If you don't yet know Brie Larson by name, give it a minute. Currently appearing in The Spectacular Now and Short Term 12, Larson won attention with regular roles on the TV series United States of Tara (produced by Steven Spielberg for Showtime) and Raising Dad. She's also logged some serious film credits, including 21 Jump Street, Rampart, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Greenberg, Hoot, Sleepover, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt's upcoming debut as writer-director, Don John. Short Term 12's writer-director Destin Cretton is accruing big-time buzz for his breakthrough film, after the documentary Drakmar: A Vassal's Journey (co-directed by Lowell Frank) and the drama I Am Not a Hipster. Larson and Cretton sat down with me, at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, to discuss what it took—and what it meant—to make the moving foster-care drama Short Term 12. But first things first: they had to comment on my T-shirt, depicting a man with an elephant head, wearing a suit.
Destin Cretton: It'd be funny, if for Halloween, if you wore that shirt with an elephant mask on.
Brie Larson: No, you could just add other animals and kind of make, like, a tiki head.
Destin Cretton: Whooa.
Brie Larson: Yeah. You know?
Destin Cretton: Yeah.
BL: And just keep going on top and top and top.
DC: That'd be cool.
BL: (Laughs heartily.)
Groucho: You may have been in this room too long.
BL: (Laughs even louder.)
BL: (in mock nervous desperation:) It's not just this room, man!
BL: There's so many rooms!
DC: You can't wear a shirt like that and not expect...
BL: We really are trying to—we're just interested in everything else, at this point.
G: So I loved the film, first of all, I should say.
BL: Thank you.
DC: Oh, hanks. Look at all those notes you got!
G: Yeah, yeah.
DC: Let's do this!
BL: This is cool.
G: So Destin, you spent two years working in a foster-care group home. What misconceptions did you hope to dispel with the film, and then, Brie, in reading his script and doing your research, did you discover you held any misconceptions of your own?
BL: Cool question.
DC: Yeah, that is a great question. I mean, I think that one big misconception people have—just about this film, in general, but also when people talk about foster care, or this system—is that it's all depressing. Y'know? And that it's all going to be a lot of trudging through shit. But my job there was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. It definitely had a lot of tragic stories attached to it. But it also was one of the most inspiring two years of my life. And hilarious. And fun. Where I built very real relationships with both staff members and kids. And it's not all depressing—it's all—it's a place that does—I mean, I don't want to just call it rosy 'cause it's not, but it's real life. It's like down and dirty and beautiful real life. And people working there are real people, real humans, who are, a lot of times, working there for the right reasons. Y'know, so—there's a lot that aren't, but there are a lot who are. And I didn't want this movie to just be a downer, and also I personally feel that there is just as much authenticity in the blissful, hopeful moments as there are in the tragic, depressing moments...
BL: I think that—I mean, there's so much that I'm still learning from, but I think I went into it thinking, "I'm going to bring some hope and strength to these kids, and the reality was they kind of did that to me. They gave me hope and strength way more than the other way around. And there was a lot more of a voice that I gained from knowing them than the other way around. I was so impressed by how open they were to communicate, actually, a lot of the time. And that they were not afraid. These were kids that had a lot of strength. And that there wasn't really a simple kind of blanket fix to it. I'm such a fixer, and I thought, "Oh, I'm gonna get in there, I'm going to understand what's going on here. I'm going to be able to do something about it and start a revolution, and then you get in there, you go, "Well, this is just way more complicated for many other complicated reasons. There isn't one sort of blanket way to fix it. It works really well in a lot of ways, and then for the same ways it works for one person, it doesn't work for another. And it becomes tricky, but it's just like Destin's saying: I had so much fun with them. And they're so—like I couldn't believe how talented they were, too. It's like dancers and singers, and they've got line staff that are taking them to their lessons and making sure that they're getting the creative outlets that they need. And then at the same time, you see some really sad and upsetting and broken sides that you just want to be able to fix with a hug, and it's just not that simple.
G: While listening to both of you talk there—everything you're saying, all of that comes through in the film very clearly.
BL: That's cool.
G: One of the things I really liked was how it touched on that aspect of people think kids are supposed to learn from parents and learn from teachers, but there is that kind of two-way learning going on.
G: So this term "line staff": is that kind of a euphemism for being on "the front line," or what does that mean, "line staff"?
