A year after SHORT TERM 12 won the Narrative Film Competition at the SXSW Film Festival, I hosted a panel a the same festival featuring three up-and-coming indie filmmakers who were on the verge of really breaking through. I believe the panel was titled something like “What the Fuck Do We Do Now?” and its purpose was to let would-be filmmakers what some of their options were after they had their breakthrough. The three panelists were Jordon Vogt-Roberts, who had just made KINGS OF SUMMER and went on to helm this year’s KONG: SKULL ISLAND; Ryan Cooger, whose FRUITVALE STAION was a calling card and who was in the process of making CREED (he’s also just finished shooting a little film called BLACK PANTHER; and Destin Daniel Cretton, writer and director of SHORT TERM 12, whose next project was rumored, at the time, to be an adaptation of the immensely popular memoir THE GLASS CASTLE, starring Jennifer Lawrence.
In the months the Cretton and co-screenwriter Andrew Lanham were reworking Jeannette Walls’s work, Lawrence dropped out and Cretton’s SHORT TERM 12 star Brie Larson (now an Oscar winner for ROOM) stepped in, as if it were meant to be. The film is the story of journalist Walls who reflects upon her unusual and often traumatic upbringing in West Virginia as part of a nomadic family led by an alcoholic, frequently absent father Rex (Woody Harrelson) and “artistic” mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts). It’s not always a pretty picture in the household, but Walls and her siblings used their upbringing as a means to get closer to each other and seek a way out into the world as soon as possible. I had a chance to chat with Cretton recently via phone about the film, his exceptional cast, and what it was like picking and choosing from such an extraordinary life story. Please enjoy my talk with Destin Daniel Cretton…
Capone: Hey, Destin. How are you?
Destin Cretton: I'm doing well. How are you, Steve?
Capone: Hey, good. It's good to talk to you again. I don't know if you remember our panel with SXSW that we did with Jordan and Ryan?
DC: Yeah, I do. I do.
Capone: As far as I can remember, this was always going be like your follow up to SHORT TERM 12, and then it took a couple years. What do you remember about Jeannette's book that moved you so much to want to tell her story?
DC: As soon as I picked up that book, it was something that it not only intrigued me as a wild, out-there story that was just fun to read and tragic to read, but it also felt extremely familiar to me. Not because I had been through any of those circumstances literally, but I grew up with a big family out in the country. I just really related to how those siblings bonded together regardless of circumstance, and how much love there is in that family despite how much pain they're causing each other. I just always felt like that the love was still a component during all of that.
Capone: At a certain point, we begin to realize that the story is not just about Jeannette's upbringing; it's about uncovering her father's painful past as well, and digging into why he is the way he is. You’re almost secretly telling two stories here. Was that something that intrigued you?
DC: The moment in the book where I felt like I really understood Rex and Jeannette was the moment that I saw Rex in the context of his upbringing. To me, this movie isn't really about forgiveness; I think it's more about acceptance and understanding, and there isn't a big redemption for Rex in this movie. He doesn't ever have like a big “I'm sorry” moment, but I do think that Jeannette, which is true to life in terms of every conversation I had with Jeannette, that she never got that moment, but she did get to a place in her life where she was able to see her dad for who he is as a person and not just a shitty dad. She was able to see where all of that pain comes from, and that allowed her to see both the good and the bad that he passed on to her.
Capone: There may be a certain percentage of people that see this movie that don't ever like Rex, they'll never find that part of him that she finds lovable to some degree. Is that a tough thing, as a writer especially, to create character that may never win over an audience?
DC: Yeah, it's totally true. I honestly haven't screened the movie that many times, but we have found that reactions to the movie vary depending on people's own personal experience with their family or their loved ones. Some people find it very easy to love Rex. We had a couple people come out in West Virginia who watched it, and they actually said they thought he was a great dad, which was interesting [laughs]. Jeannette would say that he caused a lot of pain and that he was a great dad and that she doesn't regret anything from her past.
Capone: Did any of your conversations with Jeannette reveal stories that maybe weren't in the book or help you break through certain moments that you might have been stuck in certain places when it came to cracking this story? Talk about the relationship you had with her during the writing process.
DC: She was a huge resource for us and she's so collaborative. I would send her an email, and she would write back these beautiful, publishable details describing whatever it is that we were asking about. Some of the things that made it in to the movie are definitely inspired by stories that we heard from her that were not in the book, like the relationship between her fiancé at the time and Rex was very much like you see here. Rex would often give him shoves and jabs to playfully screw with him, and there was definitely that subtle conflict between those two. But there were a lot of little things that we learned from her that made it in to the movie that weren't a part of the book.
Capone: The way that you move around in time here—you show the family at three distinct periods in their lives. Was that the way it was in the book, or did you come up with that or in the writing or the editing? And what did having those multiple timelines afford you that maybe a more linear storytelling didn’t?
