I first encountered director Destin Daniel Cretton via the brilliantly titled (and very well done) “I Am Not A Hipster” when the Sundance NEXT entry played at the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival. His short film “Short Term 12” won Sundance’s short filmmaking award in 2009 and was then developed into his second feature thanks in part to Cretton winning the Academy’s Nicholl fellowship. The feature “Short Term 12” debuted at SXSW to rave reviews–and won the fest’s Grand Jury Award. (Here are reviews from ThePlaylist and Indiewire.)
Cinedigm snapped up North American and Latin American rights to the film starring Brie Larson as a troubled foster care worker. The company is releasing the film on August 23, and is planning an awards push for its breakout star.
Set in a short term care facility for at-risk youths, the film approaches the micro-tales of each guest (and those of their equally unsettled adult supervisors) which sometimes seem familiar but remain fresh; the plot is never too calculated. A lightness shows through the cracks in the characters, off-setting the potential for sad stories of emotional damage to weigh things down. Stars Brie Larson (“Scott Pilgrim,” “21 Jump St”), John Gallagher Jr. (“The Newsroom”), Kaitlyn Dever (“Last Man Standing,” “Justified”) and Keith Stanfield each deliver the nuanced heart-and-soul required to make “Short Term 12” a surefire festival hit.
Sophia Savage: I didn’t see your Sundance-winning short “Short Term 12” until after seeing your new SXSW feature version of the story. A lot has probably changed since you made the short film; how has the root of the story stayed the same?
Destin Daniel Cretton: Most of the characters and story-lines are pretty different, though many of the core themes are still stuck in the feature. That said, I wouldn’t consider this feature a direct adaptation of the short. At its root, it’s still a film about a person learning how to face the adversity in her life, to love herself so she can begin to really love those around her.
Do you consider your films works of fiction, or are they heavily inspired by your own experiences?
These first two films are definitely works of fiction, but they are also very much inspired by my own experiences. In the case of “ST12,” I worked at a place very similar to that before going to film school. So I really do connect with these characters and their situations, and we did our best to portray things authentically. But in the end, it’s still a movie, and we’re all just trying out different ways to play make-believe.
When you cast a film, what are you looking for in actors? Do you find the process is different casting adults vs. children? And given “Short Term 12″‘s heavy subject matter, there must have been some parental convincing involved?
Casting is such a strange process, and I never know exactly what I’m looking for until an actor walks in the room and begins to talk. As a writer, the casting room is often the first time I’m hearing my lines read out loud, which can be tough. But every once in a while, an actor will come in and put so much of themselves into the words that I forget who wrote them. That’s usually when I know we found the right one. And yes, casting for children can definitely be crazy, but by some miracle, we ended up with a group of the most mature, fun, genuine teenagers I’ve ever met. And their performances were blowing my mind daily.
In the film, I found that maturity and age did not necessarily go hand in hand. Although the adult characters are the on-the-ground caretakers/supervisors of the children in the short term facility, it’s the raw vulnerability of the children that helps spur change in the adults. How intentional was your use of this dichotomy?
I’m sure a lot of that stems from my own immaturity and feelings of inadequacy during the time that I worked at a group home. I honestly didn’t feel much further along the road of life than the kids I was supposed to be in charge of. It was pretty common for me to leave at the end of the day feeling like I learned more from those teens than they’d ever learn from me.
Biggest challenge of getting this film made?
Rather than reflecting on finance challenges — I would say how rare it is to find good, trustworthy, honest producers in this industry. And by some miracle, I did. The teams at Traction-Media & Animal Kingdom were way too good to me and this project. I can’t wait to see what projects they all champion next.
Tell me about your crew. I know you’ve worked with the same cinematographer on most of your projects.
My crew. Don’t get me started. I was lucky enough to bring most of the team from “Hipster” onto “ST12:” Brett (Pawlak, dp), Joel (P. West, composer), Ron (Najor, producer), Asher (Goldstein, producer), Joy (Cretton, sister/costume), Nikki (gf/artist), Brad K. (everyman). And after this project, we pulled a bunch more into the family. I feel really lucky to work with extremely talented friends that inspire me in both art and life. Anything good in these films is a direct result of having them around.
Do you want to continue to make independent films, or are you hungry to work with bigger budgets in the studio system?
I want to keep working with good people and telling stories that I’m really passionate about. Beyond that, I have no idea.
How do you think indie filmmaking has evolved over the past five years? The festival scene? And do you think those changes are positive?
Everything has changed in the past five years. I can barely keep up. I teach part-time at a video/film high school class, and the techie stuff these kids already know how to do freaks me out every day. It’s hard to imagine that the craft of making a film was once a giant mystery when people are now editing on their smart phones. It’s pretty exciting. Everyone seems to be trying to figure out what’s going to happen next, and no one really knows.
Who is your target audience for this film, and what do you anticipate being your biggest hurdle in reaching them?
You know, from the few pre-screenings that we’ve had, I’ve been pretty surprised at the range of people who have connected with this story. So I’m really wary about labeling who its target audience should be. But I’m really excited to premiere at SXSW and find out how people will react to it.
If you could only watch one movie over and over again for the rest of your life, which would it be?
“It’s a Wonderful Life”…or “Willow.”
You’re directing a silent black and white film; which two living actors do you cast?
Melanie Laurent & Will Ferrell.
Best advice you’ve ever received? And the worst?
Best advice: Just be thankful you’re not in politics. Worst: You need to network more.