Alfonso Gomez-Rejon On Scorsese, Loss, and his Sundance Winner Me And Earl And The Dying Girl

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"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"

Countless actors have been said to have a love affair with the camera, and the same can be said of filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. He’s one of the few directors working today whose prowess behind the camera can leave viewers breathless yet it never overpowers the actors or storyline. His camera becomes a character and subtly comments on scenes with a sudden movement or unexpected angle, rather than overwhelming them. He’s demonstrated this expertise numerous times with his work in popular television series, such as Glee and American Horror Story. His debut feature, last year’s meta-update of the cult classic The Town That Dreaded Sundown, even managed to transcend its horror genre trappings due to Gomez-Rejon’s remarkable visual esthetic. He proves his virtuosity again with his second feature, Me And Earl And The Dying Girl. Adapted from the novel by Jesse Andrews, the comedy-drama chronicles Greg (Thomas Mann), a teen movie nerd, who is forced by his mother (Connie Britton) to become friends with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate diagnosed with leukemia. Greg and his buddy Earl (RJ Cyler), who’ve made dozens of hilarious home movie-versions of their favorite classic films, set out to make a very personal one to celebrate the life of their dying friend.

The film premiered earlier this year at Sundance in the U.S. Dramatic Competition to a rapturous reception, garnered rave reviews and generated an immediate and intense bidding war that shattered previous records for a festival film. The comedy-drama was ultimately purchased by Fox Searchlight for a staggering $12 million.

That’s not too shabby for a film geek from Laredo, Texas. Like Greg, his movie’s protagonist, Gomez-Rejon has been enamored with the cinema since childhood, when he developed a particular fondness to the work of Martin Scorsese. The celebrated auteur would eventually serve as a mentor for the aspiring filmmaker, who offers a nod to his idol with a Mean Streets poster displayed on the wall behind Greg’s desk. Gomez-Rejon also sees the film as a way to pay respect to his beloved late father, Julio Cesar Gomez Rejon, M.D., to whom the film is dedicated, and says he was particularly moved by the film’s theme that a person’s story doesn’t necessarily end with death.

Gomez-Rejon spoke with Sundance about the very personal inspiration to make the film, how working in television taught him discipline, and his special relationship with Martin Scorsese.

How did you become involved with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl?

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: My agent sent me the script. There wasn’t a lot of fanfare around it. I was just told that it was a really funny script that I might like so I started reading it.

What was it about the script that made you decide to direct it?

The truth is I had lost my dad shortly before I read the script and I was incredibly lucky to have incredible work in television that was getting me out of bed. I was experimenting and just pushing the craft as much as I could. I felt this nagging feeling to say something more personal. I started reading the script and I became very engaged because of the humor.

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"

With a film that has the words “Dying Girl” in the title audiences expect a tearjerker, yet it’s your movie’s unexpected humor, which I want to emphasize is earned and not forced, that makes this story so appealing.

It’s so honest and so funny. It was very comforting because it reminded me of those great John Hughes films I grew up on. There’s a scene in Mr. McCarthy’s [Jon Bernthal] office in which he tells Greg and Earl that you can keep learning about people after they die, that their story keeps unfolding and you just have to pay attention. That was such a beautiful idea. I found so much comfort in that. Then the script turns and took me with it. Greg is able to express his love for this wonderful friendship through making a film for her. I thought that if I was able to take this journey with Greg that I might come out a different person after this. I wanted to get this job and I fought for it. I thought I could really make this into a personal movie.

Although he’s still in high school, Greg is a prolific, auteur-obsessed filmmaker. In what ways do you relate to him?

I think I wasn’t as cool as Greg or as good at pretending to be cool. What I saw in him and respected is that when you’re an artist in high school you’re automatically an outcast. You’re just not ready to share that part of yourself with the world because you’re somewhat different. You’re expressing yourself in weird ways. What I loved is that Greg shares this with Earl and he makes these movies, but they’re secrets. They’re weird homages to Herzog and so many other filmmakers. Ultimately, it was that emotional journey of him coming of age. Even though I’m much older than Greg, I’m coming of age and facing a new phase of my life. I did that through him and even before casting anyone in this role I needed to feel that I could take this journey with this actor and I feel I did. At the end he learns to make a movie for someone else just as I’m making this movie for someone else.

You found the ideal cast. Connie, Nick Offerman and Molly Shannon are talented veterans, but you also elicit beautifully-modulated performances from Thomas, Olivia and RJ, who is a newcomer. Are there any inherent challenges working with young actors?

