For the start of production on The Glass Castle, Destin Daniel Cretton wanted to scale a mountain.
One could argue the writer/director had already done the equivalent in simply wrangling Jeannette Walls’ memoir, a feverish recounting of her turbulent childhood, into script form. But for the first few days of filming, he insisted on taking his cast and crew up to Welch, West Virginia. There, the young Walls, growing up in poverty with her sisters Maureen and Lori, brother Brian and their free-spirited mother Rose Mary, had only her father Rex’s promise of a kingdom on a hill to get her through the night.
The bulk of shooting took place in Montreal to replicate both the rural trappings that Jeannette had grown up with and the urban environs she would ultimately escape to. Still, Cretton knew that to get the most out of his collaborators, seeing what Rex saw in the heart of coal country (even when others couldn’t) would instill the passion that accompanied every word of Walls’ book. It would remind his cast and crew that no matter how dark the story that they were bringing to the screen was at times, there was tremendous beauty in it.
“It’s one of the most extraordinary, beautiful places I’ve seen,” says Cretton of Welch. “It’s a tiny town that’s right in the middle of these lush mountains. We had a great time shooting there.”
It was hardly downhill from there, but Cretton’s ability to see the light just over the horizon, both as a filmmaker and in everyday life, is surely why he was approached by producer Gil Netter (Life of Pi) to adapt The Glass Castle for the screen. He had just come off depicting his rewarding, yet often thankless, work as a counselor to at-risk youth in the 2013 drama Short Term 12, which helped established its star Brie Larson as a force to be reckoned with. In the adaptation, Cretton was faced with the intimidating task of capturing Wall’s wry recollections of coming of age with parents who preached self-sufficiency while leaving their children to cope with constantly fluctuating fortunes as they lived off the grid. Cretton channeled Walls’ wicked sense of humor and savvy, borne out of the devastating events that shaped her: from being severely scalded at the age of three while cooking hot dogs, to helping her father hustle unsuspecting marks at the local pool hall as a teen. The writer-director was overwhelmed by the sheer number of remarkable tales in Walls’ page-turner—shocking stories that propelled it onto The New York Times bestseller list for 261 weeks, and proved difficult to condense.
Cretton quickly brought on a co-writer in Andrew Lanham, whom he had befriended when they were both awarded the prestigious Academy Nicholl Fellowships in screenwriting in 2010. The two honed down the story of the film to center on Jeannette’s complex relationship with her dad, a hopeless schemer and dreamer who was as reckless in tending to the emotions of his children as he was drinking and gambling at poker tables. After two deeply personal films in Short Term 12 and his 2012 debut, I Am Not a Hipster, Cretton also found a way into Walls’ memoir through his own upbringing in Haiku, a remote community in Maui where his family of six lived in a two-bedroom shack, hanging up buckets from the ceiling to catch water before it seeped into the house during a storm, and entertaining themselves by tearing up the wooden floors on roller skates.
“So much of it resonated with my own life and my own relationships with my family that it terrified me,” says Cretton, “but it also felt like something I at least had to try and tackle. There was a lot of really complicated love in my family. Everyone adored each other, but we were very imperfect, and a lot of our relationships were that mixture of volatility and love that is throughout The Glass Castle.”
As it would turn out, Cretton wasn’t alone. Although Jennifer Lawrence had been initially attached to the project to play Jeannette, his Short Term 12 star Larson quickly stepped in when Lawrence got busy elsewhere. Larson not only brought the cachet of her 2016 Best Actress Oscar win for Room, she also encouraged Cretton to cast Woody Harrelson to play her father, as he had before in the 2011 film Rampart. (The two actors are such close friends that they were vacationing together in Hawaii when the prospect of The Glass Castle came up. Says Cretton, “Brie honestly looks at him as a father figure and there is naturally that father-daughter bond and friendship, so the chemistry was something that we really didn’t need to work on at all. There is so much of him that’s this mixture of charm and extremism.”)
Cretton also found an ideal Rose Mary in Naomi Watts. When he sent the actress voice recordings of the painter from the 1990s, she sent him some recordings back that were actually in her own voice—but he couldn’t tell. “That kind of freaked me out,” he says. “I didn’t realize how much she had jumped into that role.”
With Lionsgate backing the film—a big step up from his $500,000 previous feature—Cretton could actually afford the movie stars, and to shoot in anamorphic to capture Rex’s big imagination, so intoxicating to the Walls clan. Yet the writer-director wanted to keep things simple for a film where, like Short Term 12, so much of the power would come from its performances. He made it a priority to reunite much of the behind-the-scenes crew that made that previous film so special, including cinematographer Brett Pawlak, composer Joel P. West and costume designers Joy Cretton (his sister) and Mirren Gordon-Crozier, among others. He also fought to structure the 40-day shoot in a way that would chronologically follow Jeannette: from a 5-year-old who adores her father to a more skeptical 10-year-old in Welch, and eventually to a young woman who flees for New York to become a gossip columnist. This schedule would allow for the three Jeannettes to create a consistency by being able to see what their younger selves had done.
To create the familiarity necessary to inhabit the wild Walls family, Cretton engaged the cast in a number of bonding activities in the weeks before and during shooting. There were retreats for the kids to see Cirque du Soleil. Watts even organized a weekly picnic on Sundays where the cast would serenade each other with songs from Hamilton. One particular exercise devised by Cretton involved Larson, Harrelson, Watts and Ella Anderson, who plays the 10-year-old Jeannette, going out to dinner with the requirement that they spend an hour of it in character.
“Woody [as Rex] told us all when we sat down to dinner that he has just won big at the casino and we could order anything we wanted,” says Anderson. “I got this weird mushroom dish and Woody ate [it] because he was Rex at the time.”
Once the cast forged that intimacy, Cretton and Pawlak set about getting out of the way. Although the film boasts a few logistically ornate single takes—which replicate the exhilaration and fear that Rex’s mercurial behavior could inspire—Pawlak had learned from Short Term 12 that to convey the actors’ raw emotions, he should light through windows, keeping the equipment on any given set or location to a minimum and taking the opportunity to shoot anywhere in the room.
For that film, “the camera was on Brett’s shoulder most of the time… you can feel a human behind the camera reacting to what’s happening in front of the camera,” says Cretton. Accordingly, Pawlak and Cretton visited locations and took pictures to create a photographic storyboard before filming started, to try to limit the amount of technical conversations on set. This film, though, had “about half” of the handheld camerawork of Short Term 12: “We explored a lot more locked-off compositions in this movie and really brought the camera to life in handheld when we needed to.”
“I really try not to overpower the set with lights and gear inside the set, [and to] keep it as invisible [as possible], so [Destin] can really focus on performance,” says Pawlak, who shot the film primarily on two Alexa XTs. (He also had an Alexa Mini that he would use as a backpack cam, with receivers and transmitters tucked inside, to shoot run-and-gun style.) Even though the bigger budget meant “fun toys like Technocranes and rear-screen projection and things like that,” Pawlak’s goal on any project is to “melt into the scene.”
Adds Max Greenfield, who appears in the film as adult Jeannette’s fiancé David, “It’s really nice as an actor when all you really have to worry about is acting and not worry about anything else.”
Which isn’t to say Greenfield could rest easy. The New Girl star found himself in the same situation as his character, a Manhattan-based financial analyst who tries desperately to ingratiate himself with the close-knit Walls, when he arrived on set for the last three weeks of shooting. Although Greenfield insists the cast and crew couldn’t be more welcoming, he admits it was daunting to join the film after they had already settled into a groove—a tension he used to his advantage for one of the film’s signature scenes. That moment is a raucous arm-wrestling match between David and Rex just after they first meet, with the entire Walls’ family cheering on the action—except for Jeannette, whose loyalties are torn between the past she comes from and the self-made success she’s become in New York. It’s an example of the unexpected mix of humor and emotional heft that Cretton infuses the film with, though this particular moment was a little more unexpected for the filmmaker.
“What’s funny is Brie was actually losing her voice that day,” says Cretton, “and we knew that she had to have a moment where she comes out really strong [to cheer on David], so we shot everything up until that moment with her just not saying anything, and then [her yelling] was the first thing we let her voice release on. It just came out huge. It rocked all of us. We see the Rex in her just come out.”
Says Greenfield, “I really had to chill out and remember that we were acting in a movie, and I shouldn’t be so excited about arm wrestling with Woody Harrelson.” About Larson, he notes: “Playing the lead is not an easy thing; it requires a stillness and the ability to let the audience feel the story through your eyes… There were genuine times where I’d be in the middle of a scene with her and think, ‘Shit, she’s fucking good.’”
Cretton had his hands full during the production and after. With the involvement of young actors, he was often confronted with shorter shooting days, though he says “working with kids reminded every day that what we’re doing is supposed to be fun.” He also admits the film’s elliptical flashback structure made the film quite challenging to edit, but piecing the film together with Moonlight co-editor Nat Sanders, with whom he worked on Short Term 12, it gradually came together.
After finishing the cut, Cretton found himself sweating it out when he invited Walls and her husband to an early screening of the film. Walls had been nothing but encouraging throughout the production, even visiting the Welch house set in Montreal to boost the crew’s spirits, but Cretton still had his concerns, well aware of the responsibility of bringing the story of someone else’s family to the screen.
“It was scary as shit. It was so uncomfortable for me,” Cretton recalls of the emotional screening. “I was sitting three rows behind [Jeannette] in this big empty theater and the first moment when anybody could laugh, she laughed louder than most people would ever laugh. From that point on, she was just the most expressive movie watcher I had ever seen. And it became just really fun to watch her laugh and cry and shout. I’m excited for other people to see the movie, but that was the thing I was worried about, and I’m so happy that I was able to participate in telling this story and giving her that gift.”
It may have taken more years and far more people than even Rex Walls could imagine, but at long last, The Glass Castle had been realized. MM
The Glass Castle opens in theaters August 11, 2017, courtesy of Lionsgate. Photographs by Jake Giles Netter. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2017 issue.