's the hardest thing to write about.
She did it as a reporter.
She did it as the quote-unquote
"the Joan Didion" character
of the novels in a true story about grief.
I think the hardest thing
was finishing it.
for as long as I was writing it...
I was in touch with him
in some way, you know?
And when you finished the book?
"We all know
that if we are to live, ourselves,
there comes a time
when we must relinquish our dead.
Let them go, keep them dead.
Let go of them in the water.
Let them become
the photograph on the table.
Knowing this does not make it any easier
to let go of them in the water.
I did not want the year
after either of them died to end.
I knew that as the second year began
and the days passed,
certain things would happen.
My image of them at the moment of death
would be something
that happened in another year.
My sense of John and Quintana themselves,
John and Quintana alive...
would become more remote...
transmuted into whatever
best served my life without them.
In fact, this is already happening.
For once in your life, just let it go."
Look how much soup you have.
- Who makes all this for you?
- What soup?
All this, isn't that soup?
No, that's ice cream.
Griffin feels the need to report he's been
getting calls from concerned friends.
The focus of their concern is my health,
specifically my weight.
I point out that I have weighed
the same amount since the early 1970's.
Griffin says that he recognizes this.
He is only reporting
what those concerned friends
have mentioned to him.
I had been thinking that maybe it was time
to do something totally new...
and it might be interesting to do a play.
So... I had some conversations
with David Hare.
When we came to make a play...
faced with two problems:
One, she had never written a play.
But, secondly,
we were faced with the very real problem
that Quintana, her daughter,
had died since the book was written.
And whereas the book
was about grief for her husband,
since then, her daughter had died.
And so, I was faced with the unhappy task
of saying to Joan...
that she would have to open up
about material which is not
in the book, but which...
Which would be in the play
and about which at the time,
she had no intention of writing.
But one of the wonderful things
about working with Joan
is that she doesn't ever
let any discomfort she's feeling show.
And so, she never said to me...
"This is fantastically painful."
She just regarded it as a job to be done
and it had to be done.
And I think it was done
at immense personal cost and expense.
At that point, she was down to 75 pounds.
And I said, "If I do this play,
I'm going to put some flesh on her bones.
That's what we're going to achieve."
We're going to plump her up, uh,
by doing this play.
We're gonna make her happy
and by making her happy...
We're never gonna make her fat,
but we're not gonna keep her at 75 pounds.
We're gonna get... And... And we did.
In other words, I fed her and I would...
If I was working with her,
we'd have sandwiches and I'd say,
"I'm not going to eat my sandwich
until you eat yours.
You're going to eat that sandwich."
We just fed her,
and the stage manager
formalized it to a point
where she put a table up
in the wings of the theater,
and she put a red check tablecloth
and she put a sign saying "Cafe Didion"
in the wings of the theater.
And so, between shows
or before the show, she'd come in
and we'd give her croissants
and jam or soup.
By the time the run was over,
she was in pretty good shape.
We were very pleased and I said,
"I don't care whether this play
is a service to art,
it is a service to humanity, we...
We've got Joan blooming again."
And... And I think the play gave her
a frame to her life
at a very, very, very difficult time.
The larger thing
I came to understand...
was the value of that communal experience.
The audience is in the collaboration, too,
and we all are in it together
which is very like life itself, right?
This happened...
on December 30th, 2003.
That may seem a while ago,
it won't when it happens to you,
and it will happen to you.
The details will be different,
but it will happen.
That's what I'm here to tell you.
It was lovely for me to see the pictures
of you and John getting ready.
Can you see all right,
or shall I tilt it up?
I don't think
you can see otherwise, can you?
I can see.
- Is that... Is that me?
- Yes, it is.
Well, she has dark glasses on anyway...
There you look very glamorous.
Not saying you don't...
Haven't often, if not always,
looked extremely glamorous,
but that one is particularly sort of...
"dark glasses" glamorous.
Oh, here she is.
The lovely... The lovely girls.
In March 2009, Tash died.
