Destin Daniel Cretton, left, with Brett Pawlak filming "I am Not a Hipster," which premiered at The Sundance Film Festival. Cretton, an SDSU alumnus, wrote and directed the film.
Destin Daniel Cretton is kind of a big deal.
You can’t win the top prize for short film at Sundance, the country’s biggest independent film festival, and not be a big deal, especially if you win it as a film student.
But Cretton was just warming up. That was 2009. The next year, he won a Nicholl Fellowship—a $30,000 prize handed out to no more than five of 5,000 wannabee screenwriters by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
When it comes to filmmaking, Cretton’s definitely got the Midas touch. Every one of his projects has won awards. Two of his feature-length films premiered on television, one on HBO, one on TLC/Discovery. The HBO piece went on to win Best Documentary at Comic Con.?
This January, Cretton made a second appearance at Sundance. Organizers invited him to premiere his latest work in the out-of-competition NEXT <=> section of the festival, devoted to “bold works by promising filmmakers distinguished by an innovative, forward-thinking approach to storytelling.”
Cretton’s unique storytelling talent is all his own, but the 2011 graduate claims he learned pretty much everything he knows about filmmaking at San Diego State University.
And while he is the clear rock star among recent graduates, wait until you hear what his SDSU peers have accomplished. (Click here to view trailers of student films.
We’re talking Emmys, Hollywood partnerships, futures so bright they gotta wear shades. USC, NYU, even AFI, the American Film Institute, widely considered No. 1 in the world—all those elite schools had better look out. San Diego State has arrived.Building a reputation
“The last four years have been a unique time,” said Tim Powell, the SDSU professor who personally mentors candidates for the M.A. in film (a select group of eight to 10) and most of the undergrads majoring in film production.
“We’ve had a lot of very successful students getting into major festivals and winning [regional] student Emmys on a consistent basis. Our program has an excellent reputation in the industry because of the work our students are turning out.”
So if SDSU’s film school is great because its students are great, why did such promising young filmmakers choose San Diego State over the more predictable A-list programs?
Stephen Crutchfield, a 2011 master’s graduate and Emmy winner, came to SDSU for its strong academic curriculum and access to world-class equipment—even the same 35 mm Panavision film cameras used to shoot Hollywood blockbusters.
Crutchfield freely admits he lacked confidence before meeting Hollywood insider Stephen Metcalfe, the uncredited script doctor behind “Pretty Woman,” who teaches a screenwriting class at SDSU.
Seeing talent in his unassuming student, Metcalfe asked Crutchfield to direct a short he was writing for a studio in La Jolla. The resulting film, “El Abuelo,” became Crutchfield’s master’s thesis and catapulted him into a succession of post-graduation projects.
Brian Garcia and Kristen Hansen, Class of 2011 colleagues who shared an Emmy for Garcia’s senior project, liked SDSU’s hands-on approach to teaching filmmaking.
“We have a smaller department than the big film schools, so there’s less bureaucracy here,” Hansen said. “I never felt restricted.”In famous footsteps
Like many SDSU film students, Cretton, Crutchfield, Hansen and Garcia all benefited from the financial support of San Diego State’s most illustrious film graduate, uber-producer Kathleen Kennedy.
A 1975 graduate, Kathleen Kennedy today is arguably the second-most successful film producer of all time, bested only by Steven Spielberg, her long-time collaborator. Domestic box office receipts total more than $5 billion for movies she’s produced. It’s a long list, heavy with mega-hits including “E.T.,” “Back to the Future,” “Schindler’s List,” “Jurassic Park,” “The Sixth Sense” and her most recent opus, “War Horse.”
Kennedy said her SDSU education engendered strong personal friendships that taught her the importance of collaboration, and “how the best version of a story usually will be the product of more than one mind.”
Today, she supports SDSU filmmakers by underwriting scholarships and grants to help offset production costs and festival entry fees. Cretton, for example, used Kennedy funds to complete and promote his Sundance winner, “Short Term 12.”
“It is important for me that students be given the opportunity to discover the kinds of stories they want to tell and how best to tell them,” Kennedy said.
“Finding the same level of creative freedom outside of college is not always easy, and so it’s a great place to try and try again. There is no such thing as failure in an environment where you learn so much with each attempt. I am very proud to be able to support this particular kind of education.”
