Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon may have only made one feature prior to his new film “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (our review) — namely, his 2014 horror remake of “The Town That Dreaded Sundown”— but by anyone’s estimation he’s clearly a tremendous “movie guy.” He’s not only assisted the likes of Martin Scorsese, Nora Ephron and Alejandro González Iñárritu, but also possesses a cinematic knowledge so encyclopedic as to pump his new project end to end with classic references.
But “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is not simply a love letter to the history of the big screen. The film has heart, following a high school-aged loner as he explores a new friendship with a classmate suffering from leukemia and revives an old friendship with a fellow budding cineaste.
In both its emotional center as well as its devotion to the art of film, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is no doubt a passion project for Gomez-Rejon, who below dissects his personal attachment to the story and the rocky road that led up to its development.
This is a movie in a lot of ways for movie people, insofar as there are probably lots of references that many people are not going to get. Is that something that worried you? Or did you decide going into it that you wanted to make this movie for the Film Forum crowd?
It came up briefly early on. In the screenplay and the book, the references were a little more [populist]. And I didn’t want to do that. I felt that it’d been done. Since we were starting with “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” why would we have to then go to more popular, more temporary movies? If Nick Offerman is introducing them to the world of ‘Aguirre’ and The Criterion Collection, that’s our way in. It makes perfect sense. It’s naturally part of the texture of the movie. And it won’t make or break the movie. We were still nervous…actually, it was fine. I loved it. I went crazy. I said to Jesse [Andrews], “Why don’t we just write, ‘cut to: Montage of Gaines/Jackson oeuvre,’ and then we’ll just put in as many as we can at some point?” So it was just that there was never enough. How could we do Akira Kurosawa without doing Luis Buñuel? Who do you leave off? It’s impossible. I had lists. These are going to be the burn-ins. So we’ll have “Tales of Hoffmann,” and Stan Brakhage. We’ll have Charles and Ray Eames, and then we’ll have props. The Martin Scorsese book and posters, and the burn-ins, and then we have the movies. How do you squeeze all that love into one movie, because I’ll never be able to do this again? So that’s that!
So we finally get everyone behind it, and we make it, and it’s really funny, and we screen it. We screen it at the Eccles Theater [at the Sundance Film Festival], and that goes great. But a day later in Salt Lake City, we screen it for 500 high school students. That was going to be the real test. Some of them had come in on a school bus from an hour and a half outside of the city. It was a big deal for them. And the montage starts playing. You get that when you have a contemporary reference, and you get a bunch of people in New York City that are friends and family who are going to get it. It was a little quiet. And they got some of them, because they’re funny. We knew it played well by the end. But afterwards, the most rewarding part was a majority of the high schoolers wanted to go out and find the movies. And that was the most beautiful part of this whole thing.
And that’s in the tradition of Scorsese. You have a meeting with him, he mentions a director or a movie you haven’t seen, and you’ll get it the next day. That’s something I try to do myself and have been for a while. But then all of a sudden to have a movie wherein people will rediscover Powell and Pressburger, that’s the greatest love-letter from me to Thelma Schoonmaker. So there was never a lot of pressure to change it, but there was some nerves in how it was going to be received. We realized that the movie played great with those obscure references. And even if they didn’t get it, it did inspire some curiosity, which is even better.
There’s a ton in the movie, but were there any that you conceived that didn’t make it to the final cut?
Not many. A few more were made. “Pittsburghaqatsi” [a parody of The Qatsi Trilogy], which was really funny but didn’t really work without the Philip Glass music. “La Jelee,” instead of “La Jetee.” It was just a shot of Jell-O. [Laughs] There were a few things, but I think what’s in the movie was just enough to get the spirit.
You mentioned Scorsese already; I know that you’ve worked alongside him, Norah Ephron and Alejandro González Iñárritu. I was wondering if anything you learned from them lent in particular to the vision of this film.
It’s hard not to. It was all-access to these legends. Ultimately, the way you see the world is through your own lens, but you do learn a lot [through] their approach. When I was on “Casino,” I used to get the sides every day and I used to draw my own storyboards. I had Scorsese’s shot list in the script, so I would study that. But you come in cold and look at the set, so as an exercise I would doodle “how would I approach this?” Then I would watch him do it his way. And I’d just learn so much. You get to observe little things. How they treat the crew, how they approach a sequence, how they get out of a jam, how they fight for a certain shot. You soak it all in. Eventually, you find a solution to a problem 20 years later that reminds you of something Nora did on set in 1997. You never know when these things are going to come out, because they’re everywhere around you.
