Over the past few years, Destin Daniel Cretton has been making beautiful films with Lowell Frank under the name Flagpop Productions (Deacon's Mondays, Drakmar, Bartholomew's Song). This spring, he set out to direct his first solo project, Short Term 12, which debuts this week as part of the San Diego Film Festival. We caught up with Destin to hear about what goes into telling a story through film, particularly the brave and heart-wrenching story told in his latest piece.
SEZIO: How long have you been working on Short Term 12?
DESTIN DANIEL CRETTON: I suppose pieces of the story have been with me since 2003, when I worked at that child-care facility. I wrote one scene back then, but didn’t pick it up again until the end of last year. I wrote the first draft fairly quickly, got feedback from close friends, and then continued to make changes up until the first day of the shoot in May 2008. From the very beginning, I wanted to try something very different with this story. In the past, our films have generally been very composed and meticulously controlled, and I wanted to try doing the opposite for this one. So, in every step of the process, I tried to make decisions based on what was best at that specific moment, rather than what I had in my head at the time I was writing. So the script was constantly moving, adjusting. I even changed a main character from a boy to a girl because Phoenix Henke blew us away in her audition. Giving up that control is always really difficult for me, but it’s also liberating.
SZ: What is your writing process?
DC: Stories and characters swim around in my head for a while before I ever get the guts to try to write them down. I hate starting things. I suppose it’s that fear of being exposed as a moron. But once I get going, it’s hard for me to think about anything else, which can be good for the story, but bad for interactions with other humans. “Short Term 12” is based on experiences I had while working at a residential facility for at-risk teenagers. It started out as a simple collection of disjointed scenes, with characters loosely based on people that I knew. But usually, as I write, themes begin to rise to the surface and scenes that once seemed random take on new meaning. Then it’s just a matter of connecting the dots, which is my favorite part. I have a lot of stories in my head right now. Who knows if any of them will ever get made. But they’re good company for now.
SZ: How was working with this cast and crew different from the Flagpop shoots?
DC: In the past, I’ve done every film alongside my good friend Lowell Frank. This was my first time directing solo, so that made everything a bit different. We were also shooting in LA and using SAG actors, which mainly just added a bunch of silly paperwork to our preproduction. But like every other film we’ve done, I was surrounded by an incredible team of creative friends who I could not have even thought of doing this without.
Our amazing producer, Michelle Steffes (who I met this year at a festival), gave the script to Katie Taylor, who became our casting director. Katie got the script to Brad Henke, who was in Sherry Baby and Choke, which I believe releases this month. Brad really connected with the story because he and his wife Katelin recently adopted their 16-year-old daughter, Phoenix, from a facility like the one portrayed in the film. Phoenix was the one who impressed us so much in her audition that we changed the role to fit her. Short Term 12 is the first film Brad and Phoenix are acting together in.
SZ: What is your goal as a filmmaker?
DC: At this particular point in my life, my goal as a filmmaker is to create things with good friends. Perhaps that sounds sappy, but that’s all I care about right now. This is an art form that usually requires a lot of people working together in order to accomplish anything. It’s a process that I really love, but that’s mainly because I’ve been blessed to be able to work alongside so many great people that I love. And if I decide to make another one, I don’t ever want that to change.
Short Term 12 plays as a part of the San Diego Film Festival's "Local Love" on Thursday 9/25/08 at 5:00 PM and Friday 9/26/08 at Noon at Pacific Gaslamp Theaters. More info is available on the SDFF Website.