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Write On

Dispatch from the Nantucket Film Festival

by Susan Sandler

The second part of an interview with Destin Daniel Cretton. Click here to read Part 1.

Susan Sandler: Can you tell us about your background, when you began thinking about film?

Destin Daniel Cretton: I grew up on Maui. I’m 34. It feels like I worked in theatre because I’m one of six kids and, growing up in a tiny town in Haiku, we put on plays for my parents all the time. That turned into making skits and little movies once we got a hold of my grandma’s VHS camera. My siblings and I got addicted to that. We would make movies as much as we could. It was always a hobby of mine, through high school, but I was never pursuing it as a career. It wasn’t part of my vocabulary. It wasn’t like an occupational option. None of my friends would even think about that. None of my family would ever think about that. It never crossed my mind that filmmaking and screenwriting were even jobs.

SS: When did that change?

DDC: My senior year of college [at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego]. I was a communication major by then, but I went into college to be a nurse.

SS: A nurse?

DDC: Yeah (laughs). I was going for a nursing degree my first semester, but I realized if I took Mass Communication, I’d be able to take this video/film class. It wasn’t like a film major, but it was close. Then during my senior year, I went to a school called L.A. Film Study Center, and it was there that I did my first short: a little black and while silent film that I shot on Super 8. That was the first time that I felt that strange and magical connection between a film and an audience–something that I had made connected with people. Even though it was this tiny little thing, it felt very powerful to me. It wasn’t that I thought, “Oh, I can do this as a career,” but it was at that point that I thought, I really want to continue doing this for the rest of my life. And it had nothing to do with making money at it or anything like that. I just knew I wanted to continue doing it.

SS: Because of the sheer joy of it.

st-12DDC: YES! It’s always the sheer joy of it, right? The wonderful thing about Hawaii, at least in my community, there really is no pressure, no occupational pressure. Growing up, my honest aspiration was at one point to be a garbage man because the hours were good, and I wanted to have daylight hours to do the things that I wanted to do on Maui.

SS: Like what?

DDC: Like surf. And fish and hang out at the beach. And all the things that are wonderful to do on Maui. That’s the thing about Maui–the first question you’re asked is never, “What do you do?” The first question is “What did you do today?” And what they’re asking is, “What beach did you go to? And were the waves good?”

SS: Wonderful. So now that you’ve crossed over to this very ambitious universe where people are asking you what you do and what’s coming up next, do you have a kind of professional drive, or are you holding onto that sense of what’s giving you real artistic pleasure in the moment? That must be a really hard thing to hold on to.

DDC: It is. I can definitely feel the temptation of being caught up in the industry and the pressures to perform and the pressures to perform on somebody else’s timeline. Every morning, I have to remind myself why I think the stor[ies] that I’ve told so far are connecting with people. And it’s because I am carefully choosing things that I really connect with, and would do with or without any kind of monetary gain. I would have done every project up to this point and happily lost money on it, because I see it in the same way that I see surfing, or doing anything else that I love. I hope I can hold onto a piece of that forever. I’m not a crazy idealist. I understand the reality of things, but I hope that I can remind myself of that every day. I feel like that’s where my best work comes from.

SS: I have a feeling and you’re going to continue to surround yourself with people who steer you in the right direction.

DDC: That’s definitely the thing that excites me most. I’ve found that the more open I am in meetings– the more honest I am about the types of stories I want to tell, the things about the industry I think are bullshit–that’s when I’ve found there are a lot of other people I connect with: really incredible, genuine human beings who still remember why they are pursuing storytelling as an occupation, still chasing after that wonder that we had when we were kids, just making stuff up and having a blast doing it.


Susan Sandler is a screenwriter and playwright and lifetime member of WGAE.  She teaches screenwriting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she also organizes the Fusion Film Festival, celebrating women in film, TV and new media.


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