Interview: Destin Cretton and Brie Larson of Short Term 12
Director Destin Cretton (I Am Not a Hipster) and Brie Larson (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, The United States of Tara) sat down with us in San Francisco to chat about their new, festival-darling film Short Term 12. The movie follows Larson and her fellow staff members at a foster care facility as they give their full attention and energy to the kids they watch after, all the while struggling to manage their turbulent home lives.
Short Term 12 is out now nationwide and opens in San Francisco this Friday, August 30th.
Brie, you grew up relatively close to the Bay Area, in Sacramento. How long did you live there?
Brie Larson: Until I was eight.
Do you have any attachment to that city anymore?
Brie Larson: I’m attached to it in that I have some really important childhood memories there. I saw the music circus. They had The Sound of Music there, and that was the beginning of me being completely obsessed with acting in movies and theater. I could not stop talking about The Sound of Music. They do it in the round [at the music circus], and now they have a big air-conditioned thing, but before, it was an actual tent in the summertime. I loved it. I loved Maria and it was this whole thing. I remember so distinctly being at a friend’s house and being like, “Oh my god, Maria is so beautiful!” and she was like, “I have it on VHS!” I was so excited. She put it on and Julie Andrews [came on], and I was like, “That’s not Maria! I know Maria, and that’s not Maria!” (laughs)
You’ve been acting since you were really young, right?
Brie Larson: Yeah. I started taking lessons when I was seven. I went to ACT (American Conservatory Theater) out here. You have to audition to get in, and I was the youngest person to [ever] get in, at seven. But I feel like there’s some freak four year old that did something really awesome, did the ending monologue from Our Town and just annihilated me at this point. (laughs)
You’re not sure if you hold the title anymore!
Brie Larson: Yeah, I’m not sure, but many years ago. (laughs)
The film started as a short, which you’ve made into a full-length feature. There is a danger of films like this feeling like stretched-out shorts, but yours has no filler. There aren’t any wasted moments in the film.
Destin Cretton: That was an inherent fear of mine going from the short to the full feature. I felt incapable of forcing it, so I didn’t want to take a short and stretch it to an hour-and-a-half, you know? I initially tried that, to just extend it, but the short was never meant to be extended into a feature. I think it’s a piece entirely of its own. When I initially tried [stretching it], it felt wrong and it felt forced. It felt like I was trying to do what I was told to do. You’re supposed to adapt it with the same characters, or whatever.
As soon as I changed the character from a male into a female, it started a ripple effect that transformed all the characters into new people.
So you viewed the project as a completely new story.
Destin Cretton: Yeah. We’re still exploring similar themes that the short explores, but I don’t see it as an adaptation. I see it as a completely new story.
Why did you change the sex of the main character?
Destin Cretton: The main reason was to keep my interest. Also, to instill a healthy bit of fear in me. I’d never done that before, and it scared the living piss out of me.
Why was it scary?
Destin Cretton: ‘Cause I’m not a girl. (laughs)
Was it difficult writing from a girl’s perspective?
Destin Cretton: Yeah, and I knew that I would be judged by, at the very least, my three sisters if I did it wrong. That was also a wonderful challenge for me and a healthy process to go through. I think most people who are exploring anything creative want to do it to learn something, you know? I feel like, through exploring the story through Grace, I learned a lot. I feel like it has made me a better person that’s able to relate to my girlfriend more, my sisters more. I really enjoyed the process.
Brie, were you nervous to have to be such a leader on set, mentoring the younger actors?
Brie Larson: I had a lot of fears inside, but I acted like I didn’t. (laughs) I love kids. I grew up being the oldest of my family, so that sort of role wasn’t a stretch for me. I was also an actor very young, so I know what that feels like. It’s a really intense feeling to have as a kid, because you want it so bad and you care so much. It’s a really informative time and I remember very specifically the people that I looked at and went, “I want to be like that,” and other people that terrified me. It was an important thing to me to try, in my way, to be professional with them and show them what it’s like to be a leader and to think of yourself as the head of your own department, and to also just be a team player. It’s so much more than just a self-centered, get your performance on camera thing. There are a lot of other aspects to it that are required to create a fun and positive environment for the other aspects of filmmaking. It’s not just about being an actor.
