Short Term 12, Destin Daniel Cretton’s visceral, unencumbered ode to the mastication of fear is the best film of the year. Sentient without being maudlin, artistic without being too self-aware, Cretton’s opus has emblazoned cinema with quiet fury. My profession’s rule of thumb is to practice discipline and restraint. As a pseudo-film critic, my job is to wait until the end of the year, when the keys are jostled from the ignition, to judge my top picture. As a preliminary action, I shouldn’t be so overt with my subwoofer praise (too many car analogies) but I am. At times, life will find you in a molar flashing rage, and Cretton knows how to organically lull those feelings into the skin of his film. On the rooftop of the Hotel Solamar, I find myself speaking with Destin and Ron Najor, the producer of Short Term 12, about a myriad of topics.
Robert Patrick: Brian De Palma always talks about establishing shots at the beginning of films. How an aerial shot of a city can be boring and innocuous. Your film has a great, warm opening. What were you thinking about when writing that opening scene?
Destin Daniel Cretton: [laughs] It’s funny because it’s not the introduction that I wrote. What is now the intro was originally the second scene. There was another intro before that. I mean, now it seems completely silly that there was anything else that I could have written before that scene. The way that the movie begins feels like a perfect transition into a world that many people have never experienced before. It feels like you’re slowly trickling into the world and slowly feeling new things. Most people, during the beginning, don’t even know who the main character is.
RP: The music in your film has an undercurrent of sadness, but it also has a texture of hopefulness. The most important part is that it’s restrained. What did you and Ron talk about with Joel P. West before he came up with the score?
DC: It was fairly organic while we were shooting. He would send over a bunch of things that he was recording. When he gave me the first batch, I found what would be the theme of the movie. There was just something about it that was really beautiful and melancholy. If we found that the score was pushing something too emotionally in one direction, we would find a way to scale it back.
RP: You had a great group of children in the film that not only understood the material, but could act. I’m sure there are tons of kids who can act out there, but maybe cant identity with the material. What went into finding a good cast that represented your ideas?
DC: [laughs] There’s not actually tons of kids that can act well. We actually lucked out with these kids. Every once in awhile there would be one kid who would get me to tear up, or laugh my ass off. Those kids happened to be the best performers. But they also happened to be the smartest, most mature kids I’ve ever met. These weren’t weirdo Hollywood kids. Their parents were super cool. These kids gave really nuanced performances.
RP: Now that we’re talking about performances, you have to bring up Brie Larson. She is amazing in this film. When did you first realize that she was putting in a special performance?
DC: I don’t know when the first time I felt that was. It was such a collaboration from the very beginning. It wasn’t about one actor just showing off or blowing anyone away. Everything just felt like everyone was in this together, and we were creating interesting scenes. Brie was so incredible on so many levels. So was so great for the kids. And she created relationships off camera that came onto the screen. A lot of that laughter and silliness on camera came from a very real, fun environment that Brie helped create. That John Gallagher, Jr helped create. That everyone did.
RP: You’re clearly a great writer. One of the hardest things to do is probably capturing young people’s emotions in an organic way. You managed to do so in a thoughtful and caring way. Were you ever nervous about translating these emotions without miscalculating anything?
DC: I don’t ever really know how to write anything down. I’m always nervous when I write.
RP: When you were creating the screenplay for this film, did you feel more comfortable removing yourself from the equation by creating a female lead instead of a male lead?
DC: Yeah. The film was based on my own personal experience and the research I did. This really is a film, and it’s not trying to emulate reality perfectly. It’s trying to portray the frustrations and the wonderful moments that are all wrapped up in these environments and these characters.
RP: The natural lighting in this film looked great. It added a lot of texture.
DC: It was definitely a look that were were going for. Brett [Pawlak] manipulated a natural look. I think it’s beautifully done. He primarily lit everything from the outside, so the light would come in from the windows, and it would bounce around.
RP: You guys used the handheld a lot. Was that for capturing the spontaneity of the performances?
DC: Yeah. All of these decisions, from the way we lit our film to the way we utilized handheld, were all done for the sake of helping the performers. We helped to create an environment that feels real. We wanted to make sure it looked like they were in a group home, not on a blatant film set. We wanted lights to come in from the windows, instead of come from inside of the room. We wanted the camera to be on Brett’s shoulder, so we wouldnt have to worry about hitting a specific mark. It allowed Brett to trust his instincts, so he could dance with the actors.
RP: The shark and octopus scene was pivotal to the film. You could have simply shown Kaitlyn reading her diary, but instead you shot the pages. How instrumental was that in conveying the emotion of that sequence?
DC: That scene was really difficult for me to write, because it was a scene where a character needs to reveal something that she didn’t want to talk about. I needed to figure out how this teenager was going to talk about this. The story came from the idea of kids expressing themselves through art, which was something I experienced while working with them. A lot of times you would look at a journal and see that they were processing everything. That was the idea of where that scene and story came from. That was the only believable way that we could show what she was feeling.
RP: Short Term 12 is really taking off. Were you both prepared for the accelerated nature of its success?
Ron Najor: You know, because you wrote a review for our last film, I Am Not a Hipster, that we literally released that film in January 2013, and this film is coming out in August of 2013. So it’s almost non-stop. We were trying to get people to do reviews of the film, all those months ago, and now we’re here, sitting at a nice hotel, doing an interview with you in person, rather than shooting emails back and forth [laughs]. So the difference is that we’re working with a much larger team, trying to get this out there. It was equally nice to have the small, intimate team doing Hipster, but it’s also nice to have a larger umbrella of people helping us get the word out.
RP: San Diego has become a sort of fabric for your films, in some respects.
DC: I love San Diego. The San Diego I know doesn’t have an attitude problem. It’s full of wonderful, generous people who aren’t wrapped up so tightly in their industry or what they do. They don’t take any of it too seriously, to the point where it’s poisoning their relationships. I feel like it’s a pretty healthy place to live. But it’s also still vibrant with what people are creating here.
RP: Do you think your movies will jump start other aspiring filmmakers in the area?
DC: I have no idea. [laughs]
RP: Are you even looking down the awards path? Or are you taking day-by-day?
DC: I’m taking it day-by-day, but I hope Brie gets an Oscar [laughs]
RP: What’s the most talked about part of this film? Do you ever get reactions that you’re surprised by? Or do you ever get tired of repeat questions?
DC: Everybody talks about the rap.
RP: That was an omission from me. I didn’t talk about the rap.
DC: [laughs] I’m glad you didn’t. No, it’s fun talking about the rap. I think my favorite moment to experience with different audiences is when Grace tells Mason that they’re having a baby, and she thinks it’s a joke at first, and he laughs. And I like to see at what point the audience starts reacting. It’s like a measuring stick.
RN: For me, we played the movie at San Diego State for a test screening. I thought they weren’t going to like it. But as soon as we started the film, everyone was laughing. I was shocked that this younger audience was so into this movie. It was a shock to me that the whole movie hit for a lot of younger kids.
Short Term 12 opens in San Diego this Friday at Landmark Hillcrest.