DC: To me, this book isn't just a story of some kids growing up in a crazy family. It's about a woman processing her past and it's very evident that that's the case when you're reading the book that you're just reading her thoughts and reading her take on those memories. Since we don't have that aspect in the movie—just a constant narration going—we just decided to remind people that this is her still processing though this stuff by coming back to the present throughout the movie and that was the attempt.
Capone: Like real life, the movie is not just one tone. There’s some really funny stuff, there are some very moving things, and there are other moments where I think that are genuinely terrifying due to certain choices and behaviors. How did you find a way to let things be emotionally jarring without the tone shifting radically to the point where the audience is getting whiplash?
DC: [laughs] Well I mean, we just do our best. When you're in a scene with characters like Rex and Rose Mary, they're just explosive characters who can switch on a dime. In a scene, we're trying different versions of how extreme those switches could be, but we tried our best to match the tone of the book, which was very much one that had me laughing on one page, crying on the next, hating Rex on one page, loving him on the next, and we just tried our best to emulate that as close as we could.
Capone: You're back together with Brie, and I know that there had been someone else attached to this part for a while. How important was it for you to have Brie play this character and to get back with someone who you had a connection with already?
DC: I was over the moon when Brie read this and connected with it. She just has that ability to show strength and vulnerability at the same time. That's just so much of who Jeannette is, and Brie also is an incredibly empathetic person, and so when she got together with Jeannette and was able to talk to her and share with her about their lives, it was just a very sincere relationship that was built, and I couldn't have asked for a better partner to do this with.
Capone: You have Woody Harrelson and Naomi Watts as these parents and at this point. As a fairly new director, what do you learn from working with people like that, who have that level of experience, and what do they bring to this film?
DC: They bring everything. Those two are just fearless. Brie's the same way, but to have all three of them together was just—I felt like a giddy little kid sitting in front of the monitor watching these people that I've admired for so long do their thing. Everybody is so different, their process is so different, but the thing that they all do have in common is that they're just fearless, they jump in and they love surprises. In the scene when Rose Mary's hanging out the window and Rex is trying to pull her in, Naomi ended up biting Woody on the arm, which was not scripted. And Woody felt it and then just went with it, and the dialogue that followed all became a part of the scene. That's just one example of how they just jump into these moments, and it's so fun to watch to see what would happen.
Capone: What do you hope people leave the theater discussing, thinking about, and contemplating?
DC: I feel the most touched when I hear some people who have had some connection to these types of people in their lives or in their past, and that watching this movie creates some type of catharsis for them or allows them to rethink things of their past in a slightly different way. I hope that the movie can do for some people what the book did for me and for a lot of people, which is that it just makes you feel less alone in whatever part of your past that maybe you thought was so crazy. Because it's hard to try to compare that crazy with this crazy, and Jeannette is able to. She has the most healthy view on life of any human that I've met, and to know that she was able to take this part of her that she was once so ashamed of and thought was so weird and no one would understand and turn it into something that gives her strength is something that is really inspiring to me.
Capone: In just a few short years, almost every key cast member in SHORT TERM 12 has had their careers explode into these incredible things—people like Keith Stanfield, John Gallagher Jr.., Stephanie Beatriz, Rami Malek, Kaitlyn Dever, and of course Brie has won on Oscar since you last worked with her. You have to be immensely proud of that group of kids.
DC: Oh yeah, I mean every movie you just become a family. That's the hope anyway, and SHORT TERM 12 was definitely that. I could not be happier that everybody has really gone off to do such incredible things. Nothing makes me happier.
Capone: I think I read somewhere that the book JUST MERCY is what you're adapting now.
Capone: Will that most likely be the next thing you do, or do you have other things?
DC: I believe so. I hope so. It's another memoir.
Capone: It's certainly a very timely subject matter.
DC: Yeah, it's something of a…I wouldn't really call it courtroom drama, but the story that we will be following is basically Brian Stevenson's initial move to Alabama and the beginning of him starting to represent people on death row, particularly the one case that ended up becoming national news.
Capone: SHORT TERM 12 was based on, if I remember correctly, experiences that you went through. These other two are someone else's memoirs, so how do you personalize and internalize someone else's story? Are you looking for a connection to it or are you just moved by the story and that's enough for you?
DC: I always find something in these stories that feel like me, that feel like myself. The emotions that these characters are dealing with are things that feel very familiar to me, and I by no means am I saying that I am these characters, but those are the things that I focus in on. For Jeannette, it would be just the journey of learning how to look at your parents as not just your parents, but as human beings and the journey of trying to understand them as people as opposed to just how they are as parents is definitely something that I relate to. And I'm not going to talk about JUST MERCY, but yeah, I definitely do that and try to do that in everything I do.
Capone: I will say you mentioned something earlier about how you had identified to a certain degree with the way the siblings became very close and helped each other through this time. Those were some of my favorite scenes. I always felt like, when we see them as either kids or adults, and the siblings bonded together at least I knew things were not going to be quite as insane as some of the other moments in the film. Those are the safe places in this story..
DC: [laughs] My safe place too.
Capone: Destin thank you so much. It was great to talk to you again.