Hollywood came calling Friday night in Welch and the 200 people who answered the casting call weren’t disappointed by the fanfare that goes into shooting a movie.
They came to acknowledge the hard work that transformed a young woman’s life from tragic to triumphant.
Filmmakers visited the McDowell County community to depict the life of former resident Jeannette Walls, who became a well-known journalist after moving away from Welch in high school and an unimaginable life fostered by her dysfunctional parents.
Her 2005 memoir is the basis for “The Glass Castle,” a movie starring several well-known actors including Brie Larson, who plays Walls. Larson was on hand for the shoot and told the audience, “as we say in Hollywood, that’s a wrap,” from the press box before leaving the set.
The emotional experience brought back lots of memories for Cathy Jack, a Mount View High special education teacher and facilitator, who helped organize the community’s involvement in the shoot.
It was extra special because Jack – who serves as the school’s yearbook and cheerleader advisor – was a classmate and kept in touch with Walls after she’d moved. Walls attended local classes from the time she was is in elementary school until her junior year in high school, she said.
“There’s one picture from probably 1970 or 1971 when we were Little League cheerleaders, and I’m right beside Jeanette. But back then, I really didn’t understand how she was living or how bad it was at home,” she said.
Walls’ book was eye-opening and underscores why her success even more impressive, Jack said.
“I’d say it was about 12 years ago when Jeannette called me because they were doing an ABC PrimeTime Live special segment. But she didn’t have any pictures of herself. I mailed all my yearbook photos from grades 7-12 to New York City to her, so it was my yearbook they were looking at on television,” she said.
Walls later sent her an autographed copy of the book, which spent 261 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller list and has been translated into 22 languages.
In the movie, Woody Harrelson, best known for his roles on Cheers and the Hunger Games film series, has been tapped to play her father, Welch native Rex Walls. In her book, Walls was an alcoholic unable to provide for his family and periodically deserts them.
The title, “The Glass Castle,” comes from his promise to one day build the family their very own glass castle – right down to blueprints for the project.
But that’s a far cry from the turbulent life and poverty – including near starvation, a lack of running water and even incest – the four youngsters endured at home before finally being able to help one another eventually escape to New York City.
In the movie, Naomi Watts portrays Rose Mary Walls, who taught locally after the family moved East from Phoenix. It’s slated for release in 2017.
Vic Nystrom Stadium was the setting used to recreate a Welch High School football game and its bleachers quickly became a sea of the now-closed school’s colors maroon and white.
Mount View High (a consolidated school that replaced Welch) cheerleaders help get the crowd in the mood as the school’s football players took the field.
“We had a ball, because it was a lot of fun standing up and cheering just like in the old days. It was just great yelling for Welch High School again,” she said.
“There were people who graduated from Welch High School in the ‘60’s who came back home for this and some even had their old letterman jackets on. We were all laughing about it, and so excited about old times,” she said.
Some folks wore specially-made T-shirts that read “The Maroon Wave,” which was the name of the Welch High School newspaper where Walls first discovered her passion for journalism.
Earlier in the day, filming at the Welch Daily News office attracted an excited crowd.
That kind of reaction isn’t a surprise to West Virginia Film Office Director Pam Haynes, who spent time in Welch meeting movie production crew members and helping make them feel at home.
“It was nice to see that the town appeared to be very happy about being able to host this motion picture, and they are ready for more,” she said, adding that it is the second movie to film there in as many years.
Local filming is important to the movie’s authenticity, because it reflects Walls’ ongoing family problems, the same problems that helped make her a strong person capable of reporting on others’ lives.
“I don’t think the intent was to focus on the area in a negative way, because the book shows her growing up in poverty wherever the family was living. It seems they were always in terrible poverty no matter what state they called home,” she said.
“Instead I think the filming in Welch shows that this period when she lived in McDowell County was significant for her, and helped her take the next step as a teenager that was important to the success she’s known as a journalist,” she said.