Marvel's 'Shang-Chi' Director Destin Cretton
Your wedding video might have been made by the director Marvel’s Shang Chi. SHANG CHI THEME pop in CLIP I did a lot of wedding videos in order to just pay the bills. So you’re telling me there are people out there with wedding videos that they can say were directed by the director of the latest Marvel film? DESTIN CRETTON: Yeah. There are. There’s quite a few. That’s right, Destin Cretton might have shot your wedding video. We’ll find out more about this fast-rising filmmaker as we delve into his origin story. Cinema Junkie The Theme bump 1 (drums) Welcome back to another edition of listener supported KPBS Cinema Junkie. I’m Beth Accomando. And today I talk with an old friend.(:05) Cinema Junkie The Theme bump 1 (Horns) This month Cinema Junkie looks to Asians on screen and behind the camera. For part one I speak with filmmaker Destin Cretton who burst on the indie scene with Short Term 12 and has just helmed Marvel’s first Asian superhero film, Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. For part two, I speak with Brian Hu of the San Diego Asian Film Festival to look at the long cinematic journey to get from stereotypes of Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan and oriental exoticism to Shang Chi. But right now I get to speak to Destin Cretton who I met almost two decades ago when he was a student and filmmaking was not even a hobby yet. (:38) Music theme bump out But before we do that, I need to take one quick break. And to take us into the break with a Share Your Addiction is my friend from Wales, Aled Llewelyn. Since the theme for next month is spies, I will let this Bond fanatic share one of his many obsessions. SHARE YOUR ADDICTION Aled Thanks Aled. Get ready for Bond next month and enjoy a little break before setting in for some introspection with Destin Cretton. MIDROLL 1 [currently at 3:30] Welcome back to Cinema Junkie. Before we dive in...There’s some colorful language in this episode, so if you have kids around, you might want to save this one for later. Anyway… I met Destin Cretton 20 years ago at a student film festival I used to run called Film School Confidential. Then I had the pleasure of showcasing his student work at the festival starting in 2002 with Longbranch A Suburban Parable and continuing with Bartholomew’s Song, a dystopian sci-fi film…. CLIP Bartholomew’s Song Then he delivered Deacon’s Mondays and his award-winning Short Term 12. CLIP Short Term 12 With each film he tried something new but he always displayed a compassion and empathy for his characters as they struggled to find connections and a place in the world. Through the student festival I had the opportunity to watch him grow and mature as both a person and a filmmaker. But he always displayed a careful thoughtfulness and this interview provides insights into his creative process in ways that can be helpful to any filmmaker. We talk about community, challenging oneself as an artist and of course about Shang Chi. It’s not often I get to say that I was there when a filmmaker’s career began but I can say that about Destin. DESTIN CRETTON: I mean, you can, you can say that you were there before. I even knew that I could do it as a hobby. It was film school confidential. We were watching Greg Durbin's short film, and that was before I had done anything. So you and everything you've done in San Diego has been a huge inspiration for me. Well, I was going to say, what was it that really made you decide that you were hooked on filmmaking, that this was something you really had to do. DESTIN CRETTON: I remember the first time that I did a short film that was this little black and white silent movie shot on super eight. And I showed it to my class and it was the first time that I experienced that buzz and the anxiety that comes with exposing yourself to an audience. It was also the first time that I got to see the response from the audience and the entire process of making a collaborative piece of art. And then watching that piece of art interact with an audience that was so energizing to me that happened in film school. It was actually just before I came down and, and came to your film school confidential, but I had already been hooked on the process of filmmaking. What I'm hooked on has nothing to do with awards, film festivals, buzz of a movie I'm working on it. It really is. Such a pure fulfilling process to work on collaborative art pieces. It's really been a delight and a thrill to see you evolve through your student shorts and early independent films. And since you're doing a Marvel origin film right now, Shane Chichi and the legend of the 10 rings, I thought maybe we could do a little of your origin story and kind of go back into your early roots of filmmaking. But one thing I noticed from seeing all your student films and watching you progress, even though you worked in a lot of different genres and the styles were a little different, the one thing that really linked all your films was this thematic sense of community. SHORT TERM 12 CLIP And that always seemed to be something that drove your storytelling. And I was wondering what it was about that that kind of attracted you or made you kind of keep that thread. DESTIN CRETTON: