Since premiering at last March’s SXSW Festival, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 has garnered unanimous praise for its delicate balance of tragedy and comedy. The film took home SXSW’s top two prizes, and has built steady buzz leading up to its release date this Friday. Cretton’s film follows Grace (Brie Larson, in a career-making performance), a twentysomething supervisor at a foster care facility who is struggling just as much as the kids she is meant to help. Cretton, who before this wrote the slyly titled I Am Not a Hipster, spoke to us recently about conveying love on screen, working with child actors, and the fine balance between funny and sad.
I cried so many times during the movie. Does it still tug at your heartstrings?
It’s always an emotional experience for me to watch, probably on many different levels that other people don’t experience. I mean, a lot of it is just a lot of pride for the actors. Everybody who’s on that screen, I’ve grown to love as people and to see them perform like that and be reminded of all those experiences we had together is really touching to me. It’s kinda like flipping through a photo album.
Is there a personal back story to it?
Yes. I worked at a place similar to this after I graduated from college, before going to film school, and my experience was pretty similar to that experience of that Nate character, where I was scared out of my mind every day that I went to work for the first three months, and didn’t feel like I had any right to be caretakers to these kids. The weird thing about that job is that the age gap is not very large, and the life experience gap is not very large, and a lot of times the things we we’re telling these kids not to do were lessons we should honestly have been telling ourselves. It’s just a strange working environment, but in the end, it was by far the most rewarding and life-changing experience I ever had.
There was so much palpable love in this film. How challenging is it getting genuine love across on screen?
Genuine love. Wow. I love that word, “palpable” love. These actors were just incredible, and there’s a lot of different forms of love portrayed in the movie, and a lot of what you see on-screen was worked on quite a bit before the cameras were rolling.The relationships that you see on-screen were created off-screen as well. Grace had a huge love for the kids under her care, and Brie Larson also had a huge love for the young actors even when we weren’t rolling the camera.
Child actors carried a heavy load in the film. What was it like working with them? Any different from your creative process with the adult actors?
I’ve worked with kids before, and usually it is quite different. In this case, it was not different at all. If you talked to any of the actors who were more experienced, they will tell you how much these kid actors were forcing them to step up their game. It’s the opposite of what I was expecting. I was expecting to roll a ton of footage on them, and pick out the little pieces. And I was expecting to have to cast kids that were just so much similar to the characters so they can be natural and themselves on camera. But in reality, none of these kids are anything like the characters that are on-screen. And they’re all just crazy, naturally good actors who know how to think. We’d just talk about the character. They’d process that through their incredibly advanced 13 year-old brains and then they’d perform.
You’re very good at handling stories that are a mix of comedy and melancholy drama. Why do you think you’re drawn to that specific tone?
Everything so far that I’ve worked on has a definite personal element to it. I find, at least in my life, that humor is a huge part of tragedy and anytime there’s something extremely dramatic happening, there’s usually something really hilarious happening as well. I love awkward moments. That’s a weird thing about me. I love awkward moments and have personal gratification when things get really awkward. Maybe that has something to do with it, why it comes up in the stuff that I write.
And since we touched on your last feature briefly, can you define the word hipster for me?
I’m not even gonna go there. [Laughs]
That’s usually how it falls.
I just don’t know the answer to that. It’s just a label like any other horrible, ridiculous label. It’s a title we chose for that movie that makes people either hate the movie or like the movie, and either way they usually come and watch it and find out that the movie has nothing to do with that title. [Laughs]
What’s coming up on the horizon?
Probably sleep for a couple more days. I did both these movies back-to-back. I’m excited to have a little bit of time to write again.