Category Archives: Interviews

JEANNETTE WALLS ON “THE GLASS CASTLE”

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Jeannette Walls’ 2005 memoir “The Glass Castle,” about coming to terms with growing up with her very unconventional parents, spent five years on the New York Times bestseller list. It has now been adapted for the screen by writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton (“Short Term 12”), and Walls visited Dallas recently to talk about the film.

“It was the most cathartic thing I’ve ever done,” Walls said of writing the book, which details her troubled but still loving relationship with her father Rex and mother Rose Mary, with whom she and her three siblings—two sisters, one older and one younger, and a brother—traversed much of the Southwest, moving from house to house, until they finally settled in Rex’s home town of Welch, West Virginia, living a hardscrabble life in primitive conditions while their mother obsessed over her painting and Rex battled alcoholism while writing poetry and dreaming big about constructing the utopian glass castle that gave the book its title.

The book was optioned for adaptation to the screen fairly early on, but actual work on the film stalled. Walls herself was asked whether she wanted to write the screenplay, but declined. “I didn’t want to do it,” she explained. “That’s not my medium, I don’t understand filmmaking.”

The job finally went to Cretton, and when Walls was asked whether she had seen his previous film “Short Term 12” she replied, “I did not until he was hired to do this. I rushed out and watched it, and I now call it the second-best movie ever made.”

Cretton and his co-writer Andrew Lanham made changes from the book, but they do not disturb Walls. “It was not at all frustrating,” she said. “I thought he did a spectacular job. He has a profound understanding [of the medium]. I was in awe of the way that he did take certain liberties with the story—he telescoped a few things, and expanded a few—but I understand why he did what he did for storytelling purposes.”

Walls was equally enthusiastic about Cretton’s direction. “He gets performances out of kids that are unbelievable. And adults as well. He brilliantly discerns who you are,…understands the pain and love and joy and despair” and then coaxes it from the actors.

“He started out as a film editor,” Walls explained, “and the actors often said they had never worked with someone who is so clear about what he wants out of a performance and out of a scene. Just spending time on the set watching him with the actors and the camera people, he was this calm force. It was like watching a Ferris wheel or something. There was always action going on around him, and with all these little boxes going on, he was this same constant, strong center. It was beautiful, and I know I couldn’t have done what he did.”

Though Walls visited the shoot on and off, there was one location—Welch—where she did not go. “Destin wanted to shoot it on location [in Welch],” she said, “because there would be huge mountains in the background, and he said they were majestic and gorgeous, but they also close you in, and he felt that once viewers saw that, they would understand so much about the place, like the sunlight a color that you’ve never seen before.”

But she added, “I did not visit while they were filming in West Virginia. There are very mixed feelings about me in my home town. I asked Destin, ‘Do you want me to go with you and show you around?’ and he said, ‘No, I’ll be fine,’ and…it was kind of magic—they ended up loving him. He’s just that kind of guy—he made friends and made things happen.” She recalled how he shot scenes at the local paper where she had once edited her school’s paper, and how he arranged a sequence at the football field where she had photographed the games. “The coach, she got cheerleaders to recreate seventies-era cheerleading costumes” for their routines, she enthused.

Walls also spent time with Brie Larson, who plays her in the film, but added that the actress really didn’t need to use her as a model. “I did [work with her], but she got it right away,” she said. “She’s really smart. She’s just a genius. She was always picking up on things that I did. I’m more than satisfied [with her performance]—I’m overjoyed.”

Watching the finished film, Walls said, was not the same as writing the book: “It was a different experience in that writing the book was in some ways a realization, like putting the pieces of the puzzle together—you don’t realize what was going on until you put it all down. It was a bit shocking to me. This was the experience of being fully understood by others…through the brilliant, empathetic actors and director and filmmakers who get it and fully understand.”

Asked whether her siblings had seen the picture, Walls said, “They have not. They don’t think they want to go see it at a screening in public. My mother saw the trailer and was just overjoyed by it–even though she’s depicted as a villain and our lives will be depicted as pathetic, the joy and exuberance come through. The minute that she saw Woody Harrelson, she said, ‘He looks just like Rex—and he acts just like Rex!’ And she saw Naomi Watts and said, ‘She looks just like me!’”

