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Interview with SHORT TERM 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton

People expect differently from films these days.

At some point (when did it happen?) films became an extension of the amusement park experience – with audiences wanting each consecutive film to be even bigger, capable of instilling more awe, more spectacle. Something to take them by the shoulders and shake them; a visceral physical experience. This is of course one thing film can be.

But we have stopped expecting what earlier generations did from films. We have stopped expecting a film to be a fully rounded emotional experience. One that makes us simultaneously reflect on the inequities of life and be happy with our own condition. I mean the sort of experience filmgoers must have had when they went to the cinemas to watch IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE or CASABLANCA or SINGING IN THE RAIN or CITYLIGHTS. That emotional purity has gone entirely missing from modern cinema. Sentimentality has become a pejorative cinematic ideal. But sentimentality when well-earned and done with authenticity can make for the most potent of film experiences. And this is what makes SHORT TERM 12 an exceptional achievement.  It is the rare film that can claim possession of that emotionally purity. Set in a facility for foster care adolescents and the young employees who work there, this film could have wallowed in pious sanctimony at every step. Instead it takes every one of those tricky situations and makes them honest and grounded as the film builds to great power.

Unknown-2So there was understandale apprehension when Rashmi and I got the opportunity to sit down and talk with Destin Daniel Cretton, the director of SHORT TERM 12; how does one maintain objectivity when meeting with the creator of a film you admire so much? We tried.

Below are excerpts from the interview with Destin Daniel Cretton and Ron Najor a producer of the film.

Destin: So (amongst the three Moviewallas) who didn’t like our movie and who did?

Rashmi: This is the problem because we all loved it. And we are not just saying that. So we do want to say congratulations. Yazdi’s so moved he can’t even speak at the minute.

Yazdi: Let me try. We always mention that the best movies for us are the ones which have that perfect trifecta of great writing, great directing and great acting. And very often you have two but not all three of those (components) and this film….oh man.

Destin: thanks.

Rashmi: I want to start by saying that we watched the short (on which this film is based). Can you talk about going from a short to a feature

Director Destin Daniel Cretton and Actor John Gallagher Jr. at the Los Angeles Film Festival
Director Destin Daniel Cretton and Actor John Gallagher Jr. at the 2103 Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF)

Destin: Initially when I started writing the feature I was keeping all the same characters from the short. But I couldn’t even start; I couldn’t even put a sentence down. It just felt…it felt uninspired. And it also just felt boring to me, because I felt like I was retelling the same thing. And as soon as I decided to change the main character to a female supervisor, it became a whole new challenge and a whole new story; everything kind of opened up. For me it’s like the difference between going from writing something the way that I thought it’s supposed to be done and writing something that felt fun and felt fresh and real and new. Because I never wrote the short planning to turn it into a feature. Everything that I have done so far has been a way to try something I haven’t tried before. And so this was totally that. It was to stretch myself and explore other parts of this world that I wasn’t able to do in the short.

Rashmi: And Ron, did you have any involvement in the short or did you come into the feature?

Ron: I came into this feature but we had done a previous feature called I’M NOT A HIPSTER. So we sort of had a working relationship and they asked me to be a part of the feature version of SHORT TERM 12.

Rashmi: What were some of the challenges you faced in producing this movie

Ron: The casting part for us was one of the most challenging. It’s partially because with independent filmmaking, it’s a sort of tedious thing (where) once you get financed you then have this really short timeline for finding all the right people. So that was kind of nerve-wracking on our end. And just a bunch of different obvious things (including) the basic budgetary things. But overall it was a pretty lovely shoot; we had just all the right people. It was a lot of people from our I’M NOT A HIPSTER shoot. So there was a wonderful short-hand..

Rashmi: Which is probably comforting I guess.

Destin: I think it was necessary for my sanity to have good friends around.

short-term-12-posterYazdi: Can we talk about the casting for a minute? Because for me much of the movie stands on the particular characteristics of the Grace character. It’s all about her. And until I saw the movie I didn’t realize how many people I knew like her who are so open and communicative and just phenomenal at their jobs but then they go home, and they are completely closed off and they are not communicative. Was she written with somebody in mind? And then how did you go about finding the right fit (for Grace)?