But ultimately, what I learned from was their humility and their generosity. That was key. And they’re so humble, and always so nurturing, and always treated me like a colleague when I was just a kid. And they had faith in me always. It’s that humility and that generosity that they shared, even though their styles —Ephron’s approach to film and Scorsese’s and Iñárritu’s— are completely different. When I worked with Alejandro on “21 Grams,” I was still coming from Scorsese’s school. And his approach is very different, especially on that film. It took me a while to understand his approach. And I got it. Eventually, you find solutions on television, where you have to work really fast and where you get a script the day before. It’s only through those experiences that you’re able to exercise finally what you like and don’t like, and what works for you and doesn’t work for you.
Speaking of television, I think a lot of people were surprised to see you jump from “American Horror Story,” and your horror feature “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” to something like “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” I was wondering what remained consistent among these projects, and what changed when you jumped from the horror genre to a movie like this one?
This was going to be my first movie, but it didn’t come together in time. It fell apart and then came back together. And that’s when Ryan Murphy took me out to dinner. He had already showed me the script, and I said, “well, there’s another movie I might be doing.” And when it fell apart —and he knows I’ve been trying to make movies for a while; they’re just hard to get off the ground— he said, “I know you’re trying to make your ‘Citizen Kane,’ but maybe you should make your ‘Boxcar Bertha’ first.” And it hurt a little bit, because I was trying to make very ambitious films. Although this was not as ambitious, but it was a tricky film to get off the ground. What I liked about “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” is that it was on some level a movie celebrating movies again. I don’t think I can make a movie without an insert of a projector or a lens. It was a movie defined by a town defined by a movie. I found that quite interesting as a way to do this “The Last Picture Show” feel for a horror movie that was not found-footage or anything like that. I thought “I think I could do something about this.” It was a border town, and I’m from a border town. I was forcing a lot of connections. But I also thought, “I’m going to embrace this moment and have some fun with this movie. Maybe it is a ‘Boxcar Bertha.’” At the end of the movie, they go to a double feature: It’s the original movie and “Boxcar Bertha.”
But deep down, I needed to make a personal film. I was searching for a personal hook into that. And it’s a stretch. But I found it, and it was that connection with my love of movies that could define this particular horror film. But I desperately needed to tell a personal story. I was dying inside for a lot of other reasons. I was in deep denial and needed to finally express myself and get closer to the kinds of personal films that I always wanted to make. Scorsese’s films are personal films, no matter how big or small they are. That’s the tradition and those are the filmmakers that inspired me. So finally, with “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” when it finally came together, I was going to go in scared, because I was going to try to say something and document what I’m feeling. And hopefully be comforting, or comforted, by the end of that whole process.
So how did making “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” beforehand help you to develop “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” better than you would have if it had been your debut feature?
Scorsese at one point said in his experience making “Boxcar Bertha” that sometimes it wasn’t pleasant, but it taught him how to make his next film, which it did. First of all, you’re not a first-time filmmaker anymore. You learn so much dealing with that process, especially dealing with the studios behind the films. How that world works. You learn what you like and you don’t like, and what you need as a director. You realize after going through one experience and learning so much that you want to make sure you learn from those mistakes when you make the next one.
And what I tried to do with “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” was to create an environment where I felt safe and protected. Because it was going to be such a personal journey, you want to have an environment that inspires freedom and feels safe. Which is the same thing I always like to do for the cast. Like with any first film, you learn so much about yourself and the process. It does make it easier to make the second one, especially if you’re going to make a personal movie.
That reception to that film just kind of came and went. And you don’t think you’re going to work again. And then a year later, I’m here with you. That’s just the nature of the business. But there’s also something to be said about telling personal stories. Maybe people now are listening to your voice and can hear you and what you have to say…
It’s a pretty big deal that you got Brian Eno to score your film. I wanted to hear about how you convinced him to do it, and why you thought he’d be the perfect choice for “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”
The last scene that we shot was the hospital scene. The animated film [animators] Edward Bursch and Nathan O. Marsh and myself had been working on it since preproduction. And we scored it to “The Big Ship.” So we played it on the last day. Originally, I wanted to only score it with music from other movies. And some of it is there. You can see “The 400 Blows” is there, “The Conversation” is there, and a lot of movies are there. But this one was one that had such a power in it, but it wasn’t overwhelming, sentimental or saccharine in any way. It didn’t force you to feel anything either. There’s something very powerful about it. And we played that short and the music for something like 14 hours. It never got old. There’s something very handmade about it, which was in line with the rest of the movie. The rest of the movie has this very handmade quality to it. So I called my editor and said “we should download (Eno’s album) Another Green World. Something’s happening here that’s really magical. I’m not sure what it is.” Magical is the wrong word, but something was feeling right.
