"Short Term 12" is without a doubt the most rapturously received American indie of the year, and perhaps the sweetest and most genuinely affecting movie to ever begin with a prolonged anecdote about someone pooping their pants. Destin Cretton's second feature (2012's "I Am Not a Hipster" was his debut) chronicles a brief period of time at the eponymous home for at-risk youths, a chaotic but vital place where minors – teenagers, mostly – are placed after being removed from dangerous domestic situations.
Cretton briefly worked as a counselor at one such institution in his native Hawaii, and was so deeply affected by the experience that he channeled his memories into a short film (also called "Short Term 12").While the short was powerfully expressive and widely seen, Cretton couldn't shake the feeling that these kids deserved a more expansive story, and so – with the help of a phenomenal cast lead by Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. – he's created a full and profoundly empathetic ode to the power of human compassion. And lest that sound like a stuffy and prosaic affair, remember the poop story.
The film kicks off with wide-eyed Nate (Rami Malek, effectively serving as Cretton's proxy) starting his first day at Short Term 12, where he's coached by seasoned staffers Grace and Mason (Larson and Gallagher), who are not so secretly involved in a serious relationship with problems of its own. Over the course of a blunt and calculated but resoundingly humane 85 minutes, Cretton's film follows as the staff and their unforgettable charges have a mutually massive effect on those around them, "Short Term 12" resolving itself as an impossibly winning portrait of family as a fluid concept, inclusive to anyone who's concerned enough to care.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Cretton over a cup of coffee, and we chatted about everything from the film's incredible SXSW premiere to the perils of bad parenting and the one line of the screenplay that may go down in history.
So I hear you’ve been going to a ridiculous number of screenings every night.
Yeah, last night's screening was really cool actually. A lot of wonderful conversations afterwards with a very different group than I'm used to hanging out with.
I can imagine this movie leads to a lot of interesting conversations with different people, just given the subject matter.
I mean that's my favorite part, is what… I feel like this movie puts people in a mood to be open and to be, I don't know, kind of vulnerable. It's cool, conversations are usually very personal.
As someone who was in New York when SXSW was happening, it was clear to me right away that this would be the movie about which people were most excited coming out of the festival. People are just in love with this movie.
At what point in the process do you know that you're telling a story that's really gonna connect with people, that you're making a movie that's going to work? Was the SXSW premiere a huge surprise?
Yes, it's always a huge surprise when things are accepted and embraced. I mean, it's definitely a surprise. It's also very strange. People show up at a theater and sit down and watch this thing and forget that, you know, a month earlier, it was me and Matt Sanders, my editor, sitting in my bedroom like deciding on each of the shots, deciding what might be too much information, deciding what to take out, wondering how someone would react to that, maybe they'd think we're talking down to them, so then would we take it out, and just like all of these hypotheses as to how people might react.
Did you leave yourself a lot of major narrative choices to make in the edit? Because the movie feels very lean, and every beat carries its weight.
Yeah, the editing process was a big, careful ordeal. I mean, most of what we learned through making this movie was how little people actually need. And we got to learn that through a lot of test screenings. So even though SXSW was like the first premiere, we actually had done about six fairly substantial test screenings just at my old college, with like three hundred freshmen students, and at other universities and places where we just had connections. Those were extremely helpful in just figuring out, even just sitting in the back of the theater and feeling how people were reacting to things, and what we found was that the more we took away from the script, from the movie and the music and everything, the better it worked.
The film was inspired by your personal experience working in a short term home… I think of my favorite line in the movie, when Sammy says, "Deescalate my asshole you duck f**kers!" And that doesn’t strike me as something that someone could write out of thin air in a room by themselves. That seems like something you must have heard and been like, "Okay, I'm going to remember that because that's classic. As soon as I calm this kid down, I'm writing that down." So with *that* in mind, how much of the script borrows from your own experience?
Yeah, I mean a lot of it was from personal experience or from interviews that I did with other people that worked in places like this much longer than I did, so I would say the majority of what was in the short film was from my – or all of it – was my own personal experience, and the majority of the feature is from other stories that I heard from other people.
Would you say that the Nate character is your proxy to some extent?