Destin: Grace is a combination of a lot of inspirations. Two of my supervisors when I was working at a similar place were young female supervisors who the few times that I saw them outside of work, were very shy. One of them was very small in frame, she was just a petite girl and did not seem like she could be the supervisor of anything (laughter). But when she stepped on to that floor, it was like she just went into character. It was so bizarre, she was one of the best supervisors that I have worked with. She really demanded respect from the kids, but also respected the kids. And was an enforcer of rules. But also didn’t treat the kids like they were lesser human beings. And there was something that was just so impressive to me. But also made me wonder: what is she like outside…because I did not know her personally, but it made me wonder, what is she like in other parts of her life?

Grace is inspired too by other people that I know. But also Grace is inspired by me. I have that tendency. There are certain situations when it is so easy for me to be open and honest and allow myself to be vulnerable and then there are other situations where I am like….I am not telling now, and nobody gets in. And she is definitely a way for me to explore things that I wrestle with as well.

Rashmi: And how long did it take you to write the feature?

Destin: 2009 was when I started writing the feature. And I got through one draft. And then was introduced to Asher Goldstein; he has kind of been a producer on this project from Day One. He is with a company called Traction Media and he came on board and read that draft and was the first person to say I want to do this with you. And so together we started reworking. He (started) giving me notes on that draft. There was one pretty drastic rewrite from that point; most of that rewrite was just simplifications, it was trying to combine characters so there weren’t so many story lines going on. And that was at the end of 2009. We finished another draft over the course of a few months and in 2010 that new draft won the Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship which was a huge stamp of approval for the movie. I don’t know if you are familiar with that. Once a year they give out five fellowships based on screenplay submissions to writers.

Yazdi: And it’s nationwide?

Destin: Yeah, its worldwide. But it is given out by the Academy Of Motion Pictures. And then two things happen. One you get money. At that time it was 30,000 dollars, now it is 35,000 dollars. But you are also accepted into this community of just wonderful people. All these writers, the list of past Nicholl winners is pretty wonderful and it’s a very inspiring thing to happen. It’s just crazy that that happened, I still can’t believe it . But (after) that fellowship we still weren’t able to get funding for SHORT TERM 12. But that fellowship allowed me to write another screenplay which ended up being I’M NOT A HIPSTER. And I wrote that specifically to be able to do it on our own if we couldn’t get funding for SHORT TERM 12. And…..we didn’t get funding for SHORT TERM 12. So we shot I’M NOT A HIPSTER and I used a lot of the money that they gave me and put that into the pot along with Ron who put money in the pot. And Ron’s uncle put money in the pot. And then that premiered at Sundance and then that was a huge reason we ended up getting funding for SHORT TERM 12.

Yazdi: I’m sorry I keep coming back to the cast, because I just can’t get past it. I think that if there is any justice in the world, Brie Larson will get end-of-year awards recognition.

Destin: I’m with you.

Unknown-5Rashmi : She is phenomenal.

Yazdi: She is devastating. How did you find her? Of course she has been doing a lot of television, and you mentioned there was a very narrow period of time to look for somebody – and even John Gallagher Jr, who plays Mason – they are perfect for their roles. Did you look for long or did you happen to get lucky? And how did you know you had found them?

Destin: There was a lot of luck, but we didn’t just pick somebody.

There were specific things about Brie that initially excited me. Just from looking at her reel. Her ability to transform from character to character even when she is playing little bit roles, she’s just like a completely different person. Whether she’s doing comedy or drama, she is always acting from her gut. She’s performing from this thing that is just happening in the moment. So many times she will be reading lines that I know were scripted, but it just doesn’t feel scripted. So that was very exciting to me. And then what sealed the deal was that we did a Skype call. It wasn’t an audition, it was just a conversation and she was actually on the set of THE SPECTACULAR NOW (at the time). And she had read the script. She had told me that she had signed up to volunteer at some group homes already because she was so excited about the idea. And I was obviously really impressed by that. Later she told me that she had been denied by all those people (laughter). So she actually did not get to volunteer but it was still impressive that she was that passionate about it. And in a good way she can be very obsessive, and she goes for it. And she started researching as much as she could about the subject. As a director you cannot ask for anything more than an actor who loves the project and the character so much that they become the expert on that character. And also she is just smart, she got the character. And then there’s something just intrinsically about her that felt like Grace. When she would stop and I could watch her brain ticking behind her eyes as she is thinking about something, and it felt like Grace.

