by Sara Michelle Fetters -
SGN A&E Writer
One of the most acclaimed films of the year, early on things weren't looking especially bright for writer/director Destin Cretton's Short Term 12. The prestigious Sundance Film Festival initially passed on screening the drama set inside a Los Angeles short-term foster facility for at-risk teenagers, deciding for whatever reason it wasn't good enough for a showcase.
Fast-forward to late spring/early summer, and suddenly Cretton's film was one of the most buzzed-about and anticipated independent features set to hit theaters. After making a gigantic splash at South by Southwest, the movie screened to great acclaim at a variety of festivals including SIFF, critics and audiences alike falling all over themselves to praise it.
'It's a great feeling for all of us,' says a beaming Cretton. 'It's just wonderful to go through, in some ways, this horrible and difficult experience of making [the film] and emerge from the other side to have people really respond so positively to what it was we were trying to get on the screen.'
Immediately, he corrects himself. 'Not horrible,' he says. 'That's not true. We've just, as a team, gone through so much, and in many ways this truly was such a difficult movie to make, I'm just so happy people are now connecting with it so personally. It is rewarding to come out to festivals and have these conversations with people afterwards who have all these great questions. That's probably the most magical, wonderful thing about doing any of this.'
NOT AN EASY SELL
Not that 'difficult' is an adjective too far off the mark as far as the process of financing, casting, and filming the motion picture was concerned. Born in many ways from personal experiences, featuring a few ideas he was able to fit into an award-winning 2008 short film of the same name, getting people onboard to support the project proved to be far more challenging than Cretton initially anticipated.
'It was hard,' admits the filmmaker. 'It's not like people are hammering down doors to puts lots of money down to make a movie about kids and staff in a group home. And it's the same thing about getting people to go see such a movie. It's not necessarily the type of thing where if you read a short synopsis you think to yourself that this is going to be an awesome thing that you'd want to run right out and see right away. So it was hard, but that just makes it all the more fantastic when I take a second to think about all it was that we ended up being able to accomplish.
'We were so lucky to find a team of people who understood this wasn't just going to be a movie about a bunch of people inside a group home, that it was a movie about family and love and people learning to create families and find that love in places you wouldn't initially believe it could be created. The people who were passionate about the project were deeply so, and that just made me more inspired - all of us, I think, more inspired, to put forth our best collective efforts.'
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
Not that there weren't additional headaches as far as the crafting of the script was concerned, the challenge of transforming a short into a feature somewhat surprising, especially considering how personally connected the director was to the story he was wanting to tell. 'Initially, when I was first writing the feature I was just trying to extend the short, but it felt like I was plagiarizing somebody even though that 'somebody' was myself,' laughs Cretton. 'It didn't feel right because I didn't write the short to be a feature. The script I was suddenly writing now felt forced. It felt false.
'As soon as I changed [one of the] main characters from a male to a female, it was much more frightening to write because I'd never written from a female perspective before. That challenge excited me. Coincidentally, that's also when everything started to feel like it was falling into place and the story started to transform into one I wanted to tell.'
That transition allowed the story to now be seen through the eyes of Grace, stunningly portrayed by 21 Jump Street scene-stealer Brie Larson. She's a twentysomething supervisor at the facility, and it's her relationship to both her charges and to the people she works with that give the movie its emotional heft. Yet this gender change didn't stop Cretton from infusing the film with his own personal experiences.
'I was really excited to throw in new things that I wasn't able to put into the short,' he proclaims. 'I'd done these handfuls of interviews with people who worked in places like this and there was just so much material, so many stories, and it was difficult to pick out which of these to weave into the script. Interviewing some of these guys, I'd be sitting there laughing my ass off one second only to be crying my eyes out the very next minute. There was just so much material. Incorporating it into to script was admittedly difficult.'
At the same time, the potential for the film to slip into drippy, overly sentimental bouts of melodrama was omnipresent, a fact the filmmaker stayed alert to throughout filming. 'That was something we were all aware of right from the get-go,' states Cretton. 'This movie easily could fall into melodrama. It could feel forced and manipulative, both in the drama and in the comedy. If the comedy went too big or felt like a punch line then it wouldn't feel real. If the drama also went too big or drowned in any kind of cliché it, too, wouldn't feel real.
