Director Destin Cretton on His Powerful New Film ‘Short Term 12’

Since its premiere at South By Southwest this past March, Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 has been garnering the kind of attention every young director dreams about—and rightfully so. And as only the second feature-length film under his belt, Cretton has shown us how even the most dark and painful of circumstances can be translated onto the screen with authentic emotion and tenderness, in a film that’s as much about the necessity of love as it is about the struggle of allowing that into our lives.

Written and directed by Cretton, Short Term 12 is adapted from a thesis short made in 2008. Centered around a home for at-risk youth who’ve been removed from dangerous living situations, the inspiration for the film came from the Cretton’s own time spent working at a these kids. But in making his short, he had no idea just how well his personal story would impact an audience, and after the recognition gained for the work, set out to expand his experience for a broader audience. 
 
Having screened now both at home and internationally, Short Term 12 has been embraced across the board, enchanting audiences with its subtle strength and wisdom. The wounds of its characters are recognizable, just as the desire to love and be loved haunts throughout, and although those that populate Cretton’s film may have experienced far greater trauma than we ever might encounter, you find yourelf emphathizing with their struggles in a way that feels less removed from your own life than you’d imagine. But not only has Short Term 12 given us a new director to be excited for, it has also provided a fantastic dramatic vehicle for some incredible young men and woman—namely its stars Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr.
 
Back in July, we sat down with Cretton to talk more about the challenge of writing in a female voice, the meaning of love, and building a family on set.
 
How did you go about adapting the film from the short you’d originally made and what would you say was the biggest difference for you in the two?

The short film was based on experiences I had working at a place similar to that group home, which was the first job that I had out of college. It was basically doing what Grace and those characters do, but I wasn’t the supervisor, I was much more like the Nate character—the new guy who’s scared out of his mind. So those experiences stuck with me all the way through film school, and so for my thesis, I did Short Term 12 the short.
 
The response from that short film and the encouragement was so surprising, just how many people connected to that subject, which I didn’t expect because it felt like such a personal, weird world. So that unexpected surprise was kind of what inspired me to do the feature. But there’s a quite a bit that’s change in the feature. The most obvious one is that in the short it’s a male supervisor and the feature is a female. That was primarily my attempt at keeping myself interested in writing it. And it was a huge challenge for me to write something from a female perspective. It was really scary.
 
For all the characters’ very specific struggles, it is something that people can connect to so strongly because the baseline is really about love and allowing yourself to accept that in yourself and in other people and knowing if you have that ability, life might just be okay.

I’m really glad to hear that because that’s what I felt when I was working there. We tried to create moments of connection to all the characters in the movie, because I had so many moments working there that I realized, I am just like these kids. Even with a kid where I felt removed from or felt like I didn’t understand what they were going through, at some point realized that I am exactly like that in so many ways and am struggling with something very similar. So we hopefully allow people to connect with each other the characters in some way like that.
 
You say it was difficult to write from a female perspective but you did it incredibly well and with an acuteness for genuine emotion. It’s not often you see a young female character that’s this dynamic and has that dichotomy of strength and vulnerability so present.

Originally, I had a supervisor who was young, petite, and pretty and she was also a little shy, and there was something instantly vulnerable about her when I met her before we started working. But she was a supervisor and as soon as she stepped onto the grounds of that place, she was like a kick ass supervisor, she put on this cloak and the kids respected her. She was really strong and wouldn’t take shit, but actually really cared. So that was the initial inspiration for that character. But I also pulled a lot from my three sisters who are all extremely strong and equally open and vulnerable. Guys or girls, I wish we were all able to be strong and vulnerable at the same time; it’s healthy to be both or strive to be. One of my sisters is a social worker and she also reminds me a lot of aspects of Grace.
 
The relationship of Grace and Mason had a maturity and honestly that you don’t also see with young couples onscreen. It was refreshing because it was challenging but showed that love isn’t about things being perfect and doesn’t just end when something is fractured, it’s about working together to make it better.

I think Mason says it best—and I believe this with everything in me—he says it about his relationship with Grace but I think it pertains to any relationship, when he says: That’s what this is about. We talk about it so I can hold your hand and walk through shit with you. I think that’s what love is. It has a lot to do with feeling and emotion, but it’s a mixture of that and, I am here with you, like through the shittiest times when you’re psychotic and crazy, I’m still going to be there until we get through the other side. That’s the theme of most relationships in the movie.
 
And of course casting was a key element to getting that real sense of chemistry and honesty between the characters. Had you known that Brie was someone you wanted as your lead?
We started with Grace and worked everything off that. Grace needed to be able to say a lot without saying a lot; she’s a very contemplative character. The whole movie, she’s got some intense stuff on her mind and Brie’s just pretty incredible at doing that—you can see the clock ticking in her head through her eyes. And John, he had to have an innate huggable quality, like an innate goodness that without even trying is seeping out of his pours. I saw those characteristics in them in Skype conversations and it got me really excited just hearing them talk about the characters and how they’re connected to it. 
 
With a film of this subject matter, I feel like you might fall prey to these very melodramatic or intense moments without the proper build up. But here, everyone was so nuanced and these characters weren’t stereotypical and those larger emotional scenes really only came when they were inspired to be there. Was that something you were conscious of while shooting and editing, how to escape falling into those traps?
That actually was a big part of the creative and editing process—which happened from the very beginning. I knew from the very beginning that those moments were the most—the ones in when the characters in the movie are revealing something about themselves—would be the most difficult things to pull off, because all of these characters don’t want to talk. It’s just a common theme that nobody wanted to talk about the shit that’s going on inside, but it needs to come out in certain ways.
 
So the big challenge was figuring out how they would reveal clues to each other, because deep down they want it to come out. And a lot of time, in my experience it would come out in art, not blatantly way but through drawings or stories I’d read. I sat next to a kid and he did rap, like, this crazy, very personal rap to me and I didn’t even know he was processing through the stuff that he had gone through until I heard that. But that was definitely something we were worried about and conscious of the whole time, not making those scenes feel melodramatic.
 
Do you have any inspirations as a filmmaker or anyone you particularly look to? 

When I was doing my thesis film, part of my thesis was studying the Dogma movement and Lars von Trier. I love his early work—especially Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark. This movie doesn’t go to those depths and make you feel depressed for three days afterwards but I do love just his quest in those movies to reach some type of mimicking of reality.
 
And expose painful emotional truth.

Definitely that. And I definitely I took a lot from documentaries. I love Hoop Dreams and Stevie, I just love the heart that behinds it. I do think a lot of the time filmmakers are afraid of real human emotion because it can often come across as melodrama and fake, but I love it when people are able to pull that off in a realistic way.
 
You’ve been working with the same crew on all your films, was it nice to come into this with that sense of trust?

Yeah, I wouldn’t have been able to do that without that team. It’s a movie about family and the people who made it, we really are family, including all the actors that came onboard. It was nice that when they came onto set it already felt like a family. So I do think a lot of that attitude and the way that people were treating each other off-camera found its way onto the screen. 
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