Since 2002, writer-director Destin Cretton has been making shorts, as many young filmmakers are inclined to do, but it was his 2008 short SHORT TERM 12 that seems to get him the clout necessary to make his first feature. Winning prizes at the Sundance, Chicago, Seattle, Boston and several other film festivals, the short was about is essentially a reduction of the story that would eventually become the feature. But weirdly enough, Cretton's first feature wasn't SHORT TERM 12, but the music-soaked drama I AM NOT A HIPSTER, which premiered at Sundance in 2012.
SHORT TERM 12, the feature, had its world premiere at SXSW Film Festival earlier this year, and it's been bouncing from festival to festival, garnering fantastic reviews and word of mouth from every corner of the globe. But finally, it was given a limited release a couple of weeks ago, and is now opening wider this weekend, and you simply must see it. It concerns a small group of counsellors working at a foster care facility in an unnamed city, and gives us insight into both the kids' and counsellors' reasons for being there. It's features some of the most naturalistic acting you'll see all year and is anchored by great performances by Brie Larson (THE SPECTACULAR NOW), John Gallagher Jr. ("Newsoom"), and the incredible Kaitlyn Dever ("Justified").
Just after a screening of SHORT TERM 12 at SXSW, I got a chance to informally chat with Cretton about his film, and we agreed that at a later date, we'd do a for-real interview, which is exactly what happened when I talked with him via phone a couple weeks ago. Please enjoy my chat with Destin Cretton, and look for my chat with SHORT TERM 12 star Brie Larson in the next day or two.
Capone: Hi, Destin. How are you?
Destin Cretton: I’m good. How are you? I remember very well talking to you at SXSW. Asher [Goldstein, producer] and I talked about it afterwards, because we're big fans of yours.
Capone: Well thanks. I just got an email from him yesterday, making sure this was happening.
DC: Oh, cool.
Capone: It’s been kind of funny, because so many of us saw the film in March, and then I didn’t hear about it for a while, and then when it played at the LA Film Festival, suddenly discovered it. Just so people are a little clear on the location of this film, because I’ve heard people who have only heard about it say, “Oh, it’s set in some mental institution.” I’m like, “No, it’s not that. It’s a group home,” but they do dispense meds there. Can you explain what this home is exactly? This is set in California, right?
DC: It’s purposely never talked about where it is set.
Capone: Okay. For some reason, I thought it did. Then I thought later maybe that wasn’t right.
DC: You can see some palm trees. If anything, it’s definitely shot in California. We’re not trying to hide that or anything.
Capone: Can you explain the dynamics of a place like that?
DC: Yeah, it’s a foster home, but it’s part of the foster care system, but it’s a foster home specifically for kids who need 24-hour care. So the kids that are in this place are court appointed. Basically it’s either because they themselves are messed up and have behavior problems, and/or their parents are messed up and cannot take care of them, and there’s no one else in the family who can take care of them. Those are the types of kids that are admitted to a place like this.
Capone: Initially when I saw it, I thought maybe they were there because at some point in their history they had been deemed as possibly being a threat to themselves somehow, because there are a lot of kids there that seem to have that element.
DC: Yes. It’s not a requirement, but the majority of the kids there have had some history of either being dangerous to themselves or others, but not all the time. There were some kids who are there because both parents were in prison, and they had no one else who could take care of them. There’s a mixture, but the majority of them have their own behavioral problems.
Capone: I know that you had worked at a place like that at some point in your past. How much time had to pass from when you left that place to when you could really put things into perspective and write something about it?
DC: Yeah, it was about three years. At the time, it didn’t even cross my mind that “This experience could be a movie.” But I think three years passed, and I was looking through some of my old journals and there was just an experience that I had that was about this kid that I worked with, a boy, and it was his birthday and his dad didn’t show up to pick him up and he was acting like he didn’t care, and then he went and slammed his door, and that was our first clue that he did care. I was in front, because I was close to this kid, and I was the one talking to him through the door and trying to open it, and he let it fly open and I fell in and he took out all of his hurt and anger on my face. It was basically that exact scene in the movie
Then fast forward an hour later and he, and I are sitting in the cool-down room, and the stuff that he was saying to me while we were in that restraint was some of the meanest, most hurtful, vicious things anyone’s ever said to me and it had nothing to do with me. An hour later he was opening up to me and allowing me to process through the stuff with him. I saw that in my journal entry and thought that for obvious reasons that once so much time has passed that that could be an interesting thing to try to explore on film.