I was actually just having a conversation with somebody recently about what San Diego meant to me and what that time they're meant to me. I lived there for 10 years after living the first 20 years of my life on Maui in the middle of the Pacific and San Diego. For me, it was exactly that it was a community of people who I really felt safe around. I felt supported. To explore and take chances and really find out what I wanted to do. What kind of stories I wanted to tell. And I actually tried going to LA a little earlier and the pace of it, the big money that's that's surrounding the industry, all of that was truthfully. It was just terrifying. I was just, my heart was in my throat. It didn't feel fun. It was just scary. It's just scary. And, um, And I decided I, I couldn't move to LA. I thought I would never move to LA. So I went back to San Diego and decided to make movies there. And, uh, I have a tendency to isolate myself. I have a, uh, If left, left to my own devices, I will become a bit of a hermit. And, but I also know that's not healthy for me. I get in my head too much. I start overthinking things. I stop creating. I started feeling like the world it's doomed and there there's no point in anything. And I just sit in my bed. So for me, active community has been something that has. Kept me going and kept me healthy. And I mean, I'm not planning to put it into each of my projects, but I mean, even, even chunky, every project that I've done, I've used it to process through things that I am thinking about or going through emotions that I'm dealing with in, throughout the writing process. Typically one of the answers. Two of these problems has something to do with community. It has something to do with finding stability or love or getting back on your feet by holding the hand of, of somebody else and walking through shit together. So, yeah, I suppose that's where that theme kind of comes from. In addition to the narrative shorts that you did, you also did some documentary work you did Born Without Arms and Drakmar... Drakmar Clip What did you learn from working in documentary? What'd you take away from it? DESTIN CRETTON: I learned a ton from doing documentaries and not only those documentaries, but also I, I did a lot of wedding videos, um, in order to just pay the bills. HERE COMES THE BRIDE But I love them. Like wedding videos are also extremely fulfilling because you have this audience of two and their families. When they watch what you've made, you get the best reviews every time. DESTIN CRETTON: But what, one of the biggest things that I learned that I carried over into every, every time I do a movie is working with people. To me, working with actors is not much different than working with the people that I'm interviewing for a documentary. DRAKMAR CLIP DESTIN CRETTON: So much of it is, is about really listening and. Treating people with respect and getting them comfortable in front of a camera. So they present the best version of themselves. And I also naturally do that because whenever I'm in front of the camera, I feel so uncomfortable. And if I don't have somebody really trying to make me feel comfortable, I will just come across a nervous wreck. So that experience doing those documentaries. I mean, for me, it's always an exercise in empathy and exercise and, um, putting yourself into the shoes of the person that you are filming and really. Championing them... really caring about them. So you can create the best version of their Clip from Short Term 12 I think the short film of yours that was most exciting was short term 12. And you did a blog for me when you were at Sundance. Destin clip from Sundance Uh, in fact, you like went off the grid for a while and I was worried what happened and it turned out you had great. Um, but that also became a feature film. Talk a little bit about the origins of that story, because this is something that's very personal to you and that you drew on your own life for... DESTIN CRETTON: Yeah. One of the jobs that I worked right when I was out of college, was working at a group home for at-risk teenagers in Southern San Diego. And it was a very impactful experience for me. I worked there for two years and it was one of those experiences that just really opened my eyes to the harsh reality of the world and the harsh reality that a lot of people, young men and women are, are living through. It also really opened my eyes to how do you please, we can impact each other as humans, whether you are you're a family member by blood, or just somebody who, who has the power to lift someone up or hurt them because they really look up to you. And so that experience. Stayed with me after I left that job and went to film school. And after three years at San Diego state grad grad school, I was trying to figure out what to do for my thesis project. And I was looking through my, my old journals from the time that I was working there. And that's where that story came from. Clip from Short Term 12 And in translating it to the big screen, you decided to also. Change the gender of the character. You had a male character in the short, and then it became a female lead for the feature. Short Term 12 clip And I just find that interesting, because you know, this