How Hol­ly­wood found my truth

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Jean­nette Walls

“Don’t let Hol­ly­wood get its hands on your story,” a writer friend ad­vised me. “It’s too com­pli­cated. They’ll Hol­ly­wood­ize it.”

This was shortly af­ter my mem­oir, “The Glass Cas­tle,” was pub­lished in 2005, and at the time I was flat­tered that any­one would want to turn my story into a movie — “Hol­ly­wood­ized” or not.

It was, I had thought, a shame­ful story, one I’d hid­den for years, a child­hood filled with poverty, al­co­holism and home­less­ness. But it was also one filled with joy, pride and deep love. One day, chal­lenged by my mother to “just tell the truth,” I wrote the story.

I didn’t think peo­ple would un­der­stand.

I was so wrong. Peo­ple un­der­stood, some­times bet­ter than I did. And to this day I’m as­ton­ished — and very hum­bled — by the way that story has been em­braced.

Soon af­ter my mem­oir came out, some tal­ented ac­tors and pro­duc­ers were in­ter­ested in try­ing to turn the story into a film — but they weren’t quite sure what to do with it. “Loved the book,” a pro­ducer told me. “Where’s the movie in it?” One wanted to turn it into a ro­man­tic com­edy, an­other wanted to play up the celebrity an­gle, most wanted to set it in the present, com­plete with cell­phones and Twit­ter bat­tles.

Years passed, pro­duc­ers came and went, and I ac­cepted the idea that my story was stuck in devel­op­ment pur­ga­tory. It’s for the best, writer friends told me, and went on to describe the hor­rors of hav­ing their books turned into movies. Sev­eral called it the worst ex­pe­ri­ence in their lives.

Then, a few years ago, Gil Net­ter, pro­ducer of the Os­car-win­ning “The Life of Pi,” op­tioned “The Glass Cas­tle.” If he could make a movie about a tiger and an orang­utan in a boat, I thought, maybe he could fig­ure out how to turn my story into a movie.

Gil talked to a num­ber of sea­soned di­rec­tors but even­tu­ally brought on the young, rel­a­tively un­known Destin Daniel Cret­ton.

My sis­ter Lori, who had mixed feel­ings about be­ing por­trayed in a movie, watched Destin’s film “Short Term 12.” Then she called my mother and said, “Our story is in good hands.”

Destin and his co-writer, An­drew Lan­ham, found the movie, going through my messy story count­less times, carv­ing out its spine, fo­cus­ing on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween a young wo­man (that would be me) and her lov­ing, de­struc­tive, dam­aged fa­ther. Yes, they al­tered de­tails, tele­scoped a few scenes, fleshed out a mi­nor char­ac­ter into a more sig­nif­i­cant one, but al­ways with my in­put and al­ways with a pas­sion for au­then­tic­ity.

And in­stead of re­sort­ing to stereo­types of wacky squat­ters and crazy al­co­holics, they cap­tured the com­plex­i­ties of peo­ple like my mother and fa­ther who, for all their faults and demons, were also cre­ative and in­tel­li­gent with pride and dreams.

Destin vis­ited me, read my fa­ther’s jour­nals and met my mother.

Mom does not fit a lot of peo­ple’s pre­con­cep­tions of what a mother should be, and whether you like her is for me a lit­mus test of whether you’re will­ing to ac­cept peo­ple for who and what they are. Destin not only liked Mom, he com­pletely un­der­stood her. And she adored him. “We got lucky,” she said. “He’s Hawai­ian. They’re very non­judg­men­tal.”

Destin no­ticed the oil paint on Mom’s hands, a haz­ard of be­ing an artist, and he took a pic­ture of them so he could get it right for the film. He went through the hun­dreds of paint­ings she has stored in the two sheds be­hind her cot­tage, and he liked them so much he de­cided to in­clude them in the movie. He even got Mom to paint a spe­cial por­trait, based on my fa­ther, but with the face of Woody Har­rel­son, who plays Dad.

