Interview with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon – Director of Me And Earl & The Dying Girl

Opening this weekend ‘Me And Earl And The Dying Girl’ was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this years Sundance Film Festival. The film from director Alfonso Gomez Rejon is the moving story of Greg (Thomas Mann), a high school senior who is trying to blend in anonymously, avoiding deeper relationships as a survival strategy for navigating the social minefield that is teenage life. He even describes his constant companion Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he makes short film parodies of classic movies, as more of a ‘co-worker’ than a best friend. But when Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) insists he spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke) – a girl in his class who has just been diagnosed with cancer – he slowly discovers how worthwhile the true bonds of friendship can be.

Watch the trailer below

After American Horror Story and The Town That Dreaded Sundown, you were an interesting horror director in some eyes, and then you chose this as your follow up. What was the intention for this as your follow-up?

ALFONSO GOMEZ-REJON: I never expected myself to become a horror guy, and all of a sudden I found myself in that box. I was enjoying the work, I love the camera and I think that horror historically has given directors a start. It’s a fun medium, and you get to show off at times when it’s appropriate to the movie; except for the big kill scenes, I was trying to show some restraint, shooting almost old-fashioned style. But this movie was meant to happen before that one [Sundown], and this one fell apart and that one came together. I think I started to lose myself a little bit, started to lose myself as a film-maker. I’ve always wanted to tell personal films and I thought I was going to do that twenty years ago, but life has its own plans and I had a wonderful opportunity in television to start in the first season of Glee before that even became a big hit and Ryan Murphy [creator of Glee] gave me the opportunity to express myself, it being very expressive since it’s a musical! That lead to American Horror Story and I enjoyed the work quite a bit, but there were numerous reasons, certainly with some stuff that was going on in my personal life, but I felt the need to return to the reason I wanted to make films in the first place. And it just so happened that this script appeared right when I needed it the most. The script itself is so powerful and so well written that you could have almost, not that you WOULD be lazy, but you could almost be lazy with the way that it’s been shot. But you shot it so beautifully and so visually, was there any particular influences in how you approached that aspect of the film?

ALFONSO GOMEZ-REJON: Sure, but if you want to be a director I don’t understand the point of trying to phone it in! I’ve never understood that concept. I needed it desperately, the movie – I needed to feel it desperately, and the movie begins with a young film-maker seducing into telling you this story of his last year as a senior in high school. So I wanted the opening to be quite controlled and stylised and designed because the movie was about him losing control of the narrative, losing control and learning to be quiet and learning to be quite still. So it was a chance to be very expressive in the beginning and then learn with Greg to be still and be quiet, so that was kind of the overall design of the film, and there’s many, many films that – I love films and a lot of them are in there, and hopefully that are filtered through your lens, but originally in preparation I saw Mike Nichols and I saw Hal Ashby but you also see and watch all the films that we pay homage to and you say something like Tales Of Hoffmann, and there’s nothing better than that ever in the history of film as far as a composed movie and the narrative of music and visuals. Then you’re just humbled by everything and then you get depressed because you’re never going to be that good and then you get up again and you do it again. It’s ultimately how you see it through your lens and what feels right in the moment and you hope that it’s interesting. I just didn’t want to make it conventional, because it’s a movie that celebrating adolescence, and the movies, and it’s a movie that has a lot of dialogue so I wanted to have a lot of fun with it. What also was tricky was if you shot it conventionally would be that people would just assume that it was going to be a conventional love story but I think there was something fun about it being playful. Also, as a film-maker, you want to experiment, you want to keep it fresh for yourself. You don’t just want to walk in and say “Okay, we’ll do a master and two singles and that’s it because I have dinner at seven”. You want to have some fun and you want to take some risks and it’s scary because you’re always this close to failure. Or failing continuously. What’s that famous saying? Fail, try again, fail better next time?

ALFONSO GOMEZ-REJON: Yeah, I walked into this one ad agency recently and they had this enormous mural that said “Fail Harder”. I loved that. On top of being quite entertaining, it was also actually quite an important film. It’s getting clumped in with the likes of The Fault In Our Stars and 50/50 in that sub-genre of movies with young people who are ill. What has the feedback been like from cancer concern groups, and the public generally? I would fully recommend that anyone in that situation to go see this, because it’s almost a form of therapy.

ALFONSO GOMEZ-REJON: Sure, I mean… Well, that’s a tricky question to answer. I made it because I had experience a loss in my life and it was about that emotion. I didn’t lose an eighteen year old girl in high school who died from cancer, but it was the emotion that (lead character) Greg was going through, and that’s what I was trying to work through by making the film. That therapy, as you said. We also know that the details about her condition had to be accurate, and the people who had gone through this before and had survived it, or have had friends that have gone through it, and they have thanked me and thanked the film-makers, all of us, for paying attention to those details and getting them right and being honest with that journey. So I hope that, whether you’ve been through that or not, you love the characters and experience that journey with them for better or for worse, and hope that if you have gone through it that we at least paid attention to the details and treated them with respect.

Words – Rory Cashin

ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is at Irish cinemas from Sept 4th