Interview: Destin Daniel Cretton, “I Am Not a Hipster”


Destin Daniel Cretton

Destin Daniel Cretton's stunning debut, I Am Not a Hipster, follows Brook, a San Diego-based musician whose three sisters and estranged father show up for a week to scatter his recently-deceased mother's ashes. Last January, Cretton's film debuted alongside fellow Indie Night alum Kid-Thing in Sundance Film Festival's NEXT Program, which consists of films that "stretch limited resources to make impactful art." In our recent phone interview, Cretton spoke about the San Diego arts scene, his own struggles to decipher what is art and what is a hobby, and the creative decisions behind this superb debut feature. 

I wanted to get a grip on the film’s opening arc. The first thirty minutes or so of the film feel as though you’re deliberately peeling back layers of this character, Brook, and reshaping our perception of the character. Could you talk about the creative reasoning behind this decision?

Personally, I always find it fulfilling when I discover something about someone that I initially thought to be an extremely selfish person. Ninety percent of the time, my preconceptions about people are wrong. I love that moment of finding out that a person who I thought was an extremely hard person is actually quite soft. From the get-go, that was one I thing I was really interested in. I wanted to start out on the outside of a character and peel off enough of his shell to get inside that person.

I found that Dominic Bogart's performance really lent itself to what you’re talking about in regards to that gradual revelation in his expression. What was it in his performance that you think works so well?

Well I’ve been a big fan of Dominic's for a while. We worked on a short film a long time ago. I’ve always been amazed at how intricate and alive his performances feel. Anytime I see him in something, it’s so hard to pinpoint what his character is feeling at that moment. A lot of things are usually happening within Dominic’s performances. It’s never strictly angry or sad; it’s a complicated anger or complicated sadness. Also, he wouldn’t want me to use the word Method, but he does a lot of research for his roles. Even though the back-story of his character in this film isn’t fully disclosed, Dominic had his own interpretation of what he’d gone through. So in every scene that’s bubbling underneath. That’s what was so exciting about working with Dominic. I just wanted to create an environment where he felt free to let those things come out. It was always so exciting because I honestly didn’t know what he was going to do.

Is that your comfort zone as a director in terms of control? On this film, did you let things move in an organic, improvisatory manner or was it more scripted?

It was as free flowing as it could be on a tight schedule and a low budget. For most of the scenes, we knew what the purpose was and where we wanted it to go. But it’s more dependent on the actors. Some love to stick to script, some don’t. With Alvaro, who plays Brook's best friend, Clark, I was always encouraging him to improvise. Certain scenes were hugely improvised. For those, we would shoot with two cameras and I just put my trust in the actors to take it where it needed to go.

At one point in the film, Brook tells his friend Clark that "there are too many assholes out there with cameras and computers making pointless crap and calling it art." On the other hand, Clark just wants to "have fun." With whom do you side in this argument?

I honestly wish I was a lot more like Clark. I tend to remind myself that art should be as close to what it was like when you’re six years old and you’re making things with Play-Doh and having the time of your life. I also totally see Brook’s point that there is a lot of stupid stuff out there that gets labeled as art.

The funny thing is that a lot of those rants of Brook's are things I was being attacked with when I was writing the script. At first, the script was a lot shallower. It didn’t have what I’m now most proud of. When I was writing that shallow version, I was constantly being attacked with questions about why I was even making this in the first place. So that’s where a lot of those ideas came from.

Could you talk about the visual style of the film? There’s a distinct palette with this film and I wanted to know if that was a conscious decision of yours.

I will always put all of the credit onto my director of photography, Brett Pawlawke. We talked about the color palette from the very beginning. It was one of the main ideas of how we wanted to shoot this movie. The palette is loosely inspired by the idea of people in this subculture and… I’m trying not to use the word Instagram, but we wanted to visually present these young people’s affinity for old things like vinyl records and vintage photography.

Let's talk about the importance of place with this film. In independent film, most tend to automatically think of places like New York, or Austin, or Chicago. San Diego is certainly a less-common setting for independent films. 

I grew up in Hawaii and moved to San Diego and spent 10 years there. Creatively, living in San Diego was an amazing experience. It has this incredible arts community that I don’t think is featured enough. This indie music scene there is small but it’s extraordinary. There’s amazing talent and amazingly talented people who are so supportive of each other. There’s no sense of competition. If you’re a musician, you go to other people’s shows and help out. If you’re a filmmaker, people will come to your set and help out. I just learned so much when I was down there and I saw a different side to this young twentysomething arts crowd that I saw in movies. The Brook character represents that stereotype that I’ve seen a lot in films. By the end of the movie, I hope you see that different side, which is a very real, human person.

A lot of that human, universal aspect of the film derives from Brook’s relationship with his three sisters. There’s an instantaneous bond and affection with these characters. Was there any rehearsal?

I actually sent them all on a hike and gave them an envelope with very personal questions that only brothers and sisters would know. So, they had to go over these questions and talk about them over the course of the hike. Also, I told them that by the end of the hike one of them needed to fart in front of the group. [Laughs.] When they came back, it is exactly as you said: they instantly felt like a family.

Finally, it seems a congratulations is in order because I saw you won a grant from the San Francisco Film Society for your next film, Short Term 12. Can you talk about the project?

Well, the grant is helping us finish post-production. The film takes place primarily in a group home for troubled teenagers. It’s a narrative piece. We shot it a couple months ago and it’s turning out pretty great. I’m really happy with it.

I Am Not a Hipster screens Monday, December 17 as part of Film Society's ongoing Indie Night series. A Q&A with writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton will follows the 8:00pm screening. 

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