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Write On

Dispatch from the Nantucket Film Festival

by Susan Sandler

The first part of an interview with Destin Daniel Cretton. Check back next week for Part Two.

Winner of the Best Feature Screenplay and the Tony Cox Award at the Nantucket Film Festival, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 continues to collect festival honors as it nears its August 23 release. It won the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at SXSW, as well as a bouquet of reviews that would have any writer-director dizzy with joy.

The logline: SHORT TERM 12 is the story of Grace, a twenty-something social worker who channels her demons into a passion for helping at-risk teens. Grace’s newest ward forces her to relive her difficult upbringing just as she and her boyfriend are making a life-changing decision. Funny, moving and surprising, the film delivers an emotional punch.

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Susan Sandler: You developed this story first as an award-winning short with the startling tagline, “A film about kids and the grownups who hit them.” Who guided you through your early drafts of the transition from your short to the feature?

Destin Daniel Cretton: I wrote the short as my thesis project at San Diego State University, where I got my MA in film. The writing began purely as an exercise. I wanted to explore the experiences I had when I worked in a residential facility for at-risk teenagers after I got my undergraduate degree. I worked there for two years before going to film school. And along with piecing together the scenes that I’d been carrying around in my head, I was also looking for an exercise in writing dialogue for a large cast. All my earlier work had been very lean, so it became an experiment. I set out to write a short without a real story, if that makes sense. That was my goal– to make it feel very much like a typical day in the facility.

SS: So you were primarily creating a world.

DDC: Yes. I was trying not to impose a storyline other than what if feels like to be there over a day. Trying not to have plot points or twists or set ups or payoffs. That was my goal, but my brain just doesn’t work that way, and if you watch the short, you’ll see it turned into something with all of those elements in there.

SS: Why “a day in the life” rather than a plotted film?

destin1DDC: All of my shorts before this one were meticulously pre-planned, every shot carefully composed. Even the acting has pre-calculated performances. For part of my thesis work, I studied films by Lars Van Trier (Dogme 95). I wanted to see how loose I could get without worrying about all the things that my brain typically is obsessed with: Does this plot line make sense? Is there a setup? Is there enough of a payoff? Will I have a meaningful plot twist?  I was trying to turn off that part of my brain when I was writing the short—and I did loosen up way more than I ever have before. I ended up using all of those traditional screenwriting tools, but they’re subtly scattered throughout the short. And that style translated into my approach to writing the feature.

SS: Who guided you through the early drafts of the feature?

DDC: I took that first draft around town (L.A.), and the only producer who embraced the script with no reservation–who basically said, “Hell yeah, I want to do this with you,” as opposed to, “Hey why don’t you go home and do these notes and we’ll see”–was Asher Goldstein at Traction Media. He became my big note-giver on the first major rewrite of the script, which over the course of three or four months brought us to a draft that’s very close to what you see on screen.

SS: What films and what screenwriters have inspired you most as a writer?

DDC: One obvious inspiration–but I did feel it’s a very different movie–is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, primarily because I love the tone of Cuckoo’s Nest and I love the way that it is takes unexpected turns. You think you know a character, and you think you know where it’s going, but it takes you somewhere else. It surprises you. It plays with stereotypes and ends up flipping those stereotypes in a way that is totally unexpected. I love that aspect of the film.

SS: Let’s talk about your writing process. Do you begin with an enormous amount of research? Do your characters talk to you in long monologues? How do you bite into the work?

DDC: I do as much research as I can until I start getting really antsy, and then I start writing. On Short Term 12–aside from my own experience working in a group home–I did a number of interviews with people who work in places similar to Short Term 12. One was with a friend who has worked as a staff member for over 15 years. We sat at a bar and talked for hours, and I just recorded everything. A lot of his stories fed the screenplay. Some of those “Mason” monologues [played by John Gallaher] are very close to a transcription of stories that he told me. That kind of research is really helpful. Once I know the story that I want to tell and get a basic structure for the journey of the main character, I set aside the normal research and let life inform the work. I have my antennae up and just gather information that floats past me, like something someone tells me at a birthday party, or something I see on a bus ride. Once the main story is in my head, it magnetically starts to attract details that relate to the central idea. It’s like a theme in my life during the time that I’m writing the script.

SS: The ideas find you.

DDC: Yes. I usually start off with a page–that’s where I am right now with this next piece–one document with just all of those thoughts all over the place, a journal of what the story might be, and I try to piece it all together.

SS: So you don’t begin with a character? More of a world?

DDC: For me, it typically begins with a character. And once I understand the journey of that character –which can be as simple as a one-sentence journey–then other things start getting sucked into that.

SS: Are you interested in writing for television?

DDC: Very interested. I’m actually going in to talk to my agent about a few things next week. I’m really interested in exploring the world of Short Term 12 as an hour long drama. There’s so much material here, and so many interesting characters to support a show, and so much to learn from that world. It’s still very exciting to me.

SS: Do you allow your actors to let you grow your script on set? Or do you come in with a rigid sense of what you want to shoot in dialogue?

DDC: I hope that everybody helps me grow a script. I welcome notes and ideas from anybody on the set. I do realize the importance of one person making the final call, but I’ve seen situations on set where someone observes something that I’m not seeing, and I feel so thankful that they’ve mentioned it. Once an actor comes into the project, I’m really excited to talk to them about scenes that they feel maybe are too forced, or too on-the-nose, and how we might change that. I love that part of the process. And once we’re on set, I encourage actors to go off script. For this movie, we found that whenever we would go off script, we would end up coming back. But when we came back to the text, it felt fresh. It felt like it wasn’t “written.” That’s what I’m always after, especially for this film. Whenever anything started to feel like a blatant “movie line” or a “movie moment,” we’d try to smudge it as much as we could and make it real.

Continued next week in Part Two…

 

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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