In times like these, we often look to art for refuge. We seek works that show the good in humanity and offer a little bit of hope. Those are the kinds of movies Destin Daniel Cretton creates. He writes characters and crafts worlds always with empathy in mind. There’s no room for hate. This was true in Short Term 12 and is evident in his new film The Glass Castle—adapted from Jeannette Walls’ best selling memoir. It’s imperative to keep telling personal, compassionate stories like Cretton does.
When did you realize you wanted to make movies?
I knew I wanted to make movies when I was 11. I grew up in Maui with six kids in my family. My grandma and grandpa bought one of those big VHS cameras. They let me borrow it for a weekend. I just rallied my siblings together and we started filming stupid skits on the big VHS camera. I never gave it back to my grandparents [Destin laughs]. We were always making silly things together. We were creating our own entertainment. My mom wasn’t into letting us watch TV very much. We were allowed to watch TGIF on Fridays and a few other children’s shows. Most of the time we were forced to play outside and make up stuff. That was one of the ways we entertained ourselves.
There definitely wasn’t something where I was like, “I want to be a director when I grow up.” I didn’t understand how movies were made or that was a possibility for a job. I just knew I loved making stuff with a video camera.
Maui’s a pretty scenic place to look at through the lens of a camera.
I don’t think I was smart enough to take advantage of the beauty of Maui in the things we were doing [Destin laughs]. We were making dumb commercials in the house. I probably should have taken more advantage of that.
Once you knew you wanted to make it a career, were there any filmmakers or screenwriters who inspired you in terms of sensibilities and vision?
Sure. The first kind of real independent or international movie I saw was Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. That movie just tore me to shreds. I never experienced anything like that at the time. On Maui, the only movies that really came out there were big blockbusters. Independent cinema was never something I knew existed. I was a senior in college when I watched that film. I just remember it haunted me for weeks afterwards. It left this feeling in me. It’s not that I want to make movies that devastating by any means. But there’s something about the realism and that style of filmmaking that really hit me. It was from that point on that I devoured non-blockbuster type cinema.
You went to film school at San Diego State University. How did that program help set you up for success and explore what kind of filmmaker you wanted to be?
I think that anywhere you go, if you have one good teacher, one mentor, it makes all the difference. For me, that was a professor at San Diego State named Greg Durbin, who was an incredibly encouraging person. He really singled people out. He’s a passionate film lover and he’s passionate about the process of making films. He was just such a huge supporter for me. He allowed my film partner at the time and me the freedom we needed. Anytime we had an assignment to do something, we’d turn it into a film we wanted to do. While we were there, we filmed this short documentary project that turned into a feature documentary [Drakmar: A Vassal’s Journey] that we ended up selling to HBO when we were in our second year. I think we did a total of six or seven short films while we were there. We didn’t really adhere to putting our money into one big thesis film. We just did a bunch of lower-budget shorts, which was so necessary for going slowly and learning: getting a little better and a little better. It wasn’t till my thesis film [Short Term 12], which had a little bit more success because it got into Sundance and won the Jury Prize there. That was after a whole lot of other rejections [Destin laughs].
Obviously Drakmar was a documentary, but Short Term 12 and The Glass Castle both have roots in real life—things you have experienced and other people have experienced. Something I’ve seen in your approach to filmmaking is exploration through empathy rather than judgment. When you’re adapting real events into a script, how do you make sure to show the many facets of a narrative?
That’s very observant of you. It’s always nice when I learn something about myself from somebody else. It is something that you definitely hear about a lot: it’s very hard to write a character unless you fall in love with them. It’s easy to write characters that are flat if you’re not in love with them. But it’s almost impossible to write a three-dimensional character unless you have something about that character you love. Empathy, I guess that comes from my parents. I think that’s a thing I naturally strive to do in my life and try to do more of. I strive to be a curious person. I try my best—I’m by no means perfect at it—but I try my best not to judge people at first glance. I’m almost always wrong, even when I think, “Oh that guy’s an asshole because they’re obviously doing something that assholes do.” Every time I make that judgment, when I get to know that person, I realize they’re not an asshole. I think that is how my everyday life spills into what I’m doing. When I look at a subject I’m exploring, I do my best to try to understand it as best I can and fall in love with the subjects, the people, and try to see not only that there are good sides and bad sides, but also there are reasons for doing good or reasons someone would do something bad. That’s what I get a kick out of in life and a kick out of in story telling.
