Interview by Roger Durling and Michael Albright with Actress Brie Larson and Writer/Director Destin Cretton
Michael Albright: Please welcome writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton and Actress Brie Larson.
Brie Larson: Wow. Thank you.
Albright: Thank you. Welcome back Brie. We had Brie’s short film “The Arm,” at our festival in 2011, and welcome Destin. I understand that this film was largely based on your personal experience working at an at-risk center after college. Could you talk a little bit about that inspiration and why you really wanted to adapt this into a screenplay?
Destin Cretton: It was my first job out of college. It was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done and also ended up being one of the most important and life-changing experiences I’ve ever had. I feel like I grew up in my two years there. I really began to understand the complications of the world and I kind of transformed, very similar to the Nate character. I was very naïve and kind of stupid in the way that I viewed the world. I went into that place thinking that I was going to make a big difference and be a savior, and that attitude was quickly thrown back in my face when I realized how complicated everything was. So that experience will always be planted in my brain. And it was about three years later that the dust settled enough to be able to turn it into a story.
Albright: So it started out as a short in 2009 in Sundance, and eventually you decided to adapt it into a feature. What were some of the challenges in making those changes?
Cretton: The short film was great. We did it with a bunch of friends and we had no idea what we were doing–I always feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. We did this short and didn’t expect it to go anywhere. Anybody who knows anything about short films would tell you not to make it over ten minutes. Our film was 22 minutes. So everybody said, “Well, good luck. See if that gets into anything.” We ended up premiering at Sundance and winning the Jury Prize there. That was the first clue that this story was much more universal than I expected. The main change that I made from the short to the feature was changing the main character from a male supervisor to a female supervisor. I initially did that just because I was really bored writing and I didn’t intend to stretch the original story into a feature. As soon as I changed that main character, it became brand new and frightening for me because I had never done that before; but thank God I did because it allowed me to work with Brie.
Albright: Brie, how did you first get involved? When did you meet Destin?
Brie Larson: I was sent the script along with the short “Short Term 12” and his feature “I’m Not a Hipster,” which I watched at the laundromat. I read the script and was just blown away and wanted to do it so much. I felt that pull towards it and was willing to fight as hard as I needed to in order for him to see me in this role; but I actually didn’t really have to fight that hard, which was great. A huge part of the experience in the film was the grounded feeling that I didn’t have to push or try to do anything. He always thought that just the simplest act of me sitting, looking and thinking was enough.
Roger Durling: Brie, your character—and also a lot of the characters—are holding back so many secrets. Your character is actually holding this big secret throughout the entire movie. Was that exciting or challenging from a performance point of view, the fact that you’re hiding something throughout?
Larson: Yeah, that was a very exciting part, but also the scariest part because I know what it’s like to do that. I think all of us can relate to putting our best foot forward and grinning and bearing it even though we don’t want anyone to know about the hurt that’s inside; but getting that across in a film is so satisfying and the fact that the audience understands the experience is exciting. And like I said, you just don’t know. But I had to trust Destin and assume that my inner workings could be seen through my eyes. And we had this incredible script that he had written. It was a great opportunity for me to dig deeper into understanding the subtext and to understand that pretty much everything I’m saying is not what I’m thinking about or what’s in the forefront of my mind.
Albright: Destin, as a director, I think you do a really great job at creating those two spaces and those two environments, where you have the center Short Term 12 and the home environment, which opens up different spaces for these characters to explore their personalities. How did you work to blend those two worlds into one?
Cretton: When I was working at a place similar to this, I had two female supervisors. One of them was a girl in her mid-20s who was very fragile to look at. She was petite, soft-spoken and seemingly quite shy when I met her outside of the job. But when I saw her walk through those gates and onto the floor with those kids, I could see her character completely change into this extremely strong badass whom the kids respected. And she respected them and she was one of the best supervisors there. I could feel myself doing that too. I would stand at the gate for a moment every day and feel myself change because I just had to put up this exterior that shielded me from all the craziness that happens in that place. So that was definitely interesting for me to imagine my supervisor—I didn’t really know her personally outside of the grounds—but imagining what she’s like at home hanging out with her boyfriend or watching TV or whatever. That was really interesting for this character.
Durling: There’s like an underlying theme and dynamic of everybody looking after each other, from the weaker characters to the authority figures. How did that develop?
