Short Term 12 is one story that Destin Cretton couldn’t get out of his head. Based on Cretton’s own experiences working at a foster-care facility, the film’s first incarnation was a short that made waves at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Through his own persistence and patience, Cretton expanded his short into a feature that premiered at SXSW 2013 and won the Grand Jury Award and Audience Award for Narrative Feature.

We jumped at the opportunity to speak to the writer/ director about first impressions, working with the incredible Brie Larson, and his unique approach to the directing process.

Tribeca: You made Short Term 12 originally as a short film, which premiered at Sundance in 2009. You then made the feature, I Am Not A Hipster, and then made Short Term 12 into a feature for SXSW 2013. What made you go back to your previous work?

Destin Cretton: After the response to the short, it encouraged me to want to explore the foster care world more. Up to that point, I didn’t really know how universal a lot of the scenes were. So I wrote the expanded screenplay, but it just took a while to get funding. In the meantime, the screenplay won the Academy Nicholl fellowship, which then gave me a grant to write I Am Not A Hipster. I used that money to make that film while we were waiting to get funding for Short Term 12.

Tribeca: Why did you morph the male protagonist into a female one?

DC: It was really because I’d never written a female protagonist before, and it scared the crap out of me. However, looking at the story from a female perspective was also really exciting and gave me the opportunity to see the world from a different point of view. The weird thing I discovered was that a female character’s point of view is not that different from a male’s.

I guess in a way I learned that there is no clear difference between males and females. It’s more about individual personalities and what people have gone through in their lives. I found through writing this script that I am a little like Grace, but there’s also a lot of my three sisters in her too. Just like there’s a lot of me and my sisters in Mason’s character as well. That blurring  of the lines took away my fear of writing from a female perspective. It’s not so frightening to me anymore.

Tribeca: It’s not often that you see a character as complex, messy, frustrating and loveable as your Grace. How did you know Brie Larson was the right actress to bring her to life? Can you discuss your collaborative process?

DC: The easiest mistake that we could have made with this character would have been to let her brood through the entire movie. I knew that Brie wouldn’t do that. She just has something about her that is naturally vibrant and lovable. We were aware of that quality from the very beginning. It’s a difficult tightrope to walk with a character who constantly has something really difficult on her mind but is still able to laugh at certain times. I think Brie just did a great job.

Brie was also able to go in and shadow the female supervisor at a place very similar to the one in the movie. She jumped in and experienced a pretty intense day. She saw a lot of stuff while she was there and learned a lot about the strength it takes to be a female in an environment like that. When she came back from that one experience, Brie was so much more of an expert on Grace than I was [laughs]. As for our collaborative process, it was just us talking about this character and each of the individual scenes and the different ways that we could take it. We figured out the best way to go about creating Grace for all parties concerned.

Tribeca: John Gallagher Jr. plays Mason, who is desperately in love with Grace. The two are polar opposites: he wears his heart on his sleeve while she internalizes everything due to her troubled past. How did you strike the balance between these characters?

DC: Grace definitely came first, but I think the Mason character came out of just trying to create the perfect person for Grace, specifically for her, and then create motivations for why he is the way that he is. He’s goofy, weird and kind, and Grace loves him because he makes her feel safe. There’s something very non-threatening and consistent about Mason. You have to have a lot of patience to be with Grace, and as the film unfolds you find out why Mason is the way he is and why he is able to have that much patience for somebody like her. For me, Mason is who I want to be more like, and Grace might be a little more the person that I am.

There are things of myself woven throughout it, but when I watch the movie, I see everybody’s hands all over it.

Tribeca:  I also heard you say in other interviews that the Nate character, played by Rami Maleck, is based on your own experience.

DC: Totally. All these characters sprung from different stages of my time working at a similar facility. I wasn’t like Nate the whole time, but for the first two months, I was completely out of my element and scared out of my mind every day. I definitely said equally inappropriate things that I thought were fine to say until I was called out on them. [laughs] I think when I talked to Rami about that role; we talked about his character being the eyes of the audience. They’re going to relate to every situation probably very similar to the way the Nate character does. I totally identify with him because it’s frightening to be in a position of power and leadership when you have no idea what you’re doing and when you know that a wrong move can have very bad consequences for some of the kids.

Tribeca: I’m kind of obsessed with Keith Stanfield, who plays Marcus.

DC: Me too [laughs].

Tribeca: His rap is one of my absolute favorite moments in the film. How helpful was he in the process of creating that character?

DC: It’s even strange to say Keith was helpful. Keith was just everything. That character just would not exist the way it is without his insights and his performance. He’s an extraordinary actor, but he’s also an extraordinary artist, creator, and collaborator. From the very beginning, he just got that character so well.

