An Interview with Maui’s Destin Daniel Cretton on Marvel’s “Shang-Chi”

Maui-born Destin Daniel Cretton is the director of the newest Marvel movie, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” This isn’t like any entry from the Marvel Cinematic Universe before and it’s that distinction that has already made it one of the year’s best…...
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Image of Destin Daniel Cretton, director of Marvel's "Shang-Chi"

Destin Daniel Cretton, director of Marvel’s “Shang-Chi”

The last time I spoke with Destin Daniel Cretton was in 2013 to promote a low budget, independently made film he wrote and directed called “Short Term 12.” 

It starred a then-unknown actress named Brie Larson and depicted Cretton’s experiences working in the foster care system. Although his debut film received a modest release, it garnered strong reviews and also played at the Queen Kaʻahumanu Theatre.

Now, Cretton has a new movie playing at the Queen Kaʻahumanu Theatre—and thousands of theaters nationwide. 

In fact, the state of actual movie-going remains a question as many audiences resort to streaming choices at home. However, Cretton’s film, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” is a genuine event that is expected to bring millions to local multiplexes. 

Cretton, 42, who was born and raised in Haiku, still fondly remembers making home movies with his siblings. His reputation as an up-and-coming filmmaker was established with the breakout success of “Short Term 12,” which also provided an acting showcase for Larson.

Following “Short Term 12,” Cretton directed “The Glass Castle” (2017), a higher profile drama, based on Jeannette Wall’s painful 2005 memoir. The film featured Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts and Larson. 

Cretton followed that up with “Just Mercy” (2019), a true story of social injustice, starring Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, and once again Larson. Neither films were successful at the box office but more importantly, they connected with critics, subsequently finding appreciative audiences. 

Cretton’s studio films, like his highly lauded film debut, depict fractured families, adult hypocrisy, being trapped in an unfair system, and finding a rebirth after surviving one’s harrowing past. The performances Cretton draws from his actors demonstrates just one of his strengths from behind the camera. Harrelson, in particular, gives one of his best performances in “The Glass Castle.”

In 2019, it was announced that Cretton was making a movie for Marvel. 

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” isn’t like any entry from the Marvel Cinematic Universe before. It’s that distinction that has already made it one of the year’s best and most distinctive works. Starring Simu Liu in the title role, Cretton’s film is a lavish blend of fantasy and family drama, featuring extraordinary martial arts action, state of the art special effects, and a rich sense of humor to give it levity. It’s a colossal achievement and a terrifically entertaining time at the movies. 

When I spoke to Cretton, he was a day away from the film’s opening. Sporting a Pukalani Superette cap, he spoke about the struggles he experienced making the film, why it was important to get the representation of Asian culture in cinema right, and what inspired the creation of one of the film’s most breathtaking scenes. 

MauiTimes: What was the first martial arts film you saw as a young man that made a strong impression on you?

Destin Cretton: I actually used to sneak behind my grampa’s chair when he was watching old black and white samurai movies at his house. That aesthetic was always intriguing. The closest thing to a martial arts movie that I was allowed to watch as a kid was “The Karate Kid,” and I remember a show that was called “Sidekicks,” that I was obsessed with. Of course, “Kung Fu,” another TV show, was always something I was really enamored by. 

Once I got a hold of my grandma’s VHS camcorder, one of our favorite things to do [as siblings] was to make really bad, kung fu choreographed fight sequences. So, to be able to be telling a story like this, really does tap way back in the psyche of my childhood. 

MT: Is there any chance those short movies you made will show up on the “Shang-Chi” blu-ray special features? Is there any chance of that at all, because we want to see it!

DC: You know what the problem is? The moisture in Hawaiʻi creates a lot of mold that grows over the VHS tapes. So, they’re there—all at my grandma’s and my mom’s houses, but they’re just moldy. 

MT: In March 2019, when it was announced you were making this film, was there one particular obstacle you faced as a filmmaker that was the greatest concern?

DC: I would say the biggest obstacle on this movie was representation and getting that representation right. One of my co-writers, Dave Callaham, is Chinese-American and grew up in San Francisco. We both really felt the weight of making sure this movie wasn’t going to dip into any fears of probably every Asian-American in the country, that we weren’t going to be contributing to previous stereotypes, and that we weren’t going to be putting another stereotype into the world through the character of Shang-Chi. 

We didn’t want Shang-Chi to be a quiet guy who speaks in riddles, walks around shirtless, and does kung fu. We wanted him to be representative of our experience, our friends’ experiences, feel modern and up-to-date, and feel like an Asian-American that we know and relate to. That was the biggest concern, not only for Shang-Chi but for Wenwu, who had probably even more stereotypical baggage to get rid of. I’d say that was the biggest challenge that I was worried about. 