Scholarships enable SDSU student filmmakers to realize their creative potential while working toward careers in the film and television industry. Learn how you can help fuel students' potential through The Campaign for SDSU.
SDSU’s emerging young filmmakers tend to shine their klieg lights on what Randy Reinholz calls “the big conversations”—juvenile crime, autism, isolation and war. Reinholz is the director of SDSU’s School of Theatre, Television and Film.
“We tend to get scrappy students, rather than students from privilege trying to express their inner intellect,” Reinholz said. “These guys want things to work, they want to achieve, they want to make something, and they have interesting voices. Scholarships will make a big difference to our ability to continue attracting this kind of student.”
Emmy winner Brian Garcia, for instance, took heat in high school for his Latino heritage, got in a lot of fights, and ended up in juvenile hall. He remembers thinking: there’s no opportunity for me to ever be successful.
But Garcia wanted to at least finish high school, so he took a few night courses, including a film class, which led to his epiphany. Until then, Garcia says, “I never knew film school existed.” Now he’s committed to making movies that show the positive side of Latino culture.Finding their groove
Hansen always felt like the odd girl out in school—until she discovered film. “I got a camcorder when I was 15 and started filming everything,” she said. “Life became a reality TV show.”
When she got to State, Hansen discovered a lot of the other students already knew how to write and edit for film, while she didn’t know much about making movies. Then the work ethic she’d learned from her parents kicked in. Hansen took on more projects than anyone else, found her groove as a producer and discovered a passion for screenwriting.
Hilary Andrews, featured on the cover, is a fourth-year student whose keen interest in science drew her to filmmaking as an academic exercise. Until she made her first film.
“I’ve come to really love the storytelling aspect,” she said. “The joy and reward is in the creation of good craftsmanship—in being able to say something new that is derived almost entirely from your own imagination.”
The daughter of SDSU alumni Vaughn, ’77, and Carrie, ’78, Andrews, Hilary won rave reviews at the 2011 SDSU film festival. Her projects “The Linguist” and “Sarra and Erich” tied for the Jury Prize.Worlds away
Cinema rock star Destin Cretton also found his focus at SDSU.
Cretton grew up surfing in Maui, which was about all there was to do in Haiku, a little town on the road to Hana. Well, surfing and watching movies.
“I loved movies,” Cretton said. “I loved that feeling of being transported into another world. I didn’t understand when people didn’t like a movie. I loved every single one.”
He made a few videos of his own, borrowing his grandparents’ clunky, over-the-shoulder VHS camcorder and drafting his five siblings as both cast and crew. But he had no thoughts of shooting films for a living.
“With my world view on the island, I had no idea what was possible,” he said.
When a few friends from church enrolled at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, Cretton joined them. He declared a major in mass communications and decided to make a film as a senior project.
A tipping point
But Point Loma doesn’t offer filmmaking, so Cretton and his buddy, Lowell Frank, went to SDSU professor Greg Durbin for advice.
“They just showed up at my house,” Durbin said, “a couple of kids with skateboards. They looked like they came rolling in with the seaweed.”
Always on the lookout for graduate-program recruits, Durbin decided to help Cretton and Frank, and they came back with “Longbranch,” an award-winning piece that guaranteed them both admission to SDSU’s master’s program in film.
“Greg Durbin was so supportive even before he knew who we were, before he knew if we had any talent,” Cretton recalled, still a little incredulous.
Looking back, he sees that extraordinary vote of confidence as a tipping point in his life.
“I am positive I wouldn’t be making movies if I hadn’t gone to San Diego State,” Cretton said. “I walked in without any confidence in my ability, and when I left I felt pretty secure in what I’d be able to contribute.”
In the pipeline
Cretton’s celebrity has drawn other aspiring filmmakers to the SDSU program. Josh Krohn, currently a master’s degree student, was inspired to join the program in 2009 after hearing about Cretton's Sundance prize.
Now Krohn is a standout in his own right. Last semester, SDSU faculty singled him out for an Excellence in Filmmaking award.
Krohn’s film, “A Clear Shot at the Door,” took a top award at the 2011 CSU Media Arts Festival, and his short film “Firesale,” produced by fellow student Pat Clark, received a grant from the independent post-production company, Fotokem.
"There is an incredible amount of talent in the SDSU television and film department," Krohn said. "I can't imagine a better experience."