The Glass Castle Exclusive Interview with Jeannette Walls
As I stated in my review, The Glass Castle was one of my most anticipated films of the year so when I was given the opportunity to see the film early to sit down with Destin Dustin Cretton and author Jeannette Walls, I was beyond ecstatic. I was suppose to have an on-camera interview with Walls, like I did with Cretton, but due to some scheduling issues the on-camera interview with Walls fell through at the last minute. As a result, I was given the opportunity to talk with her earlier this week which actually turned into a 25-minute interview instead of the planned 10-minute interview that was originally suppose to take place last week.
Jeannette: Hi Scott.
Scott: Hi Jeannette, how are you?
Jeannette: I’m great. Sorry about that earlier. An interview just went longer than we thought it would.
Scott: No problem at all.
Jeannette: I tend to have a big mouth as you’ll see. So, I’m hard to shut up.
Scott: It’s no problem. I’m just so delighted to be able to talk to you. After I saw the film, I was just so emotional and was blown away by watching your story being shared on the big screen.
Jeannette: Well thank you. I thought they did such a good job. You know, you hand your life over to somebody and say, “Here, put it all on the screen.” It could get ugly! But I just thought that Destin, and really all of the actors, and pretty much everybody who touched this movie, was so compassionate and so determined to make it authentic, that it never felt weird or creepy or like it was any sort of violation of privacy. They wanted to tell a story, and they wanted to tell it right.
Scott: That kind of ties perfectly into my first question, which is, seeing your story brought to life on the big screen, how closely did you wind up working with Destin and the actors to ensure that your story came off as authentic and true-to-life as it actually was.
Jeannette: Destin, in fact, Gil Netter, the producer, were all amazing from the very beginning. I talked to Gil about it at great lengths, and as soon as he brought Destin on-board, he and I talked and emailed each other pretty much constantly. I never told him what to do. This is his medium. He understands movie-making much better than I do. But he would constantly just get my opinion on things, or tell me what he was thinking, or tell me his thinking on things.
Destin probably told you this, but he went through the book, and he underlined things that he thought would have to be scenes, and he wrote out in the margin notes, “This is the movie!” about six different times, and he obviously had to cut some of that out, but he discussed with me his decisions pretty much every step of the way. There was once or twice when I disagreed with him, but as soon as he told me his reasoning, I realized, “He’s right, he’s right.” And I just deferred to him. He is so smart.
He taught me a lot about storytelling, and certainly a lot about movie-making. I worked very closely with him, but I don’t think I had veto power, but if anything had really bothered me, or I’d objected to anything, I know they would have deferred to me.
The set director contacted me about how to get the garbage right, the garbage for the garbage pit. There was this big discussion about what the Walls family would have for garbage. That was the level at which they were worried about getting it right. So, I just trusted them, and to me, that’s sort of the best relationship to have with a movie maker.
I know all of these horror stories about writers getting kicked off their movie sets because there’s too many cooks in the kitchen, and after I saw Short Term 12, which is one of Destin’s previous movies, I just thought, “This man is just a great filmmaker.”
Scott: Oh, Short Term 12 is one of my favorites.
Jeannette: Oh! I now call it the second best movie ever made. Such a beautiful, powerful, painful, joyful, gorgeous movie that is ultimately triumphant, and it’s just sort of like he understands how all those different emotions can exist within one person, and there are a couple of laughs, but he never makes fun of anybody, and I mean that’s one of the things that I loved with what he did with The Glass Castle. There’s humor in it, but it’s never cheap shots.
Scott: Right. I totally agree. There was so much in your book, and I feel like your book kind of was in a weird way, a lot different than the movie in certain aspects, then very similar to your book in a lot of ways. The thing that really stood out for me was in the movie, I like how it kind of opens in New York in, it was in 1989, right?
Jeannette: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Scott: And you get this kind of idea of where you’re at now, and then we kind of have her see the parents digging through the trash, and then there’s almost like it almost turns into a flashback of her reliving her childhood and everything. And I feel like it flowed really nicely as a film, but the interesting thing that I did have to ask you about is, was it your decision, was it a group decision, to focus more or less on the father relationship, and I mean your mother has some play in the movie, but I feel like it really is that father/daughter story.
