The director of the Sundance standout Me and Earl and the Dying Girl says he made his first ‘personal movie’ and it changed him as a filmmaker, and as a man, writes Katherine Monk
By Katherine Monk
“When you suffer a deep loss, you can dive into it and hide – and I had suffered a deep loss,” says Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, the director of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, opening in theatres this weekend but already one of the most buzzed-about movies of the year thanks to its double-barreled win at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Gomez-Rejon says he needed to process the loss of his father, but he couldn’t do it head-on. He needed to get some distance, and he found it in the 2013 young adult novel written by Jesse Andrews dealing with two teens who befriend a classmate diagnosed with cancer.
“I’d rather not talk about the personal side too much. But the film is dedicated to my father. It’s a private thing that I made public and I don’t regret it because we are talking about my dad and that’s the message of the movie: That people’s lives continue to unfold,” says the 20-year film veteran, and newly minted wunderkind.
Raised in Laredo, Texas, on the border with Mexico, Gomez-Rejon studied film at NYU, and immediately found a comfy home in the rep houses screening scratched prints of the classics, the avant-garde and arcane. He later worked for Martin Scorsese as a personal assistant, as well as Nora Ephron and Robert DeNiro, until landing second unit and commercial work. He crafted a Super Bowl car ad with the kids from Glee, and recently picked up an Emmy Award for his work on American Horror Story: Coven. His first feature was a remake of the 1976 groaner The Town That Dreaded Sundown, and while it was well reviewed by genre fans when it was released last year, it didn’t make a ripple in the mainstream.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a completely different story, on every level.
“I know now what it feels like to make a personal movie now and it’s changed me. It pressed a restart button, both as a filmmaker and as a man.”
Gomez-Rejon says the creative process helped him transform feelings of depression and loss into something approaching gratitude.
“I had an incredible father: a talented physician who dedicated his life to reducing the stigma of mental health and who lead a life of such compassion and success that as a son… when someone like that is not there, it’s difficult to understand.”
Making Me and Earl and the Dying Girl proved therapeutic.
“If you make something more biographical, it might not work. But if it’s about an emotion, then maybe that can be comforting to other people,” says Gomez-Rejon over the phone. “I was making it to give whatever abstraction I was facing a shape, which is not unlike what Greg is doing.”
Greg (Thomas Mann) is our central character: A high-school senior desperate to fit in and remain invisible until graduation. When his mother forces him to call on Rachel (Olivia Cooke) because she’s sick, both kids look at each other awkwardly and agree to placate their parents.
Watching them try and talk about the whole situation is wonderfully painful, and captures every nervous ounce of pubescent energy. They make us see how poorly our whole society deals with mortality.
“You think you’re going to be the one person that doesn’t have to go through it and then you suddenly are, and you’re not prepared for it,” says Gomez-Rejon. “We avoided it. Even though in the Mexican culture we actually talk about it, and even celebrate it, we denied death.”
Gomez-Rejon says he’s still grappling with grief. “Everyone takes their own journey in the grieving process and some recover and some do not recover, not that you ever really recover. It doesn’t get easier, it gets different: You incorporate it, and the talking is a way to incorporate him and that loss into my life…But it took a 16-year-old in Seattle to tell me what my movie was about: He said because he had just lost a friend of his in a car accident and someone had told him that when people leave their life, they are like a stained glass window, the vision of them is not as clear but the beauty of their life is ever more present… and I believe that.”
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a creation that captures some of that surreal rainbow called life, and in Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke (Rachel) and newcomer RJ Cyler (Earl) we can see the reflected hues of realization, gratitude and grace – all funneled through the lens of high school self-consciousness.
“We’re always there. I often have moments where I feel like I am right back in high school. I ran away to avoid that feeling and it’s coming back to haunt me,” he says, laughing. “I think, unfortunately, some of us are more self-aware than others and more self-critical than others and that just never goes away.”
Gomez-Rejon thanks the Pittsburgh school board, as well as turn-of-the-century architects, for the locations – particularly the cafeteria sequences, which feel like a waking nightmare filmed in a youth prison, or a mental hospital.
“Getting high school right was in the details,” says the former assistant to Alejandro González Iñárritu. “It’s in the background actors and the extras.”
Gomez-Rejon says he avoided the clichéd types and stuck to things that felt authentic. “I have never met a six-foot, blond-haired jock in a letterman jacket holding a football going down the hallway…that’s just not my experience. To me, it seems like that character only exists in movies. But what do I know? I grew up on the Mexican border, so maybe that’s why,” he says.
“But I wanted it to feel authentic. I didn’t want it to fall into those tropes with all the caricatures of the high school nerd and the high school this… and high school that. And luckily, a high school in Pittsburgh gave me a space that looked like an institution, so it was perfect.”
Another stroke of good luck was finding RJ Cyler, who plays Earl, the important balancing block in the three-pronged plot. “The movie almost fell apart because I didn’t have an Earl three weeks before we were supposed to start shooting. RJ came in, and though his physicality didn’t match the script, his confidence was perfect. It was the thing that was lacking – and he brought it, he completed the triptych.”
Gomez-Rejon says his young and talented cast carries the whole film, and because they are all good at comedy as well as drama, the whole thing fused.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is sweet, and funny, and its elegant mix of teen pathos and smart humour made it a Sundance standout, winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the audience award in the domestic competition.
Gomez-Rejon looked like an overnight success story, and the description makes him laugh. “I decided to make movies when I was 12, and I am 42 now, so if that’s overnight success, I will take it,” he says.
“I hope I have the courage to continue to make personal films, so when I, too, die, that I can leave behind a body of work that I can be proud of and that would last the test of time, like my hero filmmakers who came before me, but who knows? I am going to try to enjoy this ride.”
And right now, the ride is just beginning. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl will make a staggered theatrical debut in major markets Friday, and slowly make engagements across North America over the summer, perhaps even paving the way for an Oscar run this fall.