Exclusive Interview with ‘Short Term 12’ Writer/Director Destin Cretton

Destin Cretton Short Term 12 Interview
Short Term 12 Cast and Director (Photo © Cinedigm)

Writer/director Destin Cretton delivers one of the most highly praised films of the year with Short Term 12, a touching drama set in the world of the foster care system and starring an engaging ensemble led by Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr, and Rami Malek. Cretton’s own short film (which won the Jury Prize at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival) inspired this feature film which is likely to find him traveling the awards circuit at the end of the year. Short Term 12 currently sits at an outstanding 98% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes and has been generating serious awards buzz since it first screened at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival.

Short Term 12, which follows Larson, Gallagher Jr, and Malek as they deal with a group of at-risk teenagers living together at a foster care facility, was a very personal project for filmmaker Cretton who called on his own experiences in order to deliver characters on the screen that connect with the audience and feel real.

Exclusive Interview with Short Term 12 Writer/Director Destin Cretton:

When did you first realize this film had struck a chord with audiences?

Destin Cretton: “It has been very touching for me taking this movie around. We just got back from Switzerland at the Locarno Film Festival where we have screened for a room with 3,000 primarily non-English speaking audience. It was so emotional and so cool to hear them respond to all the same things that people here in the U.S. were responding to. It was nuts. They gave us this ridiculously long standing ovation and it was such a outpouring of love in that room it was crazy. That was the most recent moment. The voyage of this movie has just been very [special], there’s something very sincere about it. It has been really moving for me.”

You don’t have to had an experience with kids like the ones pictured in the film to understand and become involved in the story. It’s definitely a unique take on the foster care system.

Destin Cretton: “I think initially when I did the short film back in 2009 that was my thesis project at San Diego State University – that was Short Term 12 also – and when we took that to Sundance and we won the jury prize there, that was the first time that I realized how universal a lot of the themes were. Up until that point I thought that it was a very small, specific movie that would only connect with a very small amount of people. But that was the first time I saw that people who had no idea what this world was about were still really connecting with the theme that it was exploring.”

When you were actually working in a group home, did you have any idea whatsoever that your experiences there would provide source material for a film?

Destin Cretton: “No.”

But you have always wanted to be a filmmaker?

Destin Cretton: “Yeah, I was making movies at the time but, honestly, while I was working there, I was only thinking about trying to survive the day. It was such an intense experience for me and I was so nervous and I felt so out of place and so worried that I would make a mistake that could mess up some little kid more than they already are, I didn’t have any room in my brain to think, ‘Wow, this could be a great movie.’

But three years later when it was time to do my thesis, that’s when I was looking back through my old journals and looked through certain stories that I was writing just about experiences that I had. I pieced some of those together to make the short.”

Was there one particular journal entry that clicked for you and sparked the idea for the film?

Destin Cretton: “There was, actually. It was a recounting of a scene that was in the short and then was also in the feature. It is based on one of the more intense situations that I was in when I was there, which was one of the boys who I was fairly close to, it was his birthday and his dad didn’t show up. He was giving the impression that he didn’t care and we were all thinking that he didn’t care until we heard his door slam down the hall. I went and tried to open the door because they are not allowed to keep it closed. As I was pushing, he let the door fly open and I fell in and he took out all of his anger on my face. We had to restrain him, and then fast-forward to an hour later and he and I are sitting in the cool-down room and his adrenaline is drained away and we are having a very intimate conversation about all the things that happened.

It was, for me, just an experience that was obviously very emotional, but it also taught me so much about where the hurt comes from and where the anger comes from. And even though it feels like he was targeting me with both his fists and his words, he was saying some of the most cruel things anyone has ever said to me while we were restraining him, but none of that had anything to do with me. That was the first journal entry that I read that started the ball rolling in creating that world.”

Did you realize while he was saying the words to you in anger that it wasn’t really about you?

Destin Cretton: “At that point I still had to tell myself, ‘He doesn’t mean it. He doesn’t mean it.’ He was spitting and biting and he was just, he was so, so distraught that his dad didn’t show that it just came out and he wasn’t thinking at all.”

Having gone through that experience, how did you in turn then explain that to your young actors?

Destin Cretton: “Thank God we had the actors that we had. The kid actors that we had were so smart and they were so easy to work with. They were so curious about this world and about their characters and loved learning about it. I think they were somehow mature enough to have incredible empathy for their characters.

One day before we started shooting, we actually had my friend, Kevin Thompson – who is down here in San Diego and still works in a place like this, and he has been doing it forever – come up and we had all our actors together and they were able to just ask him questions. They told him about their characters and he related to them about other kids who might be going through similar situations through their characters. He gave them insight as to, ‘Oh, your character kind of reminds me of this person. The reason he or she was doing this was because of these things.’ They were really able to build a backstory based on real situations.

It was pretty easy, surprisingly, to do a scene as heavy as that with Kaitlyn Dever because leading up to that point, she had done so much research and asked so much questions that she just understood what it meant to feel like that and just have no other outlet but to just wait to explode.”

Were you involved in those discussions between the actors and your friend?

Destin Cretton: “Yes. I was very impressed with the amount of curiosity that they had towards it. I mean, still I don’t think anybody understands it unless they have actually gone through it. But, we hope that we are getting as close as we can to recreating what it feels like to be in that environment.”

What kind of reactions are you getting from people who work in group homes and in the foster care system?

Destin Cretton: “So far it has been great. We actually just last night screened for Foster Care Counts an organization that is dealing with foster kids, and it is fantastic. That was the community that we had in mind when we were making the movie and also the community that I was most afraid to hear what they thought about it because they know. They know when we are getting it wrong. I am so happy that so far we have had former foster children who are now in their early 20s, there are some now who are in their 40s who are running organizations who have really connected with the movie. They are so thankful that it portrays the world enough for them to connect to it. It is by no means a perfect portrayal. I don’t think anybody can do that. I am glad that it is close enough to be embraced by them.”

