Megan Park returned to the hallways of high school, this time as a director. Megan, who rose to fame on The Secret Life of the American Teenager, is the director and writer of The Fallout, now available on HBO Max. The poignant film follows a high schooler named Vada (Jenna Ortega) who struggles to cope and move forward after a shooting at her school. She forges friendships with Mia (Maddie Ziegler) and Quinton (Niles Fitch) in the aftermath, bonded by the trauma they experienced in the bathroom during the shooting.
HollywoodLife spoke EXCLUSIVELY with Megan about the journey to bring The Fallout to audiences around the world. She explains her decision to end the movie with Vada having a panic attack after learning about another school shooting and why no other ending was ever considered. Read our Q&A below:
School shootings are all too common these days. They happen so often. What was the spark that prompted you to want to write and direct The Fallout?
Megan Park: I think I was initially just so frustrated and felt really helpless. It was a really tricky subject matter to tackle in a way that I felt was appropriate and a way that could bring an emotional side to the story that hadn’t been told before. I’m Canadian. I didn’t grow up in a time when school shootings were a thing, and I didn’t really feel this threat. So I thought maybe I’m not the right person to tell this story. But I just continued to be so sickened every time another one of these awful events happened, so I just honestly couldn’t stop thinking about it. I kind of imagined that I was Vada in a lot of ways, how I feel I would potentially react in a situation like this. I felt like there’s got to be so many kids out there who feel so left behind and so alone and just left to deal with this grief for years and years and years. There must be so much confusion and guilt around how to process something like this. So it truly was such an emotional decision. It wasn’t based on one particular event. Unfortunately, there are far too many to choose from. It was just a culmination of so many emotions around all sorts of experiences.
Vada and Mia are at the heart of this. Jenna and Maddie are incredible in this film. What was the process of finding these two talented young women who were also very much in that age range? You could have easily cast 20-somethings to play teenagers.
Megan Park: That was important to me. I think I spent a lot of time in my early, mid, and late 20s playing a teenager. It’s done for a reason. A lot of times, it’s a working hours reason. But I felt like for this story to have the authenticity, it was really important to have actresses who were that actual age. That was like a number one thing for me, and I really wanted the actresses to really embody who these people were completely. I think that’s one of the most important things you can do as a director is to find the right people to play a role and not trying to be fitting a square peg in a round hole. I’d heard about Jenna. I’d seen her work. I was a massive fan. We had some mutual friends, and we just got together for coffee. She read the script and liked it. We sat down and just talked about Vada. Within two minutes of meeting her I was like, “Oh my gosh, she is Vada.” She just blew me away. She’s so smart and so well-spoken and just embodies the spirit of not only Vada, but I felt like this generation in so many ways. And then we kind of built the rest of the movie around Jenna once we had her in place. It was really cool to see her and Maddie together. They’re like besties now, which is so amazing. But Maddie, again, I was familiar with her work. The character Mia is a dancer, so there are a lot of things that could make sense with that. We talked on the phone, and then she came in and read and just blew me away. She really is a lot like Mia. She is very shy and very reserved in real life, which I think a lot of people don’t know. It was such a fun opportunity to see her play this type of character, which I hadn’t seen her do before. I’m so excited for people to just see their performances. They’re both so talented.
The shooting scene was an absolute gut-punch. We’ve seen shows and movies tackle school shootings over the years and show the shooter or the actual shooting itself. The Fallout just focuses on Vada, Mia, and eventually Quinton in the bathroom stall. How did you decide on what to show and not to show? The bathroom stall was so claustrophobic. It seemed like there was no way out.
Megan Park: Well, those were the last two scenes that we filmed in the movie, all the stuff in the bathroom, which was really just because of locations and stuff because it was really tricky. It was a very emotional two days for the actors, obviously, but it was a tricky thing because I actually got a lot of people telling me that I should film something outside of the bathroom as well. I was very, very, very adamant that I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want to show any of the violence. Unfortunately, we’re all too familiar with that. I think it was a tricky line to walk because I didn’t want the movie to be triggering for people. I didn’t want it to be too hard for people to watch, especially people who had been through something like this. But at the same time, you had to really feel the true horror of it, to experience it, to understand Vada’s reaction to it, so it was really tricky to walk that line. But I’m glad that I stuck to my gut and stayed in that bathroom stall because I think just hearing the audio is horrifying enough. That was the final thing we were tweaking right up until we sent the film off to South by Southwest was getting the audio right for that moment and really walking that line was very important.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie was the scene between the sisters in Vada’s bedroom. Lumi [Pollack] was incredible.
Megan Park: This is her first movie.
