I first encountered Griffin Dunne, now 58, as one of the New York producers, with partner Amy Robinson, of Joan Micklin Silver's "Chilly Scenes of Winter." He went on to a strong producing ("Baby It's You," "Running on Empty") and acting career, starring in Martin Scorsese's "After Hours" and John Landis's "An American Werewolf in London," and more recently, the occasional character turn in television ("House of Lies") and such films as "Dallas Buyers Club." And this week he ably carries the new family comedy "The Discoverers" from New York politico and academic turned writer-director Justin Schwartz, who cast Dunne as a washed-up professor--natch--who drags his two reluctant teenagers ("Californication" star Madeleine Martin and "American Horror Story"'s Devon Graye) on an unexpected Lewis & Clarke Oregon road trip. Dunne gets to use his chops as a slapstick comedian in "The Discoverers," which opens in Los Angeles this Friday.
Dunne is also a director; among a string of decent indie features, his 1995 debut short film "Duke of Groove" was nominated for an Oscar, and he's now in the midst of directing a documentary about his famous aunt, Joan Didion, wife of his late uncle John Gregory Dunne, brother of Griffin's father, Vanity Fair columnist Dominick Dunne, who died in 2009.
We spoke on the phone.
Anne Thompson: How is the documentary about your aunt Joan Didion coming?
Griffin Dunne: It's going along. We're in Los Angeles finishing interviews. We have some more to do here. I've finished all my interviews with Joan, she's off the hook, she's relieved about that. She was really great. We have her in settings to evoke the essays she's writing, and she's reading from her work to make sort of a visual tapestry with archival footage from her life. I'm interviewing Harrison Ford already, a lot of people, some that know her, everyone from the literary world, anywhere in the arts, students no one's ever heard of whose lives were transformed by her essays that helped them become the people they become. She has had such a profound effect on so many people. It covers all her life--it's one of those things, many people remember their first Joan Didion story.
Your aunt and uncle were such a vital part of Los Angeles in the 70s.
And part of our presentation is interviews talking about writers and actors and directors from the 70s and their houses in Broad Beach and Brentwood where they threw real dinner parties with an incredible collection of people: from the cinema world and journalism and cops and homicide detectives and D.A.s and movie stars.
You've been moving toward television.
I've been gravitating toward TV like everyone else. I love movies but rather than bemoan the change, I like feeling it out. The way all the different tangents and so many others of high quality previously had focused around a weekend, even when they released a clunkers. Amy and I were doing movies which you would honor by leaving them in theaters for a month or so. VOD has had a taint on movies and now it has possibility. That's sort of hopeful. I'm not privy to the release plan of this movie. Anyone who doesn't have major movie stars or a big advertising budget is going to require a lot of ingenuity. We're in the same boat as a lot of other movies.
You had a juicy role opposite Matthew McConaughey in "Dallas Buyers Club."
It was intense. Matthew was starving to death right in front of my eyes, and I believe I was the last character interacting with him until he could eat solid food, which he hadn't had for a month or so. It was a very tight schedule, all business, which I love. You're in an environment when you had an actor committing his body and his work --everything about his being so fully. I wanted to honor that, to make sure you got it right. He got my vote!
What made you want to take a chance on a first-time director on "The Discoverers"?
It was a great team. The script came out of nowhere, sent to my agent, who thought I would quite like this. It resonated with me, in a lot of ways. It was a guy of similar age, the father of a young daughter who had been divorced. Like anyone who's been in the entertainment business, I have known the ups and downs of change. It's a wonderful metaphor to play a guy who had invested so much of his life in a medium and subject few people would care about, as more contemporary pop historians were overshadowing what he considered to be true academic history. He was painted into a corner and couldn't possibly be released. You have a picture of a thing--just like the business we're in is in constant change. I liked the themes of that and coming around to knowing you're going to be OK as a father and as a teacher and historian. Growth and humor come out of pain.
I could tell Justin who also wrote it had a clear understanding, It was something he was working on for a long time. With a first-time director you hope that his vision will be able to be conveyed not only to yourself as an actor but to the other people as well. When we were talking he seemed prepared, it was something he had cared about for a long time and he was ready. It's always a gamble, but this script was a gamble worth taking.
How goes your other directing?
I've been directing "The Good Wife" of late, which has been a lot of fun, working with fellow actors. I've got the Joan documentary. And I've written something as a feature that I'd like to get going,. Just like Justin--it's not going to get it made unless you do it!
Multi-tasking seems to be the order of the day.
It turns that being dyslexic and a Gemini kind of pays off in this case.