The Glass Castle Director Destin Daniel Cretton on Short Term 12, Brie Larson, and Why Woody Harrelson Cried When He Met Jeannette Walls

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In 2012, writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton made Short Term 12, a bracing film about a teen foster-care facility that doubled as a showcase for a slate of then-unknown, now-famous actors, including Oscar winner Brie Larson, Mr. Robot star Rami Malek, and Atlanta’s Lakeith Stanfield. Cretton’s follow-up to the indie hit is an adaptation of Jeannette Walls’s best-selling memoir The Glass Castle, which comes out this weekend. Ahead of its release, Vulture caught up with Cretton to talk about working with Larson and Woody Harrelson, how he adapted such a revered memoir, and the emotional scene that Walls witnessed when she visited the set.

How do you feel about the fact that Short Term 12 turned out to be a preview of all the upcoming stars in Hollywood? Lakeith Stanfield and Rami Malek and Brie Larson are all in that movie. John Gallagher Jr. is doing great for himself, too.
Yeah, and Kaitlyn [Dever] is in Detroit right now. Stephanie Beatriz, who plays a very small role, she’s the other female supervisor, she’s on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. I’ll tell you what, there was zero genius involved. [Laughs.] All these people either did kick-ass auditions or they were just the only choice. It wasn’t like we were fishing through tons of candidates. It was people who were giving me panic attacks because I knew they weren’t right and the scenes would just not work, or the one person who made me forget that I had written those words and let me feel something.

Those are all difficult roles too, especially Keith’s role. The fact that any young actor could pull it off is remarkable.
I’m so stoked for everything that’s happening to Keith. Keith’s the one constant from the short. [Editor’s note: Cretton’s original version of Short Term 12 was a short film.] He had never acted in anything before. It was funny, because when he came in to audition, he had been kind of coaxed, I think, that the right way to audition is to be like a Disney kid. It was nothing like what his actual strengths are. His initial take was actually a bit hyper. As soon as I was able to tell him, “It’s okay. Feel it. Don’t try to do anything,” he became such an authentic performer. When we were going to do the feature, I was like, “Could he still do the same role? He’s a bit older now. I don’t know if he’d come across as a 17-year-old kid.” Initially I was like, “I’ll audition some younger people.” I didn’t talk to him for a while, and I didn’t realize he had quit acting. He had done one other thing after the short and then just got sick of the grind and went back to Victorville [California] and he was working at a farm that was growing weed. Aside from popular belief, he doesn’t smoke weed. That was just his job.

There’s a lot of money in it!
I auditioned a bunch of people and nobody was coming close to what that role needed. I started panicking and I tried to find him. He wasn’t responding to any of my emails. I called the number I had and found out that his manager was no longer his manager anymore. I think I had, like, three different contacts and all of them were not working anymore. He saw a comment I think that I made on a message board. I was like, “Hey Keith, remember me?” He finally went and checked his email that he never checks. He saw my desperate email that was like, “We need you to come down.” He wrote back, “Cool, you’re doing a movie? I’ll come down tomorrow.” He came down with his mom and I put him on tape in my living room. He played the scene that nobody else could play. I was weeping, partially because he was so good and also because I was so fucking relieved. [Laughs.]

And now you’re working with Brie Larson again. What has the evolution of that relationship been like?
We weren’t friends, obviously, when we started, but I knew that there was an instant connection. She was genuinely curious and empathetic towards the subject matter that we were trying to portray. Even before she officially signed on, she had gone and done some research. I think she was out in Atlanta or somewhere and she had researched group homes. She dug into the subject matter, so we had something to talk about. I instantly felt connected to her because she was an introspective person. When we were talking about the subject, she was asking questions from the perspective of someone who really cared. I didn’t really know it at the time, but that’s the essence of who Brie is. It’s understandably rare for people who are in the spotlight and have so much stimuli coming at them every single day to be so aware of a friend who’s maybe feeling left out. She would make sure to include that person, or when you’re having a conversation, she’s actually listening and trying to ask questions to understand you better.