Not with these young actors. They’re no different than working with older screen legends. I love actors and have respect for them and their process. I want to be tapped intuitively into what actors need from me. I think these actors are exceptional and those who have a lot of experience like Thomas and Olivia and those who have little like R.J., there weren’t any different challenges. You just have to be sensitive to all the actors and love them equally.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. © Anna Marie Fox

You worked as an assistant to both Martin Scorsese and Nora Ephron. How did this help you transition into becoming a filmmaker yourself?

Scorsese came into my life and he’s the reason I moved away from Texas. I applied at NYU because Scorsese went there. I was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and had been exposed to Scorsese’s films on VHS. His movies moved me deeply and I was lucky enough to be working as a PA for him for years. Being exposed to him opened me up to a world of film history. He’s just incredibly generous and I ended up being his personal assistant on Casino. Up until this day he’ll watch everything I make and give me advice. That’s led to an incredible friendship with his editor Thelma Schoonmaker, who has really been a rock for me. She was married to Michael Powell, who made those wonderful Powell-Pressburger movies that we reference so much in the movie. Scorsese led to Nick Pileggi on Casino, who was married to Nora Ephron. I became her assistant on You’ve Got Mail. She took me on and believed in me before I even believed in myself. She was incredibly generous and treated me like a colleague from day one. On the second movie we did together, Lucky Numbers, she forced Paramount to hire me as a second unit director and that’s how I got into the guild so that as a member of the DGA I could technically call myself a director. That just led to everything and changed my life. I don’t know how this happened because I didn’t know anyone when I got into this business, but I’ve been surrounded by people who set the bar so high. I’m incredibly fortunate.

Ryan Murphy hired you for second unit on Eat Pray Love and you’ve received a lot of acclaim for directing episodes of his TV series American Horror Story and Glee. How has your experience been with him?

The very first episode of Glee that I did I storyboarded everything carefully and he didn’t even look at it. He said, “Do whatever you want. If anyone tells you you can’t do something, tell them I wanted it.” That’s the greatest, most generous thing. He’s never gotten in the way of how I wanted to shoot something. With that trust comes enormous responsibility and so I learned how he gets his big ideas across and sets the standard quite high and expects that from everybody else. I think if I wasn’t myself and didn’t have a point of view, I would have failed and we wouldn’t have worked as long together, but as much as he likes my point of view I think he likes the way I interpret it, as well. All you have is a point of view. He has a singular vision and the fact that he’s always stuck to his guns has taught me to do the same. He gives you the freedom to do what you do even though there’s so much pressure to compromise constantly in television.

How did your background in episodic TV help prepare you for a feature film shoot?

I think with television time constraints worked certain muscles to help me adapt to problems with very little time or very little prep. Even though some of my producers are used to working with more prep time I had a very short prep. To me it was a luxury because on some TV shows you might have a day to prep an episode or you might go from one to the next without any prep. You get used to that speed and coming up with solutions on the spot. It works those muscles, but it makes you appreciate time when you have it on a movie like this.

You’ve mentioned that this is a very personal film for you. What does it mean to you to have it premiere at the Sundance Film Festival?

It means everything. I’m so fortunate to work as a director and shoot these innately cinematic television shows that have allowed me to experiment. American Horror Story is such a baroque show that that you can really experiment and go too far and be Buñuel or Welles for a day. Also with Glee, the camera can become a character. For someone who loves the camera as much as I do and because I’m such an introvert I can really express myself with movement and camera. Both shows allowed me to learn about that and the discipline of shooting for television because of the time constraints. To finally be able to use all those tools and then go back to find yourself and tell a personal story and tell who you are or were and then to have that film chosen to be exhibited… I’ve always dreamed of showing a film at a festival like this and that it’s really happening and that it’s this film means everything to me. It’s such a prestigious thing. It also acknowledges the incredible work of my cast and crew. I feel very lucky.

What would you like to do as a follow-up?

This movie has really transformed me and pressed the restart button in me. The process of making the movie was very good for me. It reminded me of what it feels like to tell a story with a crew that has your back the entire way. I’m developing a lot of stuff for TV and film. After the festival, I’ll see what it is. Doing something personal is such a high. It’s a new high that I want to chase.

This article originally published following the premiere of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The film opens in select theaters Friday, June 12, and continues to expand to cities throughout the country this Friday.

Lead photo:

"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"