We’re all familiar with the horror of US school shootings, but what happens afterwards, to the survivors? this is the subject of Megan Park’s film The Fallout, which follows teenager Vada (Jenna Ortega) in the aftermath of an attack at her school. It won the Best Narrative Feature award at South by Southwest, with Megan also receiving the Brightcove Illumination Award for Best Director. We spoke just a couple of hours after she found out and she was still a bit dazed by it all. “It doesn’t seem real,” she told me. “I was just like, ‘I hope people don't hate this movie and I like, never work again.’ So this is beyond my literal, wildest expectations.”
It all stemmed from a very simple idea.
“I just couldn't stop thinking about what it must be like to be a high school student in America right now, and how I felt like I might respond if I had been through something like this. I felt like I would be more like Vada and less like these incredible kids who are, you know, able to change the world, and which I think is so inspiring, but I felt like I would feel so guilty and maybe not able to do that. And I really just wanted to explore that but I was nervous about doing it because I had not been through a school shooting, and I'm Canadian, and I was scared of how people might react in general. So there was a lot of hesitation but eventually it just created in my mind, and I just wrote it.”
Are these, perhaps, experiences that we don't hear as much about because they're not the ones that make the headlines?
“Exactly, and I think that probably there's more of these kids – more Vadas, you know – that just kind of get lost in it. And we don't talk about and we don't think about these lives, these traumas and these tragedies that live with them forever. I was really curious to explore what that must be like.”
It's not the same thing, I venture, but for me, I had a friend at school who died when I was 13 years old and I saw the effect that that had on other people in my class, so I have a way of relating to this. But I wonder how she went about researching the way that teenagers respond to trauma like that.
“That’s the thing,” she says. “Even though this movie is about a student who's recovering and grappling with the effects of a high school shooting, I think it is relatable to anybody who has experienced any kind of trauma when they were younger, because it is such a hard thing to navigate as an adult, let alone when you're 16 years old. For me, what was really important was that this film was not triggering for anybody who had been through a shooting. So I spoke with some different organisations to make sure that that tracked, and I did speak with some people, a parent whose child has been through something like this and then a young person as well. And every step of the way, we continued to check in and, you know, we did a test screening with some young people. It was just really important to me that it worked emotionally but it also wasn't based on anyone’s life. I wrote the movie before I spoke with anybody because I didn't want to base it on any true life situation.”
Is that why she decided to set up the initial scene so that we hear the shooting but we don't actually see anything directly?
“I never wanted to show it,” she says. “You know, I never wanted it to be graphic. I didn't feel like that was necessary. I thought that would be way too much. You don't want to glorify the shooter, you know? That that felt important to me. We all know that side of the story, all too well, unfortunately. So yeah, it was really important to me and even the conversations with the sound design team and with our editor was, you know, we did 10 different versions of that in terms of how far we wanted to take it with just what you're hearing as well. It was a really delicate line to walk.”
It struck me that that gives viewers a lot more chance to focus on the actual experience of the kids who are standing in the toilet stall hoping that the shooter doesn’t find them. We sometimes miss what people are feeling when we're looking at the action in a situation like that.
“Definitely. I remember that was one of the first visuals I had that spawned the whole movie: this idea of these two girls hiding, standing on the toilet seat in this bathroom stall, and never actually even being close to the shooter – he doesn't come in the bathroom or anything – but what that must be like, you know, and how terrifying. Just the visual of their faces being close together as they're sort of hearing this happen in real time was terrifying to me. And I think, yeah, you're exactly right. When we focus on the shooter, we should focus on the violence and the actual action of it. We forget about just what it must be like to be hiding and to live through something like that. It's awful.”
There’s awesome sound design in the film, which really brings a lot to that scene. Was that something that she were very involved in herself or was it mostly somebody else's creation?
“Well, I certainly can't take all the credit. There was an amazing team all the way. And this guy Brian Berger was incredible there. He was really instrumental. And our editor, Jenny Lee, was incredible, and I really leaned on both of them to help guide that. And you know, we did many different versions. It was one of the final things we tweaked in the movie. The day before we locked it, me and Brian were texting and I was like, I think I want that first gunshot to be like a hair louder, and then this gunshot to be here. We spent the most time, obviously, on that scene, sound design wise, and I think they nailed it. And they really researched it. It was definitely something that we thought maybe way too much about, but I think it probably paid off.”
Vida has a difficult emotional journey to make over the course of the film and along the way we see her experiment with drugs and sex and other things that young people are often shamed for. Was Megan interested in looking at how such behaviours can be coping mechanisms or indicators that there’s something else going on?
“Yeah, I'm always interested in exploring what's below the surface. What's behind the action? What's the emotion behind the emotion? You know? So absolutely, I think that, you know, Vada is the one who feels the after effects of making all these decisions. And I enjoyed that. Her parents don't even know about a lot of it until she tells them. It's not like parents who are like ‘Don't do this,’ you know, because I don't think that's always the case. And I think that a lot of times parents give their kids a lot of space in a good way, you know, they kind of figure it out and heal.
