Alfonso Gomez-Rejon didn’t set out to channel the voices and perspectives of yet another group of emotion-laden teens, but that’s kind of inevitable when you direct the film adaptation of a young adult novel called Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
Yes, like the weep-fest The Fault in Our Stars, it’s about a guy who meets a girl who’s battling cancer, but that’s where the similarities between the two should stop. The Fault in Our Stars is like a candy heart: a schmaltzy, tooth-rotter with a cloying message. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the Sour Patch Kid of sick teen flicks: sweet, biting, and able to bring a tearful smile to your face if you’re not careful.
[jump] You might not recognize Gomez-Rejon’s name yet, but if you’re a Ryan Murphy fan, chances are that you’ve seen Gomez-Rejon’s work. He earned his first “directed by” credit during the first season of what would become the jukebox anthem of drama club kids everywhere.
He stumbled into his Glee-ful body of work with Murphy thanks to, well, a thank-you note. The two worked together on Eat Pray Love when Glee was just starting out. “I didn’t hear back from him,” Gomez-Rejon says. “Then all of a sudden, he sent me a note saying, ‘Do you want to direct an episode of Glee?’”
He did. And eventually, Gomez-Rejon crossed over to the dark side, directing episodes of Murphy’s then-new show American Horror Story. He even earned an Emmy nod for his directorial work on the delightfully witchy (and bitchy) season of AHS: Coven.
Gomez-Rejon’s other television work includes even more teen-centric shows like Red Band Society and The Carrie Diaries, and yet it didn’t really occur to him that he was working himself into a pubescent pigeonhole.
“It was not planned at all,” Gomez-Rejon laughs, mentioning that he’d been attached to Me and Earl before his work on Red Band Society. “I made the movie because I found it incredibly funny, and a very fresh take on high school and the battleground that it is.”
Me and Earl’s titular “me,” Greg, goes into high school with the stealth and paranoia of a double agent. He skirts the periphery of every social group, but refuses to truly identify with or open up to any of them. His only friend is a guy from the other side of town named Earl who he bonds with over their love of Werner Herzog, artsy foreign films, and later making short parody films that knock off classic movies. Mind you, Greg is so emotionally stunted that he even rejects the word “friend” for Earl, instead calling him his “co-worker.”
The “Dying Girl” comes in when Greg’s mother literally forces him to hang out with an old childhood acquaintance who just found out she has cancer. Greg begrudgingly does so, and smoothly tells Rachel that his mom made him come over because she’s sick. Eventually Earl tags along, and the trio forms the most tight-knit clique of people who can’t really figure out if they even like each other that much.
“I love the way the characters were,” Gomez-Rejon says. “They’re so brutally honest with each other all the time.”
Some of Gomez-Rejon’s inspiration for sarcastic, semi-misanthropic Greg came from the classics: The Graduate and Harold and Maude. He put together a sizzle reel filled with Dustin Hoffman and Bud Cort’s characters from those films to show off the parallels between Greg, Ben Braddock, and Harold Chasen as “these kind of lonely outsiders trying to find their voice.”
“I saw a version in my head that I could relate to these kids the way I still relate to the characters in The Breakfast Club,” Gomez-Rejon explains. “It’s not only how they speak, but also what they’re dealing with and their emotions. The performances are very natural in that film, so I needed to do that.”
He found his Breakfast Club 2.0 muses in seasoned teen actors Thomas Mann (Project X) as Greg and Olivia Cooke (Ouija) as Rachel, as well as a newcomer from Florida, RJ Cyler as Earl.
“His audition tape was amazing,” Gomez-Rejon says of Cyler. “He just has a confidence that is so infectious. You can see how he’s the leader… even though he’d never made a movie. He’d walk around and you’d swear he was the boss, like a producer or something. I don’t have that confidence!”
Despite Cyler’s confidence, he was still learning the ropes on set. The first scenes shot on the movie were with a skeleton crew of only a few people and cameras, and it still sank in for Cyler that this was the big time. “He freaked out,” Gomez-Rejon laughs. “Every day was like a big deal. That enthusiasm was so infectious that everyone — even the crew — felt it.”
That raw emotion served Cyler well during a particularly difficult scene with Mann. “He just kept going and going until it opened up something in him as a person,” Gomez-Rejon recalls. “All of this emotion started to pour out, and we couldn’t believe it. It was pure art. This guy was discovering himself right in front of us.”
“I think he has the tools for greatness just like Olivia and Thomas do,” Gomez-Rejon says, beaming.
Both Mann and Cooke deliver stirring performances: Mann’s character slowly opens up and lets go of his hangups, while Cooke’s quickly comes of age and makes the ultimate decision. One of their first scenes involves bonding over faux masturbatory fantasies about — of all things — pillows in Rachel’s bedroom. As time progresses and Rachel’s health declines, those pillows become less funny and more instrumental in providing her a modicum of comfort. Eventually, Rachel and Greg have to confront the cancerous elephant in the room in the most powerful scene in the film.
Mann and Cooke came in and did four takes back to back, and the emotional energy in the scene was so palpable that Gomez-Rejon chose to make it one long shot instead of cutting away. He didn’t have to attempt achieving a moment of tension or emotion with close-ups: It was all there already.
”That fourth take was so honest, so brutal,” Gomez-Rejon says. “I couldn’t say, ‘Cut.’ I was looking at my A.D. for him to say it, and he couldn’t either.”
As a shy kid growing up in Texas, Gomez-Rejon fell in love with movies at an early age. He didn’t like going to bed alone after his brother went to military school, so he’d stay up all night and watch Letterman and HBO to keep himself company.
Soon, Gomez-Rejon’s appetite for film classics grew insatiable. His friend’s older brothers introduced him to movies like Apocalypse Now, but the one that sealed the deal was Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, starring Robert DeNiro. “It really affected me in a deep way,” he reminisces. “It was a game changer, and I started following everything Scorsese did.”
“Every time Scorsese is interviewed, he always talks about the masters,” Gomez-Rejon notes. In the film, each short, satirical film Greg and Earl make is like Gomez-Rejon’s silent, silly nod to the masters: "Grumpy Cul-de-Sacs," “Box Lips Now,” “A Sockwork Orange,” “The 400 Bros,” “Breathe Less,” and “Monorash” to name a few.
Gomez-Rejon's voracity for the greats paid off, because he got to work as an assistant to both Scorsese and DeNiro, along with Nora Ephron and Alejandro Innaritu during his early days in the industry. But Gomez-Rejon asserts that his experiences with such film legends didn’t really shape how he approaches projects these days.
“Not how,” he emphasizes. “You can’t copy the way Nora Ephron sees the world, or DeNiro, or Marty. It was a lesson that took me a while to learn or have the ability to express, but it’s the why. Why do you make this movie?”
With Me and Earl, it went beyond the initial creative outlet to tell a dramedy about the social perils of attempting to live through high school. Gomez-Rejon’s father had passed away shortly before he made the film, and he saw it as an opportunity to celebrate movies, his heroes, and to take a personal journey after his loss. “Kind of put myself back together,” he says.
In celebrating his cinematic heroes and his father with Me and Earl, Gomez-Rejon seems to be coming into his own as a full-fledged film director: “I think it’s time for me to start telling my own stories and using this film as an opportunity to hear my voice and hear what I have to say.”
It looks like both critics and audiences are liking what they hear. The film won both the Grand Jury and Audience Prizes at Sundance.
Beyond the accolades and reviews, Gomez-Rejon has found Me and Earl and the Dying Girl as both a catalyst for creativity and a catharsis: “No other movie I make will ever be as special as this one because it’s such a game changer and pressed a reset button in me.”