Rashmi: She is a great actress and she has done great work, but I think the range that you were able to get from her – and the depth – to affect an audience so deeply that we feel that we know this character. That’s not easy. What do you do to really pull that out of them?

Yazdi: It’s the script.

Destin:  It’s everything, It’s the environment that everyone helps create on set.  A lot of the scenes that people really connect with Grace on, we shot later. It took a little time to create an environment where everyone felt really safe. Safe to be themselves and safe to mess up. And know that no one’s going to jump on them. So then that makes them more daring, makes them try things that they have never tried before. And I think the moments when everybody started to thrive more and more were just a few days – when they realized this is a safe place to play. So I think that had a lot to do with it. I don’t know… the wonderful thing about Brie is that she is kind of fearless. Nobody is a hundred percent but the best thing you can ask from an actor is to just like go for it and mess up really bad. And not care and do it again as opposed to just trying safe things that they know that they can do really well. And Brie was just going for it, and it was great.

Rashmi: And the kids, some of the kids are younger. Was it the first performance for some of them?

Destin: Close to. Alex Calloway had acted before….but this was his first film. Keith Stanfield, it’s his first feature too.

 Unknown-4Yazdi: Ah, I loved that Marcus character

Ron: He was the only one who came from the original short film.

Yazdi: I love his character. Different people communicate differently and that’s how he finds his way to communicate. We talk abstractly about art helping us. And here is an example of art literally helping him speak his mind. This kind of stuff is very hard to do. It can come off inauthentic. It is a fine line to walk and stay on the right side.

Destin: It was a frightening movie to direct. Because there are probably like 30 scenes in this movie that could have just thrown the train off the rails if something was too melodramatic, or pushed too far in that direction.

Rashmi: And you are flirting with some interesting issues as well. You are kind of saying I am showing you what the situation is but I am not going to say whether I am for this or against this. I think the film does a nice job of not manipulating the audience. How much did you have to pull back with the pen?

Destin: We had to pull back a lot with everything. I mean we pulled…I overshot. I shot a lot of things that I knew was not going to make the cut.

Rashmi: DVD special!

Destin: Yeah, there’s actually going to be half an hour’s worth of material. But I think everything about this movie was trying to see how much we can take away from it. In terms of  stripping down the music. In the editing. See how much we can take away from it and…still allow audiences to feel.

It’s still a movie. I wanted it to be a movie. It’s not supposed to just be emulating non-fiction. It’s a story that has things that happen that I wanted to happen. Like I wanted to watch Grace just beat the shit out of a car.  I wanted her to have that.

Rashmi: I was (thinking I) want to do that.

Destin: That’s obviously fiction mixed in…there’s definitely an emotional ride that’s happening. So I wanted people to enjoy this ride. But we also didn’t want to be yanking people around. We found the more we took out the better the experience it was for people. By taking, I mean taking out our blatant fingerprints, if that makes sense.

images-6Yazdi: I wanted to ask about the Mason character. He seemed to me a very realistic embodiment of stability. The kind of rock that everybody wishes they had to lean on. It’s very easy in movies to have characters which are mean or have an obvious motivation to behave poorly, but to have a character who displays decency and who is well intentioned, that calls for skill.

Some of my favorite scenes are the ones with his family. Was his family specifically written to be different? He is obviously from a different heritage, but yet they are so accepting. And I loved that little part of the movie.

Destin: I do too. I do too.

I see the Grace character as kind of the thing that I struggle with. And I see Mason as the person that I want to be more like.

Mason was created out of trying to figure out who Grace would allow to be in her life. Because she throws everyone away. Mason is persistent but he is also very non-threatening. He is really supportive, like annoyingly supporting. But he is also just so goofy and not cool that it makes sense that Grace would feel safe around him.

