Although Short Term 12 is only Destin Cretton’s second feature, it’s already earned him a lifetime’s worth of raves. Since its South By Southwest debut in March, the story of a young woman (Brie Larson) who works in a care facility for at-risk teens has inspired a steady stream of praise, becoming a cause célèbre among critics enamored of its powerful subject matter and performances. Cretton, whose background includes narrative (2012’s I Am Not A Hipster) and several documentaries, brings the strengths of both forms together with his intimate, heartbreaking look at the lives of damaged children and the young adults who care for them.
The Dissolve: Short Term 12 comes out of your experience working in a short-term care facility for at-risk youth, but it isn’t the first movie you’ve made with this setting, or even this title; you made a short film of the same name in 2008, although the plot and even the protagonist’s gender were different. How did Short Term 12 end up being what it is now?
Destin Cretton: All the little storylines and the backgrounds of most of the characters are pulled from real situations I either experienced while I was working at a similar facility, or things I learned from interviewing other supervisors and other people that have worked in places like this for much longer than I did. The inspiration for the story bubbled up out of research. Emotionally, I completely identify with a lot of the main characters in the movie, and what they’re going through. They’re all dealing with questions I dealt with while I was working at that place, and still continue to deal with and work through.
The Dissolve: Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr.’s characters both come from troubled family backgrounds. It’s easy to imagine them ending up where their patients are. Is that based on your experience as well?
Cretton: I, fortunately, have wonderful parents. I’m really tight with my family, six kids. For that part of it, no. Working in that environment forced me to appreciate even more the blessing of having a family I am so close to, but it also made me really think about the good and bad residue that has been left on me from my parents, or from other situations that happened to me as a kid. I’d never really thought about that. More so than that, it made me think about one day when it’s my turn to be a parent, or even now, when I happen to be in a situation where someone might be looking up to me, or I’m in that position of mentor of sorts—what my actions or my lack of actions do became so much more evident from my experience there.
The Dissolve: More generally, are the people you knew drawn to that work because of their own backgrounds? Are they offering the kind of help they wish they’d had?
“I think knowing where my home is and knowing the people I have there puts a lot of things in perspective. Most people back on Maui really don’t give a rip if Hollywood accepts or rejects you.”
Cretton: From my own experience, I do know a small number of people for whom that is the reason why they choose to work in this often very thankless job. It’s because of things that happened to them when they were young that allow them to really identify with the kids and what they’re going through, and say, “I want to do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen to them.” I don’t know what the statistics are. I know there have been some things I’ve read about actual statistics and research on how many people in social work or psychology or this type of situation are there because they’re motivated by things that happened to them when they were young, but I’m not an expert on that. But it happened enough to where it was something that popped in my brain when I was thinking of the characters and their own motivations for working at that place.
The Dissolve: The character of Grace, played by Brie Larson, is a major change from the short. How did that character come together?
Cretton: When I was working there, I had two female supervisors. One of them was a very petite young woman. She was in her mid-20s. She was fairly soft-spoken and seemingly shy. But that’s how she was when she was outside of the grounds of that place. Once she stepped onto the floor, it was like I could see her take a breath before walking in the door and put on this superhero outfit. When she stepped on the floor, she was a badass in the best way. The kids really respected her, and she respected them. She was a really strong leader there. There’s something about that that was very interesting to me, and I always wondered what she was like. The character of Grace is possibly inspired by that initial impression, but not by any means in terms of Grace’s background or anything.
The Dissolve: How established were the characters of Short Term 12’s residents before you cast them? Did they change at all to fit the actors?
Cretton: Surprisingly, all of the kids are extremely different from their characters. Most of them almost seem to have the exact opposite personalities of the characters that they’re playing. For instance, Alex Calloway, who plays Sammy—who’s an either highly explosive or very internal kid in the movie who doesn’t say very much—he’s extremely talkative. He loves doing song-and-dance numbers on a whim. Keith Stanfield, who plays Marcus, definitely had more of a Method approach to his character, but it wasn’t because he was tapping into specific things he’s gone through. A lot of those things he was digging into were from friends of his that he knew, or things his mom had gone through. So they were all very much actors, which, honestly, was kind of surprising to me, that the kids who came in and gave the most realistic audition performances actually were nothing like their characters, because it kind of goes against most of what I know about kid actors from the past. Usually, you’re looking for someone who’s really similar who can just play themselves. But that wasn’t the case for this movie.
The Dissolve: Did Stanfield write his character’s rap himself, or was that from you?
Cretton: [Laughs.] I wrote the first template of the rap, and then he made it a lot cooler.
The Dissolve: His rap reveals a lot of what his character is going through; it’s very angry and hurt, but also very articulate for a traumatized 17-year-old. Kaitlyn Dever’s character, who’s younger, can’t express herself so directly, so she tells a kind of dark fable about what’s happening to her, which is parallel to the way therapists work with young children.
Cretton: That scene—and the rap scene as well, but that scene in particular—was something I was really terrified to write, because it was difficult to figure out some way for a character to reveal something about themselves that they don’t want to reveal. The idea of communicating through art was something I saw a lot while I was there. A lot of the clues as to what the kids were actually thinking about came through in their drawings and poems and raps, or whatever they were into. So it did take a lot of sensitivity and observation to pick up on some of those things while I was working there.
The Dissolve: That’s something Grace does as well: She works her way into a difficult conversation with her boyfriend by sketching him first, and she also uses drawing to bond with her patient.
Cretton: In a weird way, all the characters in this movie have an artistic outlet. Whether they’re good at it or not, they all use art in some way, as either a release or a way to communicate.