Jeannette: It’s a father/daughter relationship. Yeah, and that was Destin. It wasn’t just his decision, it was his observation. He felt that that was the heart of the book, and I agreed with him.
I think we would have loved to have fleshed out the mother/daughter relationship a little bit more, but you couldn’t without sacrificing too much of the story, and it definitely was his decision to, and also to cut out the wacky relatives and the gunfight that I had with the neighbors, so, yes that was Destin’s take on the book.
A couple of other people who took stabs at this screenplay focused on other aspects, and I felt they were not as strong as Destin’s.
And so when he, after reading the book, he said, “This is about the relationship between the father and the daughter, that’s my take on it. Am I wrong?” And I said, “Yes, you’re right, you’re right.” And so yes, that’s very observant that that was the focus of the movie, and I believe that made it a stronger movie. And this is one of the reasons that I had no interest in doing the screenplay, is because he just made the really tough decisions about what stayed and what had to go.
Scott: Yeah. And then it’s different when you’re talking to a writer who writes about fiction, or they wrote something that they’re confident about as opposed to revealing themselves to the world…
Jeannette: Yeah, my gosh, yeah.
Scott: So how did you personally feel with the casting decisions of everyone, but most importantly, Brie playing yourself, and then Woody Harrelson playing your father?
Jeannette: Well, it was funny, because when Gil first brought Destin on-board, I went out and got a copy of Short Term 12, which I had never seen before, and I saw this woman in it, and I had never heard of Brie Larson, but I’m thinking, “Who is this woman?” There are a couple of scenes that she had, and a couple of things she said that kind of ripped my heart out because they were things I’d said. When she says to her then boyfriend, “Why are you so nice to me?” And he says, “You’re serious, right?” I pretty much had that exchange with my now husband, and it just make me gasp seeing this woman who I didn’t know say things that I would say. I’d never felt that kind of connection to an on-screen person, and I thought, if that woman could star in The Glass Castle, that would just be so amazing. But I didn’t even articulate that to anybody because it felt too much of a diva thing to be like, “I want this woman to play me.” And then it just ended up happening, so I was over the moon about that casting.
And I also have to say, little Ella Anderson kind of nailed it. She took my breath away. Some of those scenes that she pulled off, it’s funny because she was born the exact month and year that the book came out, so I think some fate reached it’s little hand in and delayed the making of the movie long enough for her to come of age.
Woody Harrelson, I’ll be honest, they talked to some actors who I thought physically looked a little more like my dad did, but once I saw him in character, it took my breath away. I had a number of conversations with him about my dad, and he studied the tapes, I still am just stunned watching how thoroughly he inhabited dad. When he went off script in a couple of scenes, he said things that my father had said that I hadn’t told him. And he just understood my dad, and Destin told me there were a number of scenes where they’d do things and Woody would say, “Rex wouldn’t do it that way. He’d do it like this.” And he just, one of these actors, these good actors, and they all take my breath away.
As a writer I like to think of myself as a keen observer of human nature. They leave me in the dust. I am such a rank amateur compared to their empathy and their ability to understand people, not from the outside in, like I try to, but from the inside out, and I thought his performance was nothing short of spectacular. I asked him afterwards, “How did you do that? How did you do that? I know you studied the tapes and all, but what you did was more than acting.” He said, “I studied the tapes, and then I stopped. I didn’t want to just be impersonating him. I wanted to become him.” And that’s kind of what he did.
He and Naomi Watts stayed in character, and one night we went out to dinner and they started fighting. They were just bickering. It didn’t get to the knives stage, but they really both got it. But I think they both loved their characters, and I think that’s so important, because both of my parents were very easy to dislike, and it could have been an ugly film in that way, and I don’t think it glossed over the ugliness, but they were just really complicated, damaged people, with a lot of good in them, and I think that they both got that.
Scott: Oh, I completely agree. I said that in my review. It’s very easy as a filmmaker or a writer to make people into bad people.
Scott: And just be like, “Oh they’re bad.” But in this movie, you know, Woody Harrelson becoming your dad. There’s those little moments where he looks up at the stars, or when he starts drawing the house and he’s like, “Oh you want this to be your room. Is this how you want the stairs to be?” And they’re just so beautiful and personal but small. These little moments kind of make up for the bigger things.