I'd got a different understanding
how things change, but not only change
in a way that you certainly
hadn't expected...
but also change...
Change our perceptions, that's what
The Year of Magical Thinking was about.
This one is John.
- There's John, yeah.
- Next to Tasha.
I'm so glad you brought these.
Yeah, thank you, I'm glad, too.
changed my perceptions in a specific,
amongst other, ways...
that I understood...
something I hadn't before.
Which was...
that you don't get all gloomy-doomy.
This book is called Blue Nights,
at the time I began it,
I found my mind turning
increasingly to illness.
To the end of promise,
the dwindling of the days,
the inevitability of the fading,
the dying of the brightness.
Blue Nights are the opposite
of the dying of the brightness,
but they are also its warning.
Writing Blue Nights was
quite a different experience
for you, creatively.
It was hard, actually.
In the middle of it I thought,
"I don't have to finish this,"
and I almost abandoned it then.
I went on.
Is that because
it was about Quintana?
Because it was about Quintana.
When she wrote Blue Nights then...
When she wrote Blue Nights then...
When I... When I read it, I...
sent her a message, you know.
And she just said,
"I only wrote it for you."
She said, "I had no reason
to write it except to write it for you."
And, uh, I was very, very upset by this.
Um, she said, "I knew you'd be the only
person who'd understand this book."
I said, "I won't be the only person.
Lots of people will understand it."
But I was incredibly moved that she...
Blue Nights was her...
way of completing the process
we had been through, you know?
I think she wanted to think about
bringing up Quintana
and what had happened and...
And, I... You know, with Joan,
I think she always writes to find out
what she thinks and what she feels,
and so I think...
that's what Blue Nights was partly about.
And maybe it's kind of a release, too.
The idea that you get it down
and then...
it's... I don't think...
Not that she wants to forget it,
but it just clarifies it in some way.
I couldn't, in any way...
confront the death of my daughter
for a long time.
She was much more troubled
than I ever recognized
or admitted because she was...
At the same time that she was troubled,
she was infinitely amusing and charming.
And that's naturally
what I tended to focus on.
Most of us go through life
trying to focus on what works for us,
and her amusing side
definitely worked for me.
When I was little, the Donner party
was taught to children in California.
The interesting part
of the story is the...
failure to plan for misfortune.
To plan to protect one another,
to protect themselves.
She was adopted.
She had been given to me to take care of
and I had failed to,
so there was a huge guilt.
One of the things that worries us
about dying is we're afraid
we're leaving people behind
and they won't be able
to take care of themselves,
we have to take care of them.
But, in fact...
you see, I'm not leaving anybody behind.
I know that I can no longer reach her.
I know that should I try to reach her,
she will fade from my touch.
Pass into nothingness.
Fade as the blue nights fade.
Go as the brightness goes.
Go back into the blue.
I, myself, placed her ashes in the wall.
I know what it is I am now experiencing.
I know what the frailty is,
I know what the fear is.
The fear is not for what is lost.
What is lost is already in the wall.
The fear is for what is still to be lost.
You may see nothing still to be lost...
yet there is no day in her life
in which I do not see her.
Hello, everybody,
and welcome to the White House.
Thank you for joining us, uh,
to celebrate Joan Didion...
who rightly has earned distinction as...
one of the most celebrated
American writers of her generation.
I'm surprised she hadn't already
gotten this award.
For her mastery
of style in writing...
exploring the culture around us
and exposing the depths of sorrow,
Ms. Didion has produced works
of startling honesty and fierce intellect.
Rendered personal stories universal,
and illuminated
the seemingly peripheral details
that are central to our lives.
"See enough and write it down,"
I tell myself.
And then some morning,
when the world seems drained of wonder,
some day when I'm going
through the motions
of doing what I am supposed to do,
which is write...
On that bankrupt morning,
I will simply open my notebook
and there it will all be, a forgotten
account with accumulated interest.
Paid passage back to the world out there.
It all comes back.
Remember what it is to be me.
That is always the point.