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Maui-born filmmaker snags prestigious award

    The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented Maui's Destin Daniel Cretton its Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting Thursday in Beverly Hills.

In 2001, after graduating from college with a degree in mass communications, Maui-born Destin Daniel Cretton couldn’t find a job.

"I had no other options," he said.

So, on a friend’s advice, he started working at a residential facility for at-risk teenagers in San Diego.

"He told me, ‘It’s going to be the hardest job you’ve ever had, and you’re going to get paid nothing. But it’s potentially going to be one of the most incredible experiences of your life.’ Which it was. It smashed open my worldview," Cretton says.

And now the experience has given the 31-year-old screenwriter his big break in Hollywood.

His feature film script "Short Term 12," inspired by his two-year stint at the youth facility, was awarded the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting Thursday by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the same folks who hand out Oscars.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary, the fellowship, deemed widely as the most esteemed of screenwriting competitions, was started by Gee Nicholl in honor of her late husband Don, a television writer for such shows as "All in the Family," "The Jeffersons" and "Three’s Company."

The award and its $30,000 prize are designed to provide recognition to unknown screenwriters and an entree into a screenwriting career. Past fellows include Oscar-nominee Susannah Grant ("The Soloist," "Charlotte’s Web" "Erin Brockovich"), Doug Atchison ("Akeelah and the Bee") and Mike Rich ("Radio," "The Rookie," "Secretariat").

This year’s competition received more than 6,000 entries from around the world vying for five fellowships.

Cretton’s winning script is about 25-year-old Grace, who works as a teen group home supervisor struggling to care for her emotionally scarred patients while dealing with her own dark secrets. The feature-length script began out of his thesis film of the same name, which won the short film prize at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, another highly celebrated competition.

During the selection process, the Nicholl committee, which included Oscar-winning actress Eva Marie Saint, asked finalists to elaborate on themselves as writers and their inspiration.

Without hesitation, Cretton spoke of growing up in Hawaii. "You’re swimming in stories from the time you’re a little kid. I grew up playing in the pineapple fields and hiking down to the gulch every day. Building forts in the lilikoi vines," says Cretton, an avid surfer. "I’m constantly tapping into all those experiences, whether or not I’m writing a story specifically about that. They are still a constant inspiration and reminder of what’s really important to me."

Cretton, a 1996 Maui High graduate who grew up in the Upcountry community of Haiku, was home-schooled by his mother, Janice, until he enrolled in school for his senior year to graduate with his friends. He has a bachelor’s degree from Point Loma Nazarene University and has been working as a teaching artist in the video production program at Canyon Crest Academy high school while finishing his Master of Fine Arts degree in film, television and new media from San Diego State University.

Yet, despite his training and education, the idea of having a career as a filmmaker wasn’t something he believed possible.

"I was always planning to be barely getting by and making films just as a hobby for the rest of my life, because I loved it. I never thought that I would actually be able to do it for a living," Cretton said.

He is preparing to direct his script with the help of Traction Media, producers of such films as "Hard Candy" with Ellen Page and "Half Nelson" with Ryan Gosling. For Cretton, life now seems filled with options.

Donna Choo is a freelance writer and former Hawaii resident working in the film industry in Los Angeles.


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