Randall Park on Connecting to the Story of His Directorial Debut, ‘Shortcomings’

Randall Park makes his directorial debut with Shortcomings! The film, which is officially in theaters, is based on the graphic novel by Adrian Tomine.

Ben, a struggling filmmaker, lives in Berkeley, California, with his girlfriend, Miko, who works for a local Asian American film festival. When he’s not managing an arthouse movie theater as his day job, Ben spends his time obsessing over unavailable blonde women, watching Criterion Collection DVDs, and eating in diners with his best friend Alice, a queer grad student with a serial dating habit. When Miko moves to New York for an internship, Ben is left to his own devices, and begins to explore what he thinks he might want.

I had the chance to speak with the director over Zoom and ask about his connection to the source material, modernizing the story, the complex characters, which scene he was most excited to cut together in the editing bay, and much more. Keep reading for our full conversation!

Jon Pack. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

I have to say what a big fan I am. It is so exciting to be speaking with you, thank you.
Randall Park: Oh, thank you. That’s very kind of you.

Of course. So, I have to start off with this being your directorial debut, I was so happy to see you step into this role. What was most important about this story or what made it a perfect first project for this big role?
For me, it was my connection to the material because the graphic novel came out back in 2007, and I remember reading it that year in a bookstore and being really just blown away by it in the sense that it felt so honest and so uncomfortably honest at times. It was so funny and sad, but also, it made me angry, it made me feel all these things and it felt just so… I don’t know, it felt like such an accurate reflection of my life at the time and the life of my friends at the time. So it just stuck with me over the years and throughout the years, I just kind of always wondered, “What’s going on with that book? I wonder if anyone’s gonna make anything, like a movie from it.” And then, you know, 15 years later, the opportunity came up to do something with it. Thankfully, it kind of magically happened that I ended up directing it.

And I want to go off of that because obviously, when there’s a source material, there’s already an audience that loves it. How do you go about making the film authentic and sticking to that material, but also, making the story your own?
Well, thankfully, the writer of the graphic novel, Adrian Tomine, also wrote the script and as soon as I came on board, for the next two years, we just worked on the script together and we worked on modernizing it, making sure things felt a little more kind of relevant to today, and yeah, just really, really paying attention to every detail and even Adrian, as faithful as we were to the book in the movie, he didn’t want it to be the book, you know? And I didn’t want it to be the book, I wanted it to stand apart from the book and to be its own piece of art. So once the script was written, it was a matter of just putting together all the pieces and not thinking about those pieces being right according to the book, but making sure they were right for the script.

Jon Pack. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

And then from there on out, just being nimble because we were an independent film. We knew like, locations would change, [and] there were so many unforeseen elements that would kind of veer us away from the book, but would nonetheless be gifts in their own right. So to kind of detach ourselves from the thought that we were trying to make a screen adaptation of a graphic novel and really just tell our own story was important, especially once we got into production because again, independent filmmaking, there’s just so many unforeseen circumstances, obstacles, and challenges. It was definitely a process, but first and foremost, we wanted to make a movie.

The cast involved is so talented, so wonderful. Everyone did an amazing job. Is there someone that really surprised you with their performance or captured their character in a way you weren’t expecting?
It’s hard for me to single out any of them because I think — and it’s a part of the allure of the project for me — the roles, especially of the main three leads, Ben, Miko, and Alice, are so complex and every character is flawed. In particular, Ben, but all the characters are flawed and you run the risk of making them unlikeable. So, the challenge of making sure that they felt very multidimensional and very human was really important and not just for those characters, but I’d say for every character in the movie. I wanted all of them to feel like real people and not in any way one-dimensional because that was what excited me most about this story was just how real it felt. So, in the casting of each of those characters in particular, there was a lot of thought put in, we saw a lot of great actors, and in Sherry, Ally, and Justin, we just found ones that were right for the movie.

I always end up taking away a theme or message from a project. Is there anything you’re really hoping resonates with audiences or something that you personally took away when you were working on the movie that really resonated with you for some reason?
Yeah, I mean, I think that the central theme, for me, in the movie and kind of my north star when directing it was this is a movie about change. This is a movie about people changing and growing and moving on, and here you have one character in Ben that is so resistant to change and resistant to growth and really is holding on for dear life to everything as it is, whether it be his life in the Bay Area, his friendship with Alice, even his relationship with Miko. It’s like, these people in his life are growing and moving on and he just does not want to be alone. So, he’s kind of forced to take risks and go to New York, and I think the big takeaway — I mean, I don’t think this is necessarily a movie with a strong message that’s saying like, “you got to do this or that,” but if there is any message, I think it’s that you gotta embrace change, you gotta grow, and you gotta try to be a better person or else you’re gonna get left behind.

Jon Pack. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Do you want to direct more in the future? If so, are there any specific genres or franchises that you would be interested in taking on?
I definitely want to direct again, but if there’s anything I learned from this process is directing is all-encompassing and it takes a lot of time, years and it takes a lot of work. For me, one of the things that kept me going with this movie was, again, the story meant so much to me and these characters meant so much to me, so whatever it is that I direct next, it has to be the same because I know that it’s a tough job and it’s challenging work. So, if I’m connected to the story and the characters and I feel passionate about them, then I will see it through. It’s not something that I would ever just do for the money. Thankfully, I have this acting career going, but so, with directing, whatever I do next is something that I’m gonna feel very passionate about and excited about. And so, I’m open to genres, I’m open to types of stories, but it just has to be something that deeply resonates with me.

Before I let you go, I always love hearing about the process of directing, filming and then seeing the final version, so I’m curious for you, is there a moment that was either hard to direct or very exciting to direct that you couldn’t wait to see the final version of and were really pleased with how it came out?
I would say the big argument between Ben and Miko. There’s a big argument scene and it’s a very long scene in the script, it’s like 7 or 8 pages of just them going at it and it’s a very important scene and a pivotal scene, and it was one that we allotted a lot of time for because we knew how important the scene was. It was a ton of lines and as great as Justin and Ally were, we felt like we’d probably have to work on this scene a lot to get it right on the day. When we shot it, they just nailed it first take, like right away. They were so locked into their characters, they were so locked into the scene and I really didn’t even have to direct them at all, it just became a matter of capturing their performance because they were so in tune.

Jon Pack. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

So I was really excited to cut that scene together and in the editing bay, it really was this embarrassment of riches. They gave so much to that scene and it was just so delightful to watch it, number one, while we were shooting, but then in the editing bay to watch it again and to cut it together, and to see things that I never caught on the day in terms of just little expressions and little pauses that I didn’t quite absorb on the day. But playing it back and cutting it together in context just brought to life these very tiny, tiny, tiny little things that they would do and it was extremely gratifying, and for me, scenes like that are really just performance, it’s the magic of actors doing the work and I love that. I just loved it so much. But I think throughout the movie, it really is an actor’s movie, and Sherry, Ally, Justin, and the whole cast, Debby, Tavi, Tim Simons — I mean, they’re just all so great.

It’s not the same thing, but hearing you talk about that reminded me of how, as a viewer, I love to rewatch movies and catch things the second or third time that I didn’t notice originally.
Yeah, I think we all do, especially if we love the thing and we watch it again and again. In some ways, every time is like you’re watching it anew because you’re almost looking for different things and that’s why I love editing so much. It’s just so fun because you’re essentially rewatching what you shot.

Congratulations again, Randall. I really appreciate your time and I hope to speak with you soon.
Yes, I hope so too. Thanks, Sophia.

Please note: this interview was done prior to the SAG-AFTRA Strike. In support of the strike, please donate to the Entertainment Community Fund.