Interview: Destin Cretton (Writer/Director – ‘Short Term 12)

Writer/Director Destin Cretton’s sophomore feature ‘SHORT TERM 12‘ pulls off a tricky balance of imbuing its story with emotional weight while not coming across as cloying in the process. The situation is inherently affecting, but the filmmaker complicates it with characters worth rooting for already resulting in one of the years best word of mouth campaigns, as well as dual wins at SXSW from the Jury and Audience Awards

That success is aided by impeccable performances all around. Brie Larson (‘United States of Tara‘), delivers a tremendously involving turn as Grace, the young supervisor of the facility drawn into the distinctive needs of various patients while maintaining a warm relationship with co-worker Mason (John Gallagher Jr.). Behind closed doors, they engage in charming romantic chatter, but when among the patients they display a different sort of passion subtly realized over the course of a patiently constructed narrative.

We spoke with Destin Cretton in anticipation of the films screening as part of the 2013 Rooftop Films Summer Screening Series in association with The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences at The Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn, NY on Saturday, July 20, 2013.


Find more information & tickets to ‘Short Term 12’HERE

What is it about youth angst that made you want to set ‘Short Term 12’ against its backdrop?
It is mainly because it was such an important, impactful experience I had when working in a place like this.  It personally filled me with questions and themes I needed to explore somehow, and this has been a great way for me to continue to pose those questions and organize them in a way that (kind of) makes some sense.

What was your position when working in the field of foster care?
My first position out of college was working at a place similar to this.  The movie is not a representation of this one place, but rather a combination of other similar foster care facilities.  My experience was initially very similar to the Nate character, scared out of his mind, saying the wrong things, coming in with the wrong intentions of savior mentality.  I quickly realised that this what not healthy, by the way.  My big lesson I learned was that all humans are the same and need to be respected as the same regardless of age, experience and social situation.  The more I was there the more I realized how similar I was to the kids.  This is something plastered throughout the movie, that the caretakers are not too different in age to the kids they are supposedly surrogate parents too, but also you realize more and more they are not very different in MANY ways.  In any situation we are messed up people just trying to help each other out; trying to teach and learn from each other.  When that exchange happens it can be a beautiful thing.


From my own experiences volunteering in a young adult rehabilitation facility, the film definitely captures several characteristics of such places well.  For example, the underlying tension which is ever present, regardless of time of day. Also, as you mentioned, the “newbie” character with the by the book routine.  Ultimately where you find success in these types of environments is when you stray away from the book and make things more personal.  What were the characteristics of this environment that you were determined to represent in the film?
One of the big emotional aspects I wanted to get across was this sense of danger.  In the sense that at any point someone could simply erupt. This is a feeling I constantly had.  As you said, when things are quiet or playing a game it should be calm, but you know it is not.  You cannot really expect for a certain emotion to last too long.  Even if it is intense it will not last very long.  In one of the scenes there is a giant blowup that quickly cuts to a very intimate scene.  That situation happened where I had a kid spitting on me, trying to bite me from a restraint and half an hour later we are sitting together in the cool down room, having a very calm conversation. It turned out to be a bonding moment for us.  Sometimes in the moment where everyone is having the best times together, those are the moments where you need to watch and see if there is not a kid having the opposite reaction.  Sometimes really blissful moments can remind children how they would be having the moment with their real family.

Do find there being transferrable skills from the foster care environment to filmmaking?
For sure! Not just into direction but to all aspects of life.  It is about treating people with the respect they deserve and not pre judging people.  It is about doing your best to not have assumptions.  I am constantly surprised when I really get to know a person.  Even when your first interaction someone yields the description of “asshole”.  Everytime I had done that, once I got to know that person, I came to understand what they were going through in their life.

For every movie, my main job is to make the environment safe enough to remind everyone involved they are free to express themselves.  Not just the actors either.  We are all trying to create an environment that is free, fun and non judgemental.  One that is creative and can blossom through everyone’s voice.

Short Term 12

The chemistry in the film is a distinct strength.  Speaking as a director, what were your strategies wit the actors to build this chemistry that must happen in such an intimate setting?
We did not have a ton of time for rehearsing.  In fact,we had one day.  The night before Jason Gallagher Jr got into town I sent him and Brie on a date.  They went to dinner with an envelope I had given them containing topics of conversation.  The topics ranged from embarrassing things that happened to them, make up a current relationship dynamic the characters could be going through, parenting conversation and told them they have the ability to answer or choose not to.  The Grace character probably would not have answered many of the questions presented, for example.  I am glad they took advantage of this time and created something together that, I think, is very strong.

During our one day of rehearsal we got everyone together, along with a person who was a supervisor at a foster care facility.  Everyone was able to ask him questions and interact with someone who was currently involved in a real life setting.  Also, the younger actors were able to pick the brains of the older ones, specific t their characters.  This was the time everyone involved on the film really began to bond and form real relationships which were evident throughout the shoot.  There were a lot of real relationships that were directly transferring onto the screen.

What was your initial step getting development on ‘Short Term 12’ going?  Describe that point where you have a final draft of the feature script and now are trying to get the script in production…
For this script we did need money so I could not do it with my friends.  We did the short in ’09, and during the interim I wrote (what would become) my first feature ‘I Am Not a Hipster‘, which was written as something I could do with my friends.  To me, that is my biggest piece of advice to myself; to always have something you are working on that you can do on your own.  Something where no one can tell you “no”.  Even if you have a project that does require more money or a bigger team, also have a project on tap which does not.  People are always going to tell you “no”.

Finally, as the landscape of independent film distribution has changed so drastically from 2009 – 2012, how did your personal distribution change over the course of production (assuming it did)?
I am excited about the fact that it has turned into the wild, wild west.  Nobody really knows where it is going.  With ‘I Am Not A Hipster‘ we did a couple of theaters and just released online.  With ‘Short Term 12‘ we will have a theatrical rollout and digital distribution after that with Cinedigm handling all.  I am excited to see what happens this time around.  I am no expert in distribution but I do find it very excited and fun to imagine what the next thing is going to be.

– Interview conducted, edited & transcribed by Steve Rickinson

Short Term 12

Saturday, July 20, 2013
Rooftop Films, Cinedigm & Oscars Outdoors presents
@ The Old American Can Factory
232 3rd St.
Brooklyn, NY
Facebook: /ShortTerm12
Twitter: @shortterm12


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