by: Jay Carlson
I was fortunate enough to speak with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon as well as writer of the source novel and screenplay Jesse Andrews when they passed through Boston recently. Gomez-Rejon might not be a name you know yet but he’s certainly on the come lately after the Sundance success of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. He’s had an interesting trajectory up to this point, with one of his earliest credits as an intern on the excellent Alexandre Rockwell indie film In the Soup starring Steve Buscemi and Seymour Cassel. From there, he moved on to work as a PA on projects such as Casino with Martin Scorsese and 21 Grams with Alejandro González Iñárritu. All the hard work finally got him gigs directing second unit footage on movies like Babel and Argo and finally settling in as a director with American Horror Story and remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: Working for Scorsese shifted everything. The people you’re exposed to, that knowledge of film history… All of a sudden you’re watching these films with him and he just sets the bar. The three years of PA’ing before (directing) prepare you to keep that job. Going back and talking about this is so weird, you know? I was so young, it was so surreal. As surreal as being at Sundance and there is Scorsese and you’re with him, you know? And you’re just watch like a ninja. You’re just quiet and taking everything in and if he needs something, you’re there with whatever he needed.
Jesse Andrews: (To AGR) You drove him around, right?
AGR: On weekends.
JA: You’re not great with directions. (laughing)
AGR: I’m good with lefts and rights. (laughing) His teamster would be working nights on Casino. Friday he’d take off after dropping Scorsese off and then I would drive him home Saturday morning and keep the car for that weekend for whatever Marty wanted. That means driving home Saturday morning because usually teamsters with night shoots (Mimes someone leaning and sleeping)… So I’m on set, I’m working 16, 18 hours or whatever. (And I have) to get Marty home and you’re driving home at eight in the morning and you’re doing this (mimes droopy head bob behind the wheel). It was so hard… And then you get lost. That’s the worst part. I drove in to an ally one time and he’s like, “What is this, a rubout?”
I was driving Alejandro (González Iñárritu) on 21 Grams… Benecio, Alejandro, Sean Penn, Naomi Watts… All the assistants drove the actors. It was also a fairly small movie. There I am in Memphis and what do I know about Memphis? And I’m working 20 or 21 hour days and I was on seven days a week, to the point that I physically didn’t think I could finish the job. It was that taxing on me physically because there was no down time. Sometimes he’d be 45 minutes late to the set because I would literally stop and say, “Alejando, I don’t know where I am.” I’d put it in production reports and get yelled at by producers. I’d be like, “Don’t have me drive the director then!” (laughing)
Another time on 21 Grams Alejandro says that he wants me to take his family, his parents who have flown in from Mexico City, his wife and kids and take them all to Graceland. I got lost. (laughs) I’m not kidding. I end up at a dead end with a highway over me and the family is there and Graceland closes! So then I have to drive them all back.
Now I can sense that if someone’s driving me and took a wrong turn… I know what they’re feeling and I’m like, “Don’t worry about it, I know. Don’t worry about it. It’s going to be ok!”
JA: When I started writing this book I had already written two books that hadn’t gotten published and were never going to be published so I had no certainty that this wasn’t going to be another of those books. Maybe I’m just doing that for the rest of my life, and that’s fine. I just became much more wedded to process over the outcome.
Indie Revolver: How much of Me and Earl was drawn from your own experiences?
JA: This is not literally my story. I didn’t have a classmate who went through this. Where it comes from is that when I set out to write this book my grandfather was terminally ill. He wasn’t going to be around much longer and I was just thinking a lot about grief, about how incomplete and frustrating any exchanges with someone who is going through something like that… you know someone who is not going to be here that much longer. You never say the thing you wished you had said. You never do the thing you wished you had done. You’ll always recriminate yourself because it wasn’t enough, it wasn’t complete. I saw my mom going through this, too, her father was dying. I knew if I could take that and make something funny out of it and hopeful too, but not unreal. If I could find something in there… that would be something and that was my goal. I had no confidence that I was necessarily going to get there.
IR: So did you set out to adapt your own book? Was that part of the deal when you sold the rights?
JA: I didn’t build that in. It didn’t even really occur to me that that was something that I could do. I just wrote a book… I was ecstatic just to have a book published. Then the selling of the film rights was this very abstract unreal thing to me until my agent put the manuscript in front of this guy Dan Fogelman.
In an interview with Dan Fogelman a couple months ago about his first directorial effort, Danny Collins he spoke a little about his experience on Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
Dan Fogelman: I just did this movie that was in Sundance, it’s my most recent thing and it just won all of Sundance. It won the whole thing. I produced it, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It’s exceptional, the movie is exceptional. This director is so talented. He’s going to be my generation’s next important director. I think 25 years from now he’s (going to be) my generations Scorsese. I think he’s that good. I didn’t write the script, the novelist (Jesse Andrews) adapted his own book and I taught him how to write the screenplay. We worked through the script together over the course of years and I put a lot into it. The director then took it and made his own version of it. It was such a cool process watching this. The first time I saw it I was like “Whoa.” He took it an elevated it and did it all differently and it’s artistic and cool and I Love that. It’s really something else.
