This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes director Destin Daniel Cretton, who helmed the new Marvel movie “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Cretton also co-wrote the film. His other films include “Just Mercy” and “The Glass Castle.” Cretton tells The Treatment about how his films often reflect the challenges he is facing in his life at the time he makes them. He says it was essential for him and his writing partner to have the characters in “Shang-Chi” be represented in a three-dimensional way and not as stereotypes. And he talks about the importance of going to see movies, any movies, when he was a child growing up in Hawaii.
The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. My guest today is writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton, whose new film is "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings." At the heart of your films, they're all about abandonment, and how people deal with that.
Destin Daniel Cretton: That's a very good assessment. I'm not sure I am purposely doing that, but I do find that I gravitate towards stories that are exploring how characters deal with things when they are isolated, and how being surrounded by a community affects them in different ways. And it honestly is also a big reflection of just my own life and growth as a human working through my own things through the subjects that I'm exploring.
KCRW: In all the features that you've directed, at some point, we are faced with a character who comes to grips with the fact that they've been abandoned and isolated. I think about that great scene, near the end of "Just Mercy" with Jamie Foxx, and he's talking with the other convicts, and they all come to the realization they're in the same boat. We see it in "I am not a Hipster." You were attracted to doing "The Glass Castle," the adaptation of the book. So this is something that clearly interests you in a lot of ways.
Cretton: I grew up always around people. There are six kids in my family, and I draw a lot of personal strength from being around my siblings, and my family and community has always been very important to me. But I also have learned to make it a priority in my life because I know very clearly what it feels like to be psychologically isolated, to feel like I'm the only person going through something. And at least for me, when I feel alone, my problems are magnified by 100. And typically, when I'm in the context of a community, everything comes down to a level that I can handle.
KCRW: In "I am not a Hipster," he becomes a different personality surrounded by [other people]. We learn one way or another, there's a kind of abandonment that happens. Sometimes it's institutional, as we see in "Short Term 12," or "Just Mercy," and sometimes it comes through family situations. The way the characters deal with these two different poles, certainly that makes for great drama, doesn't it?
Cretton: I've always been drawn to stories that are connected in some way to the questions that I am naturally asking myself in that moment in time or the themes that I am working through personally at that time. When I did "Short Term 12," I was working through a lot of questions about the residue that I carried from my childhood and my upbringing, and also big questions as to what it meant to be a parent, what it meant to be a mentor to people under me. And the power both positive and negative that you have when you are in a place of mentorship or leadership with people younger than you. All of those questions and insecurities and concerns. I worked through them through the writing process of that movie. When I look back at each of my movies, I can see where I was in life and the questions I was asking myself and the things that I was trying to work through with these characters.
KCRW: Where were you when you chanced upon "I am not a Hipster" and "Short Term 12?" Where were you at those points because those were pretty raw, emotional works?
Cretton: I remember very specifically when I was writing "I am not a Hipster,” I initially wanted to write something that just really felt like a slice of life that had no real thematic throughline to it, that didn't get too dramatic. As I was writing it, I remember distinctly that it was at the time that the tsunami was hitting Japan, and I was bombarded with all of these images on YouTube of this very real tragic catastrophe that was happening and the homeland that my great grandparents came from. And I was just hit with this feeling of: what the hell am I doing? Like why am I telling this particular story? What am I trying to do or prove as an artist when there are real things, terrible things happening in the world? Why am I trying to write this slice of life story about a singer-songwriter that seemed kind of meaningless at the time?
What came out of it was a scene in "Hipster" where my main character was watching those same videos of the tsunami and trying to figure out what he was doing as a creative person, and why it was worth pursuing. And that actually became the theme of that movie. It's kind of a weird, I guess, selfish way to choose what I'm worth working on because it is like my own personal therapy that I'm using, and I get to use characters and use brilliant actors to work through some of my own stuff.
KCRW: At some point, in all these movies you've done, there's a scene where we see a kind of a longing in a character.