MT: Were some of the casting choices a part of how you wanted to confront and overcome, as you said, some of those pre-established stereotypes? When I think of this movie, I think of not only Tony Leung but also Tsai Chin. You have some of the best actors in this film. Was that a part of the process of saying you were not going in a certain direction because you also had actors who were not going to allow that sort of thing?

DC: I’m glad you recognized Tsai Chin in there. Yes, I think casting is the first big step in making sure the characters are going to be played with dimensionality and that the choices of the actors are not going to take us down the typical road. Thank goodness we do have actors like Tony Leung, Michelle Yeoh, and Tsai to go to. We have our legendary actors that we can celebrate in this movie. That was such a blessing. 

When it comes to populating the rest of our world, we did rely a lot on the audition process, seeing how an actor like Simu would tackle Shang-Chi. We didn’t want actors who were going to take a typical road, we wanted actors to surprise us with their charm, personality and humor, as well as their vulnerability… and their ability to just kick ass. 

Simu was able to do all of those things. In different ways, every actor that we picked surprised us in a great way. I think that feeling of surprise is the first step to breaking those stereotypes or showing people a different side to the image of what they’re used to seeing. 

MT: The fight scenes in “Shang Chi” have a fluidity and clarity to them. There’s no shaky-cam, no blurring, no hyper-editing. They’re sensual, acrobatic, and coherent. How did you achieve this?

DC: It was really important to get the martial arts right. We started by hiring the right people. Bill Pope, I think, has been a director of photography on some of the most elegantly shot fight scenes in the past decade. We had Brad Allen, who was trained in Jackie Chan’s stunt team and the very incredible group of stunt performers and choreographers he brought from mainland China and Hong Kong. They were just extraordinary in their talent, not only as fighters or choreographers but as filmmakers. They understood how to move a camera in order to capture the best version of the body movements. 

They also came with a very clear perspective. No offense to Jason Bourne but we didn’t want that style of just chaos. We wanted people to clearly see what our stunt performers and actors were accomplishing. We created an aesthetic that was able to do that. It grew out of the natural aesthetic that came from Jackie Chan’s camp. When I watch a Jackie Chan movie, I find his choreography to be some of the most exciting in movie history. There aren’t fancy shots or tons of slow-mo and cuts—it’s pretty straight forward camera movements. 

The art of storytelling is woven through every move you’re watching—three act structures, set-ups, payoffs, comedic jokes, all through physical storytelling—and that is what we infused into this movie. 

MT: One of my favorite scenes is in the second act. It’s where Shang-Chi as a child witnesses a sort of mob hit. You allow us to experience it through the perspective of the young actor, a mirror, and a rotating camera. I love this scene. What inspired you to portray it that way?

DC:  That scene was a wonderful result of getting action fatigue on our own movie. Typically, the go-to instinct is to get the camera in there and just shoot the fight in the coolest way you can. When we were brainstorming how to do this particular fight sequence, we knew we wanted it to be really brutal to see Wenwu in all of his monstrous glory. Shooting it like we were shooting a lot of the other sequences didn’t feel right. 

The idea we came up with was keeping the camera completely from the perspective of young Shang-Chi and never leaving his side, with the idea of having a big, dirty mirror, so we could simultaneously see the reaction from our actor and see hints of the brutality that he’s looking at. 

Then there was the idea of doing it all in a slow-panning “oner,” which was a wonderful challenge for everybody because it was really hard to do! You’re mixing stunt performing with VFX, and a real reflection with VFX reflections—there’s so many things happening in that “oner” to make it work. It was quite a balancing act between a lot of departments, but to me, it’s one of the most satisfying moments of the movie. 

MT: My last question is kind of silly. Have you had the experience yet of going down a store aisle and having a shelf of Shang Chi action figures stare at you? Has that happened to you yet?

DC (Laughing): No, I’ve only seen pictures of it. I don’t typically go into stores very much but my friends keep sending me photos of those action figures from all over the world, so that’s fun. I’ve got a couple of them on my shelf. 

MT: You go to the store and it’s hard to miss—it’s an entire aisle.

DC (Laughing): That’s funny. 

MT: In 2013, the last time we spoke, you mentioned one of my favorite movies, which is “Innerspace.” You said, “That was one of the first movies that was permanently assigned to my brain. That movie opened up something inside megot me so excited about movie making. It was so magical, to watch anything on that movie screen was such a joy for me as a kid.” 

I wanted to thank you for providing that experience you described for a new generation with your movie. 

DC: Thank you, Barry. That means so much to me. 

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is now playing in theaters everywhere. 

Photo credit: Jasin Boland. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Barry Wurst

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