The cast of SXSW 2013 Narrative Feature Competition Winner “SHORT TERM 12” talk about the emotional roller coaster of a film

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The cast of “Short Term 12” after the round table at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, Texas
(L-R) Kaitlyn Dever, Brie Larson, Rami Malek, Keith Stanfield, John Gallagher, Jr. (Photo Credit: Alex Gonzalez)

AUSTIN — Writer and director Destin Cretton has a lot to be proud of after last week’s SXSW Film and Music Festival. His film, “Short Term 12” ended up winning the Narrative Feature Competition, a well-deserved recognition of the independent film.

“Short Term 12” follows Grace (Brie Larson), a supervisor at a foster care facility. She tries her best to help the kids at her facility, from quiet but troubled Marcus (Keith Stanfield) who is about to turn 18 and not ready to leave the home to Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) who holds disturbing secrets of her own, all while trying to train a new employee, Nate (Rami Malek), and keeping her personal life together along with her longtime boyfriend and co-worker, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr).

The cast sat down with myself and another journalist to talk about getting to know each other, the emotional roller coasters they rode while filming, and re-writing scenes.

Q stands for a question from the other journalist while AG represents a question from myself.

Film editor Nat Sanders (L) and Writer/Director Destin Cretton (R) at the premiere of "Short Term 12" at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas on March 10, 2013.

Film editor Nat Sanders (L) and Writer/Director Destin Cretton (R) at the premiere of “Short Term 12” at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz in Austin, Texas on March 10, 2013. (Photo Credit: Alex Gonzalez)

AG: You all did such a great job with this film. I felt exhausted after it was over, but in a good way. So what was it like for you all to take on these really heavy roles?
KS: Exhausting, but it’s good to feel exhausted. That’s what you build from. It was definitely draining, emotionally, for me, at least.

Q: I know this was a pretty tight shoot, scheduled 20 days. So before that, did you guys spend time together? How did that work?
JG: We had a day, early on, a couple days before we started shooting, where it was really a kind of “meet and greet” where Destin and a bunch of the producers, they invited us all over to a house that they were renting for production days. We all came, and we all met. Alex, who plays Sammy, and Kevin, who plays Luis, were there, and a friend of Destin’s came over who is a line staffer at the facility where Destin volunteered years ago. That kind of gave him inspiration for the story. He came over and just talked to us for a long time about the environment, what it’s like to work there and things like that. He taught us all how to do the – I can’t remember the name. There was a name for that technique.
BL: The restraint. Wasn’t it just a restraint?
JG: It’s the proper way to restrain. So whenever you see, when we take down Sammy, when we have to restrain Kaitlyn in that scene, that’s all proper technique that we learned how to do when you’re working in a facility like that. We also did some improve games and shared some stories, just talked to each other and got to know each other. Even though it was just a day, sometimes you don’t even need that much beforehand. It was super informative.

AG: So you two’s chemistry was really great. Your relationship seemed very natural. What did you do two do to kind of get there?
BL: We went to dinner.
JG: We went to dinner, yeah. We had a date.
BL: We went to dinner, and Destin had an envelope dropped off at his place. He said, “Don’t open it until you get to the restaurant.” We got to the restaurant, opened it, and it was a bunch of – I don’t know, there was a lot – probably like 10 to 15 strips of paper that were little conversation starters. Every so often – it was so great. We didn’t have to worry about making conversation.
JG: Yeah, you’re like, “So, let’s get these envelope strips.”
BL: We didn’t have to worry about guiding a conversation. “Oh! So there’s another piece of paper. I have nothing to say, so here’s another piece of paper.” (laughs) We just started basically creating a mythology for these characters. It was a lot about our personal experiences, our personal hopes and fears of being parents, what our thoughts were on that. We talked about the long-term relationships we had been in, and we just kind of created and even talked about what our first date was. We just kind of pulled from real experiences we had to kind of create a thing. Destin wrote a really good script, so we just did the script.
JG: Yeah, those two things combined…
BL: It worked out really well!
RM: I’ve since been using the envelope trick on my first dates.
AG: How’s that working out for you?
RM: Pretty terrific.