is such a very personal story. What made you decide to kind of do that switch and maybe get a slightly different perspective on those experiences? DESTIN CRETTON: I mean, I don't have like a, there's no strategy behind anything that I do, except like when something's not working. Give it a big shake until you, until I can start moving again. I tried initially to just do a straight adaptation of the short film, into a feature with all the same characters, but that wasn't the intention. When I made the short film, I didn't know. I would even finish the short film. So it just wasn't working. And I, I have three sisters and I was talking to them about some of the issues of, you know, residual effects from family situations and how we are dealing with it. And my supervisor, when I was working at this place was a female supervisor who I really looked up to. And I, I decided to change the main character to that point of view, which was a new challenge for me. A new exercise in empathy and trying to put myself into another person's shoes. Short Term 12 clip It's also still a huge reflection of myself is put into that character too. I see so much of my own anxieties and hopes and dreams and fears wrapped up in the Grace character. And a lot of the characters in that movie. When that movie was like accepted by people at South by Southwest…. I remember sitting in the back of a theater, um, and hearing people laughing and engaging with the material. And I was just, just bawling my eyes out. Because I felt so connected to everybody in that room because they, I w I was like everybody in this room and seeing my fear and seeing my anxieties up on the screen and they're engaging with it. It was. It was a very beautiful experience for me. Well, what I really like about your films is your ability to find humanity in all the characters and when you did Just Mercy which is about a civil defense attorney.... Just Mercy Clip It would have been really easy to fall into some tropes about the characters that are less sympathetic. Just Mercy Clip 2 But what I really loved is that some of these characters that we expect to hate and expect to find certain things in, you really found humanity in them and made them very multidimensional instead of, you know, a flat kind of take on them. DESTIN CRETTON: To me, that’s life. I rarely, anytime I meet somebody and have a first impression of them, no matter what it is. That's probably in my experience, a hundred percent of the time incorrect. And if circumstances forced me to get to know that person every single time, they become a more interesting person. And that's what happens with my characters too. Like sometimes they start off as, as the typical villain or the typical baddie. Through the writing process. You're kind of getting to know these characters as they're in different situations and I can't help, but start to like them and try to understand them and see them from different points of view. So that's the fun part. BEAT You are now working on a Marvel film, Shang Chi and comics. Tend to draw heroes and villains in slightly more black and white kind of dimensions. But I feel like after black Panther we've seen this sense of like, no, they don't necessarily have to be, you know, clearly divided into heroes and villains. So what, from kind of your, that kind of a background that you're bringing to the film, what did, how did that play out in this universe of, you know, comic book characters and Superheroes? DESTIN: I mean for, for me, this, this movie is, um, emotionally, it's not that different of a process than any movie that I've done before. What I love about Marvel and working for them. And I think it's the reason why people keep going back to Marvel movies is because they, they deeply care about these characters and they don't see them as heightened Superheroes who are on another level. They see them as people and they want to explore their emotionality and they want to explore their relationships and make them relatable to us. And when, when you watch this movie, I think people will be maybe surprised by how much they can relate to even the villain of our movie. Um, that's not to say they would, people would be doing the things that the villain does in response. His pain, but I think you're getting enough context to why he's doing these things that it's easy to relate to him as a person. SHANG CHI TRAILER That was Tony Leung in Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. I need to take one more break and then I’ll be back with Destin Cretton to talk more about his Marvel film. And to take us into the break here’s Gary Dexter, who’ll be joining me next month to share his passion for spy movies from the fantasy world of James Bond to the gritty realism of John Le Carre. He has a Cold Turkey to share, he wants some haters to stop hating this Bond film right now. COLD TURKEY Gary Dexter segment Thanks Gary! I can’t wait to discuss more Bond films with you next month. Now sit tight for a quick break and I’ll be right back. MIDROLL 2 [currently 23:37] I’m back with filmmaker Destin Cretton who talks about the transition from working on short films and small indie projects to helming one of Marvel Studios’ tentpole summer releases. DESTIN CRETTON: I mean, I've may be different than some filmmakers and that I, even, when I we were doing little short films and in San Diego, when we literally had nobody to answer. We were still doing test screenings for audiences, getting feedback, trying to make the best version of a movie that would actually connect to an audience. You know, I was never the fuck you. I make what I want type of filmmaker. I love the collaborative nature of getting a whole bunch of people focused onto telling one story and seeing what evolves as we all move together. Having a crew that feels free to say, Hey, all right. I like being informed and watching, uh, a story grow together, working with Marvel was, I mean, yes, it's huge. It's huge. And it's, it is different in so many ways. But the core of the process was not that different to anything I've done before. From my experience with Marvel, they, they attract really good people who work with them for a long time. Um, because the nature of the collaboration is very open. Everybody has a voice. There is no I'm the smartest person in the room. So all of you shut up and listened to me mentality. There's no fear. Mentality. There is a environment of exploration of let's try it. Do you have an idea? It might work. It sounds kind of crazy. It might totally flop, but let's try it. And that's, that's a pretty exciting Environment to work in. So this month, my podcast is dedicating a theme to representations of Asians on screen. So going back to, you know, representations of yellow peril and Oriental exoticism, and I want to know how does it feel ushering in this first Asian superhero, in the Marvel cinematic universe? Do you feel a lot of responsibility? Is this something fun, a challenge you looked forward to. DESTIN CRETTON: Yeah, it's a lot of responsibility for sure. I've gone through my process of really stressing out about that responsibility of really carrying the weight, maybe a little too much to where I was unhealthily stressed about it, but I do think that that amount of stress. Was helpful to get this story to the place where it is, where I feel very proud of what we're putting out into the world. And I feel extremely proud of the team that put this together and the incredible cast that we put together. Yeah. So I feel very happy to be contributing something special to not only the MCU, but to. The world of Asian cinema and specifically Asian American cinema. I feel this 100% cannot be the end. I feel very happy that we are contributing one next step in the process. And was there anything in particular that you felt was really important for you to make sure was in this film or something that you felt you wanted to make sure you saw? Be a part of this particular film, DESTIN CRETTON: Asian cinema is huge and deep and rich. And so varied. Asian American cinema is a lot smaller of a scope. And in particular, the cinema that kind of has broken through in the past and gotten past. Just the Asian or Asian American market and has been things that have been movies that I love and grew up on. Jackie Chan movies, jet li movies, Donnie yen, and Edmond series. Of course, it all started with Bruce Lee when I was a kid. Bruce lee Clip All of that is so special and made me so proud to be of Asian descent. But there also became a point where there wasn't enough variety to give other aspects too, to the Asian experience, you know, like, um, not all of us are speaking, broken English and coming from China or Asia or, and there wasn't a lot of just Asian American representation that felt like my friends that felt like me. And so. We wanted to contribute that to the MCU. We wanted our Shang Chi to really feel like me and my friends and, and be relatable to anybody who is American, whether you're Asian American, or whatever ethnicity you are. SHANG CHI CLIP And then we also wanted to make sure that each of the characters in this movie. We're not furthering stereotypes that have been created and, and, uh, continually revamped over the years. And I feel very happy about that, that every character in this movie there's a lot of Asian faces. No two are the same. They have drastically different personalities. And if anything, when you walk out of this studio, I hope whether consciously or subconsciously you will be much less likely to say all Asians are the same. Now you have some young talent in this film. That's very exciting, but I do want to ask you, you have some Hong Kong cinema royalty in this film in Tony Leung and Michelle. Yo. So what was it like working with them? DESTIN CRETTON: The first time I watched it, Chungking express was in when I was at San Diego state and I actually watched it in international cinema class. Chungking express clip And like anybody who had, who has ever seen a film with Tony in it, you're just like an instinct mega fan. And then I started devouring, everything that he made. In the mood for love was the second thing I saw, and he's just been a legend in my head ever since then. So when we were first discussing who to go to well, for the role of Sean cheese dad, um, in our movie, his name is win-win and the truth is that we're up against a lot with this character because he, uh, in, in the comics, there's a lot of baggage around. Um, because