Yeah, that was me during the first month of working. I was just like, such a novice at everything and an idealist in the worst way. (Laughs) And I learned my lessons pretty quick. But I do feel like I grew up a lot while working there, and was introduced – it seemed like for the first time – introduced to the immense complexities of life, you know? How there is so much so much gray area within the social structures and environments and who people are, and I mean, you quickly realize that there are no stereotypes when you work in a place like that. There's no way to categorize somebody.
Yeah, I think it's interesting how the film sort of invites you to do that, and then sort of chastises you for falling into that trap. You think you know these kids and you learn very quickly that you don't.
Yeah, the movie definitely plays with stereotypes – or expectations, I'd say – and then hopefully we tried to flip it at some point in the movie, flip your expectations on the character.
You were talking about how much you learned about other people and how it exploded your own personal experience while you were there, and I see that reflected in the film's visual style. I was really struck by how much of it is shot with really shallow focus, how all the characters are really isolated from one another, even as they're trying to communicate, no matter what – Grace included, Grace especially – they're all sort of in their own headspace.
[Cinematographer] Brett Pawlak and I have worked together since the short. I found him on MySpace.
I was living in San Diego, and I literally typed in "young director of photography" in Google, and his MySpace came up. (Laughs) And then I just wrote him, I was like, "Hey I don’t have any money, but I'm shooting this thing." And then we met for coffee, and then he was like, "Yeah I'll do it." So he shot my short film for me, and then we'd done documentaries and other things together, and he did my first feature, "I Am Not a Hipster", and so definitely a part of the style of the feature was for our own just personal gratification, was a callback to the short.
But more importantly, our number one goal, before we even decided on style, our number one goal was performance. So there is a practical reason for doing a handheld work, there's a practical reason for not using… For finding a simplified version of creating lighting and scenarios and making it feel naturalistic, but also specifically trying to keep lights out of the room and lighting from the windows, from outside the rooms, because everything was an attempt to allow the actors to keep as much of the illusion of that environment – because we were shooting in a group home that was shut down – so to keep as much of that illusion there for the actors and their performances, and allow them the freedom to move around the room or follow their instincts if they wanted to. So that was what we built the look off of, the long lenses and shooting through doorways and showing, specifically when you're inside that facility, trying to create a little bit of the isolated feel was something that we wanted to get across.
Something that stuck me while watching it was the role that parents play – not that parents are ever on screen in the film – but there's obviously a lot of collateral damage from bad parenting in this movie, and with the pregnancy storyline that runs through it, there's this idea of generational cyclicality, and improving things in the next go around. Can you just talk about that a little bit about the influence of parents and how much of what you experienced with these kids is the direct result of [parenting]?
Um, yeah. I would say in my experience… (Laughs) I mean, I would almost say that good and bad parenting is… I mean, most behaviors of kids in this place or myself or my friends, I feel like you can trace most behaviors bad to good or bad parenting, or you know, that was something that I was forced, for the first time I think in my life while I was working in this place, I was forced to ask myself these questions about parenting and just the influence of a human in power to a human who looks up to that person, and how much that can actually affect someone. And so I was forced to wonder, for the first time, what parent I would be, like, down to how would I discipline or figure out a way to discipline or encourage, if I had a kid who was like crazy or super defiant, and also asking myself like what residue was left on me from my parents, who are wonderful.
But you know, there's definitely moments that have stuck in my brain of things my parents don't even realize they did that still have created a weird insecurity, or like, I have little social anxiety things that I know are rooted in just like specific things that embarrassed me when I was a kid that my parents don't even realize they did. So I was forced to ask those questions, and in the movie, every scene in the movie has to do with parenting, like every single scene, in one way or another. The movie takes place in that period of time when a character is obsessing over a specific subject because of something that's happening in her life. So everything that she sees is telling her, allowing her to learn one way or the other, like, "I can't do this 'cause I'm not gonna do something, I'm not gonna fuck up somebody like this kid is," or, "Maybe I can do this because there's some hope and you can make a difference in someone's life, you can actually be a benefit to somebody."
I'm just thinking about how the film begins and ends in this, and how the very last shot cements the cyclical rhythms of the place. How long people typically work in these places? Is it a short term thing for them as well, because it is so cyclical? Grace learns so much from the virtue of being there. Can she really bring more to the table after that?
Yeah, I mean, it depends. There are… I would imagine that Grace and Mason would probably stay there longer.
