Randall Park, best known for his performances in the likes of Fresh Off the Boat, Always Be My Maybe, and several projects from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is making his directorial debut with Shortcomings. Based on the 2007 graphic novel of the same name by Adrian Tomine, the story follows Ben (played by Justin Min), an aspiring filmmaker who manages a failing independent movie theater in Berkeley, California. The themes echo the long-running lightning rods in AAPI consciousness: the tradeoffs of Asian American representation in a hit Hollywood movie and the politics of interracial dating. Ben is a bumbling stand-in for the 20-something Asian everyman, finding himself often frustratingly at odds with his girlfriend, Miko (Ally Maki), who doesn’t seem burdened by the questions that plague his inner world.
When Miko, who works for an Asian American film festival in the Bay Area, abruptly moves to New York for an internship, Ben pursues his not-so-secret obsession for white women, while he openly confides his shortcomings to his best friend, Alice (Sherry Cola).
Ahead of the film’s theatrical release, Park sits down with CAAM over Zoom to discuss his first time directing a feature film and how the story has meant so much to him personally.
Lauren Lola: I think anyone who reads the graphic novel it’s based on nowadays, they [might] think, “How was this published in the mid 2000’s?” Because it feels so relevant now, yet so ahead of the time back then. In retrospect, knowing how much that book impacted you, does it surprise you that it feels so timely now?
Randall Park: That’s a great question. Not really, for some reason, and I think that’s part of the reason why I really wanted to make something of it. There are some things that didn’t age well in the graphic novel. There’s a lot of slamming down of telephones and stuff, which is not what people do anymore. A lot of more technological things. But I felt like a lot of the themes were just, over time, they always felt relevant to me. It’s not that big of a surprise to me, and it’s the reason why I always wanted to make something of this graphic novel because it always was seared into my heart when I first read it.
LL: I had read how when you initially read it, you were about the same age as Ben, and you were hoping to play him. But at what point did you decide you wanted to direct Shortcomings instead?
RP: Really, just over the years, I kept thinking about this story, and like we said earlier, it felt so relevant and so timely in some ways. I just kept checking in on this book, what’s going on with this book? At a certain point, it just became available for me to throw my hat in as a director. This was a few years ago. At that point, I had aged out of the character. There was no way I was going to be able to play Ben because I was too old. But I think it was actually probably a good thing because, again, I had always visualized every frame of this story as a movie for so many years, so to be able to direct it, especially as my first feature, it just felt right. At that point in time, I had directed some TV and I had directed a lot of shorts and web stuff, and I felt as ready as I could be to tackle a feature. The timing all worked out.
LL: That was actually what I was going to ask about next, is that you have directed for TV and for shorts, as you said. But let’s be honest, directing for a feature film is on a whole other level. Aside from pulling from your previous experience, how else did you prepare yourself for taking on this endeavor?
RP: I was very nervous about this journey that I was about to embark on, because yeah, I had never done it before. Like you say, it is a very different beast. I just prepared really hard. As soon as I found out that I was going to be the director, there was still a few years before we actually went into pre-production. During that time, I was just taking in all the information I could about directing and also really I was storyboarding and prepping well before pre-production. I just wanted to be so confident on the first day of production that I really, really just prepped really hard. So by the time we got to that first day, I felt very ready because, yeah, I knew that this was going to be a journey and it was going to be tough, especially independent film with a lack of resources. I knew we had to be nimble and I knew we had to just be ready for anything, and so I was prepared for that and I had the time to prepare for that, thankfully.
LL: I also heard you say that directing it was a very rewarding experience, and in some ways more so than acting. I was wondering if you can elaborate on what you mean by that.
RP: I felt like I was utilizing parts of myself that, with acting, I just never had to access in terms of leadership skills and hiring a team, working with that team, inspiring the team, but also being inspired by the team and empowering them to do what they do best and being collaborative. Acting is a very collaborative thing too, obviously, but collaborative in a different way. I just felt like it was really a revelation for me in a lot of ways. I felt like, “Oh gosh, not only can I do this, but I really enjoy doing this. I feel very alive doing this.” A lot of it had to do with how passionate I was about the material. But really so much of it was about the relationships and working with these great actors and this incredible crew, shooting in this amazing city in New York and in the Bay. It just really was so energizing and so just inspiring every day.
LL: Can you talk about any challenges that came with directing Shortcomings?
RP: Oh my gosh! There were a ton of challenges, and I think a lot of the challenges were inherent in just independent filmmaking in terms of unexpected things happening. There was a thunderstorm, and that delayed us one day for three hours, but we had to make the day, and that proved to be a really difficult day because we didn’t have the money to add days to our shoot.
Then shooting during COVID, we had crew members dropping out, and we’d have to just be nimble and figure out, “Okay, how do we do this?” Our great DP, Santiago Gonzalez, had to do a couple days just on Zoom because he had gotten COVID, and we had an interim DP who was just in communication with him, and just things like that, just staying nimble and praying that none of our main cast got it, because that would really derail us. Thankfully none of them did and they were all so careful, and I was so careful. We all were. But it was a pandemic, so folks were catching it, but we got through it, miraculously.
LL: You got through it and it all worked out because it’s been doing really well, it’s been making its rounds in the film festival circuit. What do you make of the response to it so far?
RP: It’s great. I always thought it was going to be a divisive film, and I always said to myself, “Oh, this film, this movie definitely isn’t for everybody.” But the people who love it will really love it. I’ve been actually surprised to see that it’s actually been embraced more widely than I had even imagined despite some things about it that are so unconventional and maybe even a little uncomfortable for some people. But it’s been great. The response has been so wonderful. It’s just been all really fun.
LL: With the film about to be coming out for wider release, would you say that there is a message you’re hoping for audiences to take from watching the film, or more so of feeling, or both? And if so, what are they?
RP: Yeah, I think both. Look, I just want people to be entertained by the movie first and foremost, and I want people to laugh and to also feel moved by it. But it would also be amazing if people can come away from this movie a little more introspective and thinking about their own shortcomings and all of our own shortcomings as individuals and ways in which we could try our best, like Ben, to grow a little bit. I think that would be wonderful if people could see themselves in these characters, not just in the great things about them, but also their flaws, and to see the attempt of trying to better oneself is an admirable thing to do. Yeah, that’s what I hope people get out of it.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Shortcomings will be released in theaters on August 4.