In the independent drama “Short Term 12,” which won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival this past March, director/writer Destin Daniel Cretton sets his emotionally-rich narrative in a group home for at-risk youth. Brie Larson (“21 Jump Street”) stars as Grace, the head of the daytime staff who is not prepared to recall her own troubled past when a new girl (Kaitlyn Dever) is welcomed into the program.
During an interview with the Current, Cretton, who adapted his Sundance-winning short film of the same name into the now acclaimed feature, talked about where a story like “Short Term 12” came from and what he saw in Larson to make him want to cast her in the lead role.
“Short Term 12” opens exclusively at Santikos Bijou Theater Friday, Sept. 20.
I read you had worked in an at-risk youth facility like the one in the film. How long ago was that and how did you get involved in that line of work?
I fell into it, honestly, because I couldn’t get a job anywhere else at the time. I really didn’t know what I was getting into. It was my first job out of college. This was back in 2001. I must’ve worked there from 2001 until the end of 2003. What I experienced stuck with me for years afterward. I decide to organize some of those thoughts and questions into a script.
What made you believe this two-year experience you had could be adapted into something cinematic?
Well, the movie is a result of both my own experiences and interviews I conducted with people who had worked in places like this for much longer than I did. A lot of those stories made it into the movie as well. During most of those interviews I just wanted people to tell me stories. Some of them became the backstories of certain characters.
Did you write yourself into the movie in any way? Are any of the characters based on who you were 10 years ago?
I see myself in a lot of the characters. The Nate (Rami Malek) character experiences all the emotions I experienced in the first month working at that place. I felt incredibly out of place and was trying way too hard to be the new, cool guy who was going to really connect with the kids and change things. I had this very naïve outlook on the whole thing. It quickly backfired in my face.
What about Grace (Brie Larson)? Did you see yourself in her?
I completely relate to Grace and her own fears of being a parent. Every time she looks into the eyes of these kids she sees the direct result of bad parenting. I completely relate to the fear she has of possibly doing that to someone else. Then I think the Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) character is someone I would like to be one day.
Explain that. What qualities does he have that you hope to adopt?
Mason is a master at using self-deprecating humor in a very strategic way. He has a great perspective on life because of all the crap he’s been through. He’s been able to get beyond it and have so much to give the people around him. He’s also one of the most decent people in the world. Those are all things I hope to have more of one day.
During your time at the facility, were you able to bond with any of the teenagers there or is that something you specifically avoided?
Well, I was told almost on a daily basis that boundaries are a very important part of the job. Keeping a certain amount of distance was definitely necessary. But there are time when natural bonds begin to form between you and certain kids. That happens quite often. It can be an extremely healthy thing. There were a few kids I formed bonds with. It was inspiring and really encouraging to watch them grow and learn things and mature. But it was equally frustrating to see them fall back into negative behaviors.
I couldn’t imagine how difficult it must’ve been to watch some of those kids leave when their time at the facility was over. Would you keep tabs on them afterward or did turning 18 mean they were on their own?
At the time there weren’t as many opportunities, but now, at least in California, there are a few more opportunities for continued care. But at the time, we were highly discouraged to keep in touch with kids once they had finished the program. It was definitely sad [to see them leave], but it was also exciting when the kid had a good place to go and had a support system. On one occasion, there was a young man who during his time [at the facility] was one of the leaders of the group. I thought he was going to be able to transition really well, but as his 18th birthday came closer, he started acting out more and causing trouble with his peers. About three weeks before his birthday – and somewhat out of the blue – he grabbed one of the staff members and head-butted him and split open his face. [The staff member] ended up going to the emergency room. He pressed charges and the young man ended up going to juvie. He found a way to stay in the system, which was incredibly sad for everybody.
Talk about working with first-time actors on this film. How did you confront the challenge? How were you able to pull some of these great performances from actors like Alex Calloway (Sammy) and especially Keith Stanfield (Marcus)?
There was a nice mixture of new actors and actors who had done quite a bit of work before like Kaitlyn Dever and Kevin Hernandez. But, yeah, Keith and Alex were very new. The strange thing is they all defied my expectations of what I thought working with young actors was going to be like. They were all incredibly mature. I honestly didn’t deal with them differently in any way than I did with the veteran actors. They were equally as professional and prepared. We talked about what was happening in the scene and what the character was going through. They gave what they needed with surprising subtly. I think one of the assumptions about younger actors is that they want to show off, but all of these young actors were incredibly understated, which was very surprising to me.
What did you see in Brie Larson that convinced you she could own this role?
Everything I had seen Brie in – whether it was comedy or drama – she always seemed to be performing from something bubbling inside of her as opposed to something scripted that she practiced at home a million times before showing up on the set. The way she delivers her lines and the way she moves through a scene always felt so in the moment. When we first talked over Skype, it was the first time I experienced Brie as a mature, young woman. Most of the roles she had played before were high school-aged girls. So, hearing who she is in real life – how intelligent she is – and the fact she really understood Grace was really exciting.
“Short Term 12” feels like a very personal film for you. Going forward in your career, do you think you’re always going to need that to be the case? Do you think you’d be able to direct something that someone else wrote or does a narrative have to come from somewhere deeper like this one did?
I’m open to anything that moves me. I fall in love with all kinds of movies. Right now there are a number of things that are written by other people that I’m really interested in. I’m not sure what I’m going to land on. I’m also writing my next [film]. But in all cases, they all feel very personal to me. The emotions that are there are things I really connect with.
Is that what your ultimate goal is in this industry as a director and writer – to tell good, intimate, character-driven stories? What would you say if Marvel came to you tomorrow and offered you “Avengers 3?”
(Laughs) Well, if “Avengers 3” was written with a humanity I really connected with, I’d be interested. But I’m at the stage of my life where I’m not in the storytelling industry to make money or get fame or anything like that. I’m just insanely in love with the process of filmmaking. I think I’m so lucky to find stories that I would love to tell regardless of whether or not I’m getting paid for it. If I can survive doing that I’ll be a happy person.
Did you write Marcus’s rap by yourself? How are your flowing skills personally?
(Laughs) My flowing skills? (Laughs) My flowing skills come from the Vanilla Ice era. I can do a little bit of 90s hip-hop. [Actor] Keith Stanfield and I have an ongoing debate as to how much of that rap was written by each of us. We’ve kind of landed on a 50/50 [split]. I basically wrote the first draft of the rap, which had all the information and the story I wanted to get across. Then [Keith] took that and updated the lingo quite a bit to make it a lot cooler.