Maui-Born Destin Daniel Cretton, Director of 'Shang-Chi,' on Heading a Big-Budget Marvel Movie
Marvel Studios released its first film centered around an Asian superhero on Sept. 3. "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" stars Simu Liu, a rising actor best known for the Canadian television series, "Kim's Convenience." It also features martial arts movie legends Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh.
It's directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, who was born and raised on Maui. The Conversation's Russell Subiono spoke with Cretton about the film. (The interview has been edited for clarity.)
SUBIONO: You made a few small features at the start of your career. I Am Not A Hipster. Short Term 12. The Glass Castle. Just Mercy. What do you think Marvel saw in those films that gave them the confidence to hand you the reins of this one?
CRETTON: At its core, this movie really is a small family drama that's wrapped in the genre of a martial arts movie and a big action superhero. And I do think one of the strengths that Marvel has in all of their movies is a concentration on character and relationships. I think that's what they connected to in the movies that I've done up until this point. And it was a really was something that they constantly reminded me of, to remember to infuse into this movie as well.
SUBIONO: I definitely saw a very strong family dynamic within the film. And you know us coming from Hawai‘i. That's your family is strong. And so I really appreciated that about the film. I grew up in Waimea on the Big Island. I know you grew up in Haiku on Maui. The populations of our towns are approximately the same, and we're approximately the same age. I still feel like I'm a few years away from having the skill set to produce a show at NPR. What was it like for you to go from small town to small films? To the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Were you 100% ready? Or was it still kind of a leap of faith?
CRETTON: I feel like every every movie is a complete leap of faith for me. I walk into pre-production on on every movie and feel completely out of my element. I feel like how in the world did I get here? There's no way I'm going to pull this off. All of the self doubt comes in. And I don't know. The more that I that I that I explore this industry and meet more people that I respect and admire and have admired their work — I have found that the people who who I really respect the work that they do feel that same way. They often feel that that self doubt in that pressure. And to me those are people who are just honest, because ... whatever field you're in, if you are pushing your own limits, you're always doing something you haven't done before, so it's always gonna feel really scary. And this was definitely very scary when I started, but I was working alongside a pretty incredible team of people who I really grew to love. And on screen, this is a family drama. Behind the camera, we really did become a family over the course of the two years making it.
SUBIONO: When Marvel announced back in 2018 that they intended to bring Shang-Chi into the MCU, how much did Simu Liu's tweet actually factor into his casting as Shang-Chi?
CRETTON: [Laughing] I mean, in reality, not at all. I mean, I'm not sure what was happening and maybe the the ether if there was some positive vibes going out into the air and, but we didn't know about the tweet until afterwards. The hard fact is that Simu was wonderfully you know, discovered by our first of our our casting director, Sarah Finn, who is doing a search of every every actor in the business who could possibly play this role. And then Simu came in and proved himself repeatedly over the course of three pretty intense auditions. And he really just proved himself to be the right one for this character.
SUBIONO: My family and I are huge fans of Kim's Convenience, So when he was cast, we were thrilled.
CRETTON: Oh, that's awesome.
SUBIONO: I've talked to several actors and filmmakers this year, either from Hawai‘i, or with strong ties to Hawai‘i, and the consensus I'm hearing is that opportunities are on the rise for indigenous and minority filmmakers to tell stories that would have been near impossible to make maybe 20 or 30 years ago. In your experience, do you feel the film industry is becoming more inclusive? And if more doors were open for you, what would be your dream project?
CRETTON: I do think that in in general, there, I am seeing more and more people either rising into positions of power, who are now decision makers, who are either minorities themselves, or people who are true champions of diversity. It is still a slow moving train, I would say, and we are all still battling the pressure of an old regime not allowing new diverse voices into the mix. But I have found it going in a positive direction that that is exciting. It is really exciting to have been able to help a movie like this, which would not have been even thought of as as a possibility 5, 10 years ago. So I'm excited about the future. I'm excited about the industry, hopefully, continuing to understand that if we don't start to tell stories that are a reflection of the people who are watching television and movies and a reflection of the true diversity of the world around us, then we're not going to stay relevant as an industry. As for my dream project, every movie that I make at that point in time is my dream project. I make movies not really thinking beyond the movie I'm making. And this movie right now was my dream project. I hope the next one will also be my dream project.
SUBIONO: Have you seen any films or series this year that you would recommend to our audience or think more people should be watching?
CRETTON: Minari is a movie that was not nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. It was edited by we share an editor's that Harry Yoon, who edited menari was was also on Shang-Chi. That's one recommendation that I think people should watch. I haven't had a ton of time to watch a lot of things. But I you know, I was also able to watch Judas and the black Messiah with Lakeith Stanfield love, and I thought that movie was pretty incredible.
SUBIONO: Yeah, he was excellent in Short Term 12, which was my favorite film of 2013. As I mentioned before, me and my family are huge. Kim's convenience fans. So I want what I want to know is, is there a secret kimchi cameo somewhere in the movie?
CRETTON: [Laughing] Not that I'm aware of, but maybe.
SUBIONO: Well, I thought would ask. I enjoyed the film immensely.
CRETTON: Thank you so much.
SUBIONO: I'm part Chinese part Hawaiian. So I'm looking forward to the Hawaiian superhero that comes somewhere down the line.
CRETTON: Yeah, that's a good that's a good mix right there. Hawaiian and Chinese.