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From SDSU to the MCU: 

Director Destin Daniel Cretton on the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first Asian American superhero and the power of movies to change stereotypes.

Interview by Lisa Haney | Photograph by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

July 21, 2021

 

As a film student at SDSU, Destin Daniel Cretton (’11) won the top prize for short film at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. After earning his master’s in television, film and new media production, he was back at the festival in 2012 debuting a feature.

“Destin Daniel Cretton is kind of a big deal,” SDSU’s magazine declared at the time — presciently, it turns out.

Cretton went on to write and direct a feature adaptation of “Short Term 12” (his 2009 short), starring Brie Larson. It won a slew of awards in 2013 and launched both Cretton’s and Larson’s careers. The pair collaborated again on the film adaptations of the memoirs “The Glass Castle” and “Just Mercy.” The latter, starring Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Foxx, is a legal drama based on civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson who worked to exonerate death row prisoners. The film was named Outstanding Motion Picture at the NAACP Image Awards in early 2020 and its themes of unequal treatment under the law took on greater poignancy later that year after the killing of George Floyd.

Now “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” which Cretton directed and co-wrote, will open in theaters on Sept. 3 and feature Marvel’s first Asian American lead superhero. Cretton, who is of Japanese-American descent and grew up on Maui, thinks deeply about the impact it might have on Asian Pacific Islander Desi Americans. He says, “I definitely feel the weight of hoping that we are putting something into the world that is good and beneficial to our community.” Here’s what else he had to say during a Zoom in May.

Were you into comics growing up?

I honestly never got into comics growing up, but like any kid I was into all the superhero movies and shows. At the time when I was growing up, we were still watching the “Batman” TV show, the one where they would walk up the side of buildings by turning the camera sideways. And “Superman,” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” So when I first started making little short films with my grandma’s VHS camera, making movies that were about fantastical superhero type people and also martial arts was probably our go-to thing when we were young. 

Why were you first interested in pursuing this project?

I saw the announcement that Marvel made — that they’re doing their first Asian American superhero — and I had an unexpected emotional reaction. It honestly wasn’t something that I had really processed much until that point: That there was a vacuum in my brain and in my childhood that I never really thought about — that I never had a reflection of myself on screen in the form of a superhero.

There are a lot of stereotypes in some of the early “Shang-Chi” comics. Was it important for you to tell the story in a new way and correct that?

One hundred percent. The first meeting that I had with Marvel was just a general meeting to hear what they were doing. And I wasn’t even expecting to pitch on this job, but I was hoping I’d just be able to express some of the things that I would hope that they would do or not do in this movie. And it was a very big relief to hear that they knew and understood that there were a lot of things to avoid from the comics. But the comics at their core revolve around relationships within a broken family. So we were able to zero in on some of the things that we really loved about the comics and breathe new life into it, and also breathe new life into it in the context of really the Asian American experience. 

And that was something that I don’t think we’ve really ever seen on film before. We have Jackie Chan and Jet Li and Bruce Lee, and as awesome as they all are, they don’t feel like my friends that I grew up with — they don’t talk like me, they don’t dress like me or listen to the same types of music as me. So this was a really special experience to create a character that feels very much like someone I would hang out with — and watch him grow, and turn into a superhero by the end of the movie.

Is that representation of Marvel’s first Asian American superhero more important than ever after this year of escalating anti-Asian racism and violence nationwide?

I do think that right now more than ever, the world needs to be re-reminded about a lot of things. In particular, we need to be reminded that we are all so much more similar than we think. And the idea of somebody who is an “other,” who is easy to throw stereotypes on … or to believe ridiculous things about like they’re responsible for a pandemic because they look a certain way — all those things, I truly do think can be broken through either getting to know somebody who looks like that, or through cinema. When you see a movie like this that shows so many different Asian faces — with so drastically different personalities, acting in very different ways — hopefully it not only entertains you, but reminds you that we’re all human.

Announcing the film at Comic-Con in 2019 you talked about growing up amongst so many various cultures in Maui — Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Caucasian. Was it a bit jarring when you first came to San Diego for college?

It was a pretty major culture shock that I was not really prepared for, because the cultural differences between Hawaii and the mainland are much wider than I think I expected. So much so that when I first came over here, it was like every other sentence, people would say, “What?” And I didn’t realize, Oh, I have an accent that people don’t understand. I didn’t talk like I talk now; it’s been gradual. It also was the first time in my life really that I started to see the manifestations of different forms of subtle racism, and I didn’t know what it was at the time. It was the first time somebody in a bar came up to me and jokingly called me Bruce Lee, and put up karate chop hands. And at the time I was like OK, that doesn’t seem that funny, but I wasn’t offended. No one’s ever seen how I look and just associated it with the only famous Asian person they know. 

Are there lessons you learned at SDSU that are still really important to your work today? 

Before I was accepted into SDSU, I was planning to make a short film in San Diego, with friends of mine. We were looking to rent equipment and I just called up Greg Durbin [professor of film at SDSU], the only other independent filmmaker that we knew in San Diego. He invited us over to his house and he had a 35 mm camera package that he was going to rent to us for dirt cheap. And he went out of his way showing us how to film — taking way too much time with two strangers, teaching them how to do things in his garage. But that mentality is really the heart of filmmaking: It’s this giving, sharing, familial mentality that was really shown to me by Greg. So that support I think is really necessary — and not being afraid to ask for it and then also remembering to give it to people when they need it.

A little while later I applied to SDSU and got in. The other thing that I learned from my experience in general at SDSU, through a lot of short films and documentaries, was the power of exploration. And it’s a difficult one to hold on to in the industry once money is involved, because the exploration is connected to taking big risks, to trying things you haven’t tried before. Trying to look at a subject or using the camera in ways that might be a little more unexpected. It’s a mentality that I tried to remind myself that I have to keep going back to, as I’m making movies.

As an SDSU film student, did you ever imagine one day you’d be directing — and co-writing a screenplay for — a Marvel movie?

At the time, no. That wasn’t a life goal by any means. I grew up on big Spielberg blockbusters — really the only type of movies that made it into the theaters on Maui. I was introduced to independent cinema when I went off to college in San Diego, and that’s where I thought I would always stay in terms of the types of movies I’d be exploring. But this has been a big change and it’s been really fun.

What advice would you give to SDSU film students?

Don’t spend a lot of money on your films. Rather than putting all this money into one big $50,000 short film, I would break that up and try to do as many as you can, and explore as many things as you can. You just get better with every movie. I got rejected from Sundance with every short film that I did, but it was my eighth one that did get in. 

The other, probably more important, piece of advice is to just practice being unapologetically yourself regardless of what people’s opinions are of that self. That’s your secret weapon in an industry that is based on creativity. Everything that you’ve experienced up until this point — your unique personality, your cultural background, your taste in film and cinema — that is the thing that makes whatever you make unique. Hold on to that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 

Destin Cretton's movie poster

Actor Simu Liu plays Shang-Chi in Marvel Studios’ upcoming superhero movie, directed by SDSU alumnus Destin Daniel Cretton. Photo courtesy of Disney.