Capone: We've seen a few films in the past that cover a similar situation in a similar setting. Those films tend to focus on the on the kids--usually the lead actor will be a patient. And in this case, you’re filtering the experiences through these counselors, because all of those counselors, at least the two main ones that Brie and John play, they have very specific reasons why they are there. The kids are very important, but you seem more concerned with, “Let’s examine the kind of people that take this impossible task on day after day.” So that was your experience, I'm guessing.
DC: Yeah, it would be my experience to a certain extent, except I only lasted two years, which is long unfortunately for people working in that place, but once I started writing the feature I relied a lot on interviews with people who were working and continue to work in this environment for way longer than I ever did. In some small way, I hope that this movie was a close enough depiction to the experience that it could be, just from my own personal point of view, a little thank you to them acknowledging how complicated and difficult and beautiful that line of work is. So far, it’s been really great to hear the response from people in the foster care community.
Capone: As great as Brie and John are, I don’t want to run out of time before I talk about Kaitlyn’s performance. I saw her in THE SPECTACULAR NOW within days of seeing this, and I watch "Justified," so I’ve seen her on that. Talk about finding her and working with her.
DC: Kaitlyn was magical, and I cannot understand where that comes from. [laughs] When you talk to her parents, they will say the same thing, because she’s so level headed and so down to earth, fun, vibrant and bubbly and just has this very friendly wonderful loving personality. She just adores her family, loves her sister. She’s such a great big sister and a wonderful human, and somehow she’s still able to tap into, when she needs to, some very dark places that are very unlike herself.
She just came in and auditioned. We gave her the toughest scene in the movie, that scene where she blows up [at Larson's character]. She just did the whole scene by herself in a chair, and by the end of it, I was in tears; it was just so moving. Then once she came on set, I realized that her range is just unbelievable and how subtle she can be in scenes that I would almost always expect a 15-year-old actor to try to play up. I don’t think I ever had to ask her to pull back on things, you know? She was just so natural. It was unbelievable. I honestly was blown away by her. I have never worked with an actor as consistently believable as she is.
Capone: I was excited that she’s going to be in Lynn Shelton’s new movie too.
DC: Totally. Nat, our editor, is editing that movie as well, and he said that Kaitlyn is kicking ass.
Capone: You mentioned that one scene where she explodes, but the other scene that I think a lot of people are going to talk about is that octopus story, which is one of those classic, “not a dry eye in the house” sort of things, and her delivery is slightly detached, which makes it all the more tragic. I assume you wrote that story. Where did it come from? Was she allowed to make it her own?
DC: Yeah, she made it her own. I mean, she didn’t change any of the words. Part of it was, I think, just having her go through the process of writing it in her own hand writing on paper and going through the process of imagining writing that story. I wasn’t against her changing words if she wanted to, but she didn’t. That story came out of nowhere, but it also came out of a lot of struggle with trying to find a believable way for this girl who doesn’t want to talk about something to talk about it. I struggled with that scene for a while. With a lot of those moments, it was a big struggle. The other one was the rap that Marcus does. Yeah, that story came during a walk around the block when I was trying to figure out that scene.
Capone: Did she draw the pictures too?
DC: No. Those were all done by a friend of mine from Maui who did a really good job getting into the brain of a 16-year-old girl.
Capone: They looked like a kid’s drawing, almost younger than 16 I think, but he nailed it. The other thing that occurred to me when I watched it the second time was this movie has more chase sequences than many action movies do. There’s a lot of running, and it actually makes it feel very active. I’m curious if that was trick that you used so the film wasn’t just people talking, that there was some movement. You actually get caught up in those chase scenes.
DC: [laughs] Yeah, that’s a huge part of the job. It definitely was something in the writing process, when you’re writing three scenes in a row of people talking, the brain naturally wants something quasi-exciting to happen. But it’s also just a part of this world where it really does feel like anything can happen at any moment, and interruptions happen all the time, in the middle of a conversation, a kid might run.
That came straight from one of the interviews I had, where fairly routinely there was one kid who would just take runs for it. He happened to do it in the nude and got a kick out of that and was slightly playful. It was mainly making the guys work, but it also was a release that the kid needed to do on impulse every once in a while. So those types of explosions were pretty common.
Capone: The Rami Malek character…
Capone: He is us. He’s coming into this situation as a newbie and getting it wrong most of the time as most of us probably would if we were in there. He’s like a blank slate that you build upon as the film goes on. I actually just watched AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS, and I was just on the set of a movie called NEED FOR SPEED up in Detroit, and he was there that day. Tell me about that character. He’s the counselor we don’t really know anything about, and it’s more about building on him and making him accessible to us as the eyes through which these situations are seen.
DC: Yeah, that’s exactly how Rami and I talked about that character. He is expressing and showing the emotions I think most people would be feeling if they were thrown into this situation and as they are watching the movie. He’s also emulating very closely what my first two months were like in working at a place like this.