Was there a collaborative dynamic on set between you guys and the crew?
Brie Larson: Yeah, I felt that way.
Destin Cretton: I think, specifically, both Brie and John (Gallagher Jr., who plays Larson’s boyfriend and co-worker in the film) stepped into their roles, not only on camera, but the similar roles as mentor and motivator for the entire team of actors, some who were kids who had never acted before. I think together Brie and John helped to create this environment of safe, fun, playfulness, but also taking their job very seriously. They were an extreme source of inspiration for these kids. That is something that a director could not create, the feeling of family and spontaneous interaction between people who don’t know each other. That’s not something you can fake. Thank god that they naturally stepped into those roles.
Brie, did you have to go to dark places in your mind for certain scenes? Is that comfortable for you?
Brie Larson: Yeah, it’s very comfortable for me. I have to make a conscious decision to go to that side of town and I don’t live there, you know? I think everybody gets a little too attached to feeling sorry for themselves in the sort of dark places. There’s also a whole other, healthy life to lead and other responsibilities to have, and you just can’t survive living like that. It’s important as an actor to understand the difference between reality and fiction, which can get confusing if you get too lost in it. It was a very big focus for me, especially for this movie. I was really proud of myself for the way that I structured my day while shooting. It’s something that I want to continue to take as a philosophy. When you go that dark, it’s like a ghost thing—it sticks with you for a while and sometimes it takes a lot longer than you want it to to let go of some of the things that you stir up inside.
So, you were able to let go of these dark feelings on the same day.
Brie Larson: Every day. You do it, and then you let it go. Luckily, I just became very clear. There were certain moments that I had to go really deep, and I was afraid that since that’s not how I am on my day-to-day, and I created these relationships, that I was going to feel self-conscious and that I was going to be afraid to go there. I would just say, “Hey, I’m going to go underwater for a little bit, and it’s going to be a process to get me where I need to get to. Just bear with me. It’s going to seem a little scary and weird. When I get to come up for air, I’ll let you know.” That’s how it worked. You let it go. It feels like you’re waking up. I don’t have a lot of memory of the darker things. When I’d watch them, I’d have no memory of doing them. I’d look up, and there would be a bunch of friendly faces, and I’d sometimes even get a hug. (laughs) Sometimes there’d even be pizza at the end of the day! (laughs)
Brie Larson: There were pizza days! We could afford that.
Destin Cretton: We tried to schedule the pizzas right after every intense scene.
Is that true?
Destin Cretton: It did kind of turned out that way!
Brie, did you learn the skill of separating your work from real life on this film?
Brie Larson: I learned it from shadowing at the [foster care] facility. The woman I spent time with, that was her philosophy and how she dealt with it. She had Grace’s job for 20-something years, so she knows what she’s doing. (laughs) I trust that advice. It really works. You put everything you can into the work while you’re there, and then you go home and try to remove yourself from it. I’m very hard on myself and am very much an over-thinker, so it was important for me to recognize that about myself and to be aware that it wasn’t healthy.
Destin, what’s a skill that you developed on this project that you think will really help you in your future projects?
Destin Cretton: Well…that’s a question I haven’t been asked before. There’s a huge list of things, a huge list. I think more so than any other film, the importance as a director to create an environment off screen that is in cooperation with what you want to be on screen. In the same breath, I think a fun, safe atmosphere is cooperative to anything that’s going to be on screen, even if it’s a tense scene. Most human beings are able to be at their best creative space when they feel like they’re safe and having fun, even if it’s an intense thing. What we’re doing is playing make-believe. It’s somehow attached to what we used to do when we were seven, even if we’re doing a very serious movie, we’re still attaching ourselves to this free, I don’t care what I’m doing, playing make-believe and being expressive [mentality.] The best stuff that we did on this movie, the best moments, were created with a feeling of childish fun. That’s why I like making movies.