Short Term 12 was your original story. What was it like adapting someone else’s novel?
My initial thought was to stay 100 percent true to the book. How you define what that is, then, becomes extremely complicated. Honestly, it was a huge learning experience because our first draft had way too much in it. We were trying to cram every scene of the book into this story and that made every scene shallow. Even though all these scenes are in there, the heart of the book is nonexistent because you’re just tracking it — it just turns it into a series of vignettes that are unattached. And there are so many scenes in the book that I was initially thinking had to be in the movie. But once we decided to concentrate purely on the relationship between Jeannette and Rex, we instantly started to realize that all of those things are sacrificing scenes between Jeannette and Rex.

You need that through line to make it pull together as a movie.
I’m used to killing my own babies, but it’s like I’m killing someone else’s babies. It’s hard. Jeannette totally understood that and embraced it and helped us find what this core story line is. She was instrumental in assisting in that process and really was overjoyed by what we came up with.

When did you start talking with Jeannette?
I talked to her a little bit early on, but it wasn’t until we really started cracking it that I knew what questions to ask. She became much more engaged once I figured out what the screenplay could be. Then I was able to be like, “Is this okay? Is this okay?” She was very involved at that point.

So what did you shoot first? The adult Jeannette stuff, or the younger Jeannette stuff?
We tried to do all the younger stuff first. In general, we were lucky to be able to do that, but we wanted to create all of the memories first and then come to present day. We had all the memories that Brie as Jeannette was thinking about in her present-day scenes — they were already shot — so when Brie was doing a scene where she was actually thinking about something, she could watch the footage of it. The perfect example is the scene where she goes into the bathroom and she remembers the time when her dad tells her about the stars. Brie went and watched the monitor and naturally did the same thing that the little Jeanette did with her hands. When I saw it put together, I was like, wow.

How did you and Woody Harrelson work together to develop Jeannette’s father, Rex?
Woody and I didn’t have a lot of discussions about the character or the movie until we got up there, so I was just trusting that what I knew of him felt right. But once we got up there, he was so focused and so engaged and we started having daily rehearsals at Brie’s place. Woody and Naomi [Watts] would come over, and we were reading through and playing through scenes. He’s so good at improvising, and he would play through scenes and improvise and see what was working and what needed help. He really owned the character of Rex offscreen, too. For those young kids, he was the joy of their lives throughout the film. “Is Woody here yet? Is Woody here yet?” Literally, when Woody would show up, they would just scream because they absolutely loved him. And he loved it. He is so good with those kids. He was also, in the scenes where it required it, he was able to just, in a very gentle, loving, dad-like way, help them settle and concentrate. It was like having a director in the scene: We would talk about it before, and then I would ask him to help direct in the scene, so the kids weren’t looking at me. And Brie did that too. I’ve never heard of another actor doing this, but Brie would come to set on a day that Ella [Anderson, who played Young Jeannette] was shooting to just watch. It was partially learning to see what Ella was doing so that she could be inspired by it, but she was also there to support Ella, because Ella really looked up to her.

I don’t think there are a lot of actors of her caliber who would hang out on set when they didn’t have to be there.
It’s like, “Hey, do you mind if I come to set today?” [Laughs.]

Did Jeannette ever come to set?
She came on two different occasions. The first time she came, everybody knew she was coming, so there was already this buzz, like, “Jeannette’s coming!” When she showed up on set, Woody was one of the first people to see her. He immediately knew who she was and walked up to her, just thinking he was going to say hi, and he just started sobbing. He’s like, “I’ve never done that to anybody before in my life,” and it was because he had been living with her words that are so vulnerable and open about her life. It’s such a weird common occurrence: I’ve talked to other people who’ve met her, and because she’s so open with who she is, it makes you want to just open yourself up to her and be like, “I’m also a hurting person!” [Laughs.] The first scene that she ever has experienced on any film set, she had to sit behind the monitor and watch the scene where Brie leaves Welch, and Rex is trying to convince her to stay by saying, “We’re going to build it, we’re going to build it,” and she says, “You’re never going to build it.” We did a lot of improvisation to find things, and what you see in the movie is a sliver of where they went. They went hard in that scene, just very emotional. Jeannette was sitting next to one of our producers, and one hand was gripping each producer on both sides. Afterwards, she said she talked to Woody and was still crying and told him that it felt like she was talking to her dad. She was telling him, “I never apologized for leaving them,” and Woody said, “You had to, you had to honey, otherwise none of us would be here.” She felt like it was the first time she had closure for that guilt in her life. It’s crazy.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The Glass Castle’s Destin Daniel Cretton on Jeannette Walls