The Glass Castle spent seven years on the best-seller list, but Jeannette Walls talks about its movie adaptation almost as if it’s about someone else. Maybe that’s what happens when a memoirist sells her story to Hollywood. Suddenly your life is projected onto big screens, and you’ve become an observer like everyone else.
Thankfully for Walls, who was warm and engaged during our conversation in New York earlier this week, director Destin Daniel Cretton wanted to ensure the celluloid “Glass Castle” honored the spirit of Walls’ beloved book, which was published to immediate success in 2005. After previous scripts were thrown out, Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham sought the author’s input.
Walls walked away awestruck ― by the performances (including Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts), by the art of screenwriting (she gravitates toward nonfiction), and by the protracted reception to her humble story about growing up in a transient family with an alcoholic father and limited finances. For someone once afraid that people would judge her origins, Walls, now 57, has become admirably candid. “Ask me anything,” she commanded by way of introduction. And she meant it.
Leaving home for New York is a pivotal part of your story. And now you’ve left New York for country life. What’s it like to be back?
It’s funny, I fell head over heels in love with New York City in 1977. I never in my life felt like I belonged somewhere until I came here. There’s such energy and such weirdos, and wow, I can just fit in and not be a freak here. I stayed 30 years. 30 years! It was 1977 to 2006, almost 30 years. My husband wanted to leave. I said, “How do you want to leave this greatest city in the world?” I was still renting — I could never get into the real-estate market. I was paying $3,000 a month to have takeout burritos at my coffee table. His family was in Virginia — his dad was a diplomat — so he wanted to go down there. I was like, “I’ll go, but I won’t like it.” I loved it. I loved it! I’ve got four seasons and chickens. I’m basically a hick. I just sort of took to it. I told my agent and she was like, “You know, you always wore those little fitted suits, but they never quite fit you.” I was a little bit hurt, but a little bit flattered at the same time. I thought I’d passed!
People’s roots never never totally dissolve.
Completely. I see it all the time — I go to the Midwest, and people are like, “I couldn’t wait to get out of the Midwest, and then here I came back.” I think a lot of us have an internal landscape. I did fall in love with New York, and being back here, it’s so gorgeous. There’s such energy. This will sound so shallow, but I’m nutty in love with the architecture. You just look out the window and there’s the caryatids, the statues of women with pillars on their heads. I love the crazy people all looking different. But I feel like it’s an old boyfriend that I split with amicably.
How “Sex and the City” of you.
[Laughs] I will always love it. My New York City life was so glitzy. I loved my job at New York magazine — perhaps less so at MSNBC. I grew up without television, so I didn’t care about celebrities. There will always be a big place in my heart for it, but boy, am I glad I moved on. It’s just not for me anymore. [...] When I moved here in 1967, it was a dump. It was filthy and falling apart. It’s definitely changed, and a lot of it makes it more inaccessible. I couldn’t afford to live here! But everything changes. You accept that. You have to embrace it. Time doesn’t move straight forward; it moves in a coil — it goes up and down. That’s the great thing about being my ripe old age. You see these things come and go. Sometimes I’ll say, “I could probably afford a decent apartment now,” but it’s just not my lifestyle anymore. My dogs are so important to me, and my stupid chickens, believe it or not, are a lot of fun to feed. You give one of them a piece of bread, and it’s like football — one of them grabs it out of its mouth, and then another one grabs it. That’s more enjoyable for me now than going to an art show. I just love life so much.
What do you think your dad would say about that?
I don’t know. That’s a very interesting and perceptive question. I think Dad would love it. So many of his old letters that I’ve been reading — he really loved the country; he loved New York, but he loved the country. He loved nature and was a real environmentalist from early on. I think he’d love it. This is the reason I’m more drawn to nonfiction than fiction: I can’t second-guess people. I could never make up the things my mom says, and I could never make up the things my dad did. They’re so wacky. I don’t think that truth is stranger than fiction — I think it’s more nuanced and more contradictory. But the internal contradictions always make sense. I do think about Dad often and what he would think. I think he’d be thrilled.
There are only so many “Glass Castles” in the world. In almost any conversation, at least one person has read it ― it’s that popular. How did the movie come about?
That’s very flattering. It was optioned pretty much as soon as it came out, and people just didn’t know what to do with it. They just didn’t know how to make it into a movie. What do you focus on? People asked me if I wanted to do the screenplay, and I didn’t.
You didn’t even consider it?
