[Interview] Filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton spotlights heart & humanity in ‘JUST MERCY’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Daniel Destin Cretton has staked his career making films that with the sole purpose of spotlighting humanity. From SHORT TERM 12, to THE GLASS CASTLE, his films are bursting with both character and genuine, earned emotions. Part of it is the magic he crafts with his cast and crew and the other half is his own empathetic drive for honesty. His latest, JUST MERCY, slips right into his established canon, chronical the true life tale of lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s (Michael B. Jordan) tireless fight to get innocent inmate Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) off death row.

How and when did this story come to you?

It came to me in 2014 – right around the time the book was released. My producer Gil Netter got ahold of the book and sent it to me to read. I couldn’t put it down. It’s one of the most powerful reads I’ve had in a long time due to so many levels. I just wanted to be a part of it.

Was THE GLASS CASTLE, another biographic film, your entryway in to telling another person’s real-life story?

When I met with Bryan, he had actually seen SHORT TERM 12. That was what convinced him, primarily because it deals with characters who are vulnerable people in society and the way it humanizes them. That’s something Bryan’s book does so well.

Rob Morgan’s performance blew me away. Can we talk about how he came aboard?

Rob didn’t audition. I was such a fan of his that we offered it to him and thank goodness he connected with the character. He’s the type of actor who asks questions of his character that go far beyond the pages of the script. There’s a lot of details about Herbert Richardson, both in the book and also what he researched on his own, in general, about people with PTSD. He did his own research on how to stutter. He came in very prepared with his character fleshed out before we started shooting.

Every actor’s process is so different, but, if they could, the other actors want to meet their real-life counterparts?

Brie was able to connect with Eva Ansley before she started shooting. That was really special. Eva called me right after she talked to Brie and said, “I met my kindred spirit.” They really hit it off. They have a similarity – a fire and power behind them. They’re both such caring people, but they have this fire behind them, you know, that you don’t want to fuck with them. Jamie Foxx obviously wasn’t able to meet Walter McMillian. Both he and Michael B. were able to meet with Bryan Stevenson and Anthony Ray Hinton, who is working at EJI now. He was able to share stories about what it was like to be on death row at that time and they learned a lot from him.

Were you able to travel to, or shoot in those locations and let that “Southern” atmosphere flavor the production?

Sure. We were able to shoot in Montgomery, Alabama. We purposely went and shot there first. We shot in the cotton fields near where Walter McMillian’s family used to live. A lot of those exterior shots were there to allow Michael B. and our crew to really feel the weight of that place. Michael B. Jordan we filmed running past the state courthouse and also the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church where Martin Luther King was a pastor and feel that rich history of slavery – that was like the main port of slave intake, coming off the Alabama River – but also it was the rich history of the Civil Rights Movement that was happening there too. It was a great way to start the shoot.

Destin Daniel Cretton directs Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx in JUST MERCY. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

I really felt the claustrophobia of these prisoners’ death row cells. It feels like that’s accurately portrayed in the production design.

Our production designer, Sharon Seymour, we had to build the death row cells, but we specifically wanted to build them to the exact dimensions of the real place in all the prisons. There is a lot of documented footage of death row during that time and she built it exactly the same. What’s in each cell in the 60 Minutes piece was what was in our movie. You really feel it when Walter first enters his cell and we pop to an above shot, looking down on Anthony Ray Hinton and see the dimensions of the box. Sitting in there, you imagine spending 6 years innocent in that little box for Walter, and for Anthony, 30 years, it’s pretty incredible.

What sort of direction did you give Joel P. West for the score?

We definitely wanted to capture the spirit of Bryan Stevenson and the spirit of the South. Bryan grew up as a jazz player, played piano and was constantly listening to both jazz and gospel as part of when he needed an escape. Both are very rooted in African-American culture. That was the base in instrumentation. Joel would write the structure and skeleton of these pieces that would go for whatever section we were scoring. And then, he’d hired some incredible jazz musicians to come in and take his score and riff on it. It became something very different and more alive. What you hear is an interpretation of Joel’s score through the hands of these incredible musicians.

What was the hardest day of shooting and how’d you get through it?

It was probably the last day of our first week, which was the day we shot the execution. It was an emotionally draining day. We were learning a lot because we had a former executioner on set with us that day to walk us through all the specifics of that process. Just going through the details of a system that can put a man to death made it so much more real and it was difficult to stomach.

As hard as that scene is, it’s one of the more important scenes in the movie, not only for people to see what we’re doing to other humans, but also, more importantly for people to feel the love and comradery of the cellmates and how often they are watching their friends go down that hall to their end and what that feels for them. It’s so easy for us to say what they did was wrong and let’s get rid of them. But there are real people there, who have the same emotions and care that we do. It’s good for us to be reminded of that.

Obviously this film and true-life story draws our attention to injustice, bigotry and Bryan’s incredible organization. But I’m curious if you think that, because this case still isn’t solved, it could revive it and maybe lead to new discoveries that finally cracks the case? Sort of like how Bong Joon Ho’s MEMORIES OF MURDER was only recently solved.

It could. It’s honestly still a cold case. There is a lot of evidence that they’ve been sitting on that points towards a white man who seems to have had much more of a reason to be accused of the crime than Walter McMillian ever was. But, yeah. I don’t think anyone’s been doing anything about it. If the movie spurred anyone to do it, it could.

JUST MERCY is now playing in limited release. It opens wide on January 10.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.