Q: What was the most difficult part of the shoot? There are so many scenes that were very raw and very real, so what day were any of you like, “I’m exhausted, this has been such a hard day for me?”
BL: [Keith]’s suicide attempt. I have a past experience of – I’ve never talked about this. I have a past experience with almost dying from hemorrhaging, so I have a really strong reaction to blood and a really hard time. Even if I get a bloody nose, I pass out. My dog broke a nail at The Grove, and I passed out. Someone had to grab me, because I just can’t do it. So dealing with somebody and I know it’s fake…watching him lose consciousness was really difficult, and I had to take some time. That was part of a really big day. I had a lot of really crazy scenes to do, but everything else I kind of know it’s not real. But that was the thing that was really personal for me that I didn’t want to tell anybody. I didn’t want to seem like a wimp, but that was difficult. I felt like I was smacking myself in those scenes.
JG: When we break up, I had a really hard time with that. We actually shot it a couple of different ways, and we ended up re-shooting it. They had tortured poor Brie. Wasn’t that later?
BL: That was later that day.
JG: Later that night, after putting her through the gauntlet of three of her most emotional scenes, they were like, “Oh, we’re going to do this scene where you and your boyfriend break up, at like, 10 o‘clock at night.” We shot it, and originally, it was much angrier. Mason really kind of lost his temper and got kind of mean with Grace. We came back to it the next day, and Destin called us and we were like, “You know what, we’re going to take another stab at that, because I think we can do it better. I think that some of the emotions are not quite right there.” We all went and sat on the ground, and we all three re-wrote it together. We just kind of pieced together talking about what kind of fight you’ve had where you’ve almost broken up, break-ups, losing your temper, how do you deal with it and came up with a new version. That’s the one you see in the movie. That was the only time I felt any kind of something that resembled a frustration or feeling like I was stalled. The rest of the shoot was very harmonious.

AG: Well, I’m glad they shot it that way, because you saying Mason loses his temper… I don’t know if I would have bought that.
BL: There were some other things in the story. The movie kind of changes as it goes.
JG: It was kind of from a draft, and we had already shot so much with these characters where all of a sudden it was like, “Oh, we got to that scene, but I don’t think this is how they would be with each other.” It can take time to learn that, and luckily, we were a little bit ahead of schedule. We could go back and do that.

AG: Your storyline is really tough and really heavy for someone so young, so what was it like going through that?
KD: It was exhausting, and when I read the script, I really thought, “Wow, I could do a lot with this, and I could really get into the character, add a lot of drama and stuff into it.” I just really, really love playing a character where I can be something opposite than what I’ve ever done before. I’ve done comedy and stuff, and I did Justified, but I had never done something like this. Shooting it was really awesome. Most of my scenes were with Brie, and she is just really amazing to get to work with. She was so helpful, and I really learned a lot from her. My biggest scene was where I did the “freak out” scene with me shoving a cupcake in her face (laughs) and spitting on Rami’s face. It was really, like, it was kind of like a relief. I felt like I accomplished a lot. The scene where I read the story about the octopus, it’s just an awful story. I cried reading the script. I felt it was really moving, and I’m so excited that I was able to do the role. I was so excited when I met Destin, because he’s just brilliant. He wrote the script, and it was just brilliant. I was so happy I got to work with these people.
JG: We did so many takes of that freak-out, too. You never lost steam.
BL: Oh my gosh, it was amazing. You have this amazing…I mean, when we started, I thought, “I’ve got to take my cues from you.” If I have to get upset about something, I stay in it. I just say like, “Okay, I’m going down to the deep end, and I’m just going to get really dark for, like, an hour. I’ll let everybody know when I’m, like, not in a dark place. But you would just turn it on and off. You’d freak out and be screaming, “Fuck that!” and going crazy, and then you’d get up and be like, “Wow, that was so fun!” I’d be like, “Well, you must be tired,” and you were like, “No, I want to do it again!”
KD: It was exciting!
BL: I’ve just never seen anybody be able to just…it’s amazing the amount of emotional depth that you have and that you’re able to just tap into and then release from. It’s harder for me. I find that I just kind of, like, wade in the water, but you were so good about being like, “Now I’m Jayden, and now I’m myself.” That’s so healthy and so incredible to watch.
KS: It’s very difficult.
KD: I felt really bad for Rami when I spit on his face. The thing was, when we were shooting that scene, I kept spitting on his face, but really, they were on Brie for the first, like, eight takes. Then, Destin came up to me and was like, “Are you really spitting on his face?” I was like, “Oh my gosh, I am. Are you guys not even on us?” He’s like, “No, you didn’t have to,” so I’m like, “Oh my God, I feel so bad!” (laughs) I kept apologizing.
RM: I went up to Destin and said, “She knows the camera’s not on her, right? Can you go tell her the camera’s not on her?” (laughs)
KD: I felt so bad! It’s so embarrassing!
BL: That’s awesome (laughs). I love it.

AG: Your character was so awkward. He just reminded me of those random people that sometimes you’re like, “Did you really just say that?”
RM: No filter.
KD: Rami brought so much comedy to the script.
RM: It was there. I got a few good one-liners.
BL: I didn’t see that much comedy in it, but you made everything really funny. It was great.
RM: Cool. Thank you, guys.

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