Short Term 12 is one of the best films of the year, and director Destin Cretton is a talent to keep an eye on. Which is why I was surprised that Cretton had had an eye on me. Without the two of us knowing each other beforehand I had impressed Cretton with my dancing skills, and so when the director walked in, he wondered if he knew me. It turns out he had seen me out dancing. I bring this up only because it pays off in the interview.

The interview started with him praising my dance skills, while I praised the film. And then on to business:

This film is partly based on your own personal experience working with at risk kids in the system, which makes the character played by Rami Malek more the character from your personal perspective. Often we’ve seen in movies like this the observer character thrust into the foreground. Did you write that version at one point, or did you know instinctively that that character needed to be in the periphery?

Destin Cretton: The new guy was never the lens that I wanted to tell the story with, but I knew the new guy perspective was necessary as part of the story. If you watch the first ten minutes of the movie, the Rami character doesn’t have more screen time than any of the other characters, but I think people are used to seeing movies like this through the perspective of the new guy that they just start assuming he’s the main character, and then the movie starts following Grace (Brie Larson) more than the rest. That was definitely something we were worried about, if people would know who the main character was right off the bat, but I thought it was a nice way to trickle into the world.

Did you find that people who get into this line of work have been through the system, or was that a character vehicle?

It’s a vehicle, but it’s also based on real people I know. I don’t know the stats of social workers who also have experiences similar to the kids they try to help, but I know enough people that that is their motivation so it isn’t a made up falsehood. And most of this movie is the same way. It was written from a personal perspective, but also interviews I conducted with people who worked in places like this much longer than I did. But it’s only created from those perspectives. I’m not trying to say every place is like this.

There a lot of people who would keep jobs like this for a long time, where three months is a typical turning point. I was only there for a year and a half, but I was a veteran by the time I was done — once you hit the year-mark you’re on the route to be a supervisor. But the people who have a higher calling to those kids and to that world are the ones who stay long because their motivation can’t be money and it can’t be feeling thanked by these kids because none of that usually happens. It’s been great to hear the response from people who work in places like this because one small hope is the film would be a small thank you to them.

Jayden-Short-Term-12One of the things I loved is that you showed that there are problems, but that the foster system works and these people are taken care of. Were you trying to show the positive aspects?

I think it’s really easy for a story like this to just show the negative sides of things, because there are a lot of negative and tragic things wrapped up in this world, but it wouldn’t be a truthful representation of my experience working there. The tragic elements are a huge part of it, and it’s the hardest job I’ve ever done and I was traumatized almost on a daily basis by the things I was learning about these kids and learning what they had to deal with.  But I was also so inspired by them because I would see a kid like Sammy (Alex Calloway) who I would see having fun and cracking jokes and having fun, and seeing that in the context of his backstory is so inspiring and to be able to see that resilience filled me with hope. I wanted to be truthful.

I love the way you shot it, I felt so there, how did you choose to shoot it?

Brett Pawlak is my DP, and we worked together on the short film back in 2008, and since then we’ve done some documentaries together, and he shot my first feature I Am Not a Hipster, and he’s also shot the Halo web series and more, so he shoots these bigger things and these intimate things. Our aesthetic was simple, it was based on one thing we wanted to create the best environment for the actors. Which means trying to not have too much in the room that makes it feel like a movie set. A lot of our light was coming from outside the windows, and shooting handheld was done because we work really fast that way.

Brett does a lot of operating, but one thing I love about shooting handheld with him is he becomes another player in a scene, in the same way actors can react to something that might catch them off guard or make them do something different, Brett can do the same thing. The perfect example is the scene with Marcus (Keith Stanfield) rapping. It wasn’t storyboarded for a slow push, but that was something he did on one of the early takes, and it was pretty magical. But it’s also something we wouldn’t have been able to discover if he was locked down on sticks.

20130603_shortterm12_trailerThe scene where Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) starts to share her first story, how did you approach having a character just reading and make it engaging, and also how did you come across the octopus and the shark?

