SXSW: How 'Short Term 12's' Brie Larson, Destin Cretton and Some Kids Won the Festival's Top Prize

6:20 AM PST 03/13/2013 by Jordan Zakarin
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The Grand Jury Prize-winning indie drama about troubled youth featured a young star, an ambitious director, stressful nights, goofy earning mornings and lots of coffee.

Short Term 12 has quite a long history already.

Its star, Brie Larson, had an inkling that she wanted to be an actress when she was just three years old, and after her young mind processed the jumble of genre classics of Fried Green Tomatoes, Gone With the Wind, and The Little Mermaid, she was absolutely convinced that show business was her future. She was persistent, too, and convinced her parents to move to Los Angeles by the time she was eight.

On the other hand, director Destin Cretton's path could not have been any more different. He grew up  in Hawaii and envisioned a life of as a plumber or garbage collector, or really in any flexible job that would get him out and surfing on the crisp Pacific waves by the early afternoon. After college, he felt directionless and took a job at a halfway home for troubled youths, made some short movies and then attended film school.

Their trajectories would eventually cross at an event for young filmmakers.

EXCLUSIVE PHOTO: Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. Get Intimate in 'Short Term 12'

"It's a very vivid experience for me because it was scary and awesome and I was like 'I hope nobody asks me any questions because I don’t know why I’m here,'" Larson tells The Hollywood Reporter, with more than a touch of humility, while sitting with Cretton a day after a pre-festival screening of their new film.

Short Term 12 is a drama that could not have been made without each of their divergent backgrounds, which they trace in between laughs at newly shared memories.

The film, which earned the grand jury prize for narrative feature at SXSW, stars Larson as Grace, a young counselor to troubled children at a short term home in California. She has old emotional wounds that she bandages but refuses to truly tend, leading to a tenuously-held balance that is upended by a new teenage intake (Kaitlyn Dever) in whom she sees much of her old self.

A feature length adaptation of a short Cretton debuted at Sundance in 2008, much of it was informed by his experiences working in the group home. He went into the job incredibly naive, he says, and was always stressed "that a kid might snap and throw a chair at your face, or that you’ll just say the wrong thing or do something wrong that could really f--- this kid up even more."

Larson took that difficulty to heart, diving headfirst into a role that represented a major step after supporting turns in 21 Jump Street, Scott Pilgrim and United States of Tara -- this year, she also features in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon's Addiction and the Sundance hit The Spectacular Now. As Short Term progresses, she grows closer to the troubled girl, who has been abused by her father and carpet bombs any potential relationships with bursts of fury. It dredges up painful memories for Grace and she begins to unravel, panicking and growing distant from her loving boyfriend, played by John Gallagher, Jr. (The Newsroom).

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“There were some days that were just meltdown days. Almost every scene was me just, towards the end where it was just really tragic, heaping those bits together,” Larson remembers. "And I was like ‘Wow. Can a human being do this for so many hours?’ With enough coffee, you can. You too can do it. I drink quite a bit of coffee but since Short Term, my caffeine intake grew. It went 20 times more and I still haven’t been able to fix it."

It was a short shoot on a low budget, which both focused the filmmaking team and left them feeling the heat, sweating the clock's countdown.

"You go home, and have enough time to decompress a little bit and then you go over the stuff for the next day and then you have to go to bed," the actress explains, almost exhausted at simply the recollection. "There's nothing else. I'd look at it and just go 'Tomorrow's the day when I really screw it up.' And it’s like 'Well, I loved today but tomorrow will be the time.' And you get to the next day and I’m like 'I didn’t screw it up.' And then you’re given the call sheet for the next day and you’re like 'Oh shit. Well then it’ll be tomorrow.' It was ambitious."

That Larson took the role so seriously actually separates her from many of the people who work in the actual homes. Long after Cretton completed his two years working in the facilities, he went back and spent time researching the juvenile custody system. One of the film’s lighter -- if supremely awkward -- moments comes when a new employee at the short term home introduces himself to the children by saying that he "always wanted to work with underprivileged kids."

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That didn’t sit all that well with the kids on-screen, and goes over even worse in real life.

"A woman that we met, she was telling us that a lot of the people come through there to work who usually last six months. A lot of them are wealthy kids who are in between going to law school or something and just want something cool on their resume," the director explains, laughing and shaking his head. "They’ll show up with $200 sneakers on and pull up in their really nice cars and those immediately get keyed and their shoes get shit spilled on them. The kids just eat them alive."

For the film’s children, Cretton and Larson spent significant time holding open auditions, and many of the kids who were cast had never acted before. That’s where Larson’s experience with growing up in Hollywood came in handy, not just in "goofing off and distracting them from their home schooling," both of which she did quite often, but also so that she could help steer their careers in the right direction.

"I found I really wanted them to understand how good they were and give them a sense of confidence, because it is a really bizarre industry and it’s a lot more people not paying attention to you than giving you the time to look you in the eye and say 'I believe in you and I really want you to do great stuff,'" Larson explains, calling the talks she had with the young actors what she missed the most about the experience.

"Most of the time these kids want it and they don’t have parents that are in the industry and they don’t understand how to get it, how to wade through it,” she adds. "If you’re a kid, it's way more often that you’re going to get your heart crushed and people are going to say things and put you in a position that is bad. You just want those kids to feel good about themselves and feel like they have a voice."

Such was the case with Keith Stanfield, who was the one young cast member that appeared in both the 2008 short and the new feature. As the enigmatic, moody Marcus, a long-term resident who is nearing his 18th birthday, Stanfield glares and bares his soul in tiny angry increments; he also raps an original song over the end credits. What became a scene-stealing turn almost never happened.

"Since the short, he kind of got jaded by Hollywood and disappeared," Cretton remembers. "And for a month while we were holding auditions I was trying to contact him and couldn’t because he dropped his managers and agents and no one had any contact information for him."

Stanfield doesn’t have a cell phone, so it took the director sending emails to three different to finally connect with him. "Hopefully this movie will introduce him to a better side of that world. I think he was just wrapped up in some manipulative, crappy people."

Luckily, both on screen and in real life, every one of the kids could lean on Cretton and Larson.

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin

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