NEW YORK – While attending film school at San Diego State University some years ago, Destin Cretton would always take note of an annual poster calling for script submissions. It was a contest held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences called the Nicholl Fellowship. He never tried applying for it until a script called “Short Term 12,” which was inspired by his time working at a foster care facility for at-risk teenagers. He never thought there would be much of a chance at winning but he gave it a shot and went right back into working out the kinks of his script.
A short time later, he was incredibly frustrated with those kinks, as well as the rejections the script was getting at other outlets, and he was just about ready to throw in the towel. Then he received an email notifying him that he had landed in the quarterfinals of the competition. The good news gave him further encouragement to finish his rewrite (which, three years later, would finally make its way to the screen with him behind the camera). Before long, the circuit ended with “Short Term 12” being one of the 10 winning finalists for the honor, and Cretton still can’t believe that’s how it panned out.
“When I go back and think about that time of my life, it’s just outrageous,” he says. “That I was in a room with these people who were so nice and so encouraging and so passionate about the storytelling process, people like Eva Marie Saint and Bob Shapiro…my childhood was wrapped up in so many of the people in that room.”
During the experience, Cretton soaked in the work of his fellow finalists. He particularly took a shine to Andrew Lanham’s “The Jumper of Maine,” becoming fast friends with the writer, with whom he still bounces ideas back and forth to this day. At the ceremony, he listened to Shapiro talk about how Warner Bros. didn’t want to pay for the “Large Marge” claymation sequence of “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” and how the crew just did it on their own in someone’s garage. But mostly he just tried to keep his head on his shoulders, as the entire experience was “just insane…crazy,” Cretton says.
Since then he’s cranked out a separate feature debut that he shot with fellow film school grads in San Diego (2012’s “I Am Not a Hipster,” which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January of last year), and now, “Short Term 12” has been lifted off the page and into reality with Brie Larson in the lead role. It has picked up awards at the SXSW and Los Angeles film festivals and will finally make its way to screens next week. The two films share a certain spirit and, of course, “Hipster” afforded valuable lessons that Cretton would take into his follow-up.
“From the title or the synopses they seem like very different movies,” he says. “But I think emotionally there’s still a lot of ties to a main character who is learning how to deal with something that they haven’t been dealing with and probably should be. But I think the easiest and most clear tie between the two are the people involved. A lot of the team from ‘Hipster,’ exactly one year later, started working on ‘Short Term,’ including Joel P. West, my composer, Brett Pawlak, my DP, Ron Najor, my producer. It just felt very natural and easy to create an environment that felt very safe and fun and easy to work together on.”
Though Cretton started out his higher education pursuits with an eye toward nursing, that’s not actually what led him to work at a foster care facility after graduating. It was, in so many words, the need to work and the one place that was hiring. He was making quirky shorts while working there, but it took a while before the idea of setting a story in such a place started to percolate.
“I was completely out of my element for the first few months,” he says of the job. “It was terrifying for me at the time and the place that I was at, with my naive kind of outlook on the world. It was a very terrifying first few months but it ended up being an extremely good thing for me.”
Indeed, “Short Term 12” was tackled from another place of fear: Cretton, who like the main character of “I Am Not a Hipster” grew up with three sisters, decided to tell his story from the point of view of a female. That decision opened up the entire experience for him creatively because of that fear and intimidation and, certainly, the feeling of being woefully unqualified. He was constantly — almost neurotically, he admits — having his sisters read new material to make sure he was at least somewhere near the mark. But what he discovered, ultimately, was a simple truth: a complicated character is a complicated character.
“What I’ve found is that I am Grace,” he says of the film’s main character. “I wasn’t trying to put myself into the shoes of somebody I did not relate to. I 100% related to that female. I also completely relate to the Mason character and my girlfriend really relates to the Mason character and also the Grace character. I think it was a nice lesson for me, to not be afraid of that, because a person is a person.”
As the film makes its way into the world, Cretton’s gears have been turning on how to expand the world of “Short Term 12.” At a time when television is often proving itself to be a better outlet for exploring story, he’s interested in developing the project as a series. “I think it’s a subject that is not just incredibly interesting and entertaining, but also very current,” he says. “I would love to be a part of something that brings the conversation of that system, and all the ways that it’s tied to other systems in our country, to the forefront a little more.”
When asked what kind of series has the sort of spark he’d be looking for, Cretton is quick to mention HBO’s “The Wire.” The David Simon series is “one of the most impacting pieces of moving pictures that I’ve ever seen,” Cretton says. “Just collectively, it taught me so much and also entertained me so much. If we can do anything slightly close to that, that would be incredible.”
But, he warns, there are no official discussions being held yet. “I’m in the early creative stages in my brain,” he says.
For now, “Short Term 12” — after coming off the festival circuit and with plenty of kudos already — is ready for its close-up. Will it be able to push past sure-fire recognition at various independent film awards ceremonies and into an even bigger spotlight? After all, it has already been recognized by the Academy in one form.
“Short Term 12” arrives in theaters Aug. 23.