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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

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Cretton (fourth from left) and the crew from "Short Term 12" in March at South by Southwest. Cretton (fourth from left) and the crew from "Short Term 12" in March at South by Southwest.

Humble in the Glare of Hype

SDSU alum Destin Cretton's remains humble, despite a flourishing film career.
By Tobin Vaughn

Sipping cold drinks in a cabana by the rooftop pool of a swanky San Diego hotel, Ron Najor (’99, ’02) and Destin Cretton (’11) appear the very picture of Hollywood success.  Except they insist they’re not – yet.

(l-r) Destin Cretton ('11) and Ron Najor ('99,'02) at an August 22 media promotion for their new film, "Short Term 12."

“I'm not making a lot of money and I am perfectly happy,” says Cretton, a Maui native with sophic eyes and a remarkably serene demeanor. “I love my '93 Toyota pickup.  I love my little apartment in Echo Park.” 

He also loves to make films, the latest of which, “Short Term 12,” he wrote and directed.  Based on Cretton’s personal work experience, it’s the story of a young staff member at a foster care facility coping with the challenges inherent in that environment alongside her boyfriend who is also a co-worker.

Cretton won the Jury Prize in Short Filmmaking at Sundance in 2009 with a truncated version of the film.  This past March, the full-length movie won the audience and grand jury awards at South by Southwest.

An emotional ride

After its opening in New York and Los Angeles last month, “Short Term 12” received strong critical reviews.  On this breezy August afternoon, reporters line up for poolside interviews prior to an advance San Diego screening of the film, but neither Cretton nor Najor, the film’s producer, are fully buying into the scene.

“It's a very emotional ride being a film maker because a lot of it is based on hype and a lack of hype,” Cretton says. “Right now there's some hype happening, but I've learned to not go up and down with what other people's reactions are to things that I'm doing.”

Najor seems equally guarded against the peaks and valleys of Hollywood hype.  A dual major in film and psychology in his student days at SDSU, he says he most enjoys bringing a film into being.

"Producing is kind of putting everything together, helping to take a project from fruition and getting it out into the world,” he explains. “I like working on projects I believe in and if I'm able to do that and help get that out there, it's exciting for me."

Structure and motivation

Destin Cretton with the Grand Jury Award he received for "Short Term 12" in March at South by Southwest.

Having attended SDSU at different times, Najor and Cretton met when Najor was shooting and Cretton was editing behind-the-scenes videos. They made their first independent feature “I am not a Hipster,” that went to Sundance in 2012.

In addition to master’s degrees from SDSU, both share a gratitude toward the university’s film program.  They return to campus often to screen films and speak to students.  

"There's no way I'd still be making movies if it wasn't for San Diego State,” Cretton asserts. “It created enough of a structure to motivate me to make things and at the same time it wasn't debilitating with that structure.” 

"The program at San Diego State is amazing,” Najor agrees. “I just love the fact that if you want to make something, you can, and that's something that not all film schools let you do.”

Influence and inspiration

Both Najor and Cretton cite filmmaker Greg Durbin as a major influence and inspiration.  An instructor at SDSU since 1987, he teaches advanced film production and intermediate film production.

“He was always very encouraging to the students to go out there and never be afraid,” Najor remembers. “He inspired me to take chances, take risks and whether it was producing or directing, I was always trying to make something I believed in."

“When he had no idea if I had any talent at all he was encouraging,” Cretton recalls. “I had no talent and Greg still put his energy there and still encouraged this kid who he didn't know to just go for it.  It was priceless."

Durbin disputes his former students’ assessments of their abilities.

“They're pretty generous with their credit to me (but) it's really their talent,” he says. “These guys would flourish anywhere.  Destin is a remarkably humble character.  Just look at what he writes.  There's so much sophistication in it. 

“Ron has found his way into producing and he's quite a natural there, but there's a lot of things he could do.  He's really good behind the camera and he won't agree to this, but he's a great editor, too.”

A rare freedom

As a student at SDSU, Cretton made a documentary called "Drakmar: A Vassal's Journey," which he sold to HBO.

(l-r) Film critic Anders Write with Cretton and Najor at the August 22 San Diego screening of "Short Term 12."
 “If I had gone to most other film schools, I wouldn't have been able to do what I did with 'Drakmar,'” Cretton says. “The assignment was for a seven-minute film and we were allowed to turn it into a feature-length documentary.  Most film schools would just say no, but we did it.

“So a San Diego State-made project premiered on HBO.  It was great for the school.  It was so great for us - so encouraging and so wonderful."

Durbin admits SDSU’s program is rare among film schools in the freedom it gives its students. 

"We do have a policy that gives the students full ownership of their films,” he explains. “Most of the big film schools own those films.  The students put a lot of money into them, but they don't get to own them. 

“It doesn't seem right to me.  All we require is that they put a logo at the end that acknowledges it was made through our program because it was - they used our equipment, our faculty and our facilities."

A community of friends

Other film schools are also known for being highly competitive.  Najor says his SDSU experience was exactly the opposite.

“It was an environment where all the professors and students really helped each other and were very supportive of one another,” he says. “There wasn't this rivalry between students, but rather a community of friends wanting to see their classmates succeed.  For me, that was the best type of environment SDSU could have fostered and it helped me grow as a filmmaker in a very positive way.”

That’s part of the reason Najor, Cretton and many other graduates stay connected to the film program and help contribute to its success.

"Short Term 12" opens in San Diego September 13.

"They come back,” says Durbin. “They volunteer. They do these panel discussions and presentations and the students just lap it up.  They're hungry for it.”  

Najor and Cretton say they’re planning another campus visit sometime during the fall semester.  Cretton, who also teaches high school students, believes it’s important to share his experiences with a younger generation of filmmakers. 

"There's a lot of things I wish somebody had told me when I was going to school and I think it would have allowed me to get to where I am quicker,” he says. “I love talking to students and just telling them that all the rules, all the things that people tell you you have to do, it's all bullshit.”

A windy road

Regardless of whether “Short Term 12” is a financial smash, Najor and Cretton are pleased with the way their latest collaboration has turned out.  Both seem happy with the filmmaking journey that has brought them this far.

“It's been a kind of windy road.  You just have to keep going with it and see where it goes," Najor concludes.

"I love being where I am right now, but it has nothing to do with the hype that's surrounding this movie,” says Cretton. “I have really wonderful friends and my family is really wonderful and I just feel really content with life.  I'm surrounded by good people.  You can't ask for anything more."

“Short Term 12” opens September 13 at theaters in San Diego and throughout the United States.