Cretton: I don’t know. Maybe it develops out of a desire and wish that people looked out for each other more. But that definitely was something that I saw. I saw a lot of other things that were much more negative in my experience working there too, but there was definitely camaraderie among the kids. Racism and other things were ingrained in certain kids but for the most part, not in the place I worked. This movie is very specific to certain experiences. It’s not a broad stroke showing what all group homes are like. The kids I knew did have a sense that we’re all in this together because we’re all walking through the same shit and it doesn’t matter what race or ethnicity you are. And that camaraderie was something that I was hoping to weave through the story.
Albright: There’s an amazing sense of community among the entire cast. It seems that the performances are so natural. Everyone seems really comfortable with each other. It’s like they’ve known each other forever when you watch the movie. How did you create that environment with everyone as you prepared for the film?
Cretton: Brie, do you want to talk about this a little?
Larson: Oh. Sorry, I’m just looking at all these beautiful faces. Thank you for coming by the way. I’m just kind of in shock. I feel like we’re in a little secret cavern. I feel the need to talk really softly.
Durling: It’s actually a secret society.
Larson: It is! I feel like I’m joining the Masons right now! This is a dream come true. We didn’t have very much time before we started shooting to build the family that you see on screen. But the time that we did have was really wonderful. I think a huge part of it—and this is something I’ve experienced throughout my career—is that the director really sets the tone. I think like-minded individuals find each other and want to work together. So when you have a very sensitive and compassionate and loving and silly and open director, he finds those people, whether it’s going through the audition process or watching a reel or having lunch with somebody. And so, across the board it wasn’t just the cast who participated in this but the producers as well. We had one lunch together—I guess it went longer than a lunch. We played a little bit of wiffle ball. We tried to play Big Booty but everyone was really bad at it. Destin gave everyone Maui chocolates which was really cool. We kind of sat in a circle at first and got to know each other and then I did a couple of minute-long improvs with each kid. Just before meeting everybody I had been shadowing at a facility. I wanted to be aware of the very specific back stories of these kids and what information I would know and what I wouldn’t know. There were certain things that were in the script but I also wanted to give the kids the opportunity to talk to me as Grace about the things that maybe weren’t in the script that they had developed so that I understood what kind of physical contact would be allowed for them. It helped me to understand how to parent them in a way. I think it’s an interesting thing when you start to realize that the way Grace deals with Luis in the morning with the squirt gun and her kind of crass sense of humor is very different from the voice and tone that she uses for Sammy to just try and get him to recognize that he’s alive. It’s different. There are certain rules and regulations for each of them and different expectations for each of them and that really informed a lot of it. John Gallagher Jr. (the actor who plays Mason) and I met for the first time by going to dinner the day before we started shooting. As John was leaving to meet me, he found an envelope on his doorstep that was addressed to both of us. It said, “Don’t open until you get to the restaurant.” We opened it when we sat down and inside was a little note from Destin along with another envelope that had conversation starters. I highly recommend this to any of you in the dating field. I later found out that some were questions that popped up in Destin’s head when he was working at the facility and some of them were specific to the mythology of Grace and Mason–and it was fantastic. By the end of this two-hour dinner, we knew what our first date was like. We knew what our income was. We knew what we did on weekends. We also knew about our personal favorite childhood memory and our hopes and fears of being parents. Our opinions were very different than in the film, which I found to be very interesting. It was great. As a cast, we had a bunch of good-natured people together who were all charging forward and who were there, not because there’s a paycheck–because there wasn’t one–but because we wanted to service this material. We loved it and we loved coming to work every day. The rest of it kind of just naturally fell into place.
Durling: The relationship that you have with Jayden is kind of like you are a foil to each other. Did you guys discuss your relationship? And how did the two of you work together?
Larson: Wonderfully enough, we had just been in Georgia together. We both had small parts in The Spectacular Now, and that was a great opportunity to be introduced before we even knew that we were doing this movie together. We had been to dinner multiple times. I knew her parents. And neither of us was in the film enough, so we had a lot of down time and we hung out. The ice was already broken between the two of us. As we were on set and talking, it was just a magical thing. She is not only remarkably talented but also such a cool person, and I loved hanging out with her and talking to her. She reminded me a lot of myself, and her drive and her focus really inspired me. Very quickly it just all worked. There are certain scenes that are really powerful for me when I watch, especially because I realize how they’re so natural and easy to watch, and I remember how easy they were to shoot because we were both really open to each other. That’s when the magic happens–when all of us are not trying to do something and we’re just present and we look each other in the eye and we’re connecting and nothing else matters other than what it is we’re doing. It just worked out.