The Dissolve: Is that, broadly speaking, the role art plays for you?
Cretton: Totally, 100 percent. Art can take various forms for me, but sometimes it’s a way to release energy or built-up things. I see this whole movie and the entire process of writing and making it, and now even this part of the process—of screening it for people and talking to you and other people about it—I see it all as a way for me to work through those questions and organize those thoughts even more that popped up from that experience. So I’m kind of doing what all of those characters are doing.
The Dissolve: You have a substantial background in documentary as well as fiction. Do they overlap for you? The style of Short Term 12 is a lot of handheld camera, and what seems like available light.
Cretton: For sure. I would definitely not say “available light.” That’s the look, I guess, that we were going for, but there was actually quite a bit of manipulation to get it there. [Laughs.] But the naturalistic feel is definitely something I learned to love through documentary filmmaking. More so than anything, what I learned from documentary filmmaking is the excitement of capturing something in a moment—and the idea that you can never capture that again, and thank God you were recording. That idea is something I am constantly searching for in performances, and in the way we set up scenes. I’m always hoping something surprises me and gets me really excited and makes me think, “Oh, thank God we got that, because it’s never going to happen again.” A lot of the way we chose to shoot this movie was creating an environment where those types of surprises can happen as often as possible.
The Dissolve: And that dictates a kind of visual style, in terms of you following the actors rather than them having to make sure they’re hitting their marks.
Cretton: Right, exactly. All of the decisions we made stemmed from our desire to create an environment that allowed for the best performances. So that means less setup time, so we can have more time rolling on the actors. That means all of our lighting was trying to be not as intrusive as possible, so [director of photography] Brett [Pawlak] lit a lot from the outside and through windows. And then being handheld, in one way, definitely allows actors to trust their instincts more, and not worry so much about the exact spot to hit. But it also creates a dance between Brett and the performers. His instincts also become a player in every scene, which is something that is really beautiful to me.
The Dissolve: You feel that in the first scene, when the staffers are gathered around, swapping stories, and it feels like the camera is in the circle with them.
Cretton: Yeah. And I think the actors felt that way, too. They got to know Brett, who operates a lot as well; he wasn’t like a giant machine dolly or crane or something that was right in front of their faces. He kind of became one of them, and they got used to it. I think that’s why, in the rap scene, Brett can push up to an inch from Keith Stanfield’s eye while he’s rapping, and he doesn’t even flinch.
The Dissolve: It’s also important to the piece, which is dealing with characters in sensitive and delicate situations, that it doesn’t feel exploitative, or that you’re pushing the audience too hard to react a certain way.
Cretton: Yeah, for sure. Walking that line… we were always very afraid of tipping over too far. It’s something we’re always watching.
The Dissolve: I’m not even sure this holds, since many of the patients are white as well, but some people have raised concerns about Short Term 12 being yet another movie in which white protagonists learn lessons from non-white characters. Was that ever a concern for you?
Cretton: That was something that was at the front of my mind from the beginning. I mean, I’m not white. And I didn’t want this to be that type of movie. While we were casting, we weren’t looking for white leads; we were just looking for actors who would be good in these roles. They really could be any ethnicity. It was important for me to show a variety of characters, and the one example of a healthy family in the movie is a Latino family. I think it was important for us to show that it didn’t matter what your ethnicity was or what your social class was—you can still be pretty fucked up, and still fall into the same traps. My counterargument to that is that I don’t think this is a movie about a teacher helping anybody. I think it’s a movie about this woman. If anyone’s learning anything from anyone, it’s the kids who are teaching her about herself and all the things that she hasn’t had to deal with.
The Dissolve: It’s not like Dangerous Minds.
Cretton: Yeah, I don’t think it falls into that category for someone who actually watches the movie.
The Dissolve: There aren’t a lot of filmmakers who grew up on Maui. Do you have a sense of how that affected your desire to get into film or the way you approach it?
“What I learned from documentary filmmaking is the excitement of capturing something in a moment—and the idea that you can never capture that again, and thank God you were recording.”
Cretton: Probably. I know that growing up on that island made me a more creative person. It made me more excited to be creative and forced me to go outside with my five siblings and mess around with my grandma’s video camera and discover our own ways of entertaining ourselves, and most of that was just through imagination and creativity. A lot of people complain in some ways that I seem pretty laid back, which is kind of just the general vibe of the island, but I think it has kind of become one of my greatest strengths while on a film set. I think knowing where my home is and knowing the people I have there puts a lot of things in perspective. It keeps me very grounded, I think. Most people back on Maui really don’t give a rip if Hollywood accepts or rejects you, so it doesn’t really matter. [Laughs.]
The Dissolve: There’s a pronounced theme running through the movie about parents and children. Anyone who has kids, or has cared for them, will recognize the way the facility’s staff deals with their patients, including the scene where they hold down an agitated boy until he stops screaming. Any parent of a toddler has done that.
Cretton: Right. That was something close to me, in terms of my own personal lessons that I learned while working at that place. It definitely had a lot to do with understanding that my job there is to be the enforcer of rules, and it also is to be the stable pillar for those kids, and that’s very important. But it was also a huge learning experience for me to realize that strength has nothing to do with having an air of being better in any way, or even being healthier or smarter. It’s just that was my role. Mutual respect, and also keeping my eyes open for what these kids can teach me, was something I learned over time. Looking back, I’m actually kind of embarrassed about who I was before I started working at that place, because I had a bit of an unhealthy savior attitude when I started.