Born and raised in Maui, Hawaii, Destin Daniel Cretton moved to San Diego when he was 21 years old, to get his Masters in Film at San Diego State University. With that education, he made four award-winning short films, including one titled Short Term 12, a kind of first draft of his latest feature-length movie. Premiering at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, the original Short Term 12 won the prestigious U.S. Jury Prize there, before earning more awards at festivals like Seattle International, CineVegas, and Independent Film Festival Boston.
Propelled by the miniature Short Term 12's success, Cretton dove headfirst into his first feature, I Am Not a Hipster, a tender drama about a self-destructive musician trying to sort his life out within San Diego's indie rock scene. The film premiered at Sundance in 2012 and proved to the world that the guy who'd made several excellent shorts could handle feature-length. I Am Not a Hipster's warm reception also gave Cretton the confidence he needed to flesh out his short passion project into a 90-minute motion picture.
Thus, a little over a year later, he was at the SXSW Film Festival, accepting the Grand Jury Prize award for this Short Term 12 feature. Clearly, Cretton has an understanding of the group home dynamic, the restul of the two years he spent working as a line staffer at a San Diego facility right after he graduated.
Destin Daniel Cretton: I had a friend who worked at a group home on the overnight shift. I was desperately trying to get a job in video production but couldn't find anything. Down in San Diego, my friend at the group home told me that they'd most likely hire me if I reached out, as long as I did a decent interview. I applied, got the job, and then was thrown into this situation that I was not expecting, at all. I was very much like the Nate character in the film.
I went in with high-minded ideals, and what I learned over the course of a year-and-a-half working there was that they were unhealthy. I put myself on a different level than the kids, thinking that I was going to be the dude who would come in and help them easily. I quickly learned that these kids are smart and will sniff out any hint of insecurity, or any sign that someone thinks they're going to be a savior. That's a lesson I've carried with me ever since, that it's never healthy to interact with any human if you think you're the one to help them. It should always be a shared experience, where you help and they help.
I have a lot of journal entries from the time I was working there. I worked the day shift, and then I started working a lot of night shifts and overnights. That gave me a lot of time to write down experiences in my journal, which I then put away. Maybe three or four years later, I made the short; it took that long for me to realize that my experiences could make for a really great movie. While I was working there, though, I never thought about that—I was thinking more about how I needed to survive each day emotionally.
It took about four years for it to settle into my brain, where I could organize it into something. I used the short film as a way to explore some of my questions and organize my emotions. I didn't know that it was going to be any good, but then it got into Sundance and won the Jury Prize. It's been a constant surprise to see how many people connect with this world that I thought would be so foreign to everybody. Viewers are able to see themselves in these characters in the same way that I learned about myself working at the group home. Even if they're living very different lives, they're still dealing with things that all people can relate to.