It breaks a lot of stereotypes. Some people think those who work in foster homes are getting paid to handle these kids and that is all there is to it. You clock in, you clock out. But this film helps break that stereotype because it shows these foster care workers really care for the kids.

Destin Cretton: “That was something that I felt was really important, just because I personally only worked at a place like this for about a year and a half…”

That’s actually a long time.

Destin Cretton: “Yeah, unfortunately it is in that environment. Within that time, I just gained a huge respect for the staff members who have chosen that as their profession. Yes, there are a ton of horror stories of bad workers in this environment who should not be working in this environment, but there are equal amount of, or more, probably, wonderful stories of the best human beings in our country working in this environment, because there is really no other reason to do it. They are not getting paid a lot. It is not very glorious. There is no award given to the best counselor of the year.”

There is no recognition at all.

Destin Cretton: “In some way this was my way to say thank you to all those people who are in the trenches every day. I have just gained a lot of respect for them while I was working there. I also gained a lot of respect for the kids and just their resilience to go through what they go through and still figure out a way to be kids and just to laugh and to hang out and have fun and try to be better. It was very inspiring all around.”

Truthfully, I don’t cry at movies unless a dog dies but Short Term 12 almost brought me to tears during Marcus’ hair cut scene. Was that inspired by a true story?

Destin Cretton: “Based on a true story, yes. It was based on a story that was told to me from an interview that I had. Yeah.”

And you knew it had to be included in the film?

Destin Cretton: “It just fit perfectly into the Marcus storyline. Everything is kind of a combination of real stories, but you can kind of pinpoint any storyline of any of the kids is based on something I read or a combination of stories that I read or heard through interviews or experienced myself.”

How difficult was it to narrow the focus down to the stories you did include? Is there a character you wish you would have been able to show a little more backstory of?

Destin Cretton: “There are a lot of storylines that, I don’t wish that we showed anything else in this piece, but there are definitely storylines that I am curious about. I am very curious about Nate, the new guy, and where he goes. I am curious about Sammy and his backstory. I don’t wish that we put more of it into the movie because I like the idea of people imagining some of the other aspects of the world.”

How much of a detailed backstory did you create for each character?

Destin Cretton: “Pretty detailed. I mean, I have backstories for every character that I gave to each of the actors. A lot of it was things that you can’t talk about in the movie, it is just for them on a need to know basis. Brie [Larson] and John [Gallagher Jr] who played Grace and Mason, a couple of days before shooting, they met for the first time and went out on a fake but very professional date. I sent them a letter with an envelope with literal conversation starters. Some were about talking about their own childhood memories, their favorite childhood memories, some more difficult memories that they don’t talk about very much. Questions about what their fears are and hopes are for one day becoming a parent. Other questions were about things that I don’t even know what they talked about, but it was their own backstory of their couple: how they met, what their first date was like, what it was like to have the conversation of is it time to move in together, and how did they decide on that. So all of those things were things that they created together and they purposely kept it a secret so I didn’t know anything about it.”

How did you know Brie Larson was the right choice to play Grace?

Destin Cretton: “I was just going through her reel and she is just so dramatically different in every role, and that was initially very exciting for me. I know she would be playing a character; she wouldn’t just play herself. That was really exciting to me and then there was also just something about all of her performances that felt so in the moment. She rarely feels like she is pre-scripted. Even comedies, it didn’t matter if it was comedy or drama it felt like she was reacting to the person that she is talking to and it didn’t feel like she had just memorized lines and are spouting them back in a professional way. She’s there, and it was exciting to me.

I just Skyped with her. We had one conversation in a video Skype and it was hearing her talk about the character in the story was just very, very inspiring. She is super intelligent and I just saw Grace in her. It was great.”

In your short film the character Brie Larson plays is actually a male character. Why did you switch it to female?

Destin Cretton: “Because there is nothing more frightening to me that to write from a female perspective, because I had never done it before.”

Was it what you expected?

Destin Cretton: “No, actually it is the opposite of what I expected. I had all these fears wrapped up in it. I have three sisters and I was bouncing ideas off [them]. I would let them read stuff and I would be so scared that they are just going to be like, ‘No!’

What I found is that I was not writing Grace as a foreigner. I completely identified with everything that she is going through. The same is true with Mason. I think it was just my realization that it is not about male and female; it is just about people and complicated characters, and I can relate to certain females better than I relate to certain males. I mean, that is something everyone says, ‘Wow, you write from the female perspective so well.’ But, I am like, ‘Grace is me and so is Mason.’ Mason is me and Mason also is my girlfriend.”

Did your sisters wind up giving you any corrections or suggestions?

Destin Cretton: “Yes. They were highly influential, for sure. I can’t remember any specifics. A lot of things are just somewhat inspired by them and their personalities as well. They are wrapped up in everything I do.”

Do they see bits of themselves in some of your characters?

Destin Cretton: “Yeah, I am sure they do. My sisters are pretty healthy people. One of my sister’s is a social worker for hospice care. I think she understands what it means to put on the strength that is needed to begin that type of work. It is like a moment that you take before you step into the room that you are putting on a different personality. You are putting on such a stronger piece of armor. I think she understands that. And you kind of see Grace doing that very often. There were a lot of moments that we put into the film where you see her just taking all the crap that she has bubbling up inside and she just like squishes it down and gets ready for work. There is a moment like that right in the beginning when she was filling up the water gun. There is another moment about half-way through when she says to Mason, ‘I can’t talk about it right now. I just need to work.’ I think that those type of things that my sisters really do, I think.”

-By Rebecca Murray

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