JA: (Regarding Dan Fogelman) He’s a beast. He’s just like this pure beautiful human being and incredibly talented. It was kind of his idea and also my agent’s idea to, if they could, give me the first crack at adapting it. (Producers) Indian Paintbrush was crazy enough to take us on. I think the project became much more appealing once it had Dan packaged in with it, but the arrangement was that he would guide me through the writing process and really make himself available in a way that I think is unusual for a producer/writer relationship. So I got to learn from this total master of his craft. I just tried not to screw it up. (Fogelman’s part in getting the film to the screen) wasn’t a small part. This film wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for him. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to write it without someone like him and there’s only one person like him, it’s him and I got to hang out with him. So it’s amazing.
IR: Alfonso, what brought you to the film?
AGR: My dad had passed away and I was having trouble trying to understand it. Then I got this beautiful gift by Jesse that allowed me that opportunity deal with it and give it a shape and do it through this beautiful, weird sense of humor. That’s why I felt very connected to it. I thought the script dealt with (illness and grief) beautifully and elegantly and age appropriate, whatever that means because it was age appropriate for me.
IR: It’s a bold move to jump into making a film about illness and dying when you’re going through something like that personally. I would have been trying to make anything but something dealing with illness and dying.
AGR: I had been doing that for four years. Until you finally have to deal with it. The only way I could express it was through images and movies and doing what I think I was meant to do, I don’t know. This gave me that opportunity.
IR: Going through that stuff is so relatable. It’s Universal. The film really broke my heart. My son just found out one of his best friends has Leukemia this week and he has a friend that kind of reminds me of Earl. Seeing this film really hit home.
AGR: Hopefully it’s not a downer because the script handled it with such grace and so much humor and that was very important to me.
IR: It didn’t break my heart in a bad way. It’s just such an affecting, well-made film and you really cared for each of those characters.
AGR: It was comforting to me, making the film. Hopefully people feel that. It captured adolescence and I saw myself in Greg before the Bernthal scene and after the Bernthal scene.
IR: How great was Bernthal in this, by the way?
AGR: Isn’t he?
JA: He was great. He’s incredible. He’s a great ad-libber, too. He was one of the few who every take was different and it was good shit. Him and Molly Shannon did some amazing ad-libbing.
IR: Jesse, you’ve written a novel and now a screenplay, what’s the plan going forward? Screenplays? Books? A little of both?
JA: Yeah, both. It’s really creatively fulfilling to get to leverage each one against the other, going from one world to the other and back. They’re so different. The economy and discipline in writing a screenplay… you don’t have a lot of space and you have to choose your words very carefully and that’s energizing but then after a while you want to really stretch out and to go to a book is great. You can just babble for a really long time, relatively speaking. When I write dialogue in a book I like to put in a lot of umms and ahhs and repetition and really try to give a naturalistic feeling to make it sound like kids talk. You can’t really do that in a movie. There are other ways to make it feel real or hyper real but not through that. Not through space. So I’ve done both actually since this. I’ve done a couple adaptations of other books, I wrote my own script and then I wrote my second young adult book first draft which just got bought by Abrams and I’m about to go into revisions. Hopefully it comes out spring of 2016.
IR: Alfonso, What’s next? You’re casting a movie now? (News had broken days before that Collateral Beauty would be Gomez-Rejon’s next film and had landed Hugh Jackman and Rooney Mara)
AGR: Possibly. Yeah, that was leaked to the press. It’s not real yet. I’d rather not talk about it because it might be something else. There’s like three things that could potentially go and that is one of them. If the script comes together then that would go quickly (probably) in the winter but it could be something else. I don’t know who leaked that probably some bullshit producer who wants it to be real. It’s uncomfortable when that happens. So there’s a lot of stuff, who knows what it’s going to be? I know we’ll have food on the table for at least a year.
JA: Eight months.
AGR: (laughing) Eight months, tops. As opposed to the years prior. There’s a lot of opportunities now.
IR: How has the success of Me and Earl changed your lives?
JA: More opportunities. I spend a lot more time now hitting refresh on the twitter search for mentions of this movie. I’m a young adult author technically and I have less than two thousand followers which is mortifying. It’s so embarrassing that my media presence is appallingly nothing. For me it’s a huge amount of work to agonize over a tweet and it gets two favorites then it disappears into the abyss. But yeah, better opportunities. I got to a point where I had made peace with the idea that I would never get here, or even approaching here and now stuff is happening.
AGR: My life changed, I think both of our lives changed after that screening at the Eccles Theater. As a filmmaker now.. people are listening because they’re able to see something that is closer to your own voice and they’re liking it and now they have some trust in you as a director. That as a filmmaker is wonderful. When all you want to do is make movies and you need millions of dollars it’s tough to be able to talk and speak through your movies, so now it’s an opportunity to do more of that and that’s nice.
IR: Thanks guys. I really loved your film
AGR: Jay, thanks a lot.
JA: Thanks, Jay.
I had a wonderful time speaking to Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and Jesse Andrews. Stay tuned for part two of our Me and Earl and the Dying Girl interviews with Olivia Cooke, Thomas Mann and RJ Cyler.
I highly encourage you to get out to see the film tomorrow, June 12th in select cities with a bigger rollout in the weeks following. To see exactly when the film is hitting your neck of the woods click HERE.