Community comes in different forms for director Destin Daniel Cretton; it can be a group home for teenagers in Short Term 12, or a close yet dysfunctional family in his new film, The Glass Castle. Accordingly, Cretton recognizes the importance of both capturing that camaraderie on camera and instilling it in his crew throughout the filmmaking process.
“It cemented my idea that relationship and community is a huge part of the aesthetic of the stories that I want to tell, and those relationships need to be real for me,” Cretton tells Vox critic at large Todd VanDerWerff on the latest episode of his podcast, I Think You’re Interesting. “I need to at least be constantly trying to cultivate them off-screen with my actors and with my crew in order for that type of energy to be on screen.”
To make believable the eccentric family at the center of The Glass Castle — Brie Larson plays Jeanette Wells; Woody Harrelson is her father, Rex; Naomi Watts portrays her mother, Rose Mary; and Ella Anderson plays a young Jeanette — Cretton worked as much as possible to get the cast together in the same room for rehearsal, something he values but says he doesn’t always have the opportunity to do.
“Rehearsing with these actors was so fun. We went over to where Brie was staying the week before we started shooting, and Woody and Naomi were there. Ella was there. We did a variety of just playing games and messing around to get to know each other,” Cretton explains. “But we actually did do a couple scenes improvised through, one of which was the big fight scene that Rex and Rose Mary have, where Rose Mary ends up flying out the window for a little bit. We did an improvisation of that scene and it actually changed the scene, I went in and rewrote it.”
Cretton says that in early screenings, the family had so many inside jokes that some feedback said that they were actually laughing too much and that the audience felt left out, so they scaled back.
“I’ve heard crazy stories where there are actors that are supposed to have chemistry in a movie, but they actually hate each other so much that they refuse to be on set at the same time, so they have to cover scenes on separate days with coverage,” Cretton tells VanDerWerff. “Thank God I haven’t had to do that, because chemistry is very difficult to fake. Especially a family, the feeling of a family is very difficult to fake if the people actually don’t like each other.”
To that end, Cretton tries to cultivate a close, can-do attitude in his crew. For The Glass Castle, this started when he and his cinematographer, Brett Pawlak, traveled to Welch, West Virginia, essentially shooting on their own (Larson showed up for one day).
“That started off our shoot, and it was a cool temperature to set for everybody. To see that this is the mentality of the way that we can shoot this movie,” says Cretton. “You have to work your ass off, but it’s super fun to work that way, because nobody stops. There’s not a bunch of people sitting around — like Sharon Seymour, our production designer, was there but she was doing everything, she had no hands under her.”
Capturing community continues to be a major focus of Cretton’s work, and while researching he makes sure to take the time to understand the relationships of his potential subjects. He tells VanDerWerff about a project he was working on about blind people and the process of getting ingrained in their lives for research.
“I was working on a script a couple years ago, and a lot of it took place in the blind community, so I went and volunteered at the Braille Institute here in LA and got to meet a lot of people,” said Cretton. “I went to a summer camp, an adventure camp for blind people, and got to sit in that community and meet people. It’s so simple, but it’s so quickly that you learn firsthand that we are all the same.”
Though he’s now working within the studio system, Cretton stresses that he will continue to fight for the kind of co-workers and creative culture that he feels is an absolute necessity.
“If I was forced to work with a bunch of assholes for a movie I would walk, even if it was the best project in the world and they were the most talented people in the world,” Cretton says. “If I was not able to create that type of collaboration it is completely not worth it to me. Relationship always beats art in my mind.”
Listen to the full episode of this week’s I Think You’re Interesting for more about how Cretton became interested in filmmaking while growing up in a small Hawaiian town, his next project about an attorney for death row inmates in Alabama, and his relationship with the real Jeannette Walls.
To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.