Empathy is an important quality when you’re making a movie and thinking about it visually, but also when you’re working with actors. In Short Term 12 and in The Glass Castle, you’re directing kids in these very intense scenes and moments that are so heart wrenching. Is there a difference between directing kids in those scenes than adults? How do you navigate those young minds in those situations?
These are great observations because I talk about empathy all the time and how important it is for me to surround myself with people who are empathetic. That goes for actors obviously. That what I see so deeply in Brie [Larson], is that she’s a ferociously curious, empathetic person. That’s why I think she’s so good at what she does. I can say the same thing about Woody [Harrelson], Naomi [Watts], and Ella [Anderson], who as an 11-year-old girl has somehow a huge capacity to place herself in another person’s shoes. In some ways, yes of course it’s always different when you’re working with kids. You can definitely damage a kid, so you have to be extra sensitive about certain things. At the same time, Ella was so extraordinary and well beyond her years in her ability to understand the situation. A lot of times I’d just be having a normal conversation with her like I would be with Brie or Woody. She just loved and adored Jeannette [Walls, her character] and Jeannette at that age. She really connected with her and was able to explore those scenes in an honest way.
The Glass Castle Trailer
What was it like to direct Brie in this different stage in her career from Short Term 12? As people evolve and change, they do as actors as well.
It’s funny because in so many ways it felt so different and in so many ways it felt exactly the same. It’s different because humans evolve and Brie is in a very different stage in her life then where she was when we shot Short Term 12. She’s grown so much as a performer and it was so cool to witness doing what she does so well and see all the ways she’s honed her craft. She’s also the exact same person. She’s the same very grounded, thoughtful, kind, passionate person that is so fun to work with. In that way it’s exactly the same. In some ways it was like we were shooting Short Term 12 except we now had trailers [Destin laughs].
This is very simple, but how do you plan your shot list?
I’ve become less meticulous out of necessity. Every movie gets slightly less meticulous. A lot of times—whenever possible—Brett [Pawlak], my DP, and I would go to a location and take digital photographs of every shot we’d like to do to piece together a scene. We’d print all of those out and I’d have a binder full of them. So before we do a scene we don’t have to think about it so much. I can just look at the binder. I also find the pre-planning of that is a way to give me more freedom. A lot of times we’ll start from, “Here’s what we thought about two weeks ago,” and in the moment we’ll realize, “None of this really works,” but it gives us a new idea. Sometimes in the moment something just happens. That’s my favorite part of making a movie is when you capture something you know you’ll never be able to capture again. I think that’s why I love documentary filmmaking. You’re never going to get a second take of whatever you’re capturing again. Even when an actor does something in the moment, it’s so exciting. So I pre-plan but hope for surprises.
As someone who’s in the industry and making movies, what’s something you wish you saw more of on screen?
I think if more people found ways to tell personal stories—I’m not saying it has to be personal and small. I think Ryan Coogler has found ways to tell personal stories in a very big, studio way. I think if there are more people trying to tell stories that they’re truly passionate about telling, that feel personal to them, we’d naturally see more diversity in the movies that are coming out, more representation of the huge array of people who are in our world. I think it would naturally happen. I know that’s not always the easiest thing to do.
What’s your advice for aspiring filmmakers and screenwriters?
I would say a big thing is to not take people’s advice too seriously because this industry changes so much that there’s never going to be a piece of advice that’s going to work for everybody. I do think that this piece of advice will work for everybody [Destin laughs]. I wish people had told me this more often when I was first starting out—two things. One, if you’re going to do this, do it for the love of the craft and not for anything else. Everything else should just be icing on the cake of just the joy of making movies and being creative in this way. Two, don’t ever feel the need to change who you are—who you naturally are—because people say you need to be a certain way in order to “make it” in this industry. That’s complete bullshit. There are so many types of personalities of people who make it. It has nothing to do with being able to work a room or do an amazingly eloquent pitch or go to a party and network with the best people. Some people are naturally good at that stuff and that’s great. Let them do it. Other people are naturally awkward, shy, terrible public speakers. You can still go into a room and tell a story nervous, sweaty, with a shaky voice and still capture people’s attention if you’re telling a good story. I just want to emphasize to people to be themselves because that’s how you’re going to create art that’s truly honest. That’s what people connect to. Not the shifting of who you are and what you’re making in order to fit what you think other people want to see. That’s when you make big lame stuff that looks like it’s trying too hard. ♦