initially in the comics, Sean she's dad was, uh, a problematic character and named Fu Manchu who was in a lot of ways, just the, uh, epitome of the Asian stereotype and, uh, wanting to break all of those things. So when we were first talking about who to cast for this, the first person I said was Tony Leung. The next thing I said was, but there's no way we're going to get him. But what I thought was by saying Tony Leung is the type of actor that we need to get for this role defined what that character needed to be like. We needed an actor of Tony's caliber would be interested in playing that character. And I, I never, I honestly never thought in a million years I would be able to one just. On the phone with Tony and talk about the character, which I somehow found myself doing it a few weeks later. I also had no idea that Tony would then agree to do the movie. Um, the conversation I had with him was actually very candid and open and, and surprisingly not businesslike. It was, uh, um, it was, we were. We started talking about family and we started talking about relationships and, and, and that's, that was kind of our window into this character and who he is and how, even though he is technically the villain of our movie and he does do some very bad things. Um, we talked about that the, the root of those bad things. Is love. Um, it's misguided love. It's, it's the pain that comes from losing somebody that you love and, and the lashing out that comes from that. But that was a conversation with habit. Tony and Tony is like, I mean, nobody could have been a, more of a legend in my head. Working with him, made him even more. He did not disappear. I just instantly saw why he's so good because he works three times harder than everybody else on set. I mean, he is at the level where he could just escape into his trailer and come out for one take and then be like, peace out. I'm gone. But he is the type of actor who, as soon as we have the cameras up, he is there. He has his chair put right next to the couch. He never goes back to his trailer. He's never on his phone and he sits and he watches everything that people are are doing. As we're setting up the camera for sometimes two, three hours, you'll just sit and watch what our shots are, what we're planning. And then by the time it's time for him to step in. I don't even have anything to explain to him because I'd say like, okay, so Tony, our shot is, and he'd say like, ah, I know I've been watching. I know what the shot is. So then he just goes in and he does it. He nails it every time because he's also one of the most prepared actors I've ever worked with SHANG CHI TONY LEUNG CLIP Michelle Yeoh you know, what's, what's really surprising about Michelle Yeoh also a legend.... SHANG CHI MICHELLE YEOH CLIP Also just an incredibly hard, hard worker, incredibly prepared. What was surprising to me about Michelle Yeoh is how fun she is and how silly she is. Every time she steps on set, everybody gets happy. Um, if the, if the set is. Sometimes sets get a bit depressing, depressing when people are just like up, up all night and the next day, everyone it's like everyone, it feels like everyone's hung over, but it's just because you're working so hard. Michelle steps on set, everybody lights up because she is, um, it doesn't matter who you are. She treats everybody with the same level of respect and joy, and she just loves coming to work. Yeah, both of those, they were legends before. They're even more legends now in my mind. And I noticed that you brought, uh, Joel P West onboard for the music and he's someone you started working with very early on and have kind of like brought along on a number of your films. DESTIN CRETTON: Yeah, Joel came on and did an incredible score for us. From the time that we were stil in script phase, he was already doing his research on chinese orchestration, chinese instrumentation Soundtrack clip Trying to find the balance between something that is clearly. Of the Marvel universe, but also something that is inspired by some really amazing Chinese and Asian competitions throughout the years. Soundtrack clip I also was able to bring, uh, Nat Sanders who edited short term 12. He was one of the editors on our movie. And Joy, my sister, was working in the costume department, so it was great to have some good friends coming on board. See it's that whole sense of community coming back around. And as a huge fan of like Hong Kong action films, what was it like creating some of the action scenes in this? Because that's like, A highlight for me in some of these films. Destin: If that's a highlight for you, you're gonna love this movie, Beth. Um, it's, it's really special. Shang Chi Fighting Clip Brad Allen, who has done all of the Edgar Rights movies and, um, he actually started out in Jackie Chan's camp as a stunt person and then trained under Jackie. Shang Chi Fighting Clip His number one priority, which he literally was stressing out about getting it right. Was to get the real. Chinese martial arts, right? And to put together a team of the best people that we could get to make that happen. And each choreographer that he put together were specifically designed for the sequence that, and the style of the sequence that were