'So we were aware of this, and it was something we knew we had to be careful to avoid. But, at the same time, in this environment you know going in there's going to be a lot of drama. At the same time, humor is such a huge part of what it takes to live and to survive in a facility such as this. The staff members and the kids were some of the wittiest, smartest, and most hilarious people I have ever encountered. They are able to take a somewhat tragic moment in their lives and turn it into a joke, which can be both hilarious and poignant at the exact same time.'
A CASTING MIRACLE
Not that any of this could have transpired without Larson. She's getting Oscar buzz for her role in the film, and it's praise Cretton agrees with wholeheartedly. 'For sure,' says the director with a smile, 'Brie was the key. None of this would work without her performance. What attracted me to Brie, if you look at everything she's done she has this ability to be very funny yet also has this uncanny tendency towards realness that's somewhat surprising. Whether she's doing comedy or drama she always feels like a real person who is actually residing there within that moment no matter what it is. You don't feel like she's delivering pre-scripted punch lines while at the same time she's never melodramatic in her dramatic roles. She feels like a real person, someone that you know, and it was very exciting for me to walk that line as she inhabited Grace.'
But finding someone to play Grace wasn't the only challenge. Considering the documentary-like approach the filmmaker employed, securing a group of actors who could work in tandem with one another while also slipping seamlessly into the roles they would be portraying was of paramount importance. It was also one of the biggest, most terrifying challenges Cretton faced before filming had even begun.
'That's definitely the scariest thing about being a director,' he responds. 'Once the casting process starts, no matter how good of a writer you are, if you end up with the wrong person delivering the lines then you're going to come across as the [worst] screenwriter on the planet. So I feel really lucky with the cast we ended up with here. They all just got it, and that did make directing extremely easy because we would get what was on the page fairly soon and then were allowed to explore and see if we could take it to another level we hadn't imagined. That happened fairly often.'
TOO MUCH GOOD STUFF
The freedom he allowed the actors to roam and ad-lib did make for an interesting editing room, the director finding himself in the position of having to excise some of his favorite scenes from the finished film. 'Everything about this process is both daunting and exciting, for sure,' he laughs. 'It was hard work, the editing process, because there was so much footage. When the DVD comes out you'll see some amazing footage that didn't fit into the finished film itself. One of those scenes might be, to me personally, the best thing I've ever been involved with and yet it got cut from the movie because it didn't quite fit. But that's the nature of the editing process. Sometimes your favorite scenes and moments just don't fit into the story you're trying to tell.
'It does feel like you're chopping your arm off. But I'm starting to understand that the first inclination I have that something might need to be cut I might as well just cut it, because eventually it's going to end up on the chopping block. Cutting is extremely difficult. Yet at the same time, it's also rewarding, especially when you realize getting rid of [a scene] has improved the movie as a whole and helped keep focus on the primary story you want to tell.'
TRAGEDY AND HOPE
What about the director himself? What moves him? What stories capture his emotions? And what about audiences? What does he hope they take away from a viewing of his film?
'Most of my own personal catharsis happens inside a movie theater,' Cretton proclaims with a slight shrug coupled with a massive, heartwarming grin. 'Unfortunately, that's usually where I cry, opposed to real life, and where I bare my deepest emotions. While I often want to cry in real life, I have to more often than not be sitting in a theater for it all to come out. I'm attracted to stories that make me laugh, that make me cry, and it's those types of stories I want to tell as a filmmaker.
'As for audiences who see [Short Term 12], I think it is very much a life-affirming movie. At the same time, I think it is respectful to the tragic realities of life while also not forgetting that along with those very low lows, there also some real, utterly amazing highs. There are hopeful moments in life, and that's something I constantly want to remind myself whether I'm getting up in the morning or in the context of the story I'm trying to tell. Life is a wonderful thing, humans having this incredible ability to love and make deep, long-lasting connections within the confines of situations where it might seem at first impossible to do just that.'
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