I’d be lying if I didn’t if I didn’t take some pride in being the first person standing in line for the first screening of “Short Term 12” at SXSW. It was a position that I wouldn’t let go of a day later when I wound up being the first interview on the books for the cast and crew after their triumphant premiere. While there’s no scientific explanation for the way they were already floating on the rapturous early response to the film — perhaps aided by catching “Spring Breakers” for the first time as well — it wasn’t as difficult to recognize the confluence of talent and the chemistry conjured between the group that turned the film into something special.
Based in part on writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton’s own experiences as a counselor at a group home for troubled teens, “Short Term 12” is a film that takes on a life of its own, bursting with the energy of its young, exuberant cast and the confidence Cretton picked up while making his loose-limbed debut “I Am Not a Hipster” about the San Diego arts scene a year prior. At first, Grace (Brie Larson) would seem to share the filmmaker’s fortitude, a young woman who has the ability to calm down the often volatile foster kids she takes under her wing with the help of her fellow counselors Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) and Nate (Rami Malek). Yet all is not what it seems as first, particularly once a new arrival named Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) sulks into the home, sparking up old feelings for Grace, who’s now in her twenties without really ever having a childhood herself.
“Short Term 12” parses out its characters’ history in piecemeal fashion, but the film itself is immediate and alive, tackling its uncomfortable subject with the same playful, conscientious approach of its central counselors. This is due in no small part to the remarkable performances from the entire cast, all the way from “21 Jump Street” star Larson to a relative newcomer in Keith Stanfield, whose ferocious turn as Marcus, a wayward teen who expresses his feelings through rap, nearly steals the film, though Gallagher Jr., who proved his versatility on the New York stage in such shows as “American Idiot” and “Farragut North,” and Dever, whose work on season two of “Justified” anchored one of the show’s finest arcs, make that impossible.
Only slightly easier was getting the group to sit down in Austin for a short chat about how they got involved in the film and creating such a realistic environment for them to excel in, but since we talked, the enthusiasm Cretton and his cast had as they spoke of making “Short Term 12” has spread to nearly every audience that’s seen it, so hopefully this conversation sheds light on how it came to be.
How did the film come about?
Destin Daniel Cretton: It started out as a short, which was inspired by my experience working at a group home for two years after college and the crazy experiences that I had there. That combined with stories that I heard from other staff members and other kids that we worked with meshed together into this script for a short, which played at Sundance in 2009. From that, there were a lot of story lines that I wanted to see go a little longer and there are other characters that I wanted to explore in the same world.
How did this group of people come together?
DC: The casting process is just a crazy process and there’s all kinds of stories. A lot of the casting just felt very natural. With Brie, it was super natural.
Brie Larson: It was really hard. [laughs] He really put me through the wringer.
Rami Malek: When she had her clothes on.
BL: No way. [laughs]
DC: I was also a big fan of everybody’s work before I met with them. With Brie, I scoured the internet and DVDs and clips and watched every interview that she did.
BL: What you were watching, I have no idea. [laughs]
DC: I was just really trying to figure her out before we talked and then…
BL: It’s so weird to talk about that. I’m like I can’t believe it! So weird that we didn’t know each other, we’re trying to understand each other.
DC: I knew she was really talented. I was just trying to figure out like is she going to be a cool person. As soon as I met her, she’s just so genuine and real and honest, it just got me really excited. And that happened with everybody in the casting process. Keith was actually one of the last ones to come onboard because he was so difficult to find. He actually was in the short film and he played a similar character, but then he fell off the map and nobody had his contact information.
Keith Stanfield: I’m still not on the map. So good luck finding me.
DC: So we’re trying to contact him throughout the entire casting process while we were seeing people for the Marcus role and we just weren’t happy with anybody. Finally, on this magical day, he responded to one of the three e-mails. He came in and read and blew it out of the water.
Something that was alluded to during the Q & A yesterday was that those playing the social workers wanted to keep their distance from those playing the foster kids. Was that the case?
KS: For my part it was. I wanted to dissociate myself from pretty much everything, so I remained in this kind of anti-social zone, which I felt would help me. I don’t really like transcending into character. I like already being there. So keeping my distance helped me not develop any kind of…I don’t know what you’d call it…
KS: Yeah, any connection. I wanted to be as distant as I felt the character was to his environment, not trusting or anything.
John Gallagher: It was great because it made us have to really *get* to him in all the scenes.
BL: [Keith] was ready all the time.
JG: [looking at Keith] There’d be times when you’d have to have a disconnect with somebody on screen and you get really close with them, sometimes that closeness whether you like it or not can follow you into a scene. And it’s amazing there really was a sense of okay, I’m going to go talk to Marcus now and what kind of mood is he going to be in? And I don’t want to get like up in his face too much, so it really made those scenes feel so very real.