In a very real sense, Walls added, the film is a celebration of her father, who died of a heart attack in 1994. Rex Walls clearly had demons, arising to some extent from being abused as a child—the portrayal of his ferocious mother in the film is unforgettable. But Walls added that though his glass castle was never built, “I think dad’s dream did kind of come true, in that he…passed on his hopes and his dreams to his children. I think what this movie represents is the realization of his dream.” She pointed in particular to a song written for the film. “The lyrics were culled from dad’s poetry,” she noted.

And, Walls concluded, while much of the film, like the book, portrays the harshness of the family’s life together, “there are moments of hope and beauty and triumph, even in what looks like despair.”

KUMAIL NANJIANI ON “THE BIG SICK”

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“I feel that ultimately the film is very sincere and optimistic, and is about the fact that ultimately we have much more in common than we don’t—all types of people,” Kumail Nanjiani said of “The Big Sick,” the film he wrote with his wife Emily V. Gordon, in a recent Dallas interview. The Pakistan-born stand-up comedian also stars in the semi-autobiographical, cross-cultural romance about how he and Emily got together—via a side trip to the hospital when Gordon had to be put in a medically-induced coma– with Zoe Kazan playing Emily.

Of course, to get its message across, the picture has to draw viewers into the theatre, and Nanjiani admitted that the title might not help. “I would say ‘The Big Sick’ is not a good title, but it’s not generic!” he exclaimed. It was the title they started with, but always intended to change: “We said, ‘We’ll find a better one—one that won’t turn people off.’ And here we are!”

“The Big Sick” takes place largely in Chicago but was shot in New York. “I really, really wanted to shoot there [in Chicago],” Nanjiani explained, “but it’s like a tax break thing, a tax incentive thing. I was assuming we’d shoot in Chicago, and then we didn’t. I know a part of the financing deal was that we had to shoot in New York.” He hopes, though, that it won’t be too noticeable: “I just did Chicago press, and nobody brought it up, so…”

Nanjiani had made his way to Chicago after studying at Grinnell College in Iowa, where he came from his native Karachi. He explained, “I didn’t realize how big America was. I’d seen movies and TV shows, and they don’t really show Iowa—they show New York and L.A., mostly. So I thought America was New York and L.A., and I landed in Des Moines and I was like, where are the buildings? And then I drove to a town of 9,000 people, Grinnell, and I was like, there are no buildings.

“Honestly I didn’t expect it to be how it was, but I really ended up loving it, because it was very friendly, and I think coming to a big city would have been overwhelming for me. Going to a place like that, where there aren’t that many people around, and everyone is nice, and you can actually talk to people and engage with people—and I was a novelty, because there weren’t that many people from Pakistan there—I fell in love with Iowa. It’s cool.”

Why had Nanjiani chosen Grinnell, in particular? “They had a good book, they had a good admissions packet, pamphlet, with colorful pictures. On the cover it had a quote from ‘Field of Dreams’—which was, ‘Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.’” And so Nanjiani concluded: “I’m going to heaven!”

There were other reasons for keeping the film’s budget down besides the New York tax incentives, Nanjiani admitted. “We kept the budget low, because we knew there was going to be a challenge casting me as the lead, since I’m not super-famous, and not the kind of person you normally see as the lead in a big Hollywood comedy. I wish it wasn’t so that every time a brown person made a movie, we talked about the last brown person that made a movie. Hopefully at some point there will be so many of them that we won’t have to make that comparison.”

But there were also advantages to holding the budget down: “We made it for so little money that you don’t need to make that much money to be successful. Then you can make the kind of movie you really want to make. You can keep it real.”

Writing the screenplay with Gordon, Nanjiani said, was a long process: “We’ve been working on this or about five years, so I tried to avoid anything that was on similar territory,” he explained. “We didn’t see any movies about sickness, we didn’t see any movies about cross-cultural stuff.” That included “While You Were Sleeping,” “which is an old romantic comedy with a coma. I ’d love it if we were the first romantic comedy with a coma, but we’re not. I think we’re third.”