Destin also went to Welch, the small town in south­ern West Vir­ginia where I’d spent my teen years. He shot a scene at the lo­cal news­pa­per where I’d worked and per­suaded the lo­cal high school foot­ball team to play a staged game, com­plete with lo­cal cheer­lead­ers wear­ing pe­riod uni­forms they’d made them­selves.

Destin’s pas­sion for au­then­tic­ity was shared by the en­tire cast and crew. Joel West, the film’s com­poser, wrote a song in­spired by the poetry that my fa­ther had writ­ten while home­less on the streets of New York. The wardrobe team, Joy Cret­ton and Mir­ren Gor­don-Crozier, vis­ited me and left with a suit­case full of my 1980s power suits. Brie Lar­son, who plays me, ac­tu­ally wore a cou­ple of them in the movie.

Woody Har­rel­son and Naomi Watts, who plays Mom, stud­ied an old video­tape of my par­ents. Naomi at first won­dered if my mother saw her­self as a vic­tim, but voice coach Jerome But­ler also heard the tapes. Pay at­ten­tion to her tone, he told her; this is a wo­man who loves life.

Af­ter lis­ten­ing to tapes of me, Brie Lar­son said with a laugh, “You say ‘like’ five dif­fer­ent ways.” Watch­ing her on the set, I once chuck­led at the way she slung her purse over her shoul­der, then I re­al­ized, “Oh, my gosh, I do that.”

Brie Lar­son cap­tured so many of the other things that I did — and do — some of them not en­tirely ap­peal­ing, most im­por­tant, the way that I had tried so hard to cut my­self off from my past, to feel noth­ing. The por­trait isn’t al­ways flat­ter­ing, but it’s ac­cu­rate. And to be un­der­stood is so much more im­por­tant than be­ing flat­tered.

That’s some­thing Mom un­der­stood back when she told me to tell the truth.

I held my breath when I first showed her the trailer. “He’s just like Rex! Just like him!” she said, watch­ing Woody Har­rel­son drive the fam­ily’s beater of a car off the road and through the desert. “Oh, my,” she whis­pered when she saw Naomi Watts laugh­ing off Dad’s an­tics. “She’s just like me.”

“I hope your movie is going to ad­dress some of the is­sues of poverty,” a wo­man told me at a re­cent fundraiser for the home­less, “and that it will pro­vide some an­swers.”

I don’t know if the movie pro­vides an­swers, any more than my book does. It’s just my fam­ily’s story. And it’s my hope that by mak­ing such an ef­fort to get at the truth, this film will help peo­ple to un­der­stand all the other fam­i­lies out there like mine. And the truth is in the de­tails. Sharon Sey­mour, the pro­duc­tion de­signer, emailed me from the set when they were re-cre­at­ing the garbage pit in front of our shack in West Vir­ginia. “We need to come up with a pretty sig­nif­i­cant amount of trash. What were you guys putting in it? Food garbage? Cans? Brown pa­per bags of trash? I imag­ine you didn’t have trash bags.”

When the film­mak­ers are wor­ried about get­ting the trash right, you know they’re not Hol­ly­wood­iz­ing your story.

They cap­tured the com­plex­i­ties of ... my mother and fa­ther who, for all their faults and demons, were also cre­ative and in­tel­li­gent with pride and dreams.

Jake Giles Net­ter Lion­s­gate

THE FAM­ILY in “The Glass Cas­tle” is por­trayed by Naomi Watts, Woody Har­rel­son and young Chan­dler Head, Iain Ar­mitage and Olivia Kate Rice. It’s adapted from Jean­nette Walls’ mem­oir.

Brian van der Brug Los An­ge­les Times

JEAN­NETTE WALLS’ mem­oir, “The Glass Cas­tle,” re­counts be­ing raised in a bois­ter­ous, vagabond fam­ily.

Jake Giles Net­ter Lion­s­gate

IN THE FILM, Brie Lar­son por­trays the adult Jean­nette Walls.

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