Talking Story With SHORT TERM 12 Filmmaker Destin Cretton About Movies And His Maui Upbringing

Haiku isn’t known to be the birthplace of great filmmakers, but that’s about to change, permanently. Local boy Destin Cretton grew up there and his dreams of becoming a high caliber filmmaker have come true in a profound way. His critically acclaimed comedy/drama Short Term 12 stars Brie Larson as a worker at a foster care facility and portrays her day to day experiences. It’s become one of the biggest word of mouth sensations of the year.

After first appearing as a short film at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, the encouraging response led Cretton to expand it into a feature-length film, which won the Grand Jury Narrative Feature and Narrative Audience Award at this year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival. The momentum only grew from there. Following an Audience Award for Narrative Drama Feature at this year’s Maui Film Festival, the Internet buzz has continued to accelerate. Last month, Entertainment Weekly included the film on its Must List and gave the film an A (I gave it a four-star review last week). The film, which Rotten Tomatoes has at a current approval rating of 100 percent, recently opened on Maui.

As it continues to expand nationwide, Short Term 12 could go the distance and become a Good Will Hunting style success story. My recent conversation with Cretton covered his Maui upbringing, approach with directing young actors, the unlikely movie that inspired him to direct and his thoughts on making a Hawaii-set film in the future:

MAUITIME: Congratulations on the success of this film. Everyone has been telling me I have to see this movie or that they know you or knew someone who knows you. That’s success any way you look at it.

DESTIN CRETTON: Thanks so much. It’s been a wild ride.

MT: Let’s start from the beginning. What were some films or filmmakers that inspired you growing up?

CRETTON: I honestly didn’t watch too many films, especially from that point of view. Actually I didn’t watch a lot of films growing up. I wasn’t into any particular genre or international filmmaking until my late college years. Growing up, I was addicted to anything that was playing down at the Ka’ahumanu Center or the Maui Mall Theater. I would watch anything that was playing there. I remember the first thing I saw at Ka’ahumanu… it was this movie called Innerspace. It was basically about this tiny spaceship that is floating around inside this human body. That was one of the first movies that was permanently assigned to my brain. I don’t know, that movie opened up something inside my brain, got me so excited about movie making. It was so magical, to watch anything on that movie screen was such a joy for me as a kid.

MT: Forgive me for being self indulgent here. I gotta ask this. I was an usher at the Queen Ka‘ahumanu Mall theater during the summer of 1997. Was there a chance I might have taken your ticket?

CRETTON: Probably! I think there’s a giant chance–1997?

MT: Summer of ‘97. I worked there that whole summer.

CRETTON: What came out?

MT: Let’s see… that was The Lost World, The Fifth Element, Breakdown and Contact.

CRETTON: Oh yeah. You must’ve taken my ticket.

MT: Yeah, it’s a small island. Let me ask you the Barbara Walters question, if I can. What was your childhood like, growing up in Haiku?

CRETTON: There’s six of us kids and we lived out at the end of a dirt road right, next to a pineapple field. I was the second oldest, three boys, two girls. I was a pretty normal, Snicker-less, heightened boy, riding my BMX bike everywhere, spent a ton of time outside. My parents were mainly jaded, not very encouraging, actually discouraging about watching TV. They just kept us outside all the time. It also allowed us, forced us, to be more creative and create our own entertainment. I spent a lot of my childhood putting on skits with my siblings and performing for my parents. We’d put on plays and perform martial arts routines. Then, once my Grandma and Grandpa got this VHS camcorder, it was all over. We just used that to make movies.

MT: What was the first short film you ever made?

CRETTON: One of the first ones we did was called Black McFry, which starred my little brother, Brooke. About an evil magician named Black McFry who went around frying people’s butts. That was when we were really into the old disappearing trick, when you stop the video camera and you make the people vanish, then start it again, they reappear. That was our special effects.

MT: It sounds like a franchise to me.

CRETTON: Maybe one day.

MT: Onto Short Term 12. So many people have not seen the short film on which it’s based yet. Where can we go to see the short film and will it be a DVD extra on the Short Term 12 DVD/Blu-Ray?

