“…The Last Summer Before You Leave Home”: Megan Park on Teenage Life, Working with Margot Robbie’s LuckyChap, and Her Sundance Dramedy, My Old Ass
After her feature directorial debut The Fallout (2021), a film about a high-school shooting, Megan Park was feeling the weight of its emotional aftermath. “When you make a movie, you live in that world for years,” she tells Filmmaker at Sundance Film Festival. “I wanted an escape, and I wanted to be nostalgic.” So she went back home to Canada and started thinking about what became the genesis of My Old Ass, a bittersweet coming-of-age comedy, and, gradually, a reflective tearjerker that left Sundance audiences sobbing. “It was this idea of the last time your whole family sleeps under one roof, before one person moves away and starts a new season of life. And if you could go back and appreciate it in a way you hadn’t before, would that be good? I wanted to make a movie that kind of transported everybody to that moment in time, like the last summer before you leave home.”
From there, she layered another idea on top of it—what if you met your older self one day and could ask her questions? How much would you want to know? That is exactly the dilemma that young Elliott (Maisy Stella) faces when, during a lakeside mushroom trip with her friends, she receives a visit from her older self (Aubrey Plaza). The older Elliott has some poignant and practical advice, such as “spend time with family, get to know your brother, use moisturizer.” But she also tells her to avoid a certain guy, the details of which the film reveals in thoughtful doses (and will not be spoiled during this interview).
Below is our conversation with Park about building her script, filming in a Canadian lake district with all its authenticity and working with LuckyChap producers.
Filmmaker: My Old Ass has such a unique concept that only distantly relates to some time-travel or body-swap themed coming-of-age movies. Did you have any references in mind?
Park: I’m not a huge genre person and I didn’t want to make it sci-fi, and I kept it simple. We kept referencing 13 Going On 30 where she’s in the closet and some magic dust falls on her head and she’s transported. The buy-in is so great, and that movie is so wonderful that you just keep going with the story. We wanted it to feel really grounded like that. And the mushroom trip was a fun way into the world that I haven’t seen before, which can leave you thinking, “Did that happen?”
Ultimately to me, it was about whether the buy-in was there emotionally. And if it’s there, then you can kind of get away with anything. And that’s what I wanted to get right first. So that was part of the thought process. We were also were referencing a lot of great coming-of-age films that felt timeless, at least felt timeless to me, like Now and Then. And My Girl. Those types of films felt very defining for my generation. And I have more interest in telling stories from the female point of view. That’s the life I’ve lived and those are the stories I want to tell.
Filmmaker: In both The Fallout and My Old Ass, you prove to have a special approach writing teenage characters and giving them an authentic voice. Not preachy or condescending, but truthful.
Park: I don’t know why it’s something people tell me that I’m good at. But I enjoy [writing teens]. I enjoy spending time in my mind writing those coming-of-age years. And I think I spent so many years in front of the camera acting at that age, at 18-19, saying dialogue that felt so inauthentic to me. So that’s definitely been a North Star, to try to do it justice and capture the young new generation in the most authentic way possible. And I think it starts with being open and not having an ego and thinking you know everything because you don’t. Also, I don’t approach the characters thinking like I’m writing a teen character. In Elliott’s case, I’m just writing Elliott. Maybe that is also helpful if you’re not going, “Okay, what would a teenager do in that situation?” It’s about what would Elliott, what would this human do, who just happens to be 18. And then you need to be open-minded every step of the way: hair, makeup, wardrobe, dialogue. I always tell the department heads to allow that feedback. If you’re going cast an 18-year-old to play an 18-year-old, you can use them as a resource: Would you use this word? Would you wear those pair of jeans? Would you listen to that song?
Filmmaker: I’m glad that you actually brought up the costuming. There is something so specific, so lived-in about the way Elliott dresses. It looked like a lot of thought went into it.
Park: I’m very close with my costume designer, Tasha Goldthwait. She did The Fallout as well and absolutely killed it. Those Vada (Jenna Ortega) outfits have become so iconic and any of the clothes she wore sold out in stores. So she’s very in touch with that generation. This film is really specifically grounded in this kind of Canadian wilderness. So much of the stuff was vintage and sourced and handmade and she really put a lot of thought behind it.
Filmmaker: And speaking of the Canadian wilderness, there is a lot of specificity in the film about it. I hate to sound like a cliché, but the lake district location is almost its own character in the film. Honestly, I wanted to move there.
Park: [Laughs]. You should move there. It’s beautiful. I think the story really came together both with the idea of talking to your older/younger self and also this location. So it is a character. Muskoka, which is a lake district is just north of Toronto. I grew up not far from there and I spent every summer going there as a kid. I went to a summer camp that was on an island up there. And we would rent cottages and stay up there and had friends there. It’s a timeless place with a really special energy. It’s really rare that when you set a story somewhere, the producers agree to film it there. And it wasn’t like the cheapest or easiest place to film, because it is more remote. But luckily the producers were like, “This is such a special place, we have to film there.”
We wanted to make it feel the most authentic. The community was so excited and welcoming. We used all locals as extras and people would open up their cottages to us. And the amazing cottage, Sterling Point, that we rented has been in the same family for 100 years. And I went back this summer with my family and stayed there and we lived there while we were filming. So I think because we all felt so connected to the place, we spent months there before we started filming. The actors, the producers, everybody. We were dropped into the pace of life there and we all fell so in love with it that you can hopefully feel that in the movie. Now everybody wants to buy cottages there. [Laughs].
Filmmaker: As for your producers, I couldn’t help but notice the names Margot Robbie and Tom Ackerley. Their LuckyChap production company has this little Barbie movie now. How did they first get involved?