RM: We didn’t have [trailers]. Where we filmed is basically where we [spent our free time]. If we weren’t filming using those rooms, we were using them as…
RM: Sleep. But we were signed up in the same room, so that was a little awkward at times because…I was going back into [Keith’s] room and he was going back into mine all the time, so that distance kind of lingered throughout the entire shoot, which was good. [looking at Keith] Did you enjoy that?
KS: Yeah, it made it easy to get mad at you when you said “underprivileged.” [all laugh]
BL: But Destin really set us all up to win by having us all meet in the way that we all met at a house and had a day where we all very quickly understand our roles and take on the roles in the film in real life. So it became very fun and very easy to take on these things. I had never taken on a leadership role like that before, so it was really helpful to have that period of time to figure it out and to spend time with each kid and understand the parameters of each one.
If we were in a real foster care place, there is certain information that these characters just have that they know. “Don’t bring up this thing or don’t talk about that around this kid. You can touch this kid, you can’t touch that kid.” It’s a new way of doing it and it fills in a lot of the gaps for us. Understanding that certain kids will just lose their mind if you even graze their arm changes how you relate to that character. Starting off with that and doing improv with each kid and understanding what I know, what I don’t know, made it so much easier because I had a great script. Then you have these parameters and you just live within them.
Kaitlyn Dever: [Destin] really let us find our own characters in our own way. It felt really laid back and very casual. We all really got along really well.
I thought there might be an interesting touchstone for the actors because the way the kids are able to communicate is through art whether it’s in drawings or in rap, and likewise, the counselors need to be entertainers to a certain degree to deal with the kids who all have different needs. Was that a building block for the characters you played?
JG: Brie and I got to go to a foster care facility, not at the same time, but we shadowed different workers that were line staff, or do what our characters do, and the guy that I followed around was so amazing because he’d been doing it for years. I came into this facility that was just like the one you see in “Short Term 12.” It was very, very similar — the way it was outlined, the way everybody lived and everything — and he was saying “This one was easy in comparison to some of the places I’ve worked. I’ve worked in places where we had like suicide attempts almost every other night and for you, this place probably seems really intense, but for me, this is an easier one.”
And he was like, “These kids have been through so much already that one of the most important things you can do is just keep it really, really light.” And I think, especially for my character Mason, he uses kind of humor a lot as a tool of distraction, calming people down like “It’s not that big of a deal. Don’t worry. We can laugh about this. Or maybe we can’t right now, but we can in a little while.” That was going through my head the whole time, what that gentleman told me about that, so that definitely made an impact on me.
DC: The most amazing thing about the Mason character is not just that he uses humor in a very smart way, but that he uses self-deprecation. He lets people tease him, which is really effective and it seems like that’s just who Mason is, but I’ve always thought that Mason is just really smart, bringing himself down to make kids when they’re laughing at him, they’re not thinking about their own problems.
JG: He’s like I can be a place for that, I can take that from them because I can handle it.
KS: It’s interesting that you bring that up – other methods of communication rather than talking because I think every character at one point is expressing themselves through a medium other than dialogue. I think that’s important because there are a lot of things that can be said through music and drawing and rapping that can’t be said in normal dialogue.
KD: Jayden’s story is so sad, but through telling Grace about her story, she figures it out, like she has this secret, but it’s the only thing she can use to tell her awful story.
One of the reasons I felt this was special was because it seems like a something a bit different than you have done before – whether it’s Brie taking on a lead, John getting a juicy film role after having such parts on the stage such as “Farragut North” or Kaitlyn on “Justified,” or Keith’s first major film role – did you all feel you had something to prove?
JG: You’re the only person that knows I did that play. People say, “Did you see ‘The Ides of March’? And I’m like I was Ryan Gosling! And it was called “Farragut North” first.
BL: It’s awesome you think we’ve really grown outside of something or broken new ground, but I actually don’t think that any of us realized it. I didn’t. I felt like my only goal, and perhaps this is what you’re talking about, was to let go of everything and really fall and trust. It’s a strange situation, especially the way we were shooting this, that free and felt like a documentary. We all really had to let our guards down and become not self-conscious. I think the reason why people are responding so well to it is because of how honest we all are in these performances. There’s no affectation that I can see. And that’s coming from Destin, who wrote a really honest script, then casting the entire film with really honest and loving people. We’ve all exposed ourselves and in seeing these flawed and difficult parts, there’s a lot of love in that.
KS: Each character, they’re real people and [Destin’s] directing style really caused an aurora radiation-type atmosphere. He wasn’t intrusive at all and just allowed everyone to explore the real side of the character. I think that’s why people will respond to it the way they will because it’s inside them.
JG: The only thing I wanted to prove was that I just wanted to prove to Destin he didn’t make a huge mistake in casting me. [all laugh] That’s the only thing I felt like I needed to prove.
“Short Term 12” opens on August 23rd in Los Angeles at the Landmark and the Arclight and in New York at the Sunshine Cinema and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center before expanding on August 30th. A full list of theaters is here.