Jeannette: Yes, and you find the hate dissolving, or the anger dissolving because this man can be so generous in some ways. There was one time when the Jeannette character woke him up when they’re out in the desert, and he looked at first confused then looked over and there’s just love in his eyes, and it just made me weak in the knees because all of these gestures, the physical gestures, but also just the emotional gestures. They were so dad, and he would do these horrible things, and then he’d do these things that were breathtakingly beautiful. And you never knew how to feel about him.
I mean somebody who saw the film told me it gave them emotional whiplash. I thought that was a good line, ’cause you’re just like one moment you’d love him, and the next moment you’d just want to get away from him. And I don’t think I ever truly hated him, but I just wanted to get away from him, because as damaging as he was, he was also very seductive. But I thought they captured that so beautifully, and I thought that Destin did a good job as well during the posting. The producer told me that he thought at first that it was going to be a violent, almost abusive scene, but he saw how Destin played it right down the middle.
Jeannette: It’s kind of like, I don’t want to say both. It’s not abuse. It’s something else. Something like, don’t trust me. You’ve got to learn to trust yourself. I was elated by that, by everything about the movie, and I’m so glad you got it.
Scott: Well, you know, another thing I have to ask you, and I mean I could probably sit here with you all day, but I know they’re going to yell at me and tell me to stop asking questions soon. Was it more personal for you writing this book, or handing it over to someone, handing your life over to someone?
Jeannette: Oh, that’s such a good question. I think probably writing it because these are the things I didn’t think anybody would get. I was a basket case writing this book, and I thought it was going to sink like a stone, and I would become a complete outcast, and people have really surprised me with their goodness and just their compassion and empathy.
I think that the movie is going to reach a wider audience, and I’m already starting to see the power of the film, and people are really buttonholing me after screenings, and I get this for the book as well, but not like this.
Scott: Yeah, and I want to tell you too, before you finish that thought. Don’t be discouraged by the people who don’t connect with it.
Jeannette: Oh, thank you!
Scott: When I walked out of the movie, I’m going to be perfectly honest. I did not cry during it. I got in the car, I sat down next to my wife who was with me, and I literally was like, “that movie was so good!” And the entire way home I cried, and I thought back to how, maybe not exactly, how my life was very similar to yours in a lot of ways, with a father who had a drinking problem, or the fact that so many broken promises that he never delivered on leading all the way up to my wedding day with that. And I mean it just really related me.
And I knew, and I said this to my wife and when writing the review,” that I know that there’s going to be people who are going to say, ‘This didn’t work.’ or, ‘This wasn’t there.’ And I just want to say there should be something to be said about the relationships in this movie, and if people aren’t seeing them, I think some people are just being too critical, but I want to personally tell you to ignore the naysayers.
Jeannette: Yeah, well thank you for saying that.
Scott: thank you for doing this and sharing this story.
Jeannette: Well thank you, because that is my fondest hope for this movie. It’s not that it does boffo at the box office or whatever. It’s that it strikes a chord with people and makes them think about their own stories. ‘Cause I guess it’s one of the things I learned from the book, and I hope the movie has an even bigger impact. There’s so many people out there who need to hear this story and think a little bit more about their own stories. You’re making me cry right now, and I hope that that’s what happens with this film.
It’s kind of the magic of storytelling and seeing how powerful films can be in doing that and just bringing this story to life. I mean it came out 12 years ago, and a lot of people have told me it’s helped them, and I think the movie has the potential to do that as well.
Scott: Yeah, in a lot of ways I think, you know there’s always the question why is this person’s story so important to tell as opposed to everyone else? And I think what the answer for you is that your story is very commonplace as much as people may or may not want to admit it.
Jeannette: It is!
Scott: Like it might not be as extreme in certain cases that happened in your life but a lot of the stuff is small moments like we’ve talked about, like the intimate ones where they are relatable, and people have gone through it, and it is so important that it is being shown in the film.
Jeannette: Well, like I said, I’ve already been at the screening, last night these people are coming up and hugging me and telling me about their alcoholic fathers and it’s beautiful. I mean, it’s such a gift, that people feel that they can trust me, or that they can maybe revisit their own story. So thank you so much, really. Thank you for your insights and perceptions on that, because not everybody gets it but you do.
