JOHN GREGORY DUNNE: A Novelist’s Tour of L.A.

Novelist, screenwriter and journalist John Gregory Dunne (“True Confessions”) tours the City of Angels in the documentary “L.A. Is It,” airing Monday on PBS’ “Travels” series.

Dunne’s journey begins at the Plaza in El Pueblo, now Olvera Street, the city’s birthplace in 1781. From there, he travels along Sunset Boulevard through Echo Park, Hollywood, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Malibu.

He meets with gang members in East Los Angeles, discovers that 50,000 Armenians live in Hollywood and attends a Passover seder at trendy Spago. Dunne also talks with a Pacific Palisades maid from El Salvador, attends traffic school taught by a fledgling comedian and meets a man in his 40s who has surfed every day since 1960.

Dunne and his wife, writer Joan Didion, moved to Los Angeles from Connecticut in 1964 and moved away, to New York City, in 1988.


Dunne talked about “L.A. Is It” with Susan King.

How does one go about writing and narrating a documentary? How did you collaborate with the filmmakers?

We agreed more or less on what we were going to do. It’s a very different kind of writing than I have ever done. It is extremely structured in that you know before you shoot pretty much what you want to shoot, or what you would like to shoot, and so I would write to that. You are constantly writing and then it’s constantly being changed because you are doing it to (a set) time. It is extremely difficult.

I used to write for Time magazine 118 years ago (laughs) and so I know how to compress. Writing it was a lot like writing for Time. It is entirely compressed to get into a specified time frame.


I suppose the major power I had was I could say “No.” In other words, if I didn’t like something I wouldn’t write about it or I wouldn’t narrate it. It’s kind of negative power, but it does have it uses.

It must have been difficult, though, doing a documentary on a metropolis like Los Angeles in less than an hour.

The problem of doing a show on Los Angeles in 52 minutes is how little of Los Angeles you can cover. I would have loved to have had more in it about the (San Fernando) Valley, which is only fleetingly referred to. The city is so enormous; there is so much to it. I would have liked to have more about the architecture.

I think the whole point of this show when we first talked about it, and I think it does come through, is that most people think that Los Angeles radiates out from the Beverly Hills Hotel. All they know is Rodeo Drive and Disneyland.


The people who write about Los Angeles think this and it’s an attitude people have. It is a pet hobby horse of mine that I wanted to show that it is a far more interesting and diverse city than that. When we started, I wanted to make sure that the show business part of Los Angeles was only a small part of the show, and I wanted it at the end of the show. (The producers) completely agreed with that.

Was it your idea to use Sunset Boulevard to illustrate the fact Los Angeles is a melting pot of cultures?

That was actually their idea. I was skeptical about it. I understand that it does start in downtown and goes through all the neighborhoods. But as a spine, I was skeptical. I think it now works, but we kept on hacking away at it. When I first saw it in the rough cut, I was appalled.

The interesting thing about documentaries is that they’re made in the editing room. And the Sunset part I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. That was the hardest single thing to do in the film. I think now that it works, but it works because we put an enormous amount of work in it.


There was a lot of stuff cut out. There are two guys who have written a book called “Flip Streets” and it is about how to get around Los Angeles without getting stuck on the freeways. We had about three minutes with them, but unfortunately, three minutes is an enormous amount of time and there was no way to cut it down.

(Documentary) is a strange form. I am very glad I did it. I am not altogether sure I would do it again. I mean, you are at the mercy of the pictures.

You and your wife moved to New York three years ago. Why did you leave Los Angeles?

It certainly wasn’t because we were tired of Los Angeles. We both felt we needed a change and our life needed a little goose. I suspect if I or Joan had been in middle of a book we wouldn’t have moved. We had been there for 24 years and I always loved Los Angeles and still do. I just think every once in a while your life needs a switch, a little change, a jolt.


Do you miss Los Angeles?

We come out to Los Angeles a good deal. Joan does something about Los Angeles two or three times a year for the New Yorker and we come out to do movie stuff. So, we are out four or six times a year.

It’s not as if we abandoned it. New York is quite different. There are things I miss (about Los Angeles). Oddly enough, I miss driving, which was getting to be quite a chore. But not driving any more one forgets how much one gets done in the car, especially if you are a writer. You do purpose driving. You go get your watch fixed or you take your shoes to the shoe repair and you are alone in the car with the radio and you can do an enormous amount of thinking. I find that I really miss that.

“Travels: L.A. Is It” airs Monday at 8 p.m. on KCET .