Look at the big shot kid who years ago walked into Citizen Video where I used to work, with a copy of his first film, the superb documentary, Drakmar: A Vassal's Journey, in hand, currently making the rounds to promote his latest feature. At the time he happened upon the now defunct South Park video boutique, Destin Cretton had no interest in profiting from his hard work. All he asked was that we put the DVD in circulation for customers to see.
Destin wasn’t content with being a one-hit wonder. We spoke on several occasions after his short film Short Term 12 took home the audience prize at Sundance. For 5 years he labored to expand his vision to feature-length proportion.
Congratulations, Destin, on making your dream of a long-form Short Term a reality. In the process, he also took the impressive leap from mom and pop video store to the swanky Hotel Solamar where our interview took place.
We begin with a level drop.
Scott Marks: What did you do with the money?
Destin Cretton: What money?
SM: The money your mother gave you to buy a tripod.
DC: (Laughing) You can’t handle the handheld, huh?
SM: Please. I’m all ears. Explain to me why this has become the prevailing aesthetic among indie filmmakers and then tell me what it is about handheld that appeals to you.
DC: Practically speaking, it’s a give-and-take. I honestly do not think we would have the performances we have if we weren’t shooting handheld. With the budget that we had, honestly, we would not have been able to get those [performances]. When I talked to [cinematographer] Brett [Pawlak] about how we were going to shoot this movie, every decision was around trying to create the best environment for our performers. Shooting handheld we worked probably twice as fast. I know the older generation is not into handheld…
SM (Grumbling): Don’t give me any of this grandpa shit.
DC: The older generation...maybe it’s a personal thing.
SM: It’s definitely a personal thing. I’ll give you an example of where the handheld worked for me. There is a moment when Marcus is getting his head shaved. He doesn’t want to look in the mirror in fear that his head will look bumpy. There’s a tight, juggling closeup of his face that perfectly externalizes the emotions running through his head. When all of the shots surrounding it are handheld, it kinda’ diminishes the power of the moment. I guess my greatest fault -- or virtue, depending on how you look at it -- as a critic is that I tend to put the camera before performance.
DC: Than you should look at a picture book. This independent film is all about the performances. That’s the only thing that’s connecting with people.
SM: Let’s talk about the performances. Rami Malek has the hardest job in the film. He is the comic relief.
DC: Sure. Yeah.
SM: Where did you find him?
DC: I was familiar with him from The Pacific. He was kind of a standout in that. He was also in The Master. I was a sucker for him knowing that he had worked with P.T. Anderson. I met with him and he really liked the script and wanted to play that bumbly, weird character.
SM: Grace (Brie Larson) has already made an appointment to have an abortion when she tells Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.) that she’s going to have a baby. I found it a bit revealing when she says, “we are” going to have a baby as though she included him in on the decision.
DC: It would have been very easy for her to say, “I’m going to have a baby.” To me it’s a testament to who Mason is. She knows that he’s going to be head-over-heels about this idea. And that it’s something that he’s immediately going to be on board with. In Grace’s head, as soon as she tells him, it’s all in. That’s what that line means to me.
SM: Short Term 12 was a long term project for you. I remember you passing out DVD copies of the short and it’s been your dream to expand your vision to feature length for quite some time. What was your biggest obstacle in making the leap from short to feature?
DC: The biggest obstacle for this movie was getting the funding to make it. When the short film won the Jury Prize at Sundance it wasn’t enough to get funding for the feature. The screenplay won a Nicholl Fellowship and it wasn’t enough to fund the feature. With the money from the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship I did I Am Not a Hipster. After that premiered at Sundance, the combination of all that was enough to get funding from Animal Kingdom. It was a long process.
SM: How long has it been?
DC: We shot the short in 2008. 5 years.
SM: It’s nice to see a labor of love walk. The old man is proud of you.
DC: Thanks. You just wish I used a tripod.
SM: I’m obsessed. Handheld pulls me out of a movie. I sit and wait during every shot for a jiggle. Enough already. I’m sorry I brought it up. Where is Brad William Henke? I kept hoping for a cameo.
