They say art imitates life. Or is it life that imitates art? In the case of San Diego filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton, whose latest project, Short Term 12, was accepted into the U.S. Shorts program of the Sundance Film Festival, it turns out both are true.
Cretton made the 22-minute film as his thesis project for his master's degree at San Diego State University. It follows one really bad day in the life of Denim, the lead supervisor at a residential facility for teenagers. Denim's the guy in charge of the day shift, and on this day he's having an epiphany of his own, discovering that his life isn't necessarily any better than the lives of the kids he supervises.
It's very intense, and also very well made. Cretton, who wrote, directed, produced, edited and composed the music for the film, has an ear for dialog, and his shots are nicely framed. He has a number of talented young actors in the cast, and his source material, if you will, is unimpeachable, because much of it is taken from Cretton's own experiences working for two years in a facility similar to the one in the movie after graduating from Point Loma Nazarene University.
“It was a huge growing-up experience for me,” he tells CityBeat. “It was a big reality check. The kids were getting close to 18, and I was 22, just out of college. I had no clue what I was getting into, and most of the time I had no clue what I was doing. One of the main ideas of the movie is that you have screwed-up people trying to take care of screwed-up kids. That was the reality of the place I worked at.”
And that's very much Denim's reality in the film. No matter how hard he tries, he can't help all the kids under his care, which reflects the experience Cretton often had. “I don't want to say that we weren't trained well, because we were,” he says. “In fact, in the case of my experience, there couldn't be better people working there. But most of them were really young, because they're not getting paid well, and they're doing it because they're passionate about helping people.”
That's the word Brad William Henke, the actor who plays Denim, uses to describe Cretton. “He's super-passionate, and super-organized,” he says. “A good director. He lets gifts happen. Sometimes someone who's super-organized, you have to follow them like you're doing a math problem. Art doesn't come from that. His writing was great, but if we improv'd something or did something differently, he was open to it. For someone who didn't have a lot of extra film to shoot, he had a very calm demeanor.”
Henke is one of those actors whose name might not be familiar, but his face certainly is. He's done stints on Six Feet Under and other TV shows and was recently caught stealing scenes as Sam Rockwell's compulsively masturbating sidekick in Choke. He's a big, husky guy, and he's great as Denim, bringing a character-actor's precision to a leading role. But what really brought Henke to the film was his daughter. Three years ago, Henke and his wife adopted Phoenix, a 14-year-old girl who'd been living in a group home.
“It's funny, I really liked the character, and I sort of wanted to do it for Phoenix,” he says. But when he gave Cretton's script to his daughter to read, she decided she wanted to read for a part. She tried out for a minor, background role, but after Cretton saw her read, he decided to make some changes.
“Her performance was so raw and honest that I re-wrote one of the leads for her,” he says. In fact, he changed one major role into a girl to get her in on the project. “It was really a no-brainer. She was able to tap into these past experiences and bring them out in her performance, which was really incredible to watch. She actually lived this story, so I really had no choice but to put her in it.”
And, says Cretton, Phoenix came in handy because his own experiences in the real facility were only from the point of view of a supervisor. “She could look at a scene or character in the script and say, ‘I knew someone just like that. I remember a kid that tried to do that.' It was a relief to hear that she thought the depiction was pretty accurate.”
Phoenix's character, Jayden, has a huge meltdown in the film, but Henke said he never worked with his daughter on her performance. “She worked on it on her own, with a friend of ours,” he says. “One time, they were rehearsing on our deck, and they were so loud a neighbor said he was going to call the police. So, you know, I knew she was doing really well. She really let out a lot of bottled-up feelings. It was really good for her, actually.”
Cretton has had some success with previous films. Drakmar: A Vassal's Journey, a feature-length documentary he co-directed with his filmmaking partner Lowell Frank, was picked up by HBO, and another short the two collaborated on, Deacon's Mondays, earned awards at several festivals. But Cretton's never gotten this kind of notice before. After his Sundance sojourn, which happens Jan. 15 through 25, he'll take the movie overseas, to France and the prominent Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival, where Short Term 12 is one of just four American films to make the cut.
“It feels great, especially for this project,” he says. “Everyone was passionate about the story, and so many people helped out for free.” That's a good thing, too, because Cretton, who's writing a feature-length version of the film, financed the shoot through his day job, teaching video production at Canyon Crest Academy. “I saved up some money, and as soon as we were done shooting, my bank account was at zero. The only way we were able to pay for this is because so many people invested their time and talent.”