Durling: Destin, I was wondering if you could talk about the scene when Marcus gets his hair cut. How did that scene come about? How was it to shoot it? How was it for Brie as well? It’s one of the most vulnerable, most intimate and revealing moments.
Cretton: One of the things I did in prep for writing this was to collect stories from people who have worked and continue to work in places like this. One of the stories was about a kid who was close to leaving. He just kept saying that he wanted to get his head shaved which is kind of controversial because you need to have a razor, and razors are not allowed in places like that–but they finally did it. His first reaction was asking them if it was lumpy. They knew immediately what that meant because they knew what his back-story was, so that’s where that story came from. What made shooting that scene so much more powerful was Keith Stanfield, who plays Marcus. He was so empathetic for the Marcus character that he just stayed in it the entire time. He isolated himself from any of the actors he knew Marcus wouldn’t want to interact with, like Brie and John. He was isolating himself from them so in that scene—up until that point he hadn’t given Brie or John anything in terms of—
Larson: He didn’t look me in the eye. He told me very early on, “I’m not going to talk to you,” and he didn’t.
Cretton: So it was a very powerful moment for all of us. We had never seen Keith get to a vulnerable place as a person on set yet. He was kind of saving it for everybody. During that scene, the entire set was quiet. We were just talking in whispers and by the end of it I said “Cut“ as a whisper, and we just sat in silence for a while because it was just a very moving moment.
Albright: Keith is the only actor who was also in the Sundance short and returned to do the feature. Was casting the other teens a typical casting call? Did you find people who had similar experiences in real life? How did that go?
Cretton: All of the kids in this movie are actors. They all have wonderful parents. I know this is a huge reason why they are able to feel so free and comfortable in doing this thing that they love because their parents are not pushing them but supporting them. There were no crazy Hollywood parents on this movie, which is a huge blessing to any director. The audition process was fairly typical. It was just me sitting in a tiny room waiting for someone to come make me cry. That’s what all these kids did. Or laugh. Kevin Hernandez, who plays Luis came in and had me almost falling off my chair. He’s just a really funny kid.
Durling: Brie, one of the best moments of yours is you beating the crap out of that car with a baseball bat. It reveals so much character as you’re doing it. How many takes was it?
Larson: That’s it. We’re a low budget film, you know. I would have loved to have done it a few more times but that was it. Everyone on set was always really cool about everything with me. No one wanted to put any extra stress or pressure on me, but that was one where a few different people were like, “So we got one. We got one car. Do you know how to do this?” I didn’t know how to do it but much like everything else I was like, “Yeah I can shave a head. Yeah I can smash that, why not?” I think that is such a testament to when a schedule for a film is really well thought out and it’s not just, “Oh why don’t we do this on this day?” It was a lot for a person to be the vessel for Grace, because she’s got so much swirling around in her head, and it’s exhausting. It was hard because I couldn’t show anything about her restraint and that is a discipline. But much like what happens to Grace in the film, at some point you just have to let it out. Otherwise, I was worried that I was going to indulge in the scene and do something inaccurate just because I needed a release. The schedule worked out so well that it seemed like at the end of every week there was like, “Oh I can smash a lamp. Oh I can smash a car.” It was the way that I rejuvenated. The car was one of our last days of shooting and I was just so ready for it. I didn’t know I could swing a bat. It was very, very surprising for me. It looked cool but I didn’t know I could do that. I was also told I was only supposed to hit it three times, which I didn’t. In the movie I think there are nineteen hits, but there’s a cut in it. I think I hit it a lot. I just kept going! I just kept going and it’s interesting because I got that first good crack in and then something just snapped in my brain and I was like, “I’ve got to break through this thing.” I’ve got to break through it and I wouldn’t stop until there was a hole in it. Now when I watch the film, I think it’s such a beautiful metaphor and I think it makes a lot of sense with that breakthrough. I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time. I just knew that’s what I needed. It’s not just a metaphor. It’s beyond that.
Durling: No, I’m glad you pointed that out because all throughout the movie—again I’m pretty sure it was intentional, Destin—there is this entire “rebirth.” Grace is pregnant and there’s this whole swirling metaphor of rebirth and release. Obviously, those were all planned, right Destin?
Cretton: Oh yeah.
Albright: One of the most beautiful things about the screenplay is the way that you blend the serious and dramatic parts with humor. There are some really funny moments and some really sad moments at the same time. I found myself laughing and almost crying. How did you blend those two pieces together in such an effective way? It also speaks to the cast, who did such a great job. As a writer, why was humor such a vital part of the screenplay?
