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Jon Avnet produced and directed Up Close and Personal (1996), starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. Loosely based on Alanna Nash’s book Golden Girl, about the troubled life of anchorwoman Jessica Savitch, the screenplay was written by Joan Didion, who died yesterday at age 87, and her husband, John Gregory Dunne. The latter wrote about the tumultuous process of making the film in his book Monster: Living Off the Big Screen.
Joan Didion was a friend. Our relationship began when we met on a movie I was directing that Joan and her husband, John, had written, Up Close and Personal. It did not go well, at first. In fact, our early meetings — and, later, faxes — were disastrous, often vitriolic. But something changed and the inconceivable became the norm: We became unusually intimate, with a shared love of words, of thoughts, of silences and food.
This transformation took place over a fax machine as we communicated daily while the film was preparing to go into production. How did it happen? After Joan described a suggestion of mine as “ineffably cute,” I found myself laughing out loud. “Ineffably cute.” She was smart, ruthless, funny and remarkable with her words.
We ran out of clever insults and instead started to enjoy this back-and-forth critical banter. At that point, we realized that we were not only having fun with the process, but it was also producing results. Even more remarkable for Joan and John, they showed up on the set in Miami while we were shooting. They detested film sets, but made an exception, bearing gifts as well.
After production, when the film was being edited, we had become so comfortable, trusting and fond of each other, I asked them if they would like to go into the editing room and make any changes. They were like giddy children. Did I mean this? I did. They went into the editing room on their own. They spent a day with our remarkable editor Debbie Neil Fisher and cut 10 or 12 minutes out of the film. They were merciless with their own words.
When I saw their work I was quite pleased, other than the fact that they cut some of their best lines. As we went back and forth and some of their material was reinstated, they both were so happy and they had an innocent glow about them. John and Joan didn’t glow.
Our relationship continued, as they rewrote every movie I directed until the unthinkable happened. John passed away from a heart attack in their apartment while their daughter, Quintana, was hospitalized and in a coma. When Quintana came out of her coma, Joan had the unenviable task of telling her that her father had died. Quintana was of course devastated, but life had a cruel and ironic streak. Quintana fell back into a coma and when she came out with no memory of her father’s passing, Joan had to repeat that her father was dead, more than once.
After Joan had written The Year of Magical Thinking, a professor I admired at UPenn, Al Filreis, asked if I would invite Joan to his “Writer’s House.” Joan agreed to come and speak. The young writers were ecstatic and studied her work in great detail. They were naturally in awe and incredibly grateful for her thoughts. Near the end of the two days, Al asked her if she would read a passage from The Year of Magical Thinking. Joan said, “I will read until my voice gives out.”
And she did. She read her sentences quietly, with no emphasis, but with utter and complete ownership of each thought, phrase, word and comma. The room became silent, a stillness so complete that the moments Joan described appeared to be happening in the room. It was breathtaking. And then, her voice gave out.
Joan’s voice was soft but so powerful. Even as it grew frail in the last few years, the echo became stronger and her words remain timeless.
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