Maui-raised filmmaker finds success

Born and raised on Maui, a “scrawny kid” with a “huge boxy camera” on his shoulders fulfilled a dream he never thought possible.

Last week, Destin Daniel Cretton, a member of the Maui High Class of ’96, won two awards for his feature film “Short Term 12” at the renowned arts festival South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. The 34-year-old filmmaker won the audience prize for the Narrative Feature Competition and the festival’s grand jury prize.

“I was never thinking I was going to do film for a living,” said the filmmaker in a phone interview Monday. “It was just something I did for fun.”

Growing up in Haiku, he and his two brothers and three sisters lived in a small two-bedroom house. The cramped house that later expanded into three bedrooms forced his siblings to go outside and entertain themselves.

“When I was about 10, my grandma bought one of those VHS cameras that was giant and you had to hold on your shoulders,” he said. “I started going crazy with it and with my brothers and sisters.”

As the second oldest child, he would direct his siblings in plays, commercials, magic shows, Bible stories and even martial arts routines.

“We didn’t have a choice,” said his younger sister, Joy Cretton, about acting in her brother’s childhood productions. “He was a really skinny and scrawny kid with one of those huge, boxy cameras. From that point on, that’s how I always remembered him.”

Joy, who served as the costume designer for two of his films, including the award-winning feature, also got her start in her brother’s productions.

“We always had a costume basket, which was a huge part of our lives because we were really poor,” she said. “It had random pieces of scrap that we would put together. So yeah, I really remember doing that.”

Destin, Joy and all of their siblings spent the majority of their time home-schooled. Destin attended Maui High only for his senior year.

As a teenager, Destin edited videos for Akaku and spent two years at the then-Maui Community College. He eventually transferred to Point Loma Nazarene University in the San Diego area but did not have aspirations of becoming a filmmaker.

“I initially transferred for nursing school,” he said.

He quickly changed his mind, however, after taking classes in the university’s communications program, which gave him his “first taste” of short filmmaking.

“My first short was in my senior year of college,” he said. “I tried to make a short film every year after.”

A couple years later, he attended film school at San Diego State University and began getting recognition at competitions and events, such as the Student Academy Awards.

“I usually call my mom and grandma (after winning the awards), and they’re typically like, ‘Aw that’s nice,’ ” he said jokingly.

In 2006, he co-directed the film “Drakmar: A Vassal’s Journey,” which won best documentary film at the San Diego Comic-Con International.

His filmmaking career reached new heights three years later when he won the Best Short Award for an earlier version of “Short Term 12” at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, founded by Robert Redford.

“I freaked out and told everybody,” he said. “It was a very emotional moment in my life.”

The film – a shorter version of the one recognized last week – follows the story of a supervisor at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers.

Loosely based on his own experience working at a group home for two years, he said the job changed his life.

“I honestly was not prepared for what was in store for me,” he said. “It was terrifying and extremely life changing. Learning from the kids and being in that environment taught me so many things about myself. . . . It came at a crucial point in my life, and I was still figuring out what I was going to do with my life.

“It’s an experience that has still stuck with me.”

“Short Term 12” began as his thesis project at San Diego State. After winning the award at Sundance, Destin made “Short Term 12” into a feature film, which was a big hit at South by Southwest.

An event that began in the late 1980s as a local music festival, SXSW has become “a launching point for the careers of independent musicians and filmmakers,” according to HLN.

Despite his success though, Joy said he has not let it go to his head.

“He’s still grounded and genuine with all of the actors and production team,” she said. “He still spends time with everyone, which I think is really impressive.”

Joel P. West, who roomed with Destin after college and has composed two of his feature films, said he avoids trying to control people.

“He’s an extremely empowering director,” he said. “Rather than being super controlling, he hires people that can do their part. . . . He’s the type of person that treats you like family.”

Although Destin lives in Los Angeles, he said growing up on Maui has ingrained the importance of family, friends and storytelling into his mind.

Visiting the island two weeks ago, he said his dream is to make a movie on Maui.

“It’s not as hard as it looks,” said the filmmaker. “It’s a very team-oriented art form, and the best thing you can do is surround yourself with a great team, which I’ve found.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at