Destin Daniel Cretton Talks ‘Short Term 12’

Short Term 12 has been receiving rave reviews over the summer (our movie review debuts Friday, along with the film’s Seattle release) and during the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), I had the opportunity to sit down with Destin Daniel Cretton, the soft-spoken and kind-hearted writer/director of the movie.

Here’s the interview:

Short Term 12 was a short movie first, and now you’ve made a feature length version. Why is this story so important to you?

When I wrote the short film I didn’t expect to turn it into a feature, primarily because I didn’t even know if I’d be able to finish the short. I was really surprised at the reception to the short film, and when it won Sundance and went around to a bunch of other festivals, the conversations that I had afterwards were really moving and wonderful conversations. It was great to see how universal this subject is and how many people are connecting to it, and so that was somewhat inspiration to explore a lot more of the stories revolving around this environment.

Are the characters, especially the kids, based on real people?

Everybody is fictionalized but the things they’re dealing with, certain scenarios that are for the most part straight from stories I’ve gathered from people who are working in places like this. And some of them are straight from my own experiences. The storylines are based in reality but overall it’s definitely a fiction.

And what about Brie Larson’s character, does that reflect you?

Brie’s character is loosely based off a supervisor that I knew, a young female supervisor who was very interesting for me to watch her put on her [front] as she walked into the gates of this place, because at first glance you didn’t think that this girl who wasn’t extremely loud or outspoken would be able to manage a group home like this. But this supervisor was able to command these kids just because she was consistent, consistent with both making sure the kids followed the rules but also consistent in showing respect to everyone. So after doing that for a few years she was a really great leader.

How did you come across Brie?

I just became familiar with her. She’s just one of those actors you see popping up in so many small roles and she’s such a chameleon and so good at being realistic in both her comedy and dramatic roles. That was something that I knew would be important, because this movie would be walking that line. There’s a lot of extremely dramatic things that could easily be pushed into melodrama, and the comedy as well could have easily been pushed too far into feeling canned. There was something about Brie that was exciting for me to be able to watch her walk that line of being in some very heavy scenes but also being able to walk with her alongside that without feeling so down in the dumps.

Any other short films into full length?

[laughs] Have you seen any of my other short films? Yeah, I don’t think… if you saw any of my other films, that question would be moot.

So what do you have next?

I’m writing a screenplay right now, but I don’t know if that’s the next thing I’ll do. Just searching for whatever the next story will be.

So you’re not glued to directing your own screenplays?

I’m just excited to tell stories that move me and get me excited, so if someone else has a good script, then sure.

What was the most challenging part about making Short Term 12?

It’s definitely challenging to making a movie about a place that does exist, scenarios that right now people are going through. It was definitely a challenge to do our best to portray them as close to a realistic… to our version of reality as possible and try to respect the fact that there are kids and staff members experiencing things like this right now every day.

I have huge respect for people who are foster parents or are choosing work in places like this, even though it was challenge doing it, it was also a wonderful energizer to tell this story and have those people on our minds and get them involved and have them come talk to our actors. It really added to the experience.

How long was the shoot?

It was 20 days. It was pretty fast.

What’s your general filmmaking approach?

Depending on how much time we have and the type of scene, we’ll do a lot of takes but some of the more emotional ones, once you have it, if we try again it’s never going to be as good as what we had originally. It really depends… some scenes we had a ton of takes. The general approach to everything, we were trying to make an environment that allowed for the best performances we could get. That went into the cinematography and how we were lighting things and the general environment we had on set and how people were interacting with one another. We just wanted people to feel the set – even though the movie is dealing with heavy scenes at times –was a fun, safe environment where the actors were free to just try things and not be afraid that it might be wrong. That’s kind of how a lot of these scenes are up to the level they are, beyond what I was able to write to page.

What were some of your favorite movies growing up?

I grew up on Maui and there was only one theater there. I actually remember one of the first movies I saw in the theater was Innerspace, which just blew my mind. I thought somehow that they had figured out a way to put a camera into a human body. It was so magical and life changing. From that point on, I’d find any excuse to see any movie and I didn’t even care. Any movie was good to me, including like Steel Magnolias [laughs]. I just loved being in the theater.

But I wasn’t introduced to independent cinema at all until toward the end of college. I feel like I’ve been playing catch-up since then.

By Erik Samdahl
Related categories: Drama Movies, Featured
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