Also, what was really important to both of us is to get a hint of the progression of his character into from this naive, savior attitude to something that’s a bit more grounded and realistic, much more real and effective. I think somehow--and I wouldn’t attribute it to the writing, because the scene is so simple--just the way that he finds that little ball and takes it to Sammy and has just that little quiet moment with Sammy, there’s something so mature about the way he does it that it really feels like he’s growing up. I love the Nate character.
Capone: I guess while we’re talking about cast, let’s talk about Brie and John. It’s amazing how functional they are within this very dysfunctional relationship. Did they get to spend any time together, or did you get to do any rehearsals before this where they could actually build up that chemistry, or is that just the natural thing for them?
DC: Well the story they tell is--and they love talking about this--but we had one day together with them before we started shooting. Each of them got to do their own separate research, so they both got to follow supervisors at places like this through one whole shift, and it just so happens that Brie followed a woman who has been doing it for over 20 years and she saw so many similarities between Grace and her. John followed a guy and he saw so many similarities between Mason and him. His number one piece of advice to John was to “Keep it light. The kids have been through enough shit. Keep it light. Tell jokes. Break rising emotions by cracking jokes or self deprecation or whatever it takes to keep the mood light with everybody.” So it was kind of perfect. I didn’t engineer that, it was just a nice thing they did separately.
And then we had one night that John and Brie were going to just go out to dinner. I sent them on this faux date, and John picked up Brie, and I sent a little envelope along with John to open once they got there, and it was just a little thank you note for them for being part of the project. I didn’t know if it would work, but I hand wrote these questions for them to read to each other and talk about. Some of them were just light and funny to talk about fun childhood memories, things that a long-term boyfriend and girlfriend should know about each other, and then some of them got more serious about “Are there any residue that you feel like might be left over from your parents that might be negative and also positive?” Then “What are you fears about being a parent?”
Some were creating the fictional backstory of Grace and Mason--what they think their first date was like, what their pet peeves are, what kind of gets on each others nerves when they are living together. Then they took it beyond some of the stuff that I did and ran with it, and by the time I met up with them again they knew why Grace and Mason lived together, how much money they make income-wise, and why it was needed that they had to move in together just to pay rent on what their salary most likely is. It takes good actors to run with a silly prompt like that, and they really did, which was great.
Capone: You premiered the film at SXSW. Talk about that experience. Talk about going into it and then talk about coming out of it, because I’m guess there are very different emotions going through your head at each phase.
DC: Oh yeah. [laughs] We went in shaking in our boots and we left just crying and laughing--I mean crying in the best way. It was so extraordinary and surprising and wonderful. Awards completely aside, the screenings there hands down were some of the most magical, moving experiences that I’ve had.
It’s strange to sit in the back of a room full of strangers and watch these decisions that our team has made together projected on screen and watch people react to them and see that the weird, subtle joke that Matt and I laughed about a hundred times in the editing room actually worked in a room full of people. It’s a really unique experience that made me feel so connected to everybody. It made me feel like we are all so similar, that we laugh at the same thing, we cry at the same things. There was something about it that just felt really moving to me, and there was a lot of love in the room. It was a really good experience.
Capone: Do you have any idea of what you’re going to do next? Are there some percolating ideas or screenplays in a drawer that you might pull out?
DC: I have no screenplays in a drawer that are worth pulling out, so I’ll leave those in there. [laughs] But I’m writing my next thing. I mean I don’t want to say “next.” I’m writing it next, but I don’t know if it’ll be the thing that I do next. I’m reading scripts that my agents are sending me; there are some things that are interesting.
Capone: I was going to ask you, are you committed to only doing your own screenplays, or do you see yourself directing something you didn’t write?
DC: I would love to direct something that I find I really connect with. I would love to have that experience. So far, I haven’t found something that feels right for me, but I’m sure I will at some point. At some point down the road, I’d be excited to explore this world even more, the world of SHORT TERM 12, possibly in an ongoing TV series world.
Capone: Oh, wow.
DC: That’s just something I’m interested in exploring in the future. I’m not there right now.
Capone: Sure, but as you said it, I’m like, “I could completely see how that would work.” You could bring in new people every few weeks, with a constantly rotating cast of characters.
DC: There’s just so much. Touring with this movie has just opened up even more stories that are so interesting. The stories of the administration, that’s something we kind of give an idea of [in the film], but it’s also so rich. Then seeing how this system ties into all the other systems is so interesting and complex. It’s a world with characters and personalities and storylines that are endless. I don’t think I’m done with it.
Capone: This is a good first chapter then. Thank you so much, it was great talking to you again; best of luck with the film.