Well, it’s not my medium. I don’t know what I would have focused on. I don’t know how to do it, and I spent so long on the damn book. What scenes do you cut? What do you emphasize? In telling a story like this, there’s such a balance. My parents, in some ways, were so horrible, and in other ways, so magnificent. It was such a fine line to walk. I could have made them seem a lot worse than they were, and I could have made them seem a lot better.
Even though something it’s accurate, it’s not necessarily truth. As a journalist, you know this — you could make me look like a complete nincompoop without twisting any of my quotes or anything. It’s like, how do we tell our story? What the heck is my story? I kind of thought it was going to be an homage to Dad. I really didn’t know what it was going to be. The first time I read it back, I was shocked by my own story. My agent was shocked, too — she had no idea, and she said, “You wrote this as if it happened to somebody else. You have to describe what really happened, how it really felt and how it affected you.” I was like, “It didn’t affect me at all, I’m perfectly normal, I feel nothing.”
Do you think you really felt that way?
I definitely had cut myself off. “This is just something that happened to me.”
At a certain point, do you have to stop internalizing it?
Yeah, you do. I tried to write it many times when I was younger, and it just didn’t work. I threw it away and tried again. My second husband, Billy, pulled it out of me. He was like, “Jeannette, if your parents weren’t buying food, how did you survive?” I would say, “I got by.” He’d say, “What do you mean?” “You know, I got by.” He’d say, “No, I don’t. You have to spell it out.” It was such an interesting process because, with stuff like eating food out of the garbage, I never told anybody. I was crying and was a mess. And afterwards, it doesn’t bother me as much.
A very wise man once told me, “Secrets are a little bit like vampires. They suck the life out of you, but they can exist only in the darkness. Once they’re exposed to light, there’s a moment of horror, then poof, they lose their power over you.” I found that to be true. These things haunted me. And it’s so stupid, I realized. What was I afraid of? I was just afraid of being condemned by other people and having people pass judgment, and people were much better and kinder than I thought they’d be. And if they’re not, cut them out of your life. What the hell, you don’t need them.
But to get back to your question, it was optioned pretty much immediately after the book came out, and a number of people gave it a shot. It was really funny what people chose to focus on.
Did you read those early drafts as they came through?
Uh-huh, and I didn’t nix any of them — it’s just that they didn’t get made. People would focus on their own issues. One woman focused on the mother-daughter relationship because she had mother issues. Another person focused on the racial, small-town issues because she was from West Virginia. People brought their own issues. And [director Destin Daniel Cretton] was so smart about it being the father-daughter relationship. I just said, “I trust this man.”
Is that how you would encapsulate it, too? With your father as the central figure?
Yeah. To me, it is. But then you’ve got to lose a lot of other things. Some people say, “Where’s the rock fight? Where’s this, where’s that?” You can’t do it all. Destin underlined all these scenes, like, “Oh, this has to be in the movie.” He finished it and realized it would be a seven-hour movie. In fact, in a couple of places in the margins he wrote, “This is the movie.” He’s the sweetest guy. He’s this cool Hawaiian dude. He’s so smart, so perceptive, so non-judgmental. He wrote what I now call the second-best movie ever made, “Short Term 12.” What a beautiful movie — it’s so compassionate. Everybody’s dinged up, but they’ve got so much beauty and love. If he can do that with my story, then he’s a better man than I am. And he did. I think I had veto power, but I don’t know — I never needed to exercise it.
If the studio had opted to make one of the previous drafts, would you have stepped in?
I thought I wouldn’t when it all started, but I think when push came to shove, yeah. I thought, “I don’t care, just make the movie!” But then I saw them, and I thought, “I know my parents’ story has a lot of humor in it, but I don’t want my parents to be punchlines.” At least not anybody else’s punchlines. I think I would have just said I can’t live with this. You sell your rights, unless you’re J.K. Rowling or someone like that. They could have made me a hoochie dancer if they wanted to. Destin and Gil Netter, the producer, wanted to keep me happy. So they consulted me.
What’s the point of adapting a memoir if it’s not aligned with the way the author would tell her own story?
That’s what they felt. It’s for authenticity’s sake. If you’re going to make a movie, do it right. Every step of the way, they were really conscientious about, “We’re thinking of doing this — does this make sense to you?” Destin went to West Virginia, and I was like, “I’ll go with you. I’ll show you around. I can handle this.” He’s like, “No, I’ll go on my own,” and I think he made more friends there in a couple of days than I did in all the years I lived there. He’s walking down the street and he sees the Welch Daily News, and he says, “Whoa, there’s a scene there.” He just knocks on the door, introduces himself and ends up shooting a scene there at this incredible old printing press. So now — this is what a cool guy he is — there’s an aspiring filmmaker there who’s getting invited to the premiere tomorrow, him and his mom. They’ve stayed in touch over email. He’s just a decent, kind human being. I just trusted him with my story in a way that I didn’t really trust myself.