They're so good at it.
I know, there are certain people who will work there for the rest of their lives, you know, but there are very few that do that. Most people last six months, less. Most people last less than six months, but I think that if you stay a year, you're a veteran. So it's a high turnaround in a place like that, and that's one of the problems, because above anything else, those kids – any kid – above anything else, needs consistency and the somebody, at least one person in their life that they can trust is always gonna be there. And so that definitely is a problem.
I have a weird question from a colleague. I don't know what he means by it. But he asked, "Is the film a metaphor for America?" I think he was struck by Sammy's American flag. Rather than read a bit more into the question myself, I thought I'd just pose it to you.
Um, sure, to him I suppose it is! But yeah, I'm not… Yeah, I love that.
I guess I can see what he's talking about, about these disparate people coming together…
Yeah, I could see that. I think that more so than that – but I love that idea, I never even thought about it, just a metaphor – but I think more so than that, to me, that last shot, for me personally, is just a reminder that this is who we are. Like that kid, however we treat that kid, that Sammy kid, that is who we are as a country and as a people. And it doesn’t only apply to… I think Sammy represents just a vulnerable human living in our community that happens to be our country of the United States of America, and I think however we personally decide to deal with a difficult vulnerable person is who we are.
Yeah, sort of the idea that we're only as good as how well we treat the people who need our help most. That's fair.
Something that also struck me, between this and "I Am Not a Hipster", was the use of bicycles. There’s quite a legacy of cinematic attraction to bikes that you’re feeding into, here.
Um, I honestly just think like, if you're gonna have a character going between places, they're either driving in a car or riding a bike or taking public transportation. And they're… I didn’t set off to like, "I'm gonna make sure all my characters are riding bikes." (Laughs) But…
It's expressive. It's an expressive means of transportation, you know?
Yeah, at least like when you're riding a bike, you can – I mean for me, when I ride a bike – whatever I'm feeling, you can see it, you know? As opposed to like just gripping the steering wheel harder. (Laughs) So yeah, and I don't know why there aren't more movies with people riding bikes. I think it might help encourage our society to be a little greener. (Laughs)
We have the CitiBike thing here in the city now. I started riding my first bike, it's been exciting. Inevitably I’ll get hit and killed by a car.
I love that CitiBike thing, it's awesome.
When it works. I mean, most of the time you're relying on it, you're like, "I have twenty minutes to go from here to here, no problem, I'll CitiBike." And you stick the thing in and it doesn't work.
Yeah, you know, growing pains. It's teething right now.
I guess I wanted to talk a little bit about just the performances.
[Sees “Melora Walters” written in huge letters on my notes] Do you know Melora Walters?
I do know Melora Walters, yeah. I mean, not personally, but I love Melora Walters, and I saw her in the credits and I was like, "Oh, Melora Walters, I can't wait for her to show up." And then eighty minutes go by and like it didn't occur to me, and she shows up and it was a big surprise. Can you talk about why you wanted to work with her and reaching out to her and how that happened?
She was actually… I was a big fan of hers, but I asked Brie [Larson] because that scene was, it's a big scene, that actually we found even though that scene was one of the most magical things that I've ever been a part of and it was the best thing that I've ever witnessed as a director, and it was incredibly moving, and we found that it didn't belong in this movie. I mean, we chopped down that scene quite a bit, unfortunately, because Melora was incredible, you guys will see it on the DVD.
Was there a moment in the edit where you feared that that scene wouldn't be in the movie at all?
There was. And I held onto that scene 'til the bitter end, and then we just realized that people didn’t need it at that point, you know? But I do feel like Brie… And that it was necessary for us to shoot it, because I do feel like it affected other scenes.
I really enjoyed the scene – at whatever length – just because it better cemented for me where Grace was in this constellation of characters.
Yeah, I think definitely what's in there should be in there, and it's good for people to see that she's taking care of herself. But anyway, I asked Brie if she had any ideas of who would make her feel safe, and the first thing out of her mouth was, "Melora Walters." And we sent it to Melora, and then she was graceful enough to accept.
It's a great scene. I don't know if many people will be as excited as I was, but I thought it was great.
It was like a dream to meet her and create something with her. She's wonderful.
"Short Term 12" opens in theaters on Friday, August 23.