From Shorts to Features: a film-making workshop Saturday and Sunday, April 5-6, taught by Destin Daniel Cretton.
Destin Daniel Cretton doesn’t look a Hollywood guy. He wears hooded sweatshirts to movie premieres—even important ones — and is more apt to make silly faces at the camera than to assume a self-important pose. Schmoozing is anathema to the creative, candid 34-year-old writer and director. He’s more interested in telling stories of how regular people find hope in rough seas.
In between college and graduate school, Cretton worked at a group home for at-risk teens—an experience that blew his worldview wide open. “It was by far the scariest, most terrifying job I’ve ever had,” he says. “And the most rewarding.” At the home he supervised adolescents who’d suffered terrible abuse and were prone to emotional outbursts. Once he confronted his own fear of inadequacy and learned how to establish discipline with the kids, he found that he connected with them. “They all had baggage,” he says, “but they were also resilient human beings: funny, witty and great to be around. The big lesson I learned there is that kids respect consistency. And they respect people who respect them.”
Cretton distilled the experience into a twenty-two-minute film, Short Term 12— the precursor to his most recent feature. The short is a brief and powerful look at one day in a foster care facility. From the moment it starts—with a frustrated kid bashing an ‘ukulele against his bedroom wall—it grabs the audience. Cretton cast actors as unadorned and authentic as he is and let their characters’ stories unfold.
One of the short’s more shocking scenes actually happened to Cretton. In the film, new girl Jayden throws a violent tantrum after her father pulls a no-show on her birthday. In real life the person who threw the tantrum was a young man. “He slammed his bedroom door, and I went to force it open,” says Cretton. “He let it fly and jumped me. I took a couple of blows to the face. A few hours later we were having a heart-to-heart conversation.” It wasn’t all darkness in the group home and just as in life the film interlaces tension with comedy. The result is a realistic portrait of residential care that critics described as “compact, subtle, resonant and assured.”
The day before Thanksgiving in 2008, Cretton received a call that his short had been accepted into the Sundance Film Festival, the nation’s most prestigious independent film festival. The giddy film student packed his bags for Park City, Utah, where he mingled with roughly fifty thousand other cinephiles and shared his very personal work. His blog posts from the week-long event read like an astronaut’s play-by-play of takeoff.
Short Term 12 won the festival’s Jury Prize for Short Filmmaking. It went on to win at festivals in Seattle, Aspen and Boston and was even short-listed for the Academy Awards. But as well received as the movie was, Cretton wanted to develop its characters and themes further. He rewrote Short Term 12 as a feature-length film—a much bigger project that would require a hefty budget. He and producer Asher Goldstein shopped it around for two years but couldn’t find funding.
Then Cretton got a big break. His script was one of five out of five thousand chosen for the 2010 Nicholl Screenwriting Fellowship from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The fellowship came with $30,000 to produce a new screenplay. That year, Cretton wrote I Am Not a Hipster, showcasing San Diego’s indie art scene.
I Am Not a Hipster doesn’t ride the same razor’s edge as Short Term 12, but it does have its share of drama and redemption. The story follows Brook, an angst-y musician whose mounting depression crests when his sisters arrive unexpectedly to spread their mom’s ashes. It’s no accident that the rambunctious sisters who invade Brook’s house and shower him with uncomplicated cheeriness are named Joy, Spring and Merrily. That’s the film’s basic message: that no matter how lousy life seems, love surrounds you, and will heal you if you’re willing to let it in.
Cretton’s sisters were extras in the film. The rest of the Hipster cast and crew were Destin’s friends —members of the same San Diego subculture the film sought to document. They staged scenes at their haunts: the legendary Casbah where touring bands perform, a local art gallery and their own homes.
The beautifully shot film has an immediacy reminiscent of Douglas Coupland’s breakout novel, Generation X. Like Coupland, Cretton homes in on details that define the time: “fixie” bicycles, ironic moustaches. The film has a vintage sheen inspired by Instagram, the photo-sharing app popular with young artists. “We created that look exclusively for the movie,” says Cretton. He worked with the colorist from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Social Network to tweak the film’s colors frame by frame. But even if audiences miss these achingly current pop culture references, they might still resonate with Cretton’s deftly rendered characters.
After Hipster, Cretton had a polished feature to show investors and was finally able to secure funding for the remake of Short Term 12. This time he could hire professional actors and indulge in a filmmaker’s fantasy: mixing sound at Skywalker Ranch. The feature-length version of Short Term 12 bears some resemblance to the short but revolves around a new main character: Grace, the fierce yet utterly fragile supervisor of the foster care facility.
Restraint and subtlety are hallmarks of Cretton’s filmmaking. Marcus, a brooding teen on the cusp of adulthood, is one of the most compelling characters in Short Term 12, though he communicates mainly through sideways glances and flinches. In one scene the wound-up teen performs a rap he’s written and confronts his absent mother about the abuse she dealt him. It’s a harrowing glimpse into a dark childhood, but the song’s energetic beat, creative rhymes and passionate delivery elevate it to an anthem of vindication. When Marcus finishes rapping, the camera hangs on his face for several moments. Cretton captures the tension, charged with conflicting emotions, and asks the audience to stay with it.
Meanwhile, Cinedigm snapped up North and Latin American distribution rights for Short Term 12. Beyond industry insiders the most important response to Short Term 12 has been from those who keenly understand its subject matter. Cretton has received a number of letters like the following: “We adopted our son from a residential treatment center and unfortunately lived much of what you showed in your film. … Your film was the most honest and realistic portrayal of residential life for both the kids and the staff I have ever seen.”
Cretton expected a small demographic —fellow indie movie fans—to appreciate Short Term 12, but he’s been stunned by the positive response he’s gotten from the general public. “It’s instilled in me a little bit of hope in humanity,” he says. “That without all the glitz, glamour and explosions, people still love watching stories of good people trying to be the best they can in a messed-up world.”
This article is excerpted from Hana Hou: The Magazine of Hawaiian Airlines.