Randall Park reveals his "Shortcomings": "You never got to see Asian Americans in that context"

The director on how Greta Gerwig and Alexander Payne inspired his directorial debut and embracing flawed characters

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published August 8, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Randall Park (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Randall Park (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

A lot has changed in the 16 years since Randall Park first discovered Adrian Tomine's cult classic graphic novel "Shortcomings." Back then, as Park recalled in a recent "Salon Talks" conversation, the Japanese American artist was told that his story of youth, love and friendship "wasn't castable." But Park explained, "Eventually, the industry started to change and open up," ushering in breakthrough hits like "Crazy Rich Asians," "Minari" and Park's own long running sitcom "Fresh Off the Boat." 

Now, featuring a stellar cast led by Justin H. Min and Sherry Cola, "Shortcomings" marks Park's directorial debut. It's an intimate, quietly affecting film that recognizes that, as Park says, "Hanging out in a diner, eating a sandwich with your friend, talking about your feelings is just as authentic an Asian American story as making dumplings with your grandma."

Park talked to us about the long journey to bring "Shortcomings" to the screen, how the films of Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach inspired his own visual style, the "now or never" reality of the Hollywood strike and why he says, "I don't think representation on movies and TV is necessarily the answer to everything that's going on in the real world right now." 

Watch my full "Salon Talks" interview with Randall Park here or read a transcript of our conversation below.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You have history, going back 16 years, with the graphic novel this is based on.

Yes, since '07. Well, '07 was when the book came out and that's when I first read it. I was in the Giant Robot store in Los Angeles on Sawtelle Boulevard. I saw the cover and I was like, "Oh, that's a very intriguing looking cover. I'm just going to check it out." Next thing I know, I finished the book in the store. 

The story just stuck with me all these years. It felt so real to me and it felt like such an accurate reflection of my life at the time and the life of my friends. I felt very much seen by the book, for better and for worse, in terms of all the things that were going on in my life at the time. It stuck with me, and it's a marvel that I got to direct it and now it's coming out.

You have said you never thought this was going to become a movie because you never imagined this actually translating. Tell me how it became a movie and then you wound up being the director. 

Shortly after the book came out, Adrian wrote a script and there was interest in adapting it into a movie or TV show. At the time, back in '07, he was told that it wasn't castable and they asked him if he'd be open to changing some of the characters. It's a deeply personal work for him, so he refused, and that script just sat around for all these years. 

Eventually the industry started to change and open up a little bit and you had things like "Crazy Rich Asians" come out and "Fresh Off the Boat" and all of these great projects. My career was slowly moving to a point where I felt like I was ready to direct a feature. I looked into "Shortcomings," found out there was this script that was written so long ago and they were meeting with directors. I was like, "Oh, I've got to throw my hat in the ring. I've been thinking about this book since '07." I threw my hat in the ring and it just all came together pretty quickly.

I heard you say you did a great pitch.

I did.

What was your pitch?

Really, I was being honest about my relationship to the material, why it spoke to me, why I felt like it was an important story to tell. Just explaining my passion for the project and why it was important to me to have these Asian American characters represented that were so flawed and so complicated and so not necessarily what we were used to seeing in the media, these very deep multilayered characters. That's what sold them on me and what sold Adrian on me. He was like, "Oh, he gets it."

This is a personal story about Asian American characters who are having Asian American experiences, and all of those layers of identity. It is also about just a bunch of friends of a certain age dealing with  relationships and work and all of that. How do you tread that line where it's about a community, but it's also about a time in life?

"It was important to me to have these Asian American characters represented that were so flawed and so complicated and so not necessarily what we were used to seeing in the media."

It was about keeping it as real and as grounded as possible. I seek authenticity when I watch things. I want it to feel real and authentic. When it comes to Asian American portrayals, authenticity usually equates those cultural markers that we're used to seeing, stories about generational conflict and achieving the American dream, all of these things that we're used to seeing and we identify with. But to me, a story about hanging out in a diner, eating a sandwich with your friend, talking about your feelings is just as authentic an Asian American story as making dumplings with your grandma. It's real and it's a little bit more everyday and mundane, but it's just as worthy, to me at least, of being on screen.

So much has changed in the past 16 years. So much is different from when, as you said, this movie was "un-castable." How did you work with Adrian then on adapting this? It doesn't take place in 2007 anymore. 