And it was very important for me to show that scene; it’s a small scene but I think it is one of the most important scenes in the movie. Where he gives that speech when his parents come out. We see an example of the system working extremely well. Which has nothing to do with the system; it has to do with those people, because there are good people working in every system figuring out a way to do it. To me that scene just represents so much of what I know is possible in the world. The good things that humans are capable of doing happen in that scene. Just like color doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is or what your traditions are. Its just acceptance of human beings having fun together.


Episode 192 – The Bling Ring

In Episode 192 of Moviewallas we discuss the new movie from Director Sofia Coppola.



– The Bling Ring

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Reporting from the 2012 Los Angeles Film Festival : Child’s Play

Hello everyone, Yazdi here. At Thanksgiving every year I update a list of one hundred things in life that I am grateful for. The list evolves. I have something to include in my 2012 update: film festival press accreditation. The ability to watch any movie playing at a film festival is something to be grateful for in life and makes all of the work that we put into producing Moviewallas worthwhile. Very grateful.

So there we were over two weekends trying to watch as many films as humanly possible. The struggle to pick from every manner of cinematic presentation – foreign films, documentaries, short film programs, Hollywood premieres, Question and Answer sessions with actors / directors / cinematographers, cult films, old classics…. is the cinephile’s wet dream. And we sampled to our heart’s content. As the days wore on, and as I made my way through yet another screening, feeling the best kind of exhaustion there is [that comes from having watched too many(!) films], a theme began to emerge. Across the films I had sampled during the festival the common theme was of exceptional, honest performances from child actors. One film after another amazed me with startling, unaffected performances borne of a naturalism that is all too often missing from the portrayal of children in cinema.

The adage goes that filmmakers would do well as long as they steer clear of child actors and animals. And yet, the makers of so many films I saw bravely embraced the uncertainty – and what is likely a high level of difficulty with working with children – and brought something of meaning to the screen.

The first movie I saw, Summer Games (Jeux D’ete, directed by Giorgio Gobi, the official Swiss submission to the Foreign Language Film Category at this year’s Academy Awards), is one thing on the surface and many things underneath. At a run-down coastal town in Italy frequented by less than affluent tourists, many arrive during summer to camp out for a few days around the beach. Which causes for unexpected interactions amongst strangers. Tenuous at first, an unlikely clique develops between five pre-teen and teen kids from very different economic, social and ethnic backgrounds. The initially innocent games the kids devise – in which the loser has to submit to what the victor demands – start to, over a period of time, wander into increasingly dangerous territory. The connections between the five unravel and reform constantly, influenced as much by the behavior of their adult guardians as their own shifting loyalties. The movie is as much about the adults, but one of the joys of this film is to see how effortlessly it captures the ebbing shifts in power and affinities between the kids in this group. Yes, we know that kids of a certain age can be remarkably cruel. And fearless in walking headlong into danger, because what child of a particular age cares about mortality. The near impossible feat this film accomplishes is in depicting one of the more dangerous and slippery things in cinema: teenage sexuality. The movie breathes and aches with a sensuality that is never prurient and as natural as the water in which the five kids spend so much of their time. Grappling with feelings they do not know how to process, and raging with contradictory, self-destructive behavior, the kids do what kids do. And the movie only holds a mirror to them, without judgment. The film is of course immensely helped by the natural performances from the lead child actors who wondrously bring all the complexities of being not-quite-an-adult to life. This is a film to seek out.

Thursday Till Sunday (De Jueves A Domingo, by first time director Domingo Sotomayor Castillo) is a Chilean film that covers a four-day road trip taken by a couple, their daughter, and young son. The movie is seen, for the most part, through the eyes of the teenaged daughter. Approaching neorealism, this is a work of stark austerity, which may tempt a viewer to assign it hastily to the genre of films where nothing happens. The studiedly documentary feel, the naked abandon of traditional plotting and story arc, and the patient, unrushed, lingering of the camera over these four characters, may at first seem unsettling. But when one stops trying to deduce the film on a minute by minute basis, one settles into its rhythms. And you realize this is a film that trusts the intelligence of the viewer enough to not provide easy answers. And demands that the viewers bring their own experiences to glean what they will from this story. Slowly the cracks in the relationships come into focus, sometimes ever so briefly. More than anything else the movie evokes a sense of nostalgia – about a time, when being a child meant not having the tools to decipher what the behavior of the adults signified. The young daughter is never precocious, or all knowing, and the actor who plays her (Santi Ahumada) brings an effortless naturalism that belies any knowledge of a camera being around her, and captures all the complexities of being a teenager: distracted, self-involved, impatient but always well-meaning. In the Q and A after the film, the director revealed that the four-year old who played the younger brother was obviously not up to acting in the traditional sense, and the other actors learned to ad-lib and work around his natural behavior on camera. No wonder the film evokes a feeling of purity about it.

