I recently had the privilege with interviewing Destin Cretton, director of the new film “Short Term 12”. The film stars Brie Larson as Grace, a supervisor of a foster care facility for a risk youth. She works along side her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) as they try and reach kids that have been abused, neglected or abandoned. Grace’s world is changed when a new girl, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) comes to the facility, and Grace sees much of herself in her. The film opens in Atlanta on Friday, Sept. 13 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Thank you for joining us. So tell us about your film.
Cretton: It takes place primarily in a group home / foster care facility for at risk teenagers. The film follows Grace, whose is a young, female supervisor at the home. She is trying to do her job well, dealing with the problems of the kids while also trying to learn how to deal with her own problems which she hasn’t thought about since she was young.
The film based on your award winning short of the same name, besides length what changes did you make from the original short film?
Cretton: The obvious change was that in the short, the main character was a male supervisor, and in this feature film, the main character was a female supervisor.That, in itself, kind of rippled out to all the other characters and made everything to me, feel brand new in making the feature. Even though there are certain similarities in certain scenes and a few of the characters from the short show up in the feature film, it really is a brand new story to me.
What kind of research did you do for the film?
Cretton: My first bit of research came from my own experiences because my first job out of college was working at a foster care facility like the one in the film. I worked there for about two years, so a lot of the story lines in the film where things that I experienced while working there. Before writing the feature film, I did a handful of interviews with workers from various group homes. A lot of their stories worked their way into the script. So the final script is sort of a combination of my own experiences and the experiences of workers in homes similar to the one seen in the film.
The film has a very natural style to it, almost like we are watching a documentary. It seemed like the camera was always moving. Was it difficult directing with a camera that is in continual movement?
Cretton: No, not really, because even though we chose to shoot the film handheld, it wasn’t as if we were just shooting things on the fly. Every shot was pre-planned, and we had a very specific shot list with storyboards for every scene in the film. The esoteric look we wanted was the camera on the shoulder of my Director of Photography, Bret Pawlak. So it wasn’t chaos, and there is something about having the camera being hand held that goes along with the unsettling feeling of working in a foster care environment.
I loved the scenes with Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), especially the scenes at home. Talk about the dynamics of the relationship between Grace and Mason.
Cretton: The character of Mason was created by trying to think of the type of person that Grace would have allowed in her life. Grace is a very guarded human being, having a bunch of triggers in her past that don’t allow her to get too close to people. So, Mason was created out of necessity. He is the type of person that Grace could be in a relationship with. One of the things Brie and John did was go on a pretend date together a couple of days before we started shooting. I sent an envelope to them to take along on their pretend date. Inside the envelope was a handful of handwritten conversation starters. Each conversation starter dealt with what their characters were dealing with in the film. I had them talk about memories from their characters childhoods, things like that if you were in a long term relationship with someone, you would know about. I asked them to talk about what kinds of fears their characters would have about being parents, raising kids in today’s world. I also had them talk about what their characters first date was like, what was it like for Grace and Mason to move in together. This enabled Brie and John to create a whole back story for their characters and helped make that relationship on the screen show because now they had that background information.
Grace is tough, but kindhearted as she’s gets the kids to talk to her but is unwilling to talk about her own problems with anyone, including her boyfriend. Tells us about working with Brie Larson who plays Grace in the film.
Cretton: Brie’s performance was incredible. What Brie was doing on screen was difficult because it seemed on screen that she wasn’t doing anything. It’s difficult to play a character who doesn’t want to talk. No matter what scene you see her in the film, Grace always has something else going on in the back of her mind. I saw very early on in the filming that Brie has that rare ability to communicate with her eyes. That’s where a lot of her performance in the film comes from, seeing in her eyes that no matter what she is doing in a scene that there is a lot more going on with Grace than we are seeing. Brie’s performance in this film is very subtle and unexpected. There are so many little tiny things happening in the film that I attribute to Brie’s ability to be right there in the moment.
Tell us about working with the younger cast members that play the kids in the film.
Cretton: The kids were incredible performers. They kind of went against what I had been told about working with child actors. I think some of that was due to the fact that their parents were all very down to earth people. They were just great parents, not your typical crazy “Hollywood” parents. The kids were the same way. They were just good, good kids that were super encouraging of each other. They were really supportive of each other, and they just had fun doing the film. The environment that we built on set had a lot to do with what you see on screen. Brie and John helped create a place that felt safe for the kids to perform. It was a set where the kids could try something different and not feel stupid for doing it. This type of environment and the relationships that they had on set really showed up in the film.
It seemed to me that John Gallagher Jr.’s performance probably helped the kids because he played Mason as a guy that is a kid at heart.
Cretton: Exactly, we only had one day of rehearsal, and I talked to John about making sure he understood that if the kids see that he is O.K. with being silly and acting stupid, then they would be comfortable doing the same thing. John kind of embraced that during the entire shoot. At any point of the day, you could hear John off to the side playing rhyming games with the kids.
What do you hope audiences will walk away with after seeing your film?
Cretton: The reactions so far have been that there have been so many ways that people have connected with the film. For me, the film shows the amazing ability that human beings can create families, even when there is not a traditional one available. And “family” can be just that hand of one person that you are walking with during a bad part of your life. There is something very real and beautiful about that. It means a great deal to me, and I hope that people walk out of the theatre thinking about that.
Thank you so much and I wish you much success with the film.