In thinking about cutting bits from the book, was there one moment you thought was most important to show?
After watching the movie, I think maybe the pivotal moment — God, there are so many great moments — is when the kids all gang up on Irma and punch her out because she was doing something inappropriate with my brother. Destin so wisely zeroed in on my father’s damage, which I think is so smart and compassionate.
That’s the way your father gets humanized.
Exactly. For all of his talk of demons, he couldn’t chase the demons. And confronted with his personification of his real-life demon, he couldn’t deal with it, but his kids could. For everything he did wrong, he gave his kids the tools to fight the demons, to say, “You cannot do that to us — we will stand up and fight.” It was a pivotal moment in which the kids were stronger than the dad. They didn’t realize it, and he didn’t realize it, so I think that is probably the turning point. I think I kind of knew that when I wrote it, but seeing it, when you sculpt away all that other stuff, it was just this bare, heartbreaking story about this damaged man.
At what point did you find out about your father being sexually assaulted as a child?
I suspected something when all that was going on, after Irma did something. We were only there for a short time, and she pulled that. And Uncle Stanley was weird. I asked Mom pretty soon afterwards.
Somebody told me once that we become adults not when we come of voting age or even have children — it’s when we realize that our parents are human beings, too. It was a little younger than I might have chosen, but that’s all fine, too.
It’s funny, I talked to Destin about a lot of the scenes that are cut. This is why I never could have done it. The movie, before they edited it down, was three hours. There was this great scene — the guy who played Uncle Stanley was sitting there, and all of a sudden this dark, disturbed, troubled face turns and says, “I can’t believe you hit her.” Finally, somebody stood up and fought back. “Destin, how could you not include that?” He said, “I know, that hurt, having to cut it. But it took you out of the moment.” I feel I learned so much about storytelling form him.
I didn’t stay up while they were shooting the movie the entire time, but the time I spent on the set, I was in awe. Woody and Brie were rehearsing this scene, and it was where Brie — that would be me — is telling Woody Harrelson that she’s leaving and he tries to convince her to stay home. The first time, they did it all scripted, and then they went off-script. It was stunning to me. They were arguing and he started crying. It was very powerful. They just fully inhabited these characters. As a writerly type, I like to think of myself as observant, but it’s from the outside in, and these people work from the inside out. It was really humbling. I was thinking, if I were in my early 20s, I think I might consider moviemaking. But probably not.
So this doesn’t give you the screenwriting bug?
Oh gosh. I’m 57. It’s like working five-level chess games. There’s so much going on. And to be a good director, you’ve got to not only understand the script, but understand the actors and the lighting and everything. I was just watching Destin, and he was this source of calm. Everybody commented on how that was a more loving and calm movie set than they’d ever been on. He was keeping everything going like it was the center of a Ferris wheel.
Was it thrilling to learn which actors would portray your relatives?
It was odd because the first thing you think of is physicality. There are actors who look more like my dad than Woody Harrelson that they talked to, but I do not think anybody could have captured it as well. And Naomi Watts, I was nuts for her portrayal. She had a tougher job than Woody did because my mother is such a contradiction. Honestly, I think she understands my mother better than my mom does.
Brie, I’d seen in “Short Term 12” before they cast her — I didn’t even know who she was then, and I thought, “Who is that woman? Is there any way on Earth that she could star in ‘The Glass Castle’?” I’d never identified with anyone the way I did with her onscreen. She had a couple of lines of dialogue that took my breath away, like when she was asking her boyfriend, “Why are you so nice to me?” I had almost that exact exchange with my husband. I couldn’t understand why somebody would like somebody like me. I never articulated that to anybody.
Brie has some great ’80s and ’90s outfits. Those shoulder pads! Is that what you wore to work?
She was wearing some of my clothes! They came and asked, “Can you describe your ’80s and ’90s clothes?” I was like, “Not only can I describe them — I’ve got them upstairs.” I dusted off the shelves. They took out some of the shoulder pads! That’s how I dressed, tragically. It seemed appropriate at the time. Wait till you look back at the clothes you’re wearing today.
“The Glass Castle” opens in theaters Aug. 11. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.