"I never expected to become a writer and a director," Megan Park admits. "Which might sound weird, but this wasn't a career path that I necessarily saw coming for myself." Though she began acting as a child, Park didn't see her first movie in a theater until she was in her tweens. In her 20s, she got her big break when she was cast in ABC Family's The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a soapy teen drama series that ran for five seasons. "It was a great experience," Park says, adding, however, that, "I was having trouble seeing what was next for myself," once the series came to an end in 2013.
That same year, Park appeared in the rom-com What If as the sister of Zoe Kazan's character. It was Kazan, who one year prior had herself penned a film (Ruby Sparks), who instilled in Parks the confidence to try her hand at writing. "She literally said to me, like, 'I think you're really smart. I think you're really talented. I think you can do that.'" And so, she did. "Having quite literally no idea what I was doing. I did not have Final Draft. I was, like, writing in [Microsoft] Word," she laughs. "But it made sense to me in a way that acting, truthfully, never had. I was addicted from the first second."
It only made sense, then, that Park would begin to direct. She cut her teeth helming music videos for her musician friends, and then made a short film, Calvert Collins is High, in 2019. Now she is making her feature film directorial debut with The Fallout. The coming-of-age drama centers on a high-school student named Vada as she navigates her daily life in the aftermath of a school shooting.
"There were so many reasons why I didn't want to make the movie. Because I felt like I wasn't the right person to talk about such an important topic," Park concedes. Unlike her character, she is not a part of Gen Z. Not only had she never personally experienced the trauma of gun violence, but she grew up in Canada, where it is not nearly the epidemic that it remains in the United States. And still, "I just kept thinking, if I was in that situation, I honestly feel like I would be too scared to go to school every day," she says. "It was a story I couldn't not write."
Park wrote the screenplay in two weeks. To play Vada, she cast Jenna Ortega (of You and 2022's Scream) in what would be her first leading role – with no formal audition necessary. "It was just clear to me right away. I didn't need to see her say the lines. I knew she could do it." Park built the rest of the film’s cast around Ortega, with Julie Bowen and John Ortiz cast as Vada's parents, Lumi Pollack as her younger sister, and Maddie Ziegler (Dance Moms), Niles Fitch (This Is Us) and Will Ropp (The Way Back) as Vada's peers.
The film shot for four weeks in September of 2020, amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. "This was pre-vaccine pandemic in L.A. We were one of the first productions back up. So it was, like, scary," Park recalls. Which meant that any rehearsals with her cast ahead of arriving on set had to be done over Zoom. "I basically directed most of the movie from a back room, [wearing] a shield and a mask, with a monitor. I was FaceTiming Jenna to give her notes and talking to the D.P. on the walkie. It was definitely unlike any other set that I had been on, and I have been on sets since I was 15. It was a crazy ride."
"I really wanted to cultivate the safest set situation, where all these young actors felt safe to explore, and bring ideas to the table, and add their own vibe."
For as much as she couldn't control, this was still Park's set, and she wanted to be intentional about how she ran it. Especially having acted for so many years, "I had to curate myself to what each actor needed. Maddie needed something totally different from me than what Jenna needed," she says. "I just really wanted to cultivate the safest set situation, where all these young actors felt safe to explore, and bring ideas to the table, and add their own vibe."
Creating a safe space on set also meant creating literal space.
"As an actor, it can be such an exhausting experience to not have any space, physical space and time alone," explains Park. "The days are long, the material's really intense, so, on every location, I was like, 'Can we make sure that we give the actors a space they can all hang out together, if they want to, but also a space where everyone can just be alone?' And I really felt that Jenna needed that and appreciated that, because obviously she had a lot of emotional heavy lifting in this film. That's something I want to make sure to do on every set."
After wrapping, Park returned to her home outside of Toronto, where she had retreated during the initial quarantine. Unbeknownst to her at the time, it's where she would remain for the rest of this particular filmmaking journey. From "the middle of nowhere" in Canada, as she puts it, she edited her film in a mere four weeks; she had the movie scored with original music from Finneas; and it's where she attended the movie's virtual premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival. It's also where she's Zooming from ahead of the film’s debut on HBO Max this month. "It's cool, but just a surreal experience."
Reflecting now, Park is the first to say directing her first feature came with its own learning curve. "I think I am the first director ever in the history to undershoot stuff," she jokes. At the same time, she remembers one day in particular when she found herself directing her one-time The Secret Life of the American Teenager co-star and friend, Shailene Woodley. (Upon reading the script, Woodley asked to be cast in The Fallout as Vada's therapist.)
"We've worked together so many times before that we're used to making that shift from, like, being dumb idiot sisters together and joking around to pulling it together and being professional," Park says. Woodley was only scheduled to be on set for a single day to film her scenes. After she wrapped, Woodley wound up validating in Park something that she was only beginning to see in herself. "Shai wanted to stay the rest of the day," Park says, "She was like, 'Hey, I want to watch you direct! I want to learn from you.'"
The Fallout is streaming on HBO Max starting Jan. 27.