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Filmmaker recalls his Haiku past while directing ‘The Glass Castle’

The new movie opened Thursday night on Maui and nationwide today

Maui filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton (from left), Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson and author Jeannette Walls talk on the set of the film “The Glass Castle.” JAKE GILES NETTER photo

Memories of growing up in an old two-bedroom Haiku home alongside his parents and five siblings all rushed back to Destin Daniel Cretton as he filmed his new movie, “The Glass Castle.”

The film, which opened Thursday night at Consolidated’s Ka’ahumanu Theatres and expands nationwide today, chronicles the adventures of an eccentric, resilient and tight-knit family embroiled in dysfunction and alcohol abuse. It is based on The New York Times best-selling memoir of the same name written by former MSNBC gossip columnist Jeannette Walls.

“I think I can describe it as therapeutic in a lot of ways,” Cretton said in a phone interview Tuesday.

The movie moves back and forth between Walls’ childhood memories and her life as a gossip columnist in 1989 New York. Walls struggles to reconcile with her father as an adult after enduring an unstable and neglected childhood.

Oscar winner Brie Larson stars as Walls opposite to her erratic and alcoholic father, Rex, portrayed by Woody Harrelson. English actress Naomi Watts plays Walls’ mother, Rose Mary.

Destin Daniel Cretton sits in his original Haiku home recently where he and his five siblings were raised. Photo courtesy Destin Daniel Cretton

While Cretton, 38, identified with Walls and her upbringing, he stressed that his childhood and family were not nearly as extreme. The Cretton family lived a simple life in East Maui, but were not “digging out of the trash” or “freezing our butts off in the snow” like the Walls family.

“We dealt with swarming termites on the TV during termite season and whenever the winds blew Kona and the Kona storms came, we’d grab the buckets and hang them on the ceiling to catch all the new leaks that came through,” Cretton recalled.

The 1996 Maui High grad and his siblings spent most of their time playing outdoors and were not allowed to watch television. His grandmother eventually gave him a big VHS camera when he was around 10 years old and he began directing plays, commercials, magic shows, Bible stories and martial arts routines with the family.

Cretton’s mother, Janice, a Christian, home-schooled her children in the “little shack” alongside her husband, Dan, a retired fire captain. All the children attended college, despite living off one income and one bathroom.

“There was always a line to go in,” she said jokingly. “We were a close-knit family. We were like a can of sardines. They were really close, and it ended up that we still are very close. We didn’t have the luxuries, but we still had a lot of love and that to me was most important.”

Eden Grace Redfield (from left) as “Youngest Maureen,” Woody Harrelson as “Rex Walls,” Charlie Shotwell as “Young Brian,” Sadie Sink as “Young Lori” and Naomi Watts as “Rose Mary Walls” stand on set of the film “The Glass Castle.” JAKE GILES NETTER photo

Janice Cretton said family members endured hardships over the years, but they remain supportive and close. She said she “prayed my way through every day” and credited her husband for keeping the family afloat.

“My husband was always a good provider, unlike the father in the movie,” she said. “He always had a job and always provided for the family.”

Cretton’s younger sister, Joy, who was a costume designer on the film, said she spoke to her father the other day and joked how he used to bring home old cars that constantly broke down.

“He had the ugliest trucks on the island, and they’re like 90 percent rust,” she said laughing. “It was the most embarrassing thing.”

She said that one day their father brought home a short, yellow school bus that the family drove around town and would have to lower the wheelchair lift in order to exit.

“We’d go to Ka’ahumanu mall and whenever we’d drive to the front, we’d all duck down to hide and my dad would look back and shout, ‘You need to be grateful someone gave us this vehicle.’ “

Cretton said the life, love and creativity in Walls’ story resonated with him as well as balancing a “mixture of laughter and the more difficult parts.” He added that no matter how hard things got for the family, he could “see there was a deep love beneath everything.”

“Sometimes that love was confused. Sometimes it was smothered by the pain of whatever the characters were going through so that love didn’t come out,” he said. “But I could sense that love was always there and that’s something I really have experienced in my life.

“My family is still the most important thing to me. No matter how hard things get, I know there’s always love.”

Cretton said it was surreal working with Harrelson, who lives on Maui, recalling the stories he heard of him and the “Woody spottings” that would be reported around the island.

“It was really cool to meet him because he’s such a legend,” he said. “I had to pinch myself a lot watching him do a scene and Naomi too. These are movie legends from when I was a kid. It’s pretty crazy to be working with them.”

“The Glass Castle” is Cretton’s first studio-funded feature and includes much of the same crew as his last movie – the critically acclaimed “Short Term 12.” He said the previous film had a budget of just under $1 million, but “this one was a lot more.”

“It was pretty drastic,” he said of the change. “It was weird, but really similar in a lot of ways. We just had a lot more money and a lot more people. I would walk on set, and I’d see so many people and a lot of times I’d wonder what are all these people doing.

“But our crew was really great, even with the bigger budget to build the set.”

The film’s production designer built the primary house the film takes place in on a mobile home that had to be aged down to match the story’s setting. The house also was rebuilt for interior shots.

Since his success with “Short Term 12,” Cretton’s talents have been in demand with a steady stream of writing jobs. He also got married about a year ago and has a boy due in December.

“She grew up in England,” he said about his wife. “I think it’s the British charm that got me,” he joked.

Cretton’s mom said she is proud of her son’s accomplishments and believes her children’s upbringing knowing Christ helped prepared them for adulthood. Cretton’s brothers, Brook and Denim, are special education teachers at King Kekaulike High School and on the Big Island, respectively. Sister Spring is a social worker on Maui and other sister Merrily is studying to be an occupational therapist in Los Angeles.

“They don’t take anything for granted,” Cretton’s mother said. “They appreciate everything. They’re not spoiled kids for sure.”

Joy said it meant a lot to be able to work with her brother on his films, especially in Hollywood. She said the success has never gone to his head.

“We go have dinner together. We have houses right next door to each other. We carpool. It’s really nice because it can be such a stressful time,” she said. “He’s always grounded. He’ll never not be grounded, but I think it helps with our stress levels to be close to each other.”

Cretton is working on adapting another best-selling memoir, “Just Mercy,” which follows the story of civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson. Michael B. Jordan, known for his roles in “Creed,” “Fruitvale Station” and “Fantastic Four,” is attached to star in the film.

When asked what Maui residents can expect from his latest film, he said he hopes viewers will connect with it on some level and “sparks some good conversation when they leave the theater.”

“There is something about this story that everybody can relate to even if you didn’t grow up in extreme poverty,” he said. “There’s something that feels familiar to people in some way.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.