CRETTON: You know, I’m not sure if they’re going to be adding it to the DVD, but anyone can see the short film now on itunes. Just search itunes and you can get it for like, a buck ninety-nine.

MT: The individuals who inspired Short Term 12–what did they have to say about the film?

CRETTON: Yeah, that was something I was honestly terrified about, the screening we just had down in San Diego. It had a lot of staff members who worked at the same facility I worked at. One of them was highly involved in the research process. A lot of the stories I gathered from him made its way into the film. He also came out a couple of days before we started shooting and we let all of the kid actors ask some questions. He gave them stories of what it was like to work there, stuff like that. It was very influential in their process. Last week was the first time he saw the movie. He gave me a big hug afterwards and told me, “you got it.” That was a huge relief for me.

MT: That’s wonderful. I want to ask you how you direct your actors. The highest praise I can give your film is that no one ever appeared to be acting. What is your process with directing performers?

CRETTON: What I found, which will sound like common sense, is something I think anyone can relate to. I found that people perform because they feel most comfortable and that the best creativity blossoms in an environment where they feel the most comfortable and it is safe and free and fun. So, most of my job as a director was trying my best to create that environment. A lot of that had to do with choosing the right people who were not only great actors but also just really nice, lovely, encouraging people to be around. The entire cast came together and was extremely supportive of each other. There wasn’t any kind of competitive nature involved. That safe, fun environment really, really helped, especially with the kids in their performances. They just felt free to try things they never tried before. They felt the freedom to mess up without fear of someone jumping on them or making them feel stupid. That to me is the main reason why the performances are so good.

MT: Was there a lot of improvisation on the set?

CRETTON: Once in a while. We didn’t have a luxurious amount of time to explore things. Most of the scenes are pretty close to the screenplay. The way I try to direct is to loosen up the shooting as much as possible, to make it feel like it’s happening, as much as possible. I’m never concerned about the actors saying the exact words on the page. I’m not like the Coen brothers. I’m much more concerned about creating the scene and making it authentic.

MT: Brie Larson is remarkable in the film. How did you come to casting her?

CRETTON: Brie was someone I was especially interested in, very excited about. I watched all of the things she had been in back-to-back. It was exciting to see her transform and fall completely into her characters. Even in small roles in movies, she always seemed like a completely different person. Whether she’s doing comedy or drama, she has the gift to perform from her gut, you know? Always seems like the words coming from her mouth are just happening, as opposed to something she memorized the night before. Those things were really exciting for me. The most exciting thing was, we had a video conference before we made the movie, talking about the character, about the world, and she’s so passionate, smart. She really understood Grace and what I was going for. She also had her own interpretations, which were equally as inspiring and exciting for me.

MT: I’d never ask a director to “explain” his film. But in the final scene, which contains an image that has become the film’s poster, is there symbolism there we should be considering?

CRETTON: What do you think? It’s up to you! It’s up the viewer.

MT :Are you interested in making movies about Hawaii?

CRETTON: Yeah, totally. That would be the dream. I’m not sure when but hopefully…not the next movie, but the next-next one.

MT: What was the Maui Film Festival experience like for you?

CRETTON: I can’t tell you how special that was to screen it at home. It was lovely. I saw all these familiar faces. It was wonderful and the response was incredible. I was really excited to come back to Maui and reconnect with the people who’ve influenced my life. My upbringing and grounding, going to school at Kalama, Maui High and MCC, I had wonderful mentors. My home in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is outside this industry. People here care about who you are and how you treat others.

MT: Now that you’ve had this breakthrough success, are your friends pitching you movie ideas daily?

CRETTON: Thank God, no! My friends don’t really care. That’s my saving grace.

MT: Any advice for that kid growing up in Hawaii, who’s sitting in their living room right now, watching a movie and wondering how they can be a part of that and become a filmmaker?

CRETTON: I’d tell that kid, to not stress out with any of that. Concentrate on being okay with who you are. Let all the good things happen.