That’s a great example of a scene that scared the crap out of me, both in the writing stage, where I had to figure out a realistic way for a character to reveal something that she wouldn’t reveal, she wouldn’t talk about, but she wants to but she wouldn’t come out and say it. The other moment is when Marcus raps, those moments were informed by experiences I had where the kids would never talk about the real stuff they were dealing with but you would see it in their art and their journals, and I did have an experience with a kid who wanted to share some rap lyrics with me and they were so insightful that I realized he was processing everything, though I didn’t think he was, so that Jayden story was a result of struggling to find a way for a very guarded sixteen year old realistically reveal that.

One critique of the metaphor is that it is on the nose, but you forget that it is a sixteen year old girl, and that – to me – feels like something a sixteen year old girl would do. Her reading that story, she did it in the audition and had me in tears so I knew it was going to work with Kaitlyn because she is a phenomenal actor.

What was it like to get these performances out of these children? I’d guess this is out of their known experiences.

Working with these child actors really turned my expectations upside down. When I’ve worked with kids in the past, I’m used to having a bag of tricks to get them to think about something else or to look over here, or to get them to laugh. I lucked out on this movie. On one hand all the kids were incredibly professional. Almost none of these kids are like their characters, even Alex Calloway, who plays Sammy, this is his first movie but he could not be more professional and is nothing like Sammy, he’s a showman.

When we hit cut he’d be cracking jokes, but when it was time to role he’d just transform. I talked to them like adults, we processed through what their characters are going through, we had one day of rehearsal where we had a supervisor from a place like Short Term 12 for a really long time, he came in and got to engage with him, ask questions, and he told them about kids going through something similar. All of the kids were great kids, like kids having fun, but they’re also great humans who could empathize with their characters. I think they felt love for their characters. It made it very easy.

short_term_12_film_still_a_lCaitlin was saying she was doing this in between Last Man Standing, which is crazy to me. 

If you watch Caitlyn work, you’d be blown away. In real life she’s so bubbly and fun, and she doesn’t stay in character, but as soon as we’re ready to shoot she goes into Jayden instantly and as soon as we yell cut, she still has tears and mascara running down her face, but her smile comes back and she asks “how was that?” I think a lot of us adults learned from the kids is that we’re making movies, it’s fun, and we take the story very seriously, but the process is fun. And I think that’s when the best creativity came out.

Watching this I thought about Italian Neo-Realism, not to get to pretentious, the Umberto D’s, the Bicycle Thieves, was that something you were thinking about as well?

Sure it was an influence, but I wasn’t thinking about it. I wasn’t thinking about those specifically. The more contemporary influence was The Class (2008), just in the process he went through in creating that. There’s something about that process that was inspiring to me. We weren’t able to do that, but there’s something about how he was working with those kids that was fun, that those kids did feel like a family. It was because they had so much time together before the cameras started rolling, so we tried to create that environment in the movie.

short-term-12-trailerHaving working in this field as you did, did you find that kids fit certain archetypes? That you could look at one kid and tell if they’d be like someone else you worked with? Could you spot patterns in behavioral problems?

This is actually something we tried to portray in the movie, that any time I thought I knew somebody I didn’t, I was constantly, sadly, reminded how easily I pre-judged somebody. I’m not just talking about how they looked, I’m talking about how they carried themselves, if they’re quiet, but every time I think I know somebody, the next time I see them they’re dancing to 90’s hip hop with the best moves I’ve ever seen ever on a dance floor. And you just can’t lock down human beings based on other human beings. I hope that people are able to experience a little bit of that when they watch the movie. Because some of the characters are easy to pre-judge at first but we hope you see a different side of them.

Often at interviews, journalists asked to get their picture taken with the talent. When Cretton mentioned that he had seen me dancing with his girlfriend and sisters, I suggested he take his picture with me so he could show them. He did. And then I spent the next five minutes laughing and blushing.

Short Term 12 opens August 23. I go to The Short Stop most Fridays.