During my 90-minute break between speech classes, I sit in an empty room and get lost in Joan Didion.
How had I still not seen the Netflix documentary The Center Will Not Hold?
The full movie Play As it Lays is on YouTube. How had I not yet seen this, too?
I dictated a post about the content I had consumed in the course of the last week while walking in the cemetery on Saturday, but I haven’t had the chance to transpose that into some readable text.
Based on arguably her most well-known novel, Play It as It Lays (1972) was a family affair, with Didion and Dunne on screenwriting duties and her brother-in-law Dominick Dunne producing. In the director’s chair sat Frank Perry, the fiercely independent filmmaker behind low-budget dramas like David and Lisa (1962) and Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970). The team-up seemed ideal given how frequently Perry’s work, like Didion’s, focused on the disenfranchisement of women and struggles with mental illness. The protagonist, Maria, played by Tuesday Weld, is a former actress turned housewife who slowly descends into inescapable nihilism. Her director husband is distant but manipulative. Her young daughter has been institutionalized for some “aberrant chemical in her brain,” and her best friend, the closeted B.Z. (Anthony Perkins), is in as dark a place as she is. As she spends her days zipping between boredom and self-destruction, the bright lights of the so-called New Hollywood become ever-grimier.Joan Didion’s Hollywood and “Play It as It Lays,” Kayleigh Donaldson. 18 JAN 2022.
All because of Didion’s quip on screenwriting I read in a free article from this month’s Paris Review:
But screenwriting is very different from prose narrative.
It’s not writing. You’re making notes for the director—for the director more than the actors. Sidney Pollack once told us that every screenwriter should go to the Actor’s Studio because there was no better way to learn what an actor needed. I’m guilty of not thinking enough about what actors need. I think instead about what the director needs.
John wrote that Robert De Niro asked you to write a scene in True Confessions without a single word of dialogue—the opposite of your treatment for The Panic in Needle Park.
Yeah, which is great. It’s something that every writer understands, but if you turn in a scene like that to a producer, he’s going to want to know where the words are.
See the interview here (and subscribe to TPR if you can afford it): https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5601/the-art-of-nonfiction-no-1-joan-didion
Oooh, and one more bit from the end of Donaldson’s MUBI article:
In her 1976 article “Why I Write,” Didion remarked, “The arrangement of the words matters, and the arrangement you want can be found in the picture in your mind […] The picture tells you how to arrange the words and the arrangement of the words tells you, or tells me, what’s going on in the picture.”https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/joan-didion-s-hollywood-and-play-it-as-it-lays
Yes, I realize I will have to tell my screenwriting students – we are transferring the pictures in our mind through the media into the reader/audience’s mind. It is not about writing words as much as it is about seeing it so clearly in our own imagination that even with a lousy job of describing it, there will be enough pixels transferred for the audience to enjoy seeing it too.