Aspen Shortsfest: Destin Cretton, from short films to ‘Short Term 12’ to the Marvel Cinematic Universe
Special to The Aspen Times
IF YOU GO…
What: Filmmaker Destin Cretton & ‘Short Term 12’
Where: Aspen Shortsfest, Wheeler Opera House, Aspen
When: Saturday, April 6, 2:15 p.m.
How much: $20 ($15/Aspen Film members)
Tickets: Wheeler box office, aspenshowtix.com
More info: Cretton will discuss his work before the screening; aspenfilm.org
AT SHORTSFEST THIS WEEKEND
FRIDAY, APRIL 5
Noon ‘What Are Programmers Thinking?’ panel discussion, Mountain Chalet
2 p.m. So You’ve Made a Short Film…Now What?’ panel discussion, Mountain Chalet
4 p.m. Happy Hour, Jimmy’s
5:15 Shorts Program Six, Wheeler Opera House
8 Shorts Program Seven, Wheeler
10 Aprés Screening, Mi Chola
SATURDAY, APRIL 6
11:30 a.m. Shorts Program Eight, Wheeler
2:15 p.m. Destin Cretton & ‘Short Term 12’
4 p.m. Happy Hour, Jimmy’s
5:15 Shorts Program Nine, Wheeler
5:15 Shorts Program A, Crystal Theatre, Carbondale
7:30 Shorts Program: Animation, Crystal
8 Shorts Program 10, Wheeler
10 Apres Screening, 7908
SUNDAY, APRIL 7
11 a.m. Breakfast at the Fest, Wheeler
Noon Shorts Program: Family Fun, Wheeler
2:15 Shorts Program: Documentaries, Wheeler
5:15 Shorts Program C, Crystal
6:30 Shortsfest Awards Dinner, Jimmy’s
7:30 Shorts Program: Documentaries, Crystal
Full program and film details at aspenfilm.org
There’s a school of film criticism that makes a convincing case for an intriguing theory: a movie’s opening five minutes contain its entire story arc and themes.
A comparable argument might be made for “Short Term 12,” the award-winning 2008 short that propelled Destin Cretton into the spotlight.
Distilled within this 21-minute drama are many of the traits that have distinguished this filmmaker’s voice in the decade since: His penchant for stories about people usually not seen on the big screen (“Short Term 12,” both the short and 2013 feature, came out of Cretton’s experiences working in a group home for troubled teens); his ability to elicit remarkable, emotionally resonant performances from his cast (Oscar winner Brie Larson, a lead in the feature “Short Term 12,” has become a frequent collaborator and friend); and the palpable undercurrent of compassion that inflects his characters, especially in the midst of their most flawed behavior or fragile moments.
The filmmaker, now 40, readily credits the “Short Term 12” short as his biggest creative breakthrough: “Not because of where it ended up. Not because it won all these awards. It was the first time that I (gave) up control over so much of the process and hand(ed) it over to the performers. I was a very meticulous, kind of scared director with a very specific, clear plan for everything. ‘Short Term 12’ was the first time I decided to go into every scene with a sense of allowing the actors to surprise me instead of putting my ideas into their heads. … It’s become the way that I love doing things.”
Garnering Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize in 2009, as well as top awards at Aspen, Chicago, Seattle and other festivals, “Short Term 12” (Cretton’s senior project while at San Diego State University) quickly established him as a talent to watch. The short earned the young filmmaker a coveted Academy Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting in 2010 and helped launch his independent feature debut, “I’m Not a Hipster,” in 2012. With the following year came his breakout feature success, “Short Term 12,” screening Saturday as part of Aspen Shortsfest.
It took jury honors at its SXSW Film Festival premiere and subsequently won accolades on the festival circuit including Audience Favorite at Aspen Filmfest.
In 2017, Cretton transitioned to a bigger stage — and budget — with “The Glass Castle,” an adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ bestselling memoir. The writer-director is currently editing his latest project, “Just Mercy,” based on another blockbuster memoir, this one by public interest lawyer and social justice activist Bryan Stevenson.
And last month, Marvel Studios announced that Cretton will direct “Shang-Chi,” a globally anticipated new chapter in the superhero universe featuring the franchise’s first Asian lead.
Deep respect for his cast and crew underscores Cretton’s approach — a strategy the filmmaker laughingly calls “purposeful looseness,” even in the busy, time-sensitive crucible of a studio film set.
“(I) do whatever I can (so) when we’re in the moment, we’re shooting a scene like we would with a short film,” Cretton explained, “that we’re not thinking about all the other pressures because typically when we’re in that space, you’re making the best stuff.”
Some directors are known for their action panache, others for the ability to nail comedy. Through his masterfully crafted character studies, Cretton has forged an enviable reputation as an “actor’s director.”
“What (actors) respond to is me being open and vulnerable, connecting with them on a very human level,” he said. “Once that happens it allows them, and us together, to feel safe to try things like we might with a short — to get rid of all those fears and pressures.”
It’s no surprise that Cretton’s favorite part of the production process is being on set, where actors energize him.
“It’s so magical, especially with a movie like (‘Just Mercy’), to watch a human tap into … such a depth of empathy that they are literally inhabiting the psyche of another person,” he said. “To be 3 feet away from an actor as he or she does that is really moving.”
“Short Term 12,” the feature, showcases memorable early-career performances by Larson, recent Oscar winner Rami Malek, Kaitlyn Dever and LaKeith Stanfield (who also acted in the short). “The Glass Castle” again features Larson, along with Naomi Watts and Woody Harrelson as her loving but highly dysfunctional parents. Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx and Larson star in the upcoming “Just Mercy,” scheduled for release in January 2020.
Shaping protagonists around people who embody resilience, humanity and the capacity to inspire — this is what attracts the storyteller in Cretton. The decision to take up a project comes from deeply personal considerations: “Is this a subject that I think is important to me? Is it going to expand my mind or world view? Or does it have the potential to make me a better person through the process of making it?” Cretton also considers the audience: “I try to tell stories that at least have the potential to help one person feel less alone in the world. For everything that I’ve made, I’ve gotten emails from people who say that until they watched this movie, they thought they were the only one who went through something like this.”
To understand where his vision comes from, the Maui native says, “(It’s) really important for people to know I grew up in Hawaii. In a small town surrounded by water in the middle of the Pacific that was also one of the most diverse places in our country … diversity is the norm I grew up in, and it has now become something I’m really hoping to continue to spread.”
As he looks at the future landscape of movies, Cretton is excited by the “new generation of storytellers infiltrating not only indie filmmaking, but also the studio world — in front of and behind the camera. On film sets, but also in development offices. There seems to be more diversity beginning to happen. … I think the more that we take those steps … hopefully over time, (it will) allow us to shed some of these preconceived ideas we have of people who don’t look like us.”
The past decade has been a transformative one filled with both personal life-defining milestones and its share of rollercoaster career moments. The remarkably sanguine Cretton leavens his outlook on his industry with a characteristically light touch: “I try my best to know that this is just a giant animal that we are riding for a period of time. I try to enjoy it and learn something from the ride.”
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