Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
There’s something relatable about being in a relationship with somebody you love, but there’s struggle and pain involved in having that relationship.
Filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton’s strength is found within the humanist way he brings voice to a story. SHORT TERM 12 put characters and their deeply flawed complexities at the forefront. Thanks to his light, tender touch adapting Jeannette Walls’ poignant memoir THE GLASS CASTLE, which tells of her unconventional childhood and dysfunctional relationship with an alcoholic father, he again finds success exploring troubled human dynamics. It also helps that he’s stacked the deck with talented actors (like Brie Larsen, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts, etc.) and frequent behind-the-camera collaborators (like cinematographer Brett Pawlak, composer Joel P. West, editor Nat Sanders, etc.).
Today, I spoke with the affable talent over the phone about everything from self-created pressure, to the lessons Walls taught him, to if he kept one of Mama Walls’ paintings.
With SHORT TERM 12 you had “inspired by” stories to work from, but here, you’re working with a living person’s real life. Is that more intimidating for you as a filmmaker to give voice to?
I think both were intimidating in their own ways. Even with SHORT TERM, I was thinking about people who were living in that situation or working in that situation, wanting to do good by them. With Jeannette, you instantly fall in love with her and want to do anything to make her happy. It was a lot of pressure to try to make something she would be proud of.
This really feels like therapy for those of us with complicated relationships with our parents. What were some of the themes from Jeannette’s memoir that you and Andrew Lanham really wanted bring out?
We’re always trying to show a version of the themes and feelings when we read the book. By focusing in on the complicated relationship between Jeannette and her Dad, that relationship embodies so many discussions that we can all have about how our parents affected us, how we affect our kids, how humans can affect each other. Jeannette’s version of her life is quite extreme. I’m sure there are a lot of people who can relate to the book very literally and have gone through even more extremes than she has. There’s a lot of people who haven’t gone through such extremes, but there’s still something relatable about being in a relationship with somebody you love and adore, but that there’s struggle and pain involved in having that relationship.
To me the biggest theme of this movie that I try to remind myself of to this day is this idea that Jeannette is able to take the part of her that she was once so ashamed of, or the part of her past that could have broken her, and she was able to redefine that and turn it into a strength. She’s now able to share with other people. That is an inspiring and empowering thing I’ve learned from her.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the tone. I’m guessing that it took this long to adapt because of these tricky dynamic character relationships. The word “likeable” has become part of the studio lexicon – and that’s something that comes into play with Rex. I would think that it was challenging in the writing and maybe editing process to keep the focus on Jeannette and Rex’s intertwined journeys towards acceptance.
All of these characters are so easy to hate, but they also do things that are so easy to love. In the book, I was constantly going back and forth, feeling like, ‘I wish I had that experience as a kid,’ and ‘I am so glad I don’t have that experience.’ That loving and hating these parents was definitely a fine line to walk, for sure.
Did you feel you had to soften or shape anything from the memoir? And, since it was 2005 when she wrote the book, did she have any new insight into some of these situations?
We didn’t try to soften anything. We also weren’t trying to make a hard R, hyper-realistic, difficult to watch movie. I don’t feel that’s the tone of the book either. It’s very honest, but it’s always described through Jeannette’s voice – it has a lightness and readability where it’s not really depressing.
She was very involved through the whole process. She was giving us new nuggets of information that she didn’t have at the time when she was writing the book. One example is, well after the book was published, she was talking to her mom about Erma and Rose Mary said, ‘You know that Erma was a genius? That she had the entire phone book memorized and she was really good at trivia.’ We just threw in a little detail – a little hint of that – into the movie when she was watching JEOPARDY. That little bit of information created so much more context to who Erma is. That she had all this potential and wasn’t able to use it and her frustration was smothering Rex and making sure Rex wasn’t able to use his full potential as well.
I personally love those moments when I think I know somebody and then I get a new piece of information that makes me see them in a completely different way. A lot of it in this movie are these moment where you are able to imagine that person and how they were raised and how much of their childhood they’re carrying with them.
What was Jeannette’s reaction to being on set and seeing the actors as her parents/ siblings/ self? And tell me about your mindset on the first day she saw it. I can imagine she’s nervous, but would you’re even more nervous.
[laughs] I was extremely nervous. I think everybody was extremely nervous. Everybody in this crew is very much making this movie for her and her family. The day she showed up on set, everybody was on their best behavior. Like our creator was on set.
The first scene she watched was the moment that Jeannette is telling Rex that she’s leave Welch and he’s trying really hard to make her stay. It was a very emotional scene, letting the actors improvise and explore. I think it was extremely overwhelming for Jeannette. The way that she describes it is that she was able to ask her Dad for forgiveness for leaving him. And she did that to Woody. Right after, she was crying and hugged Woody and said, ‘I’m sorry.’ Woody told her, ‘You had to do it, Hun, or none of us would be here.’ As she said, it was kinda like the first time she was able to forgive herself for leaving.
I’m in tears just hearing this. I can’t imagine being in the midst of this tornado of emotions on set. Was everybody crying all the time?
[laughs] There was a lot of laughter on the set. You can’t help but start having very real conversations with the people you’re working with when you’re exploring such a vulnerable subject like this. Everybody has their story about their past or things they feel are too shameful to talk about in a work environment. This is typically how we feel, right? But on our set, because this was the subject we were exploring every day, it became common to talk about our parents or things we still carry.
I know that you used the real Rose Mary’s paintings. How did this come about? And did you get to keep any of those paintings?
The first time I met Rose Mary was the first time I met Jeannette in person. I flew out to visit her on her farm in Virginia. When I met Rose Mary, I was immediately taken by her. I felt her be fascinating and much warmer than I expected – a lot of laughter and vibrancy. She still would say these sound bites that are very Rose Mary-like. That’s where I saw her creative space – this beautiful chaotic room that’s full of art and sketches and paintings. She had paint all over her hands because she paints every day. She took me to her shed in the back yard and it was incredible. There were paintings from the past 30 years stacked in there – not organized at all. I took a bunch of pictures and when it was time to shoot, my production designer, Sharon Seymour, also took a trip down there and looked at all the paintings. We asked her if she would allow us to ship them up to put them in the movie. She graciously said, ‘yes.’ She was really worried about it, but I’m so happy we were able to do that.
It adds another layer of authenticity.
As a parting gift, when I got home to my apartment, Jeannette had sent me one of my favorite ones of her paintings so I have it on my wall.
The film speaks so much about never losing your sense of adventure. Do you still maintain connection with the kid inside yourself?
I try to. Like any business, it has the ability to rob you of your sense of creativity. I try to remind myself to cling to what is actually important and, to me, filmmaking is a way to play in a sandbox, play with Play-do, or paint a painting. Things that I used to do to explore the world and learn more about my surroundings and myself. I do have to consciously remind myself that that is the reason why I’m doing what I’m doing. I’m by no means perfect, but when I can be in that space, it’s when it’s fun and really rewarding.
THE GLASS CASTLE opens on August 11. Check out our review here.