Cretton: Humor is necessary for survival in this environment, for both the staff and the kids. I think that’s kind of across the board for any job or occupation that deals with traumatic situations. My experience there was that humor was often used as a tool by the best supervisors in order to connect with kids, to lighten situations when they felt tempers rising–to crack a perfect joke and get through that. It was very often even a tool to use during a restraint. When a kid is trying to bite your ear or is spitting in your face, using even keel, dry humor will bring things down. Obviously it is not making fun but just to lighten things and to make it feel like the drama is not the end of the world. That was definitely something I knew we needed to do in order to portray an authentic version of this world.
Durling: Brie, you went to group homes to study with them. Would you like to talk about your experience?
Larson: I’ll say that I shadowed at a facility, but I don’t feel like those stories are my stories to tell about the things that I saw. I will say that I went home that first day and felt so many emotions. I felt angered and upset and I wanted to save all of them. I think a lot of people go into it with the attitude that you’re going to be fresh eyes to look at the system and be able to figure out how to save people, but then you realize that it’s far more complicated than that. Being there was not only extremely important for me to understand Grace, but it also really helped me understand myself. The experience gave me such great words of wisdom and a philosophy that I learned from the woman I shadowed, in particular. She’s just incredible. But it also got me thinking more about the opportunity cinema can give us to sit in a theater in a dark space. Whether you go to the movies alone or with twenty people, it’s your individual experience of sitting there and allowing yourself to empathize and care and feel the magnitude of somebody else’s life from a different perspective. It really invigorated me to make sure that I told this story honestly and could stand behind it and that the people I had the pleasure of meeting could look at it and feel like I was doing something that was honest. I feel that was my gift as an artist, and the best thing I could do right now is give more of an awareness.
Durling: Do you know if the person you shadowed has watched the film and felt good about it?
Larson: I think she saw the film. She came and visited on set too. I’m very happy that I didn’t know that she was there when we were shooting because I probably would have gotten too nervous. It was a very emotional moment when she was watching the film. The facility where we were shooting is identical to the one she had worked at for 17 years and a lot of memories came up for her. It felt—I’m kind of getting emotional and chilly just thinking about it.
Cretton: We had just played the movie down in San Diego and Kevin Thompson was there—he’s the guy who came up and spoke to all the kids and has been doing this job for over 15 years. I worked with him, so he knows the exact place that this film was loosely based on. He’s also a very harsh critic. When he read a draft of the script he was just like, “Nope,” and then he just started listing off the things that were incorrect about it. I can’t tell you how nervous I was in San Diego two days ago because he hadn’t seen the movie yet. I got up for the Q&A and I was not myself because I could see him in the back. I was answering questions like a robot, thinking to myself, “Oh, he’s judging me.” He came up afterwards and he was still teary-eyed. He gave me a big hug and said, “You got it. I can’t tell you how nice it was.” And when he says, ”You got it,” he understands too. It’s a fictional movie, but we’re talking about the emotions and what it feels like to be in that situation. I can’t tell you what that felt like.
Durling: My follow-up question to Brie was how difficult was it to turn off at the end of the day after inhabiting Grace–a remarkable performance, by the way.
Larson: Thank you. Well when I shadowed at the facility, it’s so much–a lot of emotion and a lot of different things happening. This woman was so on point with everything. She was just cool through the whole thing. You felt like you just could not rock her. Being kind of terrified and overwhelmed, I couldn’t believe that she had been doing this for 20 years and I asked her how she did it. How could she emotionally get through it? And she said “You let go.” It was the simplest thing and one of the most pivotal lessons that I’ve learned in my life. I started applying that to the work that we were doing in the film. I got in a very simple routine. During my drive to work I would start to get into that world a little bit. I’d work my 12-hour day as Grace and by the time I got home, I wasn’t. I played my Nintendo and ate cheesy pasta and I laughed. It’s kind of like Inception really. I had my little totems and the things I symbolically chose to remind me of who I am and what I associated with myself. It’s just a scientific thing. The neurons that fire together are wired together. If you’re playing somebody for twelve hours a day who is doing this and going crazy, it’s hard to not go crazy too. I had to be aware because I know how sticky that can be. I don’t think that I could, and I don’t think that this movie could afford to lose me to it. I had to play upper puppet master and not get lost in it.
Durling: Well, fortunately for us, we won’t be able to let go of your performance or this film and thank you both so much for coming.
Larson: Thank you very much.
Cretton: Thank you.