Destin Cretton captivated festival audiences with his short film Short Term 12 in 2008; now, five years later, he has expanded his film school thesis into a full-length feature. The result is at once heartrending, tender, and strikingly funny — just like, you guessed it, life. And that’s the beauty of Cretton’s film: its rawness, its honesty, its truth.
Hollywood.com spoke with Cretton about his personal experiences working at a foster care facility much like the film’s Short Term 12 as well as finding the perfect cast — which includes Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Keith Stanfield, and Kaitlyn Dever — to bring this intensely personal story to life.
Note: This interview contains plot spoilers for Short Term 12.Go see the movie — immediately — and then come back and read this.
Hollywood.com: I loved the movie, as I am sure you are hearing a lot today, and other days.
Destin Cretton: It would be great if someone started off by saying, “I hated the movie. Here are some questions.”
There is a movie I saw recently — thank God I wasn’t doing the junket, because it would have started out like that! But I just wanted to start at the beginning. I was at the BAM Q&A, where you said that this movie kind of sprung from your personal experiences. I’d love to hear about that, and then your process of turning those experiences into this movie.
It was my first job out of college. I stumbled into this because I couldn’t get a job anywhere else. I had a friend who was working at this place, doing overnights. He said they were hiring. I didn’t know what I was getting into until I was in it. I didn’t realize how intense it was going to be. How scary it was going to be. I was terrified for the first month. I was very similar to that novice Nate character in the movie — so naïve, so idealistic. In an unhealthy way. I quickly — well, not quickly — realized that the way that I was thinking about it was so wrong. That even though I did have good intentions, there was a part of me that felt like I was the savior, I was the one who was going to help, I was “above” these kids. That was my biggest lesson that I learned while working there. All humans are the same.
Working there was like holding a mirror up to myself, and seeing so many things about me that I had to deal with, and I had to work on, that I was struggling with. That showed me how similar I was to all these kids. Once I was at that place, my relationships with them became very real — once they saw that I was looking at them with equal human respect. Those questions and those things that I was dealing with stuck with me. That experience stuck with me. Still, it is imprinted with me. It stuck with me all the way through film school. Those four years later, when I did my thesis film — which was the short version of Short Term 12 — that was the first time that I tried to organize some of those thoughts into a cohesive story.
The short premiered at Sundance, and I won the Jury Prize, and took it around to festivals. The continued, repeated surprise of that experience was how many people were connecting to this world who knew nothing about it. And that was, I think, when I started to realize how universal these situations and emotions and themes that are wrapped up in this world are. And that was kind of an inspiration for writing it as a longer piece.
And how did you decide what to pursue further in the feature versus the short?
A lot of it had to do with [the fact that] I just don’t like repeating myself. Just because it’s boring. I don’t want to do the same thing again. Mainly for my own entertainment, I guess, I change things. The most obvious change between the short and the feature is that the main character is a male supervisor in the short and a female in the feature. That one change just trickled through everything. Even scenes that are really similar to the short became brand new scenes. And the challenge of writing from a female perspective was terrifying enough to keep my interest. [Laughs] It felt like a brand new story at that point.
And you obviously gathered this incredibly talented cast together. Was it a relief to find everyone and find out they were awesome?
I can’t even tell you what kind of a relief it was. And I can’t tell you how stressed out I was during the casting process. I knew from the beginning that the movie lives and dies with whoever we get. If we get the wrong people, the film wouldn’t work. I was so stressed on some of these roles. Thank God we had [these actors]. Brie [Larson] was the first piece of the puzzle. And then John [Gallagher Jr.] came on. They both came on fairly quickly, which was a big relief. But then going through all of the other kids… Oh, it was so stressful. It wasn’t like we had a ton of resources or we had a lot of time for casting. We did not, for any of these roles, have an A-B-C option. It wasn’t like, “Oh, they’re all pretty good!” It was just nobody, nobody, nobody, and then the perfect person comes in. And our schedules! It was like, if we don’t figure out how to work her into our schedule, I’m screwed! And it was like that for most of the kid roles.
The kids were all fantastic.
I know. I’m so proud of them.
I was surprised to look up Brie’s age after the movie and see how young she was. The fact that she plays a teenager in The Spectacular Now — in which she is a contemporary of Kaitlyn [Dever]‘s — is so crazy to me. Was it ever a concern that she would be too young for the role?
There was definitely a concern before I met her. [Laughs] I had seen her in some interviews, and she is extremely mature. What is she, 23 now? So, interviews gave me hope. But she is so good at playing drastically different characters. And all of them have been teenagers, I think. All of them, right?
I think so. I don’t know what she plays in Don Jon, but mostly teenagers.
Mostly teenagers. And she’s so good at it. So, that was definitely a wonder of mine until I Skyped with her and saw how smart she is. And thoughtful and introspective. Her insight into this character… I was immediately so excited to see what she would do.
Brie was telling me about the envelope of icebreaker conversations that you made for her and John before their first dinner. What inspired you to do that?