Scott: I need to probably wrap this up, but I have to ask you two more things. The first is for you as a person, how were you mentally and physically able to get past all the events of your childhood? I mean this is a remarkable tale of forgiveness and kind of promoting the idea of “taking the good with the bad”, but I mean, how did you personally find ways to cope with your past and forgive them?
Jeannette: Well, I think the storytelling was a big part of that. I think that therapy is storytelling. You sit down and you tell your story, and you confront it, and you realize that it’s just things that you went through.
In a way it’s not about you. It’s about when people behave badly, it’s not about you, it’s about their issues. And it’s less a matter to me of forgiveness than acceptance, and the truth is I always felt loved.
I always had a love of education. I always felt a sense of esteem that I, you know, and I guess it’s one of the reasons that I called the book The Glass Castle, ’cause it was broken promises. It was a lot went wrong, but there was also a lot of good. I believe that was hope. Hope and belief in the future.
So, I think I’m one of the luckiest people in the world. Every day when I look up in the sky and I see Venus I think I own that, and that’s beautiful for me.
Scott: That’s terrific. And then, my last question, which I probably should have asked earlier, but is there any part of your story that you wanted to be in the film that didn’t make it in?
Jeannette: No, Destin shot some wonderful scenes that he ended up not including. I think, “Destin, how could you cut that out?” And as soon as he told me his logic, his reasoning, I thought, “Oh, he was right.”
So, there was one amazing thing that he, it was just a tiny little thing, but he, it was Uncle Stanley’s reaction to the kids beating up on Erma. “How could you, how could you have taken that?” And he said that it took you out of the moment. It was a very powerful scene with Erma and the kids, then a very powerful scene with dad and the kids, and to take it out and give it to Stanley, it cuts the flow.
Oh. He’s right. And so, I mean there’s some scenes that I love from the book like the BB fight, the gun fight and all that, but it has nothing to do with the story, well it had little to do with the story he told. So, there were some fun, great scenes, but, like I said, Destin taught me a lot about storytelling, and you can’t include all of those. If you want to tell this powerful story and you’ve only got two hours to do it, or less, then you’ve just got to cut stuff. So there’s nothing I wished he had included, there’s a couple of scenes I’m like, “Oh, that would have been great!” But you realize, no, it would have actually taken away from the movie.
Jeannette: Does that make sense?
Scott: It totally does. Because sometimes you shoot some great scenes but then when you splice them into the film, they don’t flow properly and feel out of place.
Jeannette: Exactly. That’s exactly what we said, like there’s another scene where they actually filmed the kids being in the back of the U-Haul, and it was just this breathtaking scene, and he explained to me why they couldn’t include it, I was like “Oh, okay. He’s right. He’s right.” So, I just went with the flow.
Scott: Yeah, I think that’s typical of a good director to know what works and what doesn’t.
Jeannette: Exactly, so I started deferring to him, because every time he explained what he was doing, it’s not like this hadn’t occurred to him. He was thinking about this stupid movie 20 hours a day, and so when I’d say, “Well what about this?” You know, he’d been chewing on that for a long time, and was kind of ahead of me. So, there are neat scenes that I think would have been fun to have watched, but there’s not a single point in which I will now second guess him and think he should have done this, he should, nothing, nothing.
Scott: Perfect and thank you again for your time. I don’t say this too many people, but if you’re ever in LA again, my wife and I would love to go out to dinner or lunch my treat. I would love to learn more about you.
Jeannette: I’m so flattered, thank you so much. My goodness, thank you.
Scott:You’re so welcome, and I mean I just was very moved by your story, and I appreciate you sharing it, and if you do talk to Destin again, and he seems like he’s beating himself up a little bit because the film is not getting as much critical praise as Short Term 12, you need to remind him that a lot of people are going to look at this movie and try to compare it to that. It’s not Short Term 12 because they are very different stories and yours is something completely different. But I think he did an amazing job and called the film a powerful and emotional masterpiece as well as one of the best films of the year.
Jeannette: Well, thank you, Scott. I really do appreciate it. Thanks. Thank you so much.
Scott: No problem. You have a wonderful day.
The Glass Castle is now playing in theaters everywhere.