Author Jeannette Walls already scraped away at the dark truths, joy and hardship of her eccentric upbringing to write her memoir “The Glass Castle.” Now she’s living it all over again, but this time as an audience to her own life as her memories and words are acted out in a big screen adaptation of her book starring Brie Larson as herself and Woody Harrelson as her father. It hits theaters Friday.
With some 2.7 million copies sold, odds are most people know at least something about Walls’ story. Born to charismatic, bohemian and occasionally distracted parents, Rex and Rose Mary Walls, she and her three siblings spent their youths bouncing around from state to state and house to house, always either teetering on or deep in a state of poverty. The family later settled in Welch, West Virginia where Rex Walls fell further into his alcoholism and the children plotted, and eventually executed their escapes.
The film, fanciful as it might still sound to its author, has been a long-time coming. Walls’ book was optioned around the time it hit shelves in 2005.
Walls never even indulged in the “who would play me” game.
“It would have seemed like hubris,” she says.
Plus, bestselling status aside, it wasn’t an entirely straightforward path to theaters. There were a few screenwriters who Walls says didn’t quite know what to do with it, or poked fun at her unconventional parents and the rural environs. “The Glass Castle” the movie seemed as far-fetched as the one Rex Walls kept promising he was going build for his family.
Then, producer Gil Netter swooped in to save the day.
Netter had made both “The Blind Side,” a true story turned Oscar-nominee, and the “unadaptable” “Life of Pi.”
As Walls says, “If he knew how to make a movie about a Bengal tiger and an orangutan and a boat maybe he’d know how to make a movie about my family.”
For Netter it was a simple call.
“There’s kind of a general theme with my movies. I like to give people hope. I like triumph of the human spirit. I like people to feel like their lives can prosper,” he says. “I just love that there was a sense of hope that came out of this book, either because of how you were raised or in spite of how you were raised.”
The key for both was in the choice of Destin Daniel Cretton to direct. Cretton had previously made the indie “Short Term 12,” which put both himself on the map as a humanist director and also made audiences take note of Larson as a talent to be reckoned with.
Larson would eventually come on board to play Jeannette as an adult in the film.
“As soon as it got in his hands I felt safe,” Walls says. “There’s no cheap emotional blackmailing, it’s this bizarre combination of love and hate and joy and despair and triumph and you feel all of these things simultaneously and that’s kind of what my life was like.”
And while the movie is very much her life, Walls chose to take a supporting role in the production — always there to help with a question, or to fight for a particular moment to be included, but ultimately letting the filmmakers drive the ship.
Even when it came down to casting, Walls was much more concerned about who would play her family members than herself. She remembers her mother was worried that the film was going to paint her as “a bad guy.” When Naomi Watts was cast in the role, Walls says her mother called up her sister Lori wondering, “Who is this Naomi Watts character anyway?”
But she needn’t have worried, Walls said. Cretton had met, and quite liked Rose Mary Walls.
“Rose Mary is a fascinating woman. She’s very easy to fall in love with. Like most of the Walls family members she is just completely herself and if you don’t like it, screw you,” Cretton said. “There’s something so endearing about that.”
He even decided to use her real paintings in the film.
“She was ambivalent about him using them,” Jeannette Walls says. “I knew that was mom’s phony way of saying that she was nervous that they were going to make fun of her art work.”
The heart of the movie, however, is Rex Walls — the complicated, alcoholic, and too-brilliant for his lot patriarch of the family, who died in 1994. Woody Harrelson took on the challenge of the part.
“It was almost surreal watching him. The first time I saw him in character I started trembling and crying,” the author says. “Woody understood dad on some deep cosmic level that was just bizarre.”
The film wasn’t the end of Walls’ journey through the past, either. “The Glass Castle” ends with footage of the real family, cobbled together from the remaining family photographs, a documentary about the squat her parents lived in in New York, and some new footage too — which was, to the surprise of Netter and Cretton, the first time the whole family had been together since Rex Walls’ death.
“I was told I would hate it. I love it,” Jeannette Walls says of seeing her life on the big screen. “It’s being understood and having my complicated, weird family portrayed in a way that is true. I’m not interested in being flattered or complimented or glorified, what I’m interested in is being understood. That to me is the greatest compliment. And the movie to me understood and still embraced and celebrated these crazy people.”