I don’t know. I did it for my previous film, where we also had to quickly create a family with three actresses and an actor, a brother and three sisters. And I did the same thing — I sent them on a hike with an envelope. It’s just very specific topics to talk about, all related to the emotions or the themes of the movie they’re doing together. It worked there a lot. Some of it is things they should really be talking about and that are really into the theme. Some of it is just the act of answering a vulnerable question in front of somebody. It creates trust and intimacy. Honestly, it’s like, “I hope this works!” It takes really good actors to run with it and make it work, so I’m glad that they did. [Laughs]
No, it’s a great idea! There are two things that are really interesting about this movie to me. The first is that, though most of the characters have happy endings it doesn’t feel cheesy. Were you worried about giving everyone a happy ending?
Yeah. It kind of depends on your definition of “happy.” I do think that for this particular movie — I mean, the short film doesn’t end happy, so I’m not like, “Every movie has to have a happy ending!” — for this particular story, it was important for me, personally, to end on the upswing. I think the theme of the movie is very apparent that it is not going to stay in the upswing. The movie is about the ups and downs of life. And that love is more than a feeling. And that love is not fleeting — love is walking through shit with somebody. I also, personally, believe that happiness is as much a reality as darkness and tragedy. In this world, working at that place, I had some of the saddest, most tragic moments with people there, and I also had some of the happiest, most blissful and hopeful moments there. I wanted to portray both as honestly as I could. The moments of bliss in this movie, I think those characters deserve them. I’ve got to give them this. I think that anybody can see that we’re not saying that they’re going to live a perfect life from here on out. I do think that there is so much hope in the human ability to choose to try. I think that’s what the happy ending is for all these characters — they are choosing to try, and choosing to keep moving forward and survive. You know that they are going to continue going through shit and happy moments until they die.
Definitely. I was also very impressed by the fact that there were a few times in the movie where I felt like there was the potential for it to take one step too far into melodrama.
Yeah, there’s a lot of those moments.
But you resisted them every time! Which was incredible. The one that stands out in my mind is when Grace goes to Jayden’s dad’s house with the baseball bat — that could have gone very poorly. And then, obviously, Marcus could have not survived his suicide attempt. I was relieved and very happy that it resisted that. Were you ever tempted to go into that super heavy territory?
Yeah, there’s always the temptation.
Not that what you have isn’t heavy…
It is! But there’s always the temptation to do too much. To think that an audience needs more. They need more intense music, or they need more explanation, or they need more tears — more of an obvious emotional thing. That’s a huge temptation. That was a lesson that we constantly [learned] as we were showing the film to friends and then test audiences, rooms full of strangers, which we got to do through the editing process. We learned and relearned how smart audiences are. Any of them. Audiences that you wouldn’t expect to be smart are so smart. Collectively. Their brains just unite and they understand subtlety. Even audiences that aren’t used to watching indie films. We were constantly seeing that they don’t need that music cue, they don’t need that explanation. We just kept stripping things away. Which is the type of movie that I like to watch. There are still some things that we should have stripped away! [Laughs]
I don’t know, I thought it was great. A theme that a coworker of mine noticed — that I didn’t notice, but that I think is awesome — was how much sea life and ocean imagery is in the movie, what with the octopus story, Marcus’ fish, and the aquarium. Was that conscious? Were you trying to build a motif with that?
It kind of just happened. Maybe it was something I was weirdly obsessed with at the time. [Laughs] It kind of naturally came out, maybe a little too much. We pulled back on it. But I wasn’t like, “This is going to be the symbol of our movie!” But there is a lot of natural connection to the idea… there are so many connections that I still see. We weren’t consciously trying to create metaphors, but there are a lot of emotional connections between the idea of drowning and being surrounded by water. Depending on how you look at it, it can feel suffocating and horrible, or it can feel weightless and free. And also, the idea of being in a wide-open ocean and being in a tiny aquarium. I think all those themes are connected to themes in the movie.
I like it, and I thought it was subtle. And another thing that shows up again and again is the artistic expression that kids are using as an outlet. The music, Jayden’s drawing, the bracelet that Grace makes. I’m wondering how you feel about artistic expression as an outlet.
Thank you for asking that question! I think it’s incredibly important. For anybody, I think it’s incredibly important. Whether you think you’re good at art or not, I think it’s important to stay connected to who you were when you didn’t care if you were good or not. You would just do it because, I think, it’s a good thing for us to do. I’ve never met a kid who doesn’t like to explore with their hands or explore creatively. For people who aren’t good with words, or aren’t so great talking out their feelings — and I know exactly what that feels like — I think art can be a way to do that. I’ve found it with a lot of the kids that I’ve worked with, that was a way that they chose to communicate. If you weren’t picking up on that, then you’d miss a lot of what they were trying to say. But I think that’s something that is… unfortunately, because so many people tend to see art as something for “artists” — I think everyone should be called artists or there shouldn’t be that title — it can unfortunately be seen as an intimidating thing to do, or something for kids. But I think it’s really healthy. It’s as healthy as exercise and eating fruits. That’s actually something that we’re going to be encouraging through our website and our Tumblr. We’re connecting with other organizations that are specifically targeting kids in the foster care system, but also just people, teens who would like to have a place to share personal art things that they’re working on. A little gallery where you can show some of things where you can have positive interaction and encouragement. That’s really important to me.
Short Term 12 opens in limited release Friday, Aug. 23, and nationwide Aug. 30.