Editor’s Weekend Pick: Short Term 12

MovieMaker‘s pick of the films out in theaters this week is the award-winning, heart-pumping Short Term 12, and we’re celebrating its release with an exclusive article by writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton, appearing in our upcoming 2014 Complete Guide to Making Movies special issue.

Much of the emotional strength of Short Term 12 derives from its rich, all-too-human performances – the film should place Brie Larson squarely on the world’s “Best Young Actresses” radar (if she wasn’t already front and center). Yet besides Larson, and her well-established co-star John Gallagher, it is the supporting cast that truly brings texture and vitality to the narrative – a motley, preternaturally talented group of both professional and amateur actors. In the following paragraphs, Cretton elaborates on the strenuous process of finding the kids who brought Short Term 12 to startling life. He lends a rare look into, and valuable advice about, the delicate, intuitive process of casting an independent movie.

Casting the Net

by Destin Daniel Cretton

Casting has always been the most nerve-wracking stage of the moviemaking process for me. It’s when I’m actually sitting in a room with thinking, breathing people, listening to my lines being read out loud for the first time, that the film becomes terrifyingly real.

Most actors who come in to audition don’t realize I’m probably 100 times more nervous than they’ll ever be, but it’s true. And casting is even scarier for a film like Short Term 12—about the trials and tribulations of the wards and councilors of a state-funded group home—which lives or dies by its performances. We didn’t have any explosions, special effects, or crazy plot twists to make up for weak acting. And that no doubt explains why I woke up with knots in my stomach every morning until we’d secured our performers.

 

Know What You Want (Sort Of)

In all honesty, I don’t know what I’m looking for until it walks in the door and makes me laugh or cry. When you’re casting a low-budget indie film, you don’t usually have much in the way of time or resources. In my experience, it’s never been plausible (let alone feasible) for me to search for the actor who’s exactly like the character I imagined in my head while writing the script. To expect someone specific isn’t just unrealistic, it’s  not very exciting.

While casting Short Term 12, I had ideas of the general qualities and backstories of each of the characters, but I was honestly hoping that someone would come in and surprise me. There were a number of auditions that were so moving, a character got redefined in the casting room. The actors I responded to were the ones who were brave enough to sit in a chair with three strangers staring at them and perform from the gut, trusting their instincts. When that happens, your preconceived notions of a character go right out the window.

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Actors, Non-Actors, and Great Parents

All of the performers in Short Term 12 had at least a little acting experience under their belts before working on our film. Early in the process, we were toying with the idea of doing a nation-wide search of kids’ clubs, churches, and high schools to find those miracle kids with natural performing instincts. But then we remembered that we only had three weeks and no money. So, with the help of Rich Delia from Barden/Schnee Casting, we put out our notices and held auditions in a little room in Santa Monica, another room at my old film school, and in my apartment in Echo Park.

Because we were dealing with a film where we needed a group of actors under the age of 20, we ran into the old indie conundrum of casting experienced vs. non-experienced performers. Even after shooting, it’s difficult for me to make a case for either side. One perspective of the argument goes, it should be easier to get raw, honest performances from inexperienced actors who haven’t been tainted by the industry. With experienced actors, conversely, you may work harder to get naturalistic performances, but you’ll also ideally have actors who are on time and easier to work with—because they understand how a film set functions. In the case of Short Term 12, neither of these assumptions proved true.

Lydia Du Veaux, Alex Calloway, and Keith Stanfield didn’t have many (if any) credits under their belt at the time of filming, while Kaitlyn Dever and Kevin Hernandez had been in a whole bunch of stuff. But if I hadn’t known previously, it would have been impossible for me to distinguish between the veterans and newbies, because they were all incredibly professional and able to give such authentic performances that I was continually baffled. And more than that, they were all really good, kind-hearted kids who knew the importance of encouraging each other and having fun together. I don’t think it was just a coincidence that all of their parents were incredibly down-to-earth, and seemed to have created their own personal ways of shielding their kids from the hype and ego that can sometimes creep into the heads of people in this industry. On a film set where you’re working with young actors, there’s nothing better than a good parent. And we were extremely lucky on that front.

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Look Everywhere

There were two roles in Short Term 12 that were extremely difficult for us to cast. The first was Marcus, a quiet kid with way too much on his shoulders—all of which is bubbling just below the surface. While we were reading people for the role, I was trying to get in contact with Keith Stanfield (who played a similar part in the 2009 22-minute short film that inspired Short Term 12). It had been nearly three years since I’d heard from Keith. But I sent emails to all three possible addresses I had for him (no response) and called every phone number (out of service) while we continued auditioning kids to play Marcus, and I continued to panic because no one was showing me what the character needed.

Two weeks passed, and I had pressure from the producers to bite the bullet and choose our Marcus from the young men we’d seen. I thought I was going to implode. And then an email popped into my inbox one morning that read: “Sounds cool. I’ll come read for that.  Keith.” He drove down from Victorville the next day, auditioned in my apartment, made me and everyone else who saw the tape cry, and we had our Marcus.

The other role that was really hard to fill was our Sammy. A thin, withdrawn child who rarely leaves his room, Sammy was one of the few characters that I felt needed a specific look; he’s someone who communicates a story simply by the shape of his body and posture. We saw a lot of kids out of LA, most of whom were working actors. But none of them felt right for the part. After a couple weeks with no luck, one of our producers, Ron Najor, threw up a separate character description on a few smaller casting sites, asking kids anywhere to send in a video of themselves reading the sides. One of those videos (recorded vertically on an iPhone so I had to tilt my head to see it straight), was uploaded by a 12-year-old from Florida named Alex Calloway. His dad read our post and convinced his reluctant son to step into the back yard for a minute to do the scene. He had never acted in a film before, and was better than any of the “professionals” who came in to audition.

With everything said and done, I think the best way to go about finding your cast is throw your net as far and wide as your resources and time will allow. You may find an authentic performer from the high school down the street or in a sit-com on the Disney Channel. The tricky part is figuring out how to spot them.

 

When You Know, You Know

I remember as a kid the first time my Grandpa Bill did that magic trick where he pulled a quarter out of my ear. I started freaking out, imagining what other crazy things were in my head that I didn’t know about. Every time he did a new magic trick, a wave of electricity shot through my body and made me want to scream with excitement—like I had glimpsed the unlimited possibilities of the universe. That feeling of discovery is what I’m hoping for when an actor comes in to read for a part. But it doesn’t come with big, showy performances. I feel it when actors allow themselves to be open and honest and vulnerable; when they’re not afraid to fail or try something “stupid,” or perform with such subtlety that I don’t see the details until I watch the tapes that evening; and when they are so in love with their craft and art that they don’t care what anyone thinks of them because they’re above that—not out of ego or pride—but out of the humility that comes from knowing how lucky we all are to still be playing make-believe.

As a moviemaker, I think it’s crucial to always stay aware of that child-like excitement that ignites when you come in contact with something wondrous. And when that magnificent something happens in the casting room, don’t let the source get away.

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This article appears in MovieMaker’s upcoming special issue, the 2014 Complete Guide to Making Movies, hitting stands later this month.

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