Jon Avnet on Creating “Close-Up and Personal” with Joan Didion – The Hollywood Reporter

Joan Didion is a friend. Our relationship started when we met on a movie I was directing that Joan and her husband, John, wrote, Up close and personal. At first, it didn’t go well. In fact, our initial meetings – and later faxes – were a disaster, often sketchy meetings. But something changed and the unthinkable became the norm: We became incredibly close, with a shared love of words, thoughts, silence, and food.

This transition happened via fax as we communicated daily while the film prepared to go into production. How did it happen? After Joan described one of my suggestions as “indescribably cute,” I found myself bursting into laughter. “Unbelievably cute.” She’s smart, ruthless, funny, and remarkable with her words.

We ran out of clever insults and started enjoying this critical joke instead. At that point, we realized that we were not only enjoying the process, but were also producing the results. What’s even more remarkable for Joan and John, they were on set in Miami while we were shooting. They hate the set, but there is an exception, bringing gifts.

After production, when the film was being edited, we had become so comfortable, trusting, and loving each other, I asked if they wanted to go into the editing room and make any changes. They are like playful children. I mean this? I did. They entered the editing room by themselves. They spent a day with our brilliant editor Debbie Neil Fisher and cut 10 or 12 minutes of the movie. They are ruthless with their own words.

When I saw their work, I was quite pleased, aside from the fact that they cut some of their best lines. When we went back and forth and some of their documents were recovered, they were both very happy and had an innocent light on them. John and Joan don’t glow.

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Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford
Buena Vista / Courtesy Everett Collection

Our professional relationship continued, as they rewrote every movie I directed until the unthinkable happened. John died of a heart attack in their apartment while their daughter, Quintana, was hospitalized and in a coma. As Quintana emerges from her coma, Joan has the impossible task of telling her that her father has passed away. Of course, Quintana was devastated, but life had a cruel and ironic twist. Quintana fell into a coma again, and when she awoke with no memory of her father’s passing, Joan had to reiterate that her father had died, more than once.

After Joan wrote Year of Magical Thinking, a professor I admire at UPenn, Al Filreis, asked if I would invite Joan to his “Writer’s House”. Joan agreed to come and talk. The young writer was ecstatic and studied her work in great detail. They were naturally amazed and deeply grateful for her thoughts. Near the end of two days, Al asked her if she had read a passage from Year of Magical Thinking. Joan said, “I’ll read until my voice comes out.”

And she did. She reads her sentences quietly, without emphasis, but with complete and complete ownership of each thought, phrase, word, and comma. The room became silent, a silence so still that the moments Joan described seemed to be playing out in the room. It’s spectacular. And then, her voice came out.

Joan’s voice is gentle but very powerful. Even as it became weaker over the past few years, the echoes grew stronger and her words stood the test of time.

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Joan Didion, Jon Avnet and John Gregory Dunne at the Orange Bowl in Miami, during the filming of ‘Up Close and Personal.’
Ken Regan

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