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Jesse Andrews Learned How to Write Screenplays with ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’

Jesse Andrews Learned How to Write Screenplays with 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl'

One of the breakout hits of the Sundance Film Festival,  Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” was scooped up by top studio specialty division Fox Searchlight (“Birdman”), who partnered with producer Indian Paintbrush to nail down worldwide rights to the eventual winner of both the fest’s Grand Jury and Audience prizes.
Adapted by Jesse Andrews from his 2012 young adult bestseller, the Pittsburgh-set movie brings audiences to laughter and tears, as an awkward young teen (breakout narrator-star Thomas Mann) is initially forced by his mother (“Nashville”‘s Connie Britton) to “hang out” with Rachel, a high school acquaintance (Brit Olivia Cooke) who has been diagnosed with Stage Four leukemia. 
Their budding friendship pulls him out of his carefully noncommittal clique-avoidance, and forces him to engage with and even confront his schoolmates as he rides a rollercoaster of conflicting emotions.
Structured as a diaristic account of a (thankfully) non-romantic relationship, in the movie the boy and his African-American buddy Earl (local Pittsburgh discovery RJ Cyler) reveal that they have been making short film pastiches of popular films and agree to make one for Rachel. Like Searchlight’s hit “Juno” ($231 million worldwide) and Marielle Heller’s Sundance competition title “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (which was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics), this movie relies on animation (perhaps too much so) and a cleverly unreliable narrator (Mann). This hits the younger smart moviegoer sweet spot that Searchlight knows how to tap. 
At once a coming-of-age dramedy and effective four-hankie tearjerker, “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is blessed by excellent casting, not only of the younger roles but cool grownups, including the girl’s mother (Molly Shannon), the boys’ tattooed history teacher (Jon Bernthal) and diffident foodie stay-at-home Dad (Nick Offerman). 
The filmmakers also managed to lure