The Challenges of Adapting The Glass Castle

Destin Daniel Cretton reveals how he filmed a best-selling 2005 memoir about a family’s bizarre history.

The Glass Castle is an adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ best-selling 2005 memoir of the same name, in which she recounted the poverty-stricken, endlessly rambling and off-the-grid existence endured by herself and her three siblings at the hands of her eccentric, deeply dysfunctional and, in the case of her father Rex, alcoholic parents. Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts star as Rex and Rose Mary Walls, the parents who are the chaotic, often dark and unpredictable storm at the center of the Walls’ story, while Brie Larson portrays Jeannette as a young adult who physically breaks free of her parents by moving to New York, but still finds herself caught in their gravitational pull years later.

The movie — which has been in various stages of development for years — was directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, whose second feature film, 2013’s Short Term 12, was a breakout independent hit for the filmmaker and its star, Larson. Whereas that film took place in a home for troubled teenagers, this movie focuses on troubled parents and how they impact their children, all while dragging them along on a journey from town to town and job to job, keeping the dream of a fantasy existence alive just to hold their fragile family unit together.

Den of Geek had a chance to speak with Cretton about the film, how he managed to adapt the book, and working with both this extraordinarily offbeat family (only Rex is no longer among us) and his potent cast.

Den of Geek: This seems it was very difficult material to adapt, and in fact there were numerous attempts before yours. What brought you into it and what was the key to getting it right?

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Destin Daniel Cretton: I came onto it through my producer Gil Netter. He’s the one who introduced me to the book. The first time I read the book I just completely fell in love with the subject matter and I felt so connected to it personally and I also thought, “How the hell can you adapt something like this?” primarily because it’s full of so many great stories. It feels like every other page seems like another scene that has to be in the movie. And honestly I’d never adapted anything before, so it didn’t just come naturally to me to figure out what it was.

But, what I and my co-writer Andrew Lanham really connected to in the book was this journey of the complicated love story between Jeannette and her dad and trying to track the way that he was, even with all of his dysfunction and flaws, able to instill a strength and a hope for the future in Jeannette and kind of a fictional reality that he was using to inspire her and hide her from the trauma that she was going through as a kid.

What I found really interesting was the way that she was able to use that same strength when she was 16 as a way to get away from him. So as soon as we decided to track that story, it became much clearer which scenes from the book we should be concentrating on and incorporating into the movie. So that kind of became the main key there.

Were there any stories that you didn’t necessarily want to lose but you had to?

I have a huge list of things. If you go through the book from my first read, I’ve got so many notes saying, “This has to be in the movie,” “This has to be in the movie,” and most of them did not make it into the movie. I love the scene where Rex is trying to help Rose Mary get a piano into their house and they have a piano on one side of the house and a car on the other side of the house and a rope going through the entire house connecting the front of the car to the piano and Rose Mary is in the car and she doesn’t know how to drive very well and Rex is by the piano, and he’s telling her to start inching the car forward to pull the piano into the house. And she ends up flooring it, and the piano flies all the way through the house and busts through the other side and ends up in the yard where it stayed.

Somebody could take this and make this quirky little whimsical film out of it, but you didn’t go that route. You didn’t shy away from that darkness that’s inherent in the story.

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I think the darkness is really important to the development of Jeannette. I think Jeannette represents this kind of redefining of what a strong female is or just what a strong person is and she finds so much strength in how she gets through those really dark times. If we just kind of turned it into some quirky, cartoonish version of that I don’t think we’d be able to really see her develop that strength from these hard times.

Was Jeannette sort of a constant reference for you that you could go to? Or was there a sense of not necessarily wanting to rely on her as much, especially if you had to fictionalize or condense things?

The great thing about Jeannette is she’s an incredible writer and storyteller and she understands how stories are created. So she was a constant resource for us, but the reason she was so helpful is because she also understood that certain things have to happen in order to fit 500 pages or whatever the book is into a 100-page screenplay. So she was really instrumental in helping us to find the heart and core of the story and to keep that true while we were developing this film.

