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INTERVIEW: Deston Cretton and Brie Larson on Short Term 12

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I felt emotionally drained after watching writer/director Destin Cretton's rousing, riveting, roller coaster of a sophomore feature, Short Term 12. Set in the largely ignored world of the American foster care system, the film tracks the lives and struggles of Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher) as they deal with struggles personal and professional, and try to find the little things that give life meaning even as they're surrounded by so much despair.

In addition to Cretton's ceaselessly engaging story and direction, the project also boasts textured and relatable turns by its two leads, Larson and Gallagher. I recently chatted with Cretton and star Brie Larson, whose performance is already generating Awards-season buzz, about the road that brought each of them to Short Term 12. Here's what they had to say:

Destin, I know that this story spun from your own personal experience. Can elucidate how your own real life lead to this film happening.

Destin: It was my first job out of college and I stumbled into this job because it was really the only thing I could find that was full time and offered health insurance, which I need at the time, and I didn't know what I was getting into and I walked into the walls of this place and it kind of smacked me in the face. It very quickly held a mirror up to me and showed me very clearly how naive my perception of the world was up until that point, and introduced me to things I thought I knew about 'cause I had heard about the world of foster kids and foster parenting and I've heard about abuse and I've learned about it in college but, living there and talking to these kids and reading their backstories was the first time that it felt so real.

I could feel my stomach tightening while I was learning these things and experiencing them. So obviously that's a very life-changing experience and it came at a time in my life where I was still just after college, where you're going through that "What does the world mean?" So, it came at a very specific time in my life that has stuck with me up until now so this movie was a way for me to organize those thoughts and it's in some ways kind of like a journal for me. A way of figuring out some of these questions and figuring out other ways to ask them.

Brie, what drew you to the subject matter? It's very intense. Did you feel at all intimidated?

Brie: I didn't feel intimidated, I felt very driven. I felt afraid that I wasn't going to get the opportunity to play this part that I wanted to play, and then I felt that it was - with that responsibility -- it was my job to do right by these people, so that was kind of all I was really focused on. The script was really interesting to me because it had an incredible balance of really good structure that would support me because it was a well written script, but then it also kind of hinged on this other world which was Grace's internal world that was a really interesting and exciting opportunity.

It's like the best of both worlds for an actor, to feel like you get to do something that is already really good and then there's just this whole other world that you get to go into. I felt I've always been interested in the secrets of any character that I play, so it was interesting that I felt that this movie had so much of that. More about the things that we don't reveal than the things that we do reveal.

One thing that stuck out to me was the relationship between you and John Gallagher. It felt very real to me and I'm wondering how all three of you collaborated to make that relationship spark he way it does. 

Brie: Well, we didn't have that much time before we started shooting, so how it kind of worked was a couple of days before we started John and I went to dinner together and it was just kind of in our mind a "get to know you" sort of thing and, I don't know, you have a meandering conversation. But before John left for dinner there was an envelope on his doorstep that I think said "Don't open until you get to the restaurant," because he opened it while we were there. So we got to the restaurant and he was like, "I had this envelope on my doorstep." So we sat down at dinner and inside it was like a little sweet note from Destin saying, "I hope this helps."

And it was a bunch of little, it was like another envelope with a bunch of pieces of paper in it that had little conversation starters. And it was a combination of us relating to each other about our personal hopes and fears in parenting, our childhood memories and things like that, and there was a lot of questions about creating the mythology of Grace and Mason, and it was great because there was never a lull in the conversation. Anytime you felt like there was a breath, it was "Maybe there's another piece of paper there!" that you could just grab out of there, and it was great because it kept it moving in this direction that felt really free and open and also extremely structured, and it didn't feel like we were kind of on a date it was just like we were working in a very comfortable setting where I got to have soup.

By the end of it sparked so many other things...where things that don't necessarily, maybe they do read on camera I don't know, I just know that they work in the end of us even talking about the income, of figuring out how much do we make an hour, how many hours are we working, what does that mean for us and our quality of life? What kind of activities do we do or can we do? Does money stress us out? Is that why we live together? What's it like for us to work together and no one know? What was our first date like? All of those sort of things that are the fun part of being an actor. It instantly created an entire back story. I then think on top of it we just...if you've been, we'd both been in relationships that had gone on for a long time, so you know what that comfort feels like and looks like.

The status of the foster system is something that really doesn't get a lot of play in the media. In the film the characters evince a lot of helplessness at what they are allowed to do and what they are not allowed to do. Destin, do you feel this is your way of dealing with the helplessness you felt while working there, and this is a way of catharsis?

Destin: Yeah, that's is definitely a part of it. There's definitely a lot of frustration that happens in any system that sets up rules - which are very necessary to a certain extent - but any system where your job is to care for other human beings where there are rules set up and administration set up and paperwork and things that sometimes work and sometimes don't work so well. So yeah, there's definitely  moments in this, somewhat very obvious moments in this movie that are acting out fantasies that some of us have talked about.

When things get so frustrating, it is very easy to fantasize about taking things into your own hands and doing something, what you think in that moment is going to help a kid. It's not necessarily the best thing to do, but I think in general what I hope this movie does is, I hope it allows people to have just one more excuse to talk about this subject more and to talk about this system, which has some incredibly beautiful parts to it and has a lot of parts to it that can definitely improve, and I hope that this movie allows other people who know so much more about this subject, and are experts in this subject, and are already fighting for certain things, certain changes, I hope it allows them to have one more reason to talk about it.

Brie, they're doing a sequel to 21 Jump Street. Are you a part of that?

Brie: (Sadly) No. They can't infiltrate the same school twice, it just doesn't go that way. I don't live on 22 Jump Street.

Will you be back on Community?

Brie: I don't know. I have no idea. I hope so! I hope so, I loved being there. That was the first thing I did after Short Term, and it was so nice. It's different. It's like the difference between hosting a dinner and getting to be a guest at a family dinner.


Thanks to Destin Cretton and Brie Larson for their time. Short Term 12 is now playing in limited release.