DC: He would have and I would have. There just wasn’t a spot for him.
SM: Essentially, you split his character in two.
DC: Sure. Maybe. That’s interesting. I never thought of it in that way. I see them as completely different people. But there is some of the Mason bumbly-ness and guardedness of Grace that was in the initial character.
SM: And the childlike nature of both of them. These are the leaders watching over their flock with squirt guns.
SM: How much rehearsal time was there?
DC: Not much. And it wasn’t really a rehearsal. It was mainly getting together with the actors and letting them get to know each other in order to create a bit of real chemistry in a relationship.
SM: How much is scripted and how much room do you leave for improvisation?
DC: Everything is scripted. This isn’t a mumblecore movie.
SM: See. I didn’t mention the ‘m’ word. I respect you enough to recognize that is light years ahead of mumblecorpse.
DC: I have nothing against it. I love Drinking Buddies which is completely improvised. (Laughing.) I am incapable of doing that. We shot it as loosely as we could. I didn't want the actors worrying about specific areas where they had to hit their marks. I also did not want to have them worrying about hitting specific lines in the script. There are definite variations.
SM: There is one constant that I remember from the short: the puppy dog punching bag.
DC: Yeah! That’s the exact same punching bag. I saved it in my closet since 2008.
SM: Of all the things to carry over from the short, why the punching bag?
DC: It was definitely a tribute to the short film. There’s something about the icon that is...it’s a very childish punching bag. There is something about it that fits the tone of the movie. It’s kinda’ sad, but also kinda’ funny. Who makes a punching bag with a cute dog? Who would want to hit that thing?
SM: You no longer reside in San Diego.
DC: I live in Echo Park.
SM: But you are San Diego’s own and when you win awards we can still claim you.
DC: I still work in San Diego. Every other week I come down and teach at Canyon Crest Academy. I still consider myself a San Diegan.
SM: Your time spent working in a short term facility afforded you a tremendous understanding of these characters. What is it about this milieu that appeals to you?
DC: It’s a very unique world that is full of authentic drama. My experience there was so full of very real tragedy and very real humor and very real uplifting moments. I did a bunch of interviews with people who worked in places like this a lot longer than I did. The stories they told were always that same mixture; I’d be rolling on the ground laughing at some of them. Right after laughing the story ends with “...and two years later we found him dead in the bushes.”
SM: So unless it makes enough money to warrant a Short Term 13, you’ve put this project to rest.
DC (Laughing): There won’t be a sequel.
SM: What’s next?
DC: We’ll see?
SM: Really? You have nothing on the back burner?
DC: I know what I’m writing next, but I don’t know if it will be the next thing I direct. I’m reading some scripts. A lot of scripts. I’m just kind of exploring to see what pops up. I’m trying to enjoy this part of the process; taking the film around and trying to learn more about what I did right and what I did wrong.
SM: The first time we met you walked into Citizen Video with a copy of Drakmar. You handed me a DVD and asked if I would put it on the rental shelf. You also gave one to David Elliott who later had glowing things to say about it.
DC: I gave David Elliott a copy and I gave Bennett Miller a copy.
[Destin said Bennett Miller and my ears heard Dan Bennett, former critic at the North County Times.]
SM: Dan no longer writes for the North County Times.
DM: Bennett Miller, the director of Capote.
SM: Of course. Ooops. That’s right! You attended the San Diego Film Critics Society luncheon the year Bennett won the best director award.
DM: I gave him a copy of Short Term 12 and two months later he called me. He said, ‘I love this. What are you guys doing with it?’ We were like, “nothing.” He called Sheila Nevins over at HBO and they bought the movie.
SM: Jeez. I had forgotten all about that. I introduced you to Bennett Miller!
SM: I may bitch about handheld, but I once did you a big solid.
DC (Laughing): The next one won’t be handheld just for you.
SM: Please. A couple of handheld shots just to piss me off.
DC (Laughing): You got it.
http://www.sandiegoreader.com/movies/short-term-12/">Click for Showtimes and to read Matthew Lickona's review.