So when I saw his first assembly, [the editor] already had “I’ll Come Running,” and a few other things were there. And then some that didn’t work —like “The Ascent” was too heavy. That was the wrong direction to take it in because it’s so severe. So our assistant editor Zared Shai gave me a drive with decades’ worth of Eno’s music. I took weeks to listen to everything. And of course you think you have it all, then you find another decade, and another thing he did, and another. He’s done so much work. So I spent a lot of time listening to music, pulling tracks and sections of tracks. There’s an eight-minute piece that doesn’t work at all, then you find a gem towards the end. Eno just became the sound of the movie, because it was working. I didn’t want to have contemporary pop songs, because I feared that would date the movie. I wanted this kind of timeless quality.
And then when [music supervisor] Randy Poster saw the movie —and I was hoping that he would take the movie on— he was very moved by it. He started talking about composers, and I said, “Well, let’s just try Eno.” And he said, “Eno doesn’t do that.” And he kept pitching other composers. And I said “can we just give it a shot?” And he said, “yeah, let’s give it a shot.” He got Eno’s agent to watch the movie, and he really liked it. Then he sent it to Eno; Eno liked it. I was asked to send him an email, via his reps. And then I woke up to an email from him that is now framed on my wall. The way he was in a paragraph able to tell me what my movie was about, because he felt how lifelike these two emotional currents are. He called it the bitter and the sweet. He had a beautiful way of describing the film and how it’s very similar to what he aspires to with his own music. So he felt a kinship in what we were trying to do.
And he loved the way his music was being used. I have yet to meet him; it just became this dialogue in emails. Then I would email him something like, “Thanks!” And I would work on these emails for a week, just to make sure it was perfect. Thoughtful, not too funny because I don’t know what his humor is. And then he started sending me unreleased music. I would get CDs with unreleased music. And one of them, that he retitled “Reflections,” is these beautiful vibrations that we use twice in the film. It was so powerful. And then by the end he started writing original music for us. It was an unexpected discovery of my own that Eno was right for it. And he felt the same way. You can’t plan these things. If you try to get Eno to score your movie when you’re in preproduction, it’ll never happen. It would have been so painful to then have had to replace all his music with a new score a month before Sundance. His contribution became so essential to the film. The sound of it didn’t force emotion. It was neutral in a lot of ways. It carried you through the film without forcing you to feel. It was very respectful of us. Sometimes I hate it when you can tell that a cue is trying to make you smile, or is trying to make you laugh…this was almost another character. It felt like somebody was carrying you throughout the film.
I think that there will be an inevitable comparison that people will make with this movie and “The Fault in Our Stars,” which only came out a year ago. Do you think this might hurt “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”?
I’m so powerless when it comes to that. I haven’t read the novel. The movie came out in the middle of our shoot, so I purposely didn’t want to see it. I hadn’t shot the hospital scenes. I just wanted to make sure that we weren’t shooting in the same buildings. They shot in Pittsburgh too. But they’re so different. And because my way is so personal, and because the DNA of the movie was so different, I just didn’t worry about it. We’re lucky if people discover the movie because of that comparison, because it was such a successful movie. And if because of that, two kids in the middle of nowhere discover Powell and Pressburger, because someone compared it to “Fault in Our Stars,” then everybody wins! But I don’t resent it in the least bit. I think they’re two different movies. But I see that comparison as a compliment. People will discover when they see it how different each film is, but hopefully find it comforting in a different way.
A lot of the conversations surrounding “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” coming out of the Sundance Film Festival involved referring to it as a “very Sundance movie.” Were you ever worried about this as a limiting connotation?
If you asked me this before my Sundance experience, I would have said yes. I didn’t want this to be thought of as this tiny little thing. After the Sundance experience, I changed my mind. What Sundance means to me now is so different. I did not want to leave because I was getting to see a lot of films, I was meeting a lot of directors, and being part of a movement. I felt I was part of something. I’ve never been that guy that does the festival circuit with shorts or whatever. I come from a different world. So all of a sudden, you feel like you’re one of these filmmakers out there this year that’s part of this festival. And you’re getting to meet them, you’re getting to see their work, and it’s very humbling because their work is extraordinary. My perception of Sundance is completely different now. If they want to call it “Sundancey”…Sundance means so much more now after living through it and being treated the way I have been.
I’m weird at parties. I walk in and I’m looking for my exit. So I’d go to these little cocktail parties for directors who got into Sundance, and everyone’s talking to each other and I’m pretending to text. So Trevor Groth spotted me very early on and always went out of his way to make sure he was talking to me or carrying me somewhere else. It was very comforting to be part of something that was helping me get through this process. By the end, they had me on this little TV talk show with him and he was so surprised at how far I had come as a human being. All of a sudden, the movie is giving you confidence! It’s easier to talk about. People are seeing your film and know what you have to say.
“Me And Earl And The Dying Girl” opens in limited release this weekend.
Bonus: Here’s a 1 hour and 10 minute “The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith” talk with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.