Not all films with children had the same effect. Crazy and Thief, a film of less than an hour, made by Cory McAbee, stars the director’s seven year-old daughter and two-year old (!) son, as the titular characters who have adventures as they wander through the streets of a city. Their experiences straddle the line between reality and fantasy, the obvious and the mythological. This movie elicited the strongest reaction I had of any film I watched at the festival. And it was not the good kind. Precious to an extreme (much of the two year-old’s warbling is indecipherable and sub-titles tell us what he is saying), and constantly trying to be more than it is, the film for me, was ultimately undone by some unforgivable choices. I have a problem with films that depict children in peril with the specific intent of eliciting a quick emotional rise from the audience. And this film has many scenes of the two unaccompanied minors being put into all manner of danger. Yes, I realize that much of the film is meant to be surreal, but when the two kids get into the car of a perfect stranger, and then into his home, the ugly possibility of pedophilia hanging over the premise was too disturbing for me to shake off. I question the ethics of making a film such as this.

Armando Bo, the first-time director of the The Last Elvis (El Ultimo Elvis) has no trouble coaxing an altogether believable performance out of Margarita Lopez, who plays in this film, the young daughter of an Elvis Presley impersonator in Argentina. But it is John McInerny, playing Carlos, the lead, who impresses most by managing to transcend the kitschiness associated with celebrity impersonators. He plays a blue collar worker struggling to make ends meet while dealing with an ex-wife who does not think much of him, and a daughter who is uncommunicative. On the side, he plays Elvis tunes at local gigs, and the film makes it clear from the very first scene that this is not a man lacking in talent. His single-minded admiration for Elvis is so complete as to be entirely immune to irony. Or pity. Or perverseness. This man simply believes in Elvis. And it is to the director and lead actor’s credit that this character never becomes laughable. Carlos is 42 years old, the same age as when Elvis died, and things spiral even further out of control as a set of events leave him having to become the primary caretaker of his distant daughter. As he labors to stay afloat, the movie quietly shifts into an uncompromising character study of a man under duress. And the final scenes of the film, invested with a sense of inevitability, cunningly hint at a mystery left for the viewer to solve. The kind that should trigger a reconsideration of all that has transpired earlier in the film. The day before the screening of the movie, we were fortunate to run into the completely disarming young director of the film, Armando Bo (who previously co-wrote the film Biutiful). Please come see my film tomorrow and tell me afterward whether you liked it, he said. I have been doing one better than that, Mr Bo. I have been telling anyone who will listen to find a way to see this uncommonly accomplished film. And I can hardly wait for what Armando Bo does next.

In the short films program that I saw, it was the 11-minute feature Fireworks that finally gave me that transcendent experience one gets only so rarely when watching films. Directed by the twenty-something Victor Hugo Duran, this is the story of two young boys in South Los Angeles who go about trying to get their hands on fireworks on July 4th one year, in order to impress two girls. That’s it. Beautiful, simple and sublime, this film shows that it does not take much to reflect truth on film. In the Q and A session afterward, the director revealed that during filming he abandoned the original character names and let the child actors use their own names and voice the dialog in their own words. And the film was shot in a day! This short is a tremendous achievement. In another short feature Big Man, a boy in Nigeria can’t help being a kid and playing pranks on his younger brother, until one day things go too far. Everything relies on the camera capturing the contradictions of being a child, wild and unbridled, but also good and regretful. And the film is up to the task.