It blew my mind how good she was. Walk me through that scene because I felt like it was such a turning point in the film. It’s such a bonding moment for them and a way for Vada to move
Megan Park: I loved writing the relationship between Vada and her little sister because I think Lumi, who plays Amelia, starts to represent this version of Vada that she can’t get back to anymore. They used to be very close. They have these things they would do together, and there’s this innocence lost. She sort of pushes her sister away throughout the movie because it’s hard for her to be around that sort of effervescence energy of somebody who doesn’t quite understand what she went through. It’s not her fault, but there’s just this huge disconnect. I think the moment of them connecting at the end, and Amelia even talks about how she feels like she did something wrong. She’s worried about maybe a shooting happening at her school next. I think it’s that moment of them reconnecting that really turns things for Vada for the first time and kind of actually begins her process of healing for the first time is seeing herself in Amelia and taking on that nurturing protective role. It was a really emotional scene. It was Lumi’s first movie, and she continued to amaze me every step of the way in the process. She did that scene in her audition, and I was just like, who are you? She was incredible. A really cute little story about that is she was such a huge Jenna fan. I think that was one of their first scenes that they filmed together. Although it was a really emotional scene, Lumi kept actually breaking into a smile every time Jenna would hug her because she couldn’t believe that she was getting to do this scene with Jenna. She just kept saying, “I’m so happy. I can’t believe this is real.” So it was really cute at the same time because we literally had a few times cut around her breaking into just this grin because she couldn’t believe the situation she was in. I mean, talk about bringing it. She’s so natural and so gifted. She’s already doing a bunch of really exciting new projects, and I can’t wait to watch her career just explode.
The movie didn’t end how I expected it to. I think we’ve been ingrained to think movies should be wrapped up in a neat little bow. The ending was so visceral. Talk to me about your decision to leave us with those moments of a Vada crying and having a panic attack. Was there any other ending that you ever considered?
Megan Park: No. And that’s one of the things, kind of like the bathroom stall scene, that I was very sure about. So much changes when you’re filming a movie — the locations, the actors, in the edit, what you get on the day, like throwing Lumi in to do the TikTok. You have to kind of fly by the seat of your pants in a lot of ways. But I always knew the movie had to end that way because this isn’t a problem that’s over. This is a problem that is continuing right now. It’s a difficult ending, for sure. I think you hopefully leave with a glimmer of hope that Vada is starting to gather the skills to learn how to cope and to learn how to live her life holding this trauma with her that will stay with her forever in some way, shape, or form. But it’s not over, so I think that it really had to be the ending that it was. That was one thing that didn’t change. Although, we did play around with how much of the panic attack to show as opposed to just hear. That was something we did play around with because, again, I wanted to show the severity of her reaction, but I didn’t want it to be too triggering for people. That was something we really played around with. But in terms of that ending, I knew it had to end with that moment.
Again, just the audio was a perfect way to illustrate how you can show just as much emotion without showing Jenna’s face.
Megan Park: We had versions of it where we saw her. Jenna’s performance was unbelievable, but it was almost too painful. It was more powerful, I think, to see a glimmer of it. And then just hearing it was, unfortunately, enough.
School shootings are an ongoing epidemic. Do you think we’ll ever see change when it comes to gun violence?
Megan Park: I hope so. I feel like I have to have some kind of hope that, eventually, there will be some kind of reform and this will not be something that happens so regularly. Or at all would be my wish. I wish I could wave a magic wand and end it right now. There is gun violence everywhere, and these types of things occasionally happen in Canada as well. I don’t think any country is immune to gun violence, but it certainly feels like a really big problem that’s uniquely American right now with these school shootings, unfortunately. But I hope that there is change. I have hope with the younger generation that they are going to really stand up and make this change happen. I hope it’s sooner than later.
We see that with the Nick character how he is mobilized by it, and we’ve seen that in real-life with Parkland kids as well who are demanding change.
Megan Park: Exactly. Those kids are so inspiring. I just look up to them so much, and I think that they are the future.
Shailene [Woodley] was perfect as the therapist. I grew up watching you both on The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Did you just call her up and ask her to be a part of your movie?
Megan Park: It kind of happened organically, actually. I had actually done a rewrite on a studio movie she was doing, and she’s been so supportive of me as a writer and director. We’d wanted to work together on something, but she just wanted to read the script because I’d finished it and she’d heard about it. She was excited. The therapist character originally didn’t even have a name, and it was a little bit of a smaller role. She called me and said she loved the script. She was like, “Can I come play the therapist?” I was like, “Do you want to?” And she’s like, “Yeah, I love the script. I just want to be a part of it. It’s the only role that I could potentially be.” So when I knew that she was going to do it, I gave her therapist a name, and we kind of beefed-up those scenes a little bit, which ended up being some of my favorite scenes in the movie. I was really happy that that happened. A lot of people think that we put Shai in the movie and built the movie around that, but she came in at the last minute, which was just such a fun thing to do. It was really fun to work together in that capacity, which we hadn’t done before. She was so sweet. She brought flowers and put them in my trailer and stayed the whole day. She was like, “I want to watch you work the rest of the day.” She reached out to Jenna ahead of time. I remember we had this moment where we had just done one of the really heavy scenes in therapy with Jenna and her. I was sitting in a bathroom — literally — that was the only spot where I had a monitor. She came in and was like, “Jenna Ortega is a star.” She was just freaking out and started fangirling over Jenna. It was really cool because I knew Shai when she was Jenna’s age, and it was really fun for me to be by her side and watch her career explode in such a big way. She has always been so talented, and it was really cool to now be on the other side of that and watch this young woman just explode and be so gifted. It was really, really cool. I think she had a fun time watching that too.