Posted September 9, 2013 by Jeff in Flicks

Destin Daniel Crettin: Creating chemistry on a budget for ‘Short Term 12’

Written and directed by Destin Daniel Crettin, Short Term 12 centers on Mason (John Gallagher) and Grace (Brie Larson), a couple of twentysomethings who work at a foster care facility. While Grace is particularly talented at relating to the teens, she has her hands full with Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), an obstinate young girl who has a history of cutting herself. The film premiered earlier this year at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival where it won the Grand Jury Narrative Feature Award, and has been reaping critical praise ever since. It’s currently in limited release but is slowly expanding to more cities this month. Cretton recently phoned in to talk about the film and how he achieved such great on-screen chemistry between Gallagher and Larson.

Talk about what inspired the film’s storyline.
It was inspired by my first job out of college at a place like the one portrayed in the movie. I worked there for about two years. Three years after working there and after going to film school, it was time to do my thesis project. I was going through old journals and things from that time and some of the stories really stuck out. I started organizing them into a fictional story.

I was surprised at how young the people who worked there were. Is that typical?
At the place I worked at, yeah. I was 22 and I worked there right out of college. My supervisor was in her mid-20s. We all felt like kids. We were only four years older than some of the older kids there. It was incredibly common for us to be telling the kids on Friday not to do something that we were going to do on Saturday. It was a strange scenario.

I started out working really hard to be a leader and realized quickly that the best way to be a leader is to treat everyone as an equal to you.

The film really explores those connections and contradictions.
Yeah. One big theme is that regardless of age or what you’ve been through or what your supposed role is, humans can learn from each other no matter what. That was a huge lesson for me. I started out working really hard to be a leader and realized quickly that the best way to be a leader is to treat everyone as an equal to you. I learned so much from those kids. It’s crazy how much I learned.

How were you able to make the movie on such a small budget?
By having an incredible team. The team I worked with, a lot of them came straight from my first feature, which we had done exactly a year prior. We shot that for $60,000. No one was getting paid. We were shooting in my apartment. We shot in my apartment. We weren’t afraid of low-budget filmmaking and we knew how to do it. We took that same mentality into this project and stretched it as far as we could.

Brie Larson and John Gallagher are particularly good in the movie. Talk about their performances.
Those guys are so wonderful. I think what impressed me so much about both of them is that they’re extremely talented actors. You can see it on the screen. They’re so wonderful at living each moment with a camera in front of their face. Every take we did didn’t feel staged to me. It seemed like they were actually feeling those things and they seemed to be reacting to things. They’re both such wonderful people and collaborators. They both really understood that their roles on set didn’t stop when I said cut. Not that they were method, but they were both extremely important in helping me create an environment on set that felt really fun and collaborative for all the kids and actors. At any moment you would hear John playing that “big booty” game with all the kids around him. It made it feel like it was a safe place to be creative and a fun place to try things out. None of the kids felt scared.

Did you do anything that helped them develop that chemistry that they have?
We only had a couple of days before we started. I sent Brie and John on a faux date together. I sent an envelope with John to open when they got there. They had dinner and then opened it. It was a thank you note, but it had conversation starters written on torn up sheets of paper. Every one of those conversation starters was tied to themes in the movie. It got them talking about their hopes and dreams for one day when they will be parents and what their fears are and what kind of residue might be left over from their childhood. It asked them what they think Mason and Grace’s first date was like and they created a whole backstory for those characters. That was really helpful. I had them meet up with the kids before we started shooting and it was just talking to them before they met up with the kid actors and having them be on board with helping me create that environment and encourage the kids to react with each other. It did feel like a family. A lot of what you see on screen is an extension of what was really happening before we started filming.

What have things been like for you in the wake of the film’s premiere at South by Southwest earlier this year?
We’re only opening in theaters now but we’ve been showing it all along. It’s really extraordinary. For this story and subject matter, it’s been really touching and moving for me to take it around and see people’s reactions to it. Most of their reactions get us talking about real things. That’s refreshing for anyone who works in this industry; we can easily get caught up in the stupidity of it and all the fluffy, silly parts of it. This movie has been a nice break from that. Most people who watch it end up talking about more personal and real things.

Have you started thinking about your next feature?
I’m writing something now. I’m also reading some other scripts. I haven’t landed on anything for sure. I’m not in a huge rush. I don’t want to jump into something unless I feel as passionate about it as I did about this story, so I’ll just see how it goes.







Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.