DC: I don't know! That's just what they call them. I've never thought of it.
BL: Yeah, I never thought about it!
DC: But it does really feel like you're on the front lines. I described that, especially the first couple months of going and working there, you have to literally go through a gate system and check in. And it really—I could feel my body going into survival mode as I was walking through the gate. And it felt like I was walking into war, y'know? Well, I don't know. I've never been to war, but it felt like my body was getting ready to survive another day. But yeah, I've never thought about that.
G: There's one dramatic moment in the story that involves a clash of wills between Grace and her supervisor, who I guess you'd say is a clinician above her pay grade. And they're both kind of bound by the system in slightly different ways. The system is obviously imperfect, but I'm wondering what you both feel about what it does and doesn't achieve the way it is set up now and if there were any thoughts you had about how it could be better.
BL: It's hard.
DC: Well, I'll start by saying that none of us working on this film are acting like we are—
DC & BL: Experts.
DC: And we hope that—I mean...Brie is an expert on Grace. I'm an expert on my own personal experience. We hope, and we're excited, that this seems to be happening that the movie can be used as a tool for people who are experts. So from my own personal experience, I have seen the complications of the system. I've seen both it working and it not working. That scene you're talking about: there are times when those rules work, and thank goodness they're there, because there are parents who have been accused of being molesters and they're not. And thank goodness that the system protects the witch hunt from starting. But there are other times when a line staff, and a line staff's instincts, are right. And they know that something is going on, but there's no way to prove it. And it happens a lot that children are sent back and back and back, and they are being abused and they're slipping through the system. And it's tragic. It happens a lot, unfortunately. But that's—I mean, one of the great things about this movie is that we've been able to have discussions with people that are very passionate about this issue. And they have very specific theories as to how the system can change. And I don't want to be the person (laughs) to talk about that, 'cause I'm not—but more than anything, I hope that this movie gives these people one more excuse to talk about it.
G: What I got from the film is that the system is only as good as the people in it and their sensitivities.
BL: (quietly) Hm.
G: Was that your experience in—you went and observed, right, in an actual L.A. home?
BL: Mm-hm, yeah.
G: What were some of the things you gleaned from that research?
BL: One of the interesting things that I learned was that sometimes loving someone or showing love doesn't always mean that you have to give in. Sometimes you have to be hard and kind of get them to toe the line a little bit. And I wasn't used to that. I am the oldest of all the grandkids and the oldest of siblings, but I babysit, and you're always the fun one. And I had never had the opportunity to be the one that has to be the bad cop sometimes. And that that's actually so necessary. And I actually had a moment where I felt like I understood my mother in a new way, that I hadn't known. "Oh, those times that I was grounded were actually really good for me." (Laughs.) And the other interesting thing was the concept of putting in your time in your day of fighting for those kids and steering them in this direction, getting them to kind of go in a good path, but then when the day is done, the day is done. And you don't go home and torture yourself and guilt-trip yourself into all the things you could have done or wished that you would have done better. And you kind of let go and forgive and recharge so that the next day you can go back and do it all over again. 'Cause if you don't take that time, and that's what I to learn with actually shooting the movie was if I didn't go home and just take a least an hour to watch SNL and laugh, and cook a nice dinner, I couldn't get through the next day. I had to have the time to recoup before going back in. You can't just fight all the time; you crack.
G: The title of the film can be taken very literally. I wonder if you intended to embed any poetry in that title.
DC: Oh yeah. There's all kinds of poetry.
DC: But I don't think it's a poet's job to interpret the—
G: Well, life is short term, for example.
DC: Um, yeah, there is a, y'know—yeah, that's great.
G: I don't know if I'm reading in what's not there, but it seemed to sort of say to me that every choice matters, in every moment. It's a movie that's a lot about being in the present, and that there's no wisdom in procrastination. Y'know, with what Grace is going through with whether or not she's going to have this child and her fears about that and her fears in her relationship with her boyfriend. So it seemed to me there's a bit of a "carpe diem"—
G: Idea running through it, I don't know.
BL: I like that.
DC: I like that too.
BL: I like that. I haven't heard that.
DC: That was incredibly intentional.
BL: We're going to take that, yeah! Just add that to the poster: looks pretty good.
G: Alright, I guess my time is up here, but it's been a pleasure.
DC: Yeah, no, that was—
BL: Thank you very much!