By Adam Yuster
Destin Daniel Cretton is an up-and-coming writer-director on the brink of becoming a household name. Back in 2013, Destin captivated audiences with Short Term 12, a heart-wrenching drama that gave Brie Larson her first starring role and put Destin on the map. Now, the two have re-teamed for Destin’s follow-up feature, The Glass Castle, based on Jeannette Walls’s memoir of the same name. I met with Destin while he was promoting the film and asked him about the process of adapting the book, his early days as a filmmaker, and what he’s working on next.
Q: Before you were making features, you made a couple short films back in the day. Are there any tricks or tools you picked up while you were making shorts that helped prepare you for making features?
Destin Daniel Cretton: Any time you make anything, you’re learning so much. The first three shorts I did, there was no dialogue. They were all just pure visual storytelling. But I learned a lot about how you can communicate something through a shot. I was also doing wedding videos at the time, and those taught me about making people feel comfortable and authentic in front of a camera.
Q: In 2010, you won the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Nicholl Fellowship for Short Term 12. The fellowship is one of the most prestigious awards an unproduced screenplay can receive. When you submitted the screenplay for Short Term 12, did you go in thinking you had a shot, or did it throw you off guard when you won?
DDC: I was completely surprised. Before I won, we couldn’t really get traction on Short Term 12. I submitted to every big script lab I could submit to, and I kept getting rejected from everything. I came to the point where I thought, “Oh, this just isn’t going to work. I need to move on to something else.” And then the Nicholl Fellowship happened. It re-energized me and made me think maybe there was something in that script.
Q: Moving on to The Glass Castle. Is this your first adaptation?
Q: What was it like writing an adaptation for the first time?
DDC: It was definitely a challenge, primarily because there’s so much in Jeannette’s book. As soon as you start digging into it, you realize how little space you have in a screenplay and how much you’re going to have to chop out. It was just a giant puzzle, figuring out which parts to chop and which parts to keep.
Q: How long did you spend working on the screenplay?
DDC: A good part of a year. We worked on a first draft for a few months. Then we discovered a lot of things that weren’t working and tried again. Over the course of that time, we zeroed in on what we felt was the heart of the story, which is the relationship between Jeannette and her dad. Once we locked in on that, it became very easy to see what didn’t belong.
Q: The movie has kind of an unconventional structure. There’s a frame story set in the present, and then the bulk of the film is in the past. How did you make the decision to structure it like that?
DDC: The structure is inspired by the book. The book is bookended by Jeannette in the “present day”, which is 1990s New York City. That was initially where that idea came from. The book is a woman going through the memories of her past and trying to make sense of them. That’s what we wanted the movie to feel like. We wanted to constantly remind you that this is a 20-something Jeannette processing what she went through as a kid. So, rather than just bookending it or using narration, we would come back to the present throughout the film and continue that storyline as well.
Q: Were you able to contact Jeannette while you were working on the script?
DDC: Yeah, she was very involved. Any time we had questions about things that weren’t in the book we would go to her. And the parts that were in New York, a lot of those scenes were inspired by stories she told me over the phone. Once we got into production, she helped us recreate her childhood home. We went to her house, picked up like 80 of her mom’s actual paintings, shipped them up to Montreal, and put them up all over the walls.
Q: The Glass Castle has a strong focus on family. This is a recurring theme in your films. What keeps you coming back to that theme and approaching it from new angles?
DDC: Family is the most important thing in my life. My family is far from perfect, but I’m very tight with my siblings. There’s six of us, and they’re kind of my anchor to reality. In Jeannette’s book, I really connected with the bond of the siblings and how these difficult situations would just make them closer and stronger. They stood up for each other so much.
Q: Brie Larson plays an adult Jeannette in the movie. This is your second time working with Brie, right?
DDC: Yeah. I love her. She’s not only a great performer, she’s just a great person and a great collaborator.
Q: How did you decide to cast her in this film?
DDC: Jeannette gets her strength from being vulnerable. She’s such a strong female character because she allows herself to open up and show these parts of herself that most people hide. Brie naturally has that same ability to show this mixture of strength and vulnerability. And Brie’s also just a very sensitive, empathetic person, so to put her in a room with Jeannette and let them talk and reminisce was really cool to watch.
Q: Were there any inside jokes or moments that you and Brie shared on set?
DDC: There was one time where she walked out and it was an exterior New York scene. We had all these cars going and extras walking to make it feel like it was New York, and when she walked on set she looked at me and just went “Look at us! Look at what we’re doing!” Because this film was such a big jump from the last thing we did together.
Q: On that note, there’s been a recent trend in Hollywood of independent filmmakers directing big budget blockbusters, like Colin Trevorrow with Jurassic World and Taika Waititi with Thor: Ragnarok. Would you ever consider making that jump?
DDC: It’s not something I’m actively pursuing, but I’m open to it. Whatever story I connect with next is the thing I would like to do. I don’t necessarily have a desire to fight for a big blockbuster movie. If it’s something that I naturally connect with story-wise, then I’ll do it no matter what the budget.
Q: What tends to be the type of project you connect with?
DDC: I look for humanity in anything that I’m doing. I do see humanity in some bigger blockbuster movies. I thought there was a lot of humanity in James Mangold’s Logan. And Ryan Coogler, I see a lot of humanity in the bigger studio movies he’s doing. My next project has a lot of humanity. I’m adapting another memoir called Just Mercy. It takes place in the South, and death row prisoners play a big part in the story. You get to know these death row prisoners in a way that really humanizes them. It’s very moving. So that’s what I’m in right now. But I don’t know what I’ll do next. We’ll see.
The Glass Castle is in theaters now.