Nanjiani noted that he’d never used the story of Emily’s illness in his stand-up routine: “In a movie, you don’t always have to be funny, so there can be a coma, and then you can take a little while to get back to funny. With stand-up, you kind of have to be funny the whole time.” He did try, though, to depict the world of stand-up accurately in the picture: “We wanted to portray that camaraderie, but also the competition of it. A lot of strange things are at play—there’s a desperation to it.”

The romantic complication in “The Big Sick” arises from Kumail’s reluctance to admit to his parents that he has been dating a non-Muslim, non-Pakistani woman, while his mother continues to present him with candidates for a proper arranged marriage—a revelation that will lead to his break-up with Emily before her illness intervenes. “Those were the scenes that actually changed the least in the rewriting—the scenes with my parents,” Nanjiani said. “They’re based on the rhythm that I have at dinners with my parents, so it’s kind of chaotic and there are a lot of conversations going on, and there’s a dynamic that I have with every member of my family. The challenge of those scenes is that we didn’t want it to be that I have one relationship with the family. We wanted to have my relationship with my mom different from my relationship with relationship with my dad and different from my relationship with my brother and my relationship with my sister-in-law. We wanted it to feel sort of chaotic, but fun and loving. We wanted to show that this is a loving family, so that the stakes are higher—he doesn’t want to lose them.

“This is not a movie with good guys and bad guys, nobody’s right or wrong,” Nanjiani emphasized. “Everybody’s kind of right and kind of wrong. We wanted to show everybody’s perspective. And we wanted to show the struggle that my family has trying to hold to hold on to their culture and identity in s place where it’s not really valued. It’s really hard and complicated for them. They came here and sacrificed their own lives for the lives of their kids, and then their kids choose a life that is different from the life that their parents wanted for them. It’s heartbreaking. We wanted to show that.

“You know, I did disappoint my parents. And it’s very easy to have that American sense of ‘Love conquers all,’ but it’s tricky, it’s hard.”

If Kumail’s movie parents were definitely modeled on Nanjiani’s, Gordon’s, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, were not. “Emily’s mother is not like Holly Hunter,” Nanjiani explained. “They’re very nice Southern people. We made that change because Kumail is a guy who’s, like, shifty and deflects emotions, and is not direct and lies. Who’s the worst person for him to be stuck with? It would be Holly Hunter, because she’s so direct and so engaged, no B.S. That’s where that came from. And if you get a chance to work with Holly Hunter, you better take it.”

Hunter’s character is initially hostile to Kumail, who had after all broken up with her daughter, but she comes to his defense in a crucial club scene where Kumail is heckled. “ She sees all the stuff that my character is going through,” Nanjiani explained. “And he’s not handling it right, certainly, but then he has to deal with a lot of stuff. I think what softens her to my character is ‘Oh, he’s not just a bad guy, he’s done bad things, but he’s got real struggles.’ The way everyone does, you know?

“And then we got Ray Romano [as Emily’s father], because it sort of mirrors Emily’s and my relationship. Those were some of the things that we changed for the movie. When you’re doing something personal, the changes actually help you and shield you. It just makes you feel safer. I think it helped Emily that her parents in real life are so different from her parents in the movie.

“You know, having a little bit of distance is good. It’s already so personal, and you put it up on the big screen and everybody sees it and gets to know about your life. It’s not something that I’d really thought about. I should have, but I was like, ‘Let’s make this movie,’ and then it’s ‘Everybody sees it.’”

Nanjiani emphasized the message he hopes “The Big Sick” will promote by noting, “We’re in a world right now where people who look different from you or disagree with you politically, or whatever, are seen as bad guys. You put them in a box. People aren’t talking to each other; they’re shouting at each other, from both sides. The point of our movie is we have much more in common than we don’t and if we just talk to each other, I think things will get better. Sometimes you don’t see other human beings as human beings, and I think empathy is the most important trait we have.”