"I felt very much seen by the book for better and for worse."

It was about making a movie and not necessarily a direct page-for-page adaptation of the book. We wanted it to stand on its own so that a viewer who wasn't familiar with the book could watch it and just enjoy it just as much. For us, that meant modernizing it, finding ways in which we could speak to today's audience. Also, just taking these characters . . . In the confines of a graphic novel, you see these images and you feel the characters, but you can only go so personal with the characters. 

Our goal was to really flesh out these characters, make it a movie. For a couple of years, Adrian and I sat down and talked about, "OK, how do we adapt this in a way where it can really stand on its own and we could really feel the backstory of these characters and to understand them as people?"

The casting is so important in that because they have to be compelling, but they also have to be kind of jerks sometimes.

Yeah. What was most exciting to me about this was the fact that they all were so flawed. But again, on-screen, it's hard to sit with a character who's a complete jerk throughout and that's all he is for an hour and a half. Our goal in casting was to really find actors who could bring a lot of depth to these characters and humanity to these characters. So when Ben is going off on a tirade, it's jarring and it's off-putting and uncomfortable, but also you understand the character. You get where he is coming from. you know it's coming from a vulnerable place. There's heartache there that's driving some of this behavior. Justin H. Min is just such an incredible actor and such a thoughtful person, and he really was so passionate about the project, as well as Sherry Cola and Ally Maki and our entire cast. They felt like this was a special project and they put a lot of their heart and soul into these characters.

I feel like one of the central love stories in this movie is the love of movies. You open with a nod to one of the biggest breakthrough films of the last several years, "Crazy Rich Asians." You also have this character who's also watching classic movies. How did you work on that cinematic language? It's so important to the storytelling and as a viewer, you get this whole backstory from the films.

"Right now I'm out here promoting this movie as a director, and then as soon as I'm back, I'll be back on the picket lines."

Maybe it's because it was my first feature, but I wanted to show all my influences. I couldn't help but do that because I was just so excited to direct a feature. I love movies, and there are so many movies that inspired this movie. So, throughout our movie, there are nods to Noah Baumbach and Alexander Payne and Greta Gerwig.

There are these little visual nods to these movies that I love, and similar types of movies of people walking in cities, talking, eating sandwiches in diners, but you never got to see Asian Americans in that context. It was important for me to visually show that this is of that lineage. It's just different in the sense that these characters look different. But that's really it; these are stories about complicated people trying their best, which is what those great filmmakers like to depict often.

There have been all these great breakthroughs for Asian Americans in film and TV, and yet it is also a moment, as I know you know, of unprecedented hate crimes and bigotry. Hate crimes against Asian Americans went up 339% in the last two years. You've got to be feeling that duality, that sense of eyes on this film and these characters in a way that you can't necessarily control.

For me, I don't think representation on movies and TV is necessarily the answer to everything that's going on in the real world right now, all of these problems, but I do feel at the very least they help humanize folks. For me, humanizing doesn't just mean portraying people in positive lights. It means portraying people in every light, and the gamut of emotions and the wide spectrum of ways of seeing the world, just portraying more human beings as humans. The goal here with "Shortcomings" is to show these complex people doing their best. My hope is that that just helps open up the world a little bit more.

We're talking about opening up the world a little more, but now we are in this moment where so much has shut down. You are a writer, you're a director, you have a production company, you're an actor. Everything is now affected by the strike. What are you doing in this time and what is your hope for the outcome? (Salon's unionized employees are represented by the WGA East.)

I am a proud member of SAG-AFTRA and the WGA, so I'm out there on the picket lines with everybody. I'm supportive of the strike. I think it's really the time, "It has to happen now or never type of thing. There are a lot of sacrifices that have to be made. And for this movie, it's like none of our actors are out here promoting, and Adrian, our writer, is standing down from promoting. That certainly doesn't help our film in terms of getting the word out, but I  feel like it's OK because there are bigger, more important things that need to happen, and I think the strike is one of them. I'm confident this movie will find its audience eventually.

What else are you working on or you want to be working on when you can work again?

Who knows? Who knows what'll happen? Right now I'm out here promoting this movie as a director, and then as soon as I'm back, I'll be back on the picket lines. And then once we resolve these issues, then just more writing, more acting, and definitely I'll start looking for my next movie to direct because I just loved it so much. It was just such an incredible experience, so I want to do another one.


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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