created. So you'll see sequences that will be very reminiscent of Jackie Chan film and that style of choreography. You'll also see sequences that are more inspired by gently his Tai-Chi master or reminiscent of crouching tiger. Add Crouching Tiger clip And then you'll see us. See the movie, take you to a much more heightened Marvel level. You'll see inspiration from Chinese anime. You'll see inspiration from fantasy whoosh movies. And there's a little bit of everything in this movie in a, in a really wonderful way, because it's still all feels like one journey, but I feel very proud of the work that this team did. They really put their heart into it and it was really. And everybody worked really hard to get it right. And I feel really, really happy about it. Well, I can't wait to see it. And I'm very sad that my grandfather, who was Chinese, passed away before this film came out, because he was, he gave my son a sword when he was like six to show him how to like, yo, you'd be an extra in my little Mulan Play... Oh really? Awwww. So he would have loved this. I know. Well, I just, for one last question, I saw that you have like a lot of TV projects coming up and I was just curious, what kind of things about television attracts you and what do you feel you might be able to do different in that kind of a format then you can do in feature films? I mean I just like changing it up a bit, you know, and, and I love working in features, um, but I'm very curious about working in TV and being able to watch characters grow and evolve past the two hour mark, I've only been able to track characters for about two hours, you know? And so to be able to, you know, if short term 12 became a TV show and I'd be able to continue to track grace and Mason's story and, and see where they go. And I would find that to be very fulfilling. So there is something about. The television creative process that is very alluring to me, but that's definitely not to say I'm going to stop doing features because I love it. And I also noticed you had a few directing consulting credits on some short films. And I'm just curious if you kind of take very seriously this notion of kind of mentoring other filmmakers and, you know, extending that sense of community to younger filmmakers coming into the. Yeah, I did. I didn't really have very many mentors, but the people who believed in me, you are on this list, Beth. But the number of people who believed in me when I, when I didn't really have a ton to show for it, but there, you know, there's people like you who just champion people who are passionate, whether the talent is there yet or not. I think it's so important that. Champions who are just saying, yeah, go for it, go for it. And I do think that there are more people like me who maybe need, you know, I, I was pretty shy. I was not the go getter type of person. Who's going to just knock down the walls in order to break into an industry. I was like running from the industry. That's, that's why I stayed in San Diego for so long. I think it's really important for the vibrancy of our industry, particularly with all the changes that are happening. And I think for us to stay relevant and stay vibrant, I think we need to introduce as many new voices as possible and start telling stories that really represent the world that we live in. So I do think mentorship is a big part of that process and helping to usher people into this crazy industry. Allow them to tell stories that I could never tell because it's just not my experience. Well, I'm glad what I did helped, but I have to say your talent was quite readily visible from early on. So someone else would have noticed it and championed it at some point. I want to thank you. So. For talking to me, it's been so great catching up with you. Like I said, it's been 20 years almost, and I feel like that's a crazy amount of time. It really is. Isn't it? You've done so much. Um, well you have to Beth, thank you so much for everything that you do for the community. Thank you. Thanks Beth. That wraps up another edition of KPBS listener supported Cinema Junkie. It was such a joy to reconnect with Destin Cretton and to find that while he has excelled as a filmmaker and found great success he is still the same sweet, thoughtful guy I met two decades ago. All this talk about Asian families and community has inspired me to turn to some of my Chinese grandfather’s recipes for this month’s Geeky Gourmet videos. I’ll be whipping up some Asian treats for you to bring to your screening of Shang Chi and sharing some memories of cooking with my grandfather who loved movies and would have loved Shang Chi’s spectacular action. I’d like to acknowledge the community that makes Cinema Junkie happen: podcast coordinator Kinsee Morlan, technical director Rebecca Chacon, and director of sound design Emily Jankowski. Next time on Cinema Junkie, I speak with Brian Hu, artistic director of the San Diego Asian Film Festival, about the evolution of Asians on screen from the negative images of yellow peril to the positive impact of Bruce Lee’s action hero of the 1970s… CLIP Bruce Lee in action So get ready to kick some ass and shatter some stereotypes. Till our next film fix, I’m Beth Accomando your resident Cinema Junkie.