He auditioned really late in the game because he didn’t respond to any of my emails for a month. Right at the last minute, he wrote back and drove down from Victorville, which is two hours away up in the desert, to audition. He just made me bawl my eyes out in his audition. I love working with him, and I can’t wait for other people to discover his amazingness. He’s also an incredible rapper.

Tribeca: While the film has its funny moments, it is an emotional and devastating look at the toll that abandonment and abuse take on young people with effects lasting long into adulthood. Can you talk about your directorial approach? At what point do you let your actors “just go for it?”

DC: All the time. I try not to direct too much in the beginning; I just see what happens and then adjust. It’s more adjusting than directing. We worked together to create a very wonderful environment. Brie and John were a huge part of that because their characters were the leaders in that facility and that translated off-camera as well. When the cameras weren’t rolling, they were also the leaders and mentors of all the kid actors, and they helped create an environment that was, more than anything, fun.

They let everyone know that it’s ok to make mistakes. They encouraged the kids to just go for it without worrying about being judged. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s all part of the fun process of being creative and making something. There [were] definitely intense moments when we would stop and have to talk about what was happening. During the scene in which Marcus gets his head shaved, I would say “cut” with a whisper, and then everyone would just sit in silence. I’d go up with Keith and just talk about it. I think the reason we were able to have those moments was that everything else just felt very safe and fun.

Tribeca: The film feels so raw. You can tell how highly structured the narrative is, despite its naturalistic style. How much did improvisation come into play on the set?

DC: In terms of revealing character traits, we did not improvise. The script was actually quite mathematical in how it was structured. I personally am really interested in perception and passing judgment on people by early impressions because I do it all the time and I’m always wrong. Sometimes I judge somebody in a really good way but then I’m wrong in what I thought. I’m always wrong. I actually really love that about life. I love learning about another side of somebody… I love those moments.

It’s very easy to pass judgment on these characters, not necessarily in a bad way. It’s just easy to think you know them. I hope that there are moments in the film that throw you off guard and make you feel a little stupid for passing early judgment. It wasn’t an improvised movie, but I was encouraging looseness. We wanted every scene to feel alive. Things just kind of popped up in the context of the scene as it was happening.

Tribeca: Cinedigm is releasing Short Term 12, both theatrically and through digital platforms. Did you ever consider going the self-distribution route like you did with I Am Not A Hipster?

DC: No, I mean we would have fallen back on that. That’s the wonderful thing about today. If you don’t get a good deal, you can still get your movie out there. Cinedigm has been just really good to us from the very beginning. They were as passionate about getting the story out there as we were about telling the story.

Tribeca: The characters in Short Term 12 all use different artistic media to express themselves when they can’t come right out and say what they are feeling. How important is it for people to have artistic outlets in their lives?

DC: Extremely important. This movie is very personal. A huge part of how I deal with things in my life is through art. While I was working at a place like this, I noticed that kids and people in general  have a hard time talking about things. It’s necessary for them to find another way for their feelings to come out. All the characters in the film deal with their past in artistic ways. Art provides a way to vent.

Short Term 12 doesn’t feel like my art it as much as it feels like our art. There are things of myself woven throughout it, but when I watch the movie, I see everybody’s hands all over it. That makes it so much easier for me to be very proud of the movie. It’s not just my painting, but more of a collective art piece. I feel like a mother hen who’s very proud of everybody’s contributions.

I try not to direct too much in the beginning; I just see what happens and then adjust.

Tribeca: Can you talk a little bit about the Short Term 12 Project initiative?

DC: It’s actually something that Brie and I talked about; we were really passionate about it. Thank goodness Cinedigm jumped on board because all of us use art as a way to work through things. We just thought it would be fun to create some type of online community that highlights that part of the movie but also is a functioning thing that allows people to post art that is helping them work through stuff or inspire other people.

Even if you hate the movie, you can still post to Short Term 12 Project by using the hashtag #ShortTerm12Project. It’s something we all love to do, and it’s not just acting or moviemaking. Even if you think you suck at it, it doesn’t matter. Just the process can be a very healthy and fun thing. I hope more people hop on board and do it.

Tribeca: Short Term 12 has received a lot of support from the online film community and the Festival circuit. How important is it to build on this momentum through social media tools like Twitter, Facebook and even Vine?

DC: That’s how a lot of normal people like me and my friends communicate, so I think it’s incredibly important. I’m on Twitter all the time, looking at the different things that people are talking about concerning  the movie. It’s wonderful. With a movie like this, the only way that it’s going to get out and continue to play in theaters and move around is word of mouth.

Short Term 12 opens this Friday in NY & LA. Check here for showtimes and expansion dates.