Park: I first met [executive producer] Bronte Payne on a general meeting just on the heels of The Fallout. She’d seen the movie. And then I met Tom and Margot and eventually Josey [McNamara]. They all love The Fallout and were so sweet and supportive. And they said, do you have any ideas? And I was like, well, I’ve been thinking about this like mushroom trip when you meet your younger-older self. And they loved the idea. It was honestly so natural, I just got such good vibes from them right away. The Fallout premiered in March 2021 at SXSW. I met them in April, maybe May. And then we were on set filming next summer—it went from pitch to being on set in just over a year, which is pretty insane. It was really collaborative. And they deserve everything, all the good things that are happening to them right now because they really know how to support filmmakers. They give really smart, thoughtful suggestions and notes, but also give creative freedom when it’s important. Everybody at that company just walks that line so perfectly.
They’re also such lovely humans. I would describe their company as a no ego company. I see them treat the leads of the movie, the director, the PAs all the same. They just don’t believe in any kind of hierarchy. And I don’t believe a set should have hierarchy either. It doesn’t create the best performance and doesn’t make the best movie. And that’s I think why we connected so much because we approach it the same way. And I think that’s why they have so much repeat business with incredible filmmakers. It was a dream. Tom and Margot and Bronte, they were all there. And Margot was also bringing me gifts and cleaning my cabin for me as well as being by the monitor. When I say “no ego,” I truly mean no ego. They’re all really down to earth and wonderful people.
Filmmaker: What do you think they responded to most in your pitch?
Park: I think LuckyChap goes with their gut. And I’m the same way, I’m a gut-check person. And I’ll say Tom has figured me out as a filmmaker before I figured myself out as a filmmaker and he asked really interesting questions about the types of movies I want to make. What they saw in the idea was really [seeing] me as a filmmaker and the potential in my first movie. And then it was, are we all on the no-ego train? Are we all here to just create the best movie we can make? And we were. They keep saying, “You can’t get rid of us.” And I’m like, “No, I’m not trying to get rid of you [laughs]. Trust me, I want to make my movies with you.”
Filmmaker: Maisy Stella is absolutely amazing as Elliott. What were the qualities you were looking for when casting both Elliott (younger and older), and her friends circle?
Park: I am always looking for people that embody the soul of the character in some way. And that’s tricky in casting, but I also really like when movies feel really authentic in that way. So I really wanted them to be the actual age of the characters, not 27-year-olds play 18-year-olds. A lot of producers won’t let you cast really young actors because of the risk factor. Maisy was somebody I knew because she’d written a song for The Fallout. I really wanted Elliott to feel like a true, normal kind of person. And Maisy is that—she embodied all the qualities of Elliott. She has such a sparkle in her eyes, such a twinkle. And I think so many young characters have this jaded kind of edge to them. She was just the polar opposite. She’s so positive and gregarious and magnetic and sparkly and sweet. She’s the type of person that young people are going to be like, “Oh, I want to be like her.” As soon as we saw her tape, I was like, she’s the one. And then we built the cast around her. We didn’t cast older Elliott/Aubrey Plaza first. And then it was all just cast chemistry reads and we built it around her.
Filmmaker: I don’t want to spoil the movie of course, but in a particular scene where everyone including me cried, you have such an incredible tonal shift. How did you navigate that?
Park: One of the things I’m learning about myself as a filmmaker is I really like stories and tones of movies that live a bit in the gray area, where it’s hard to define the genre of the movie. I think if you set out to make a movie that’s sad, it’s inevitably not going to be that sad. If you just go into it heart first and not try to manipulate people’s emotions and live in the character’s world, that’s when hopefully the real emotion comes through. At the festival, everybody’s really responded to a different part of it: all ages and all genders and backgrounds. And I’ve been so surprised the amount of men in their 50s and 60s who were like, “I cried the last 30 minutes of the movie.” I certainly wasn’t expecting it to resonate in the way that it has. But there was certainly a part of me that was like, if that ending scene doesn’t land, that’s scary. I put pressure on myself for that scene. But that’s why you cast really amazing actors. And the genius editor, Jennifer Vecchiarello, I really relied on. She really helped tie that together. It really is surgery at the end of the day for those types of moments.
Filmmaker: Can you talk about navigating Elliott’s sexuality in a very fluid and open way? She thinks she is a lesbian at first. But then she decides maybe she is bi, or pan.
Park: I thought it was just really truthful to this generation’s coming-of-age story. It was different when I was growing up and I think there was a time when there was a lot of coming out stories And I hadn’t seen a story where there was somebody who was out, had identified as a certain label and then met somebody of the opposite gender. And it was never going to be, “Oh, I’m straight.” That was never the story. But it was in a way a reverse coming out where her family and her friends and everyone knew and accepted how she identified. But ultimately it’s also not about the label. It’s important to understand what labels mean to people and how important they’ve been historically for people. So it was a lot of really important, good conversations with people in the community. I had a lot of conversations with the actors. It was very important to them. And it was really helpful to hear their feedback and how they felt about it. So it was delicate. And everyone’s journey is different. And there are some tidbits in there if you listen carefully, about where older Elliott is now.
Filmmaker: Would you ask your older self a question? Or would you want to give your younger self advice?
Park: I thought about it so much. Ask me day to day and the answer is different. Part of me feels like it’s better not to know. I’m such a worrier by nature that if I know too much, it’s scary to me. So I think I’m better with ignorance is bliss. But I mean of course I’d go back first and tell my younger self to invest in Amazon and Apple, which is a joke in the movie. But I really wouldn’t want to do that. I think the main thing is, if I could go back and meet my younger self, I would really encourage her to worry less and enjoy the moment. [I would tell her], everything’s going to be okay. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true. But I don’t know about being my older self. I’ve got to think about that. That’s scary to me.