Another short film, Paraiso, is an observation of men who wash the windows of Chicago skyscrapers from the outside, suspended from rooftop wires. It provides voice to the deeply philosophical musings from these men who are all too aware of the personal peril they face during almost every minute of their job. As with the best documentaries, this short demonstrates that there is much to learn about life, if we only know put the camera on the right subjects. The short Laura Keller, NB (non-breeder), reiterates that all good science fiction is about ideas and concepts (and not aliens and spaceships). With minimal resources, this 16-minute feature creates an entirely credible vision of a future world that is disturbing in its political implications.

Besides all of the films that underlined the theme of amazing child performances, there were other movies at the 2012 LA Film Festival that made an impression. The fest had a rich roster of documentary films. All of the ones I saw were memorable, in turns entertaining, angering, insightful, and educational. This included Reportero, La Camioneta: The Journey Of One American School Bus, Bestiaire, and The Queen Of Versailles (the latter is playing in a cinema near you right now, and is worth the trip there; we discussed it in a recent Moviewallas podcast). And I didn’t even get to see well regarded docs such as The Iran Job, Searching for Sugarman, Call Me Kuchu and Words of Witness. Lest one might wonder if the festival only featured serious fare, many mainstream Hollywood films were also screened, including Magic Mike, To Rome With Love, People Like Us, and Celeste and Jesse Forever, all of which have since had theatrical distribution (and discussed in Moviewallas podcasts). But the one standout in the festival program of relatively mainstream films was Its A Disaster (directed by Todd Berger and starring Julia Stiles, David Cross and America Ferrera). Likely at the top of the class in the recently minted genre of the End Of The World films, this movie has the distinction of being bitingly funny; it would be criminal if this film did not find distribution and show up for wider consumption soon.

We always say “Too many films, too little time” on our podcasts. Nowhere is this more obvious than when attending a film festival. Next stop, the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival where further delights await.

Words of Witness | Review

How many of you exercise your right to vote?  How would you feel if this right were taken away; perhaps you would be relieved because you always thought that there weren’t really any great candidates anyway? You may be devastated that you now no longer have a choice to make even though you didn’t necessarily choose to do anything about it? You may even possibly think that a single voice, your voice doesn’t make a difference?  One thing is for sure however, in the free world, we DO have a right to vote for those who we wish to be governed by and watching Mai Iskander’s latest and first-rate documentary “Words of Witness” will certainly make you feel this way.

Not so long ago, people in Egypt had no choice except to vote for one candidate and for all intents and purposes they were ruled by a dictator.  For decades, people neither had the right to free elections nor were allowed to vote for any other candidates other than Hosni Mubarak.  Inspired by the uprising in Tunisia in the spring of 2011, protests in Egypt began on 25 January and ran for 18 days.  Despite the government’s best efforts to curtail these protests, the people prevailed and finally on 10 February, Mubarak ceded all presidential power to Vice President Omar Suleiman.

Overthrowing a dictator took Egyptians from all walks of life—many of them in their twenties and thirties to come together and social media such as Facebook and Twitter were powerful tools in allowing them to gather to call for universal human rights such as dignity and freedom.  “Words of Witness” tells the powerful and touching story of 22 year old Heba Afify, a newly minted passionate and driven journalist at the English edition of Almasry Alyoum, Egypt’s leading independent newspaper.

Iskander manages to expertly merge Heba negotiating the boundaries of her life with her sympathetic – yet overprotective – mother whilst all around her the boundaries of her country are shifting both societally and politically.  “I know you are a journalist, but you’re still a girl!” Heba’s mother reminds her every time she leaves the house.  We watch Heba take to the streets to report on an Egypt in turmoil, using tweets, texts and Facebook posts. “During the Revolution, all the rules were broken,” Heba exclaims.  “My mother needs to understand that the rules that were broken during the Revolution will remain broken”.

This is an effective documentary that takes us right into the heart of the action where change is occurring and shows us the heart of this amazing young and inspiring journalist who wants to make a change not only for her country but more importantly to the life that is expected of her by her family.  In speaking with the director, it is also clear that this story is not a million miles from her own, I think this is why the viewer is left with such a powerful and inspiring message of being the change you want to be

“Words of Witness” is currently playing in Los Angeles Laemmle Noho 7 week of 27 August 2012 but check local listings for other screenings.

Words of Witness Trailer