Cretton: When I think about "Just Mercy" or "The Glass Castle," it definitely was a very different, creative process for me because I am telling somebody else's story, and these are real people who deserve my full attention and respect and [for me to] portray the truth that I find in their stories. What I find most powerful for me personally about that experience, is the places where my experience as a human, the emotions that I connect to intersect with the emotions that Brian Stevenson experiences or has written about in his book.
I do think those moments where a character is really feeling the loss or the hopelessness or that feeling of pure isolation, where it feels like there is no meaning to the world, at least in my life, the moments where that feeling is most shattered and most turned upside down, is through another person. For me, it's typically the only way that I can get out of those thoughts is through some interaction with a fellow person, who, in most cases, is simply saying, I feel you I hear you, I'm just gonna stand right here next to you as you go through it, and that's usually how I get out of those funks.
KCRW: I do think that your work deals with isolation for characters, the kinds of people who are marginalized: people of color and women and how they happen to deal with that.
Cretton: When I grew up on Maui, I loved going to the movie theaters, and I honestly did not care what I watched. It was the experience of going into a theater and sitting and looking at this giant window to an outside world that I was, at that time, unable to travel to. Every culture that I saw up on that screen was so different from my own experience in so many ways, but also so similar in the dreams that these characters had and the pain that they were going through. When I found those similarities and the things that I related to in these characters, I didn't feel so isolated as a person on an island. I felt connected to these other people and these other communities and other cultures.
That's, to me, one of the most powerful things about cinema: being able to feel those connections to people that you may not even speak the same language, and their culture could be so different. But when you see these characters interact with their families and see that they have insecurities just like you, that's one of the most impactful things, at least in my life, that movies have given me, and those are the types of communities that I love to explore in my work.
KCRW: Even your casting of Tony Leung, who has been in so many movies where he's played this kind of character who's been isolated. Even in "Hard Boiled," he's somebody who's marooned and left to his own devices and trying to figure out who he is. To put him in this movie, really almost brings all these things into the world's biggest Venn Diagram.
Cretton: Like many people, I think I've been obsessed with Tony Leung ever since I saw the first "Chungking Express." There is something so captivating about him in his performances that I didn't really know why I was so drawn to him until I had the pleasure of meeting him and getting to know Tony. He's a person who came to acting because he is an introvert, and he uses performance and entering into a character in order to explore emotions that he may not be so comfortable doing in real life. We talked forever about this, about how we use the process in order to explore things that may not be so easily explored just in our everyday lives. And that's a huge part of why we naturally connected and had such a fulfilling time working on this movie together.
KCRW: He feels like the ideal person to bring into this universe you are creating.
Cretton: He was the ideal person, specifically to help us create a character that we really did have a lot of baggage to work through with this character in order to find a character that would be worthy of an actor like Tony Leung, and find a character who would break some of the very clear stereotypes that were carried with this character in the past.
KCRW: You'd be hard pressed to deal with more stereotypes in what was presumably an enlightened time in the 70s and 80s than Shang-Chi, “Master of Kung Fu.”
Cretton: Yes, there were a lot of things that when we were going through the source material that we knew we had to make these characters relatable to us as Asian Americans, both myself and Dave Callaham, who is Chinese American. From day one, it was the only thing that we insisted on before we even came on to this job. Thank goodness that Marvel was completely on board and already ahead of the game and knew these things had to be updated. But that was our number one goal: to create characters that we can relate to, that our community can relate to, and that will not be perpetuating these stereotypes that have been around for a while.
KCRW: There are a couple of scenes that really sort of sum the movie up for me and one is the scene where we get to see Tony Leung sitting in effect, in his throne, and then the ten rings in action around him as you pull back. And we can see, even in soft focus in the back of a really big frame, how cosmically bored he is, and how his body language is telling us that there's something missing in his life, even though, in effect, he has the world. And the other scene that really says a lot to his character, and I don't want to give too much away, but in trying to make his son the best version of himself, he turns his son into a tool, a weapon, rather than a person.