“I hope that it reads that she has like a pretty great relationship with her parents, especially before this happens. And it's interesting for the parents to figure out how involved they should be how much space they should give her to just heal. Is she okay, is she not? How much to believe her, sort of walking that line. Because it's so not black and white.”
I tell her that I like the fact that she’s sympathetic to the parents as well, and that there are lots of little observations about their experiences in the background.
“It's funny,” she says, “because some people think the parents aren't there that much, but it's only because this is Vada’s world. She's not thinking or worrying about them in the same way they're worrying about her, you know? The whole movie is her perspective and they're only there as much as she's sort of forced to deal with them because she's very in her own head. And she's pushing them away. They're a reminder of who she used to be and she's having a hard time connecting with who she used to be, and they want her to be okay.
“She doesn't want to worry them because she loves them and she cares about them. And that dynamic is sometimes tricky to navigate. You know, sometimes children really take on their parents’ emotions and their parents’ fear and they don't want to make it worse. And I thought that was interesting to explore.”
We also see the very different ways that different teenage characters are coping with what they've gone through. Was it important to her to show that you know, people don't all respond in the same way to this kind of thing?
“Yeah, and I think that that's hopefully something that young people watching it will respond to. There's no right or wrong way or one singular path to take to figure it out, you know, and it's okay to also not figure it out.”
It's a very physical film. I like the way that there is so much whole body acting all the way through that tells us a lot about the way that trauma has affected people, but particularly in the drug use scene. It's almost like a dance scene. Did she have any background in that kind of thing?
“No,” she says. “I mean, I knew I wanted it to be on the stairwell and I kind of had this vision for how it could go. But Jenna just far exceeded my expectations on that. She just really went for it. I remember, we shot that near the end of the movie and she'd been so amazing, every step of the way, with all this heavy stuff, and that was her first opportunity to really get physical and show that physicality. And I remember when she first stepped out and did that toe tap entrance into that scene I was just like, ‘Wow, this girl's amazing!’ She could do physical humour as well. And she just really went crazy with it, which is great. So it was it was really fun to explore. And she did a lot of work on the physicality of a character who's been through something like this, how it manifests. So you can really see her transition because she did so much legwork on that.”
How did Jenna come to the role originally?
“My friend Francia Raisa, who I was on Secret Life [Of The American Teenager] with had read the script. And she was so sweet. And she loved it. And she said, ‘Hey, have you heard about this actress Jenna Ortega?’ They were sort of casual friends and so she introduced me and Jenna really responded to the script. And we just got together and we talked, you know, we had coffee, and we talked about Vada, we talked about the script, we talked about the young actors in the industry. And we just really hit it off. And so much, to me, was about finding somebody who just had the essence of Vada, you know, naturally. Within five minutes of sitting with her, I was like, this is her?, you know? This is it. And I remember I got in my car and I called the producer and I was like, ‘We should just make an offer to her. She's the one.’ I didn't even read with her or anything, I just knew, and she killed it.”
There’s great chemistry between all the actors in the film. Was that something that she focused on during the rest of the casting process?
“I definitely wanted to make sure that we spoke the same language and we understood each other,” she says. “And, yeah, there's definitely a synergy that has to happen. But it was also weird because of Covid. Like, usually, there's so much bonding before a movie and you go to cast dinners and lunches. Originally I would have loved to get together with all of them, you know, in a room and read the scenes aloud and do all that stuff. And we couldn't do any of it. I don't I don't think I've ever given any of those actors a hug, you know, since March of 2020, and usually film sets are so different than that. So it was tricky.
“We didn't get to bond in the same way but we also, in a way, have a closer bond because we had to really get on the same page fast and do everything virtually. They're just so talented. And I love working with young people – they have such an excitement and such a energy, you know, that they bring to everything. It was just a delight, you know? It's like, no egos. Everyone's just thrilled to be there and just excited about making the best movie they can, and it's a really refreshing vibe.”
It's an energetic, fun kind of movie a lot of the way through, which people are not going to expect from a film about a school shooting. Was that something she was nervous about?
“Well, yeah. Obviously it's weird, even when we're talking about the poster design. It's about such a heavy thing, but there's so much levity in this movie, because healing and grief is not a linear journey. There's different stages that you go through. It's ultimately like, hopefully, a very authentic look at the Gen Z experience, you know, which has highs and lows and it's all over the place. When people ask me what the genre of the movie is, I'm like, ‘I don't know. Watch it.’ There's all types of emotions in it, so it's unique in that way.”
So what are her hopes for it now?
“First and foremost, I really hope that it resonates with people who've been through something like this. I hope that young people feel seen and heard. That would be really amazing. And I just can't believe it's a real movie, and I hope that people like it. I don't really have any expectations beyond that.”