Director Alfonso Gómez-Rejón talks ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’

June 18, 2015, 8:48 p.m.

Winner of the U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic and the Audience Award, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is director Alfonso Gómez-Rejón’s second feature, and, according to the Stanford Daily’s Ena Alvarado, a certified coming-of-age millennial classic.  The Stanford Daily’s Ena Alvarado sat down with these Gómez-Rejón to talk everything from adaptation to influences.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a novel by author Jesse Andrews. What was the reason behind your choosing to adapt his book into a movie of your own?

Alfonso Gómez-Rejón (AGR): Actually, Jesse adapted it. When I became involved, the screenplay already existed. The screenplay really spoke to me. Jesse’s had already done the tough job of translating his novel into a screenplay, which was in such a different shape. At that point, I read it and wanted to be involved and direct it.

TSD: What were some challenges, early on, in working with an adapted screenplay?

AGR: The challenge is in adapting the screenplay you see in your head and giving it a shape. We couldn’t afford the screenplay that I read. It had all of these fantasy sequences — it was too expensive. It was about shaving it and trimming it, to the point that we could physically make it and then talk about it. You begin to personalize it. Then the process continues when you shoot it.

TSD: You’ve worked as first- and second-unit director in multiple films. What did you learn from your past jobs in the film industry? How have you incorporated those experiences into this movie?

AGR: When you start as a P.A., you start at the bottom, then you end up working as an assistant to some incredible directors, and you watch them work and that’s fascinating. Then you start doing television. I was such a formalist, I used to draw every shot and very carefully design everything and sometimes in television, you don’t get time to do that. You get the script today and you shoot tomorrow, you shoot this afternoon. It becomes more about doodling, improvising on set, and trusting yourself. You start being able to trust your gut.

What I loved about this movie is that I went back to the movies that I was raised on. The process I learned from Scorsese. When you prepare, you discuss with the writer, and the cinematographer and you design as much as you can, but then be open to new ideas when you’re on set.

You watch all the masters work and you soak up a lot. But ultimately it’s their point of view and you can’t copy their point of view. If you’re sitting in a room watching your favorite painter paint, their process is too unique to them, but you can still absorb how they realize their ideas.

Television was very good for me because you have to think fast. You don’t have the luxury of time. On a technical standpoint, all those years of, sometimes a lot of struggle in between, informed the love that was put into this one.

TSD: You mentioned Scorsese. What other filmmakers have influenced you?

AGR: Everything. I try to learn from everything. You’re humbled by everybody. There are two posters in Greg’s bedroom — “Mean Streets” and “The 400 Blows.” Those two are there for a reason. They’re very important to me. Look at the films that we reference in the movie. Earl is watching “The Tales of Hoffmann” in McCarthy’s office, and that’s Scorsese commentary. Scorsese — every time you read about him or read his commentary, any interview with him, he always talks about all of the directors that came before him, all the masters that came before him. Discovering those classics is very important. I keep learning from the more I watch those movies, the more you keep them alive and relevant. When you’re younger, you’re immediately struck by the film school generation. First it’s Richard Donner’s “Superman.” But as you start to open up you’re immediately struck by the movies of the ’70s. Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg. Lynch. P.T. Anderson. There’s all these waves of films that you keep learning about and learning from. It never stops. Almodovar.

One of the first things I did in NY when I arrived there was a retrospective of everything he’d [Almodovar had] ever done. He’s a master filmmaker.

TSD: So, did you get to choose the movies that Greg and Earl parody?

AGR: By and large. Herzog was already scripted. Then they became a bit too popular for me. I wanted to make them obscure, not for the sake of making them obscure films, but classics that had influenced me, as a way to give thanks to Scorsese.

I would come up with lists and Jesse would rewrite the names. Sometimes over drinks at the bar we would come up with the titles. We were avoiding going to the super popular ones so there could be a sense of discovery.

That’s one of the best things. When you meet high school students who didn’t get all of the references but they want to go out and find them.

TSD: What was the most challenging part of this project?

AGR: Keeping the momentum moving. Movies fall apart all of the time. It’s very tricky to find a movie where every actor you want is available at this right time, you have agents and lawyers and locations and deals, and it’s very complicated. For casting, we couldn’t find the right Earl. And what do you do? Compromise? No, you can’t. The movie must exist for a reason. Keeping a movie’s momentum and then shooting it is always tricky because it can fall apart. While we were prepping our movie and having difficulties, a Will Smith movie was also prepping in Pittsburgh, and it had a $100-million budget, and they fell apart. But we kept going. Because you just never know. But once you’re shooting it’s about keeping the truth. Hoping you’re balancing the comedy and the drama. That you’re piecing it together right, so you’re always scared.

TSD: Overall, what did you learn from this experience?

AGR: I learned to believe McCarthy’s lesson. That even after people die, their story can continue to enfold. I wanted to believe that before I made the movie, because I had lost someone very close to me. And I didn’t believe it. It was very hard. A person that was there and suddenly isn’t anymore, and you have to move on with your life. So much pain. But I learned to believe that the story does continue. There is always a sense of discovery. Some kind of continuum. I lost my faith a long time ago, so it’s not in the traditional sense that I believe this. Although I envy those who do have it. There is a sense of continuum just by talking about that person. That’s why it was important for me to talk about some of the filmmakers in the film because if you go out and watch “Peeping Tom,” you keep that person alive.

TSD: What about the most rewarding part of the project?

AGR: People seem to connect. Young people when they tell me they want to go out and find these movies — that’s very rewarding.

TSD: What would you like viewers to take away from your film?

AGR: Creativity can heal. Sometimes you have to make something out of what you’re feeling. You hope that they’re comforted by the film. That they find it very funny. That we were able to tackle a subject through humor. That’s very important to me, because it’s very lifelike. You want them to be comforted. To think about appreciating someone next to them. To find the humor and lightness in everything. Be inspired to make something or talk to someone.

TSD: As a final question, could you say something about the visual construction of the movie and the choices behind its unique style?

AGR: Chung Chung-hoon was the cinematographer. You have to remember that this is a story being told to you by a young filmmaker (i.e. Greg). The camera can be a character. It’s a memory. So you start with the high school which he views as completely terrifying and he just wants to get out. It’s a battleground. So you shoot it in a way that reminds you of what that feels like. So it can be very stylized, very aggressive, very storyboarded, and designed. But then, as Greg begins to let go and begins to pay attention and be quiet for a while, the movie does the same thing. It becomes quite still. That was the reason behind it. We just sat in a room and doodled or drew with a storyboard and Chung would spitball ideas. We could really be aggressive at the beginning. Sometimes we were limited, because we realized we didn’t have the money for the kind of shots we actually wanted. So it was a toned-down version of what we wanted to do. We wanted to do super crazy things, actually. But they probably wouldn’t have worked.

Contact Ena Alvarado at enaalva ‘at’ stanford.edu

Ena Alvarado hails from the boisterous city of Caracas, Venezuela. She is a hopelessly undecided freshman who enjoys reading literature and watching films as much as understanding science and studying math. Someday, Ena aspires to learn how to whistle, improve her current juggling skills, and compose a full-length music album. In the meantime, she finds solace in books and nutella crepes. Writing about documentaries and foreign cinema never hurts either.

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