John Gallagher Jr. and Brie Larson in Destin Daniel Cretton's film "Short Term 12"

The Man from Haiku: Destin Daniel Cretton on the Group Effort Behind “Short Term 12”

The past few months have been a bit of a whirlwind for Destin Daniel Cretton, but if you’ve ever had the pleasure of running into the soft-spoken Hawaiian-born writer/director, you’ll know he exudes calm in the face of a storm. Such serenity is no doubt what got him through the two years he spent as a youth counselor at a group home for at-risk teens, an experience he drew on in part for his sophomore feature “Short Term 12.” It has also surely grounded him as the film has gone on from its wins at SXSW where it took home both the festival’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award to become one of the most discussed and raved about films of the summer even before its release today.

“It’s been pretty wild and exciting and very busy,” says Cretton, who has been on the road with the film since its debut in March. “But I think what’s really wonderful about it for me personally is that after every screening this movie seems to create an environment that makes people want to talk about real things.”

Having that sense of community is deeply important for the filmmaker, whose first feature “I Am Not a Hipster” celebrated the arts scene in his college town of San Diego. His second, which features Brie Larson as a supervisor at a place not unlike where Cretton used to work where a new resident (Kaitlyn Dever) begins to remind her of her own past, thrives on it, not only in giving equal weight to an incredible ensemble of actors, but in its fundamental belief that amazing things can be achieved by allowing oneself to lean on others. Though I spoke with Cretton shortly after the premiere of “Short Term 12” in the company of his entire ensemble, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to speak to him once more to reflect on the past few months, how important collaboration is to him and what he considered one of the biggest challenges of making the film.

It was actually after your experience doing the counseling that you actually got serious about doing film – how did you decide making movies was what you wanted to do with your life?

I was a mass communications major and I started to find an interest in film during my senior year of college, then when I graduated college, I started working at a place similar to the place in the movie. That was my day job and I was saving my money working there to try to do a short film during the summertime. Making movies was just a hobby of mine, but after working there for two years, I got into film school at San Diego State University into their masters program, so I went to film school and started making more movies.

You actually teach film now and between that and counseling and directing, it seems like a big draw for the job is working with people.

Oh yeah. That’s my favorite part about directing is how much you have to rely on people. It’s not like being a painter or even being a musician where you’re collaborating with a small group of people. As a director, you have to collaborate with so many people to get to the end product. But I am a teaching artist at a high school and there’s nothing like it. Teaching there for one day just reminds me of why I love storytelling and what’s really important in life. I think that’s the theme of “Short Term 12” is the most important thing in life is the relationships you have around you.

One of the things that really stuck out to me after watching “I Am Not a Hipster” again after seeing “Short Term 12” was how you have large group scenes, which must be really hard to pull off on a shoestring budget. Is that because of the community vibe?

I enjoy it and also it’s a huge challenge, but what I like about it is when I’m shooting group scenes, it does feel a little more like shooting a documentary. I love shooting docs and I did a couple before doing feature narratives. There is something about that, then it’s also just a really great excuse to get my sisters and my friends in the movie and just throw them all in a room. It’s a nice break when we have group scenes because all our friends get to show up and see what we’re doing.

You were actually planning to make “Short Term 12” as your first feature, adapting it from the short version, which played at Sundance in 2009 and won the Jury Prize, but “I Am Not a Hipster” came first. Were you glad it did?

At the time, I didn’t realize how good it was for me to do “Hipster” first, but thank goodness because we were trying to get the funding to do “Short Term” as my first feature and somewhat out of frustration, I did “Hipster.” The “Short Term 12” script won the Nicholl Fellowship and they gave me $30,000 to write another screenplay, which is when I wrote “I Am Not a Hipster” and then used that $30,000 to make it because we couldn’t get funding for “Short Term 12” that year. And I learned so much from making that movie. Personally, I love “Hipster.” There are so many personal things in it that I really connect with and I’m really happy that was my first movie.

“Short Term 12” isn’t exclusively based on your experience, but I am wondering when you filter something that was personal through the lens of a film and you see what comes out, do you learn anything about yourself?

I learned so much about myself through both of these movies. When I look back at who I was before I started working at that facility, it’s honestly a little embarrassing how naive I was in my outlook on the world. Going through the process of organizing those thoughts, I’ve learned a lot about how I feel about certain things in regard to being a parent one day, how my parents may have affected me positively and negatively and what residue might be left over from that. I’ve also learned a lot about just how little difference there is between males and females.

One of the big questions [on this film was] how do you write from a female perspective. I do have three sisters, but really what I learned is that I am Grace and I am Mason [Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr.’s characters in the film] and my girlfriend is Grace and my girlfriend is also Mason. The line between males and females, if just written openly and honestly, is not a huge difference. It’s about personalities and character traits. But I was frightened to death to write from a female perspective and now I see that we’re all just human. [laughs] Emotions are the same. We all try to guard ourselves and we all need help to talk about certain parts of ourselves that we don’t want to talk about and it doesn’t matter if you’re a male or female, really. That was something I really didn’t think that much about before. [pause] All kinds of things I learned. [laughs]

“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.

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