Cretton: Yeah, I had a moment of clarity, as a director, even though we wrote this character of Wenwu, when an actor like Tony comes on board, part of his process is writing in his own head, all of the details that make up Wenwu, and all of the motivations in order to make everything make sense to him. And he did this for a few months; he toiled over this character until the character finally made sense to him. And when we were shooting, one of the things that Tony told me was that Wenwu is a man who does not feel like he deserves to be loved. From the very beginning, he's a very insecure man who feels in a lot of ways worthless, and he is chasing love, but he doesn't feel like he deserves it. And in the context of his kids, he truly does love his kids, but he just does not know how.
KCRW: It's not hard to see that he's gonna make his son into this thing that he disregards just by making him into the best weapon he can.
Cretton: I'm fascinated by characters that can be perceived as bad or terrible people, who are making terrible choices that are clearly harmful to the people who are vulnerable under them. But I also find it very important for me to understand the motivations behind those choices. Of course, there are psychopaths and pure narcissists in the world who do bad things just to do bad things, but I think more often than not, these bad choices are rooted in pain. That is the case with this character. That was the case with Woody Harrelson's portrayal of Rex in "The Glass Castle." The bad choices that a lot of people make do have a backstory themselves, and that doesn't make the choices right, but it at least gives you context to humanize the person and feel a little more relatable to them.
KCRW: Yeah, if you're literally making a movie about a comic book, you don't want these figures to seem like comic book characters.
Cretton: That's why I love the trajectory that Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios have been taking these stories. I feel that the characters are becoming more and more human as the Universe moves forward. Anytime there are those moments with these larger than life characters dealing with superhero stakes, anytime there are the moments when they are just dealing with relationships and emotions that I fully relate to and deal with in my daily life, those are the moments that I'm glued to the screen and feel invested.
KCRW: Were you attracted to doing "Shang-Chi" because it's really, in effect, about a character who doesn't have superpowers?
Cretton: Yes, I really relate to Shang-Chi's journey in this. I really relate to the insecurities that he feels, that anxiety that he feels, the feelings of being an imposter. It was actually some of these emotions that I was working through before I went into pitch to Marvel Studios on this project. I was working through a lot of my own anxieties and issues, and in particular, my insecurities of taking on a giant project like this. I honestly thought that I would crumble, that I would not be able to make it through a giant movie. And it was never my intention to go on this trajectory. But there is something about this character and this world, and the childlike excitement I had of being able to participate in creating a superhero that I would have loved to have as a kid that really pushed me to go in and start having these conversations. I never thought that I would be able to do this same type of personal exploration through that Marvel movie. But that's exactly what I went in and pitched to them: a family drama that dealt with a lot of the emotions that I was feeling at the time. And using Shang-Chi's journey to kind of give me a little kick in the butt to say like, if Shang-Chi can do that, maybe I can do it, too.
KCRW: The things that you have done have been so much about how a character bounces back from being mis-shaped by either a real or institutional father. And I thought, well, I know Fu Manchu is not going to be in this, thank goodness, but I wondered what the father figure is going to be. And I'm guessing for you, that was probably key.
Cretton: The relationship between between Shang-Chi and his dad was the core of what I initially pitched to Marvel and was the core of what we wanted to explore: this theme of a young man who hasn't taken the time to understand himself and to understand the experiences that he had and process through them in a healthy way, because he's just been running from them. It was really important for us to make sure that the theme wasn't clearly about good versus evil, that it wasn't dad equals bad; mom equals good. I need to get rid of dad and go to the light. But the theme that is much more relatable to me is watching Shang-Chi own all of it, to know that there are positive things that are left in him that are given to him from both his dad and his mom, and there's a lot of negative things that are in there. Whether he likes it or not, it's a part of him, and it takes him learning how to embrace all of it that ultimately lets him step into his superhero shoes.