The first time I showed the movie to her I was scared shitless and I was so happy and relieved when she stood up with tears and said that it feels like her childhood. It feels like her life. I felt like I was finished at that point. I felt very, very happy.

How about Rose Mary or the other kids? How much involvement did any of them have?

We were able to get in touch with everybody and I got to go and meet Jeannette and Rose Mary pretty early on in the development stage and Rose Mary was super helpful. As soon as you meet Rose Mary you see where this brutal openness and honesty in Jeannette comes from, because she’s the same way. She’s just unapologetically herself and there’s something just so endearing about that. It just instantly makes you feel comfortable. She is a sweet woman, but she’s also just unapologetically crass and has strong opinions and says and does what she feels like in that moment. But there’s something about that that was very endearing. Everybody in that family was just very open to talk to us about anything about their past and they were all incredible resources.

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Read and download the full Den of Geek SDCC Special Edition magazine here!

How far did you want to go in terms of aging or de-aging Woody and Naomi? Did you go through different ideas about doing that?

Everything was trying to find a balance of “What is too much? What looks real and what doesn’t look real?” It’s as simple as that. There were much more extreme versions of that, of their aging process, but it’s like those characters in particular are so extreme naturally that when we pushed certain elements too far they start turning into cartoons. So it was a process.

Did the actors come to you with their own ideas? How involved were the discussions you had with them about Rex and Rose Mary?

Naomi and Woody both dove very deep into their own research on their characters. For Woody, Rex’s hair was a very important part of who he was. Even though they were dirt poor, Rex always took pride in the way that he looked. And his hair was always combed. He always had a comb in his pocket, pens in his pocket. He was always making sure his hair was perfectly combed and that his shirt and his pants looked good. And so all of that was very important to Woody.

Naomi had her own research through talking directly with Rose Mary and the things that she learned from Jeannette. She has very particular things that she wanted done and they were all completely in line with who Rose Mary was.

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The film really touches on the idea that we sometimes have to admit that people may be great in their own way, but that as much as we want to think that all parents are great and rise to the occasion, they’re not.

I think parents are just people. I think that a big part of Jeannette’s struggle and something that I think most people can relate to is sometimes you have to learn to just accept a family member or someone you love exactly as they are with all their fucked up-ness and flaws and accept that they’re not going to change. And I think that was a part of her journey is she was, I think, always hoping that her dad was going to change and trying to get him to change and he would come close at certain points and fall back and I think part of her journey is learning that he’s not going to change and that there’s good and bad and it’s who he is and it’s still worth loving.

You and Andrew are working on another adaptation called Just Mercy.

Yeah. That’s a real thing. We’re writing it right now and hoping that that’s the next thing that I am able to do. The book was a New York Times best-selling memoir written by one of the most incredible human beings I’ve met, Bryan Stevenson. He’s a public defense attorney who moved to Alabama in the late ’80s and started working with death row inmates and this particular book and this movie tracks primarily one of his most important cases when he first moved down there, where he ended up proving a man innocent who was on death row. So it tracks one of those cases.

Would you agree that there’s a theme that’s developed in your features where you look at people who are sort of on the margins or forgotten, whether it’s the kids in Short Term 12 or this family in The Glass Castle or these guys that are on death row?

It seems that way I guess. I guess I’m not outside of myself enough to really analyze that, but the way that I choose the projects that I’m working on is, it’s a little morbid to say, but I wonder, “If I died in the process of making this, would I be happy that I was spending my time doing this, exploring this subject?” That’s how I’ve chosen these projects. This is a subject that I feel will make me a better person by exploring this for two years. That’s exactly how I feel about The Glass Castle and the process of adapting this story and staring at these themes for that long and getting to know Jeannette and how she views the world — it has been personally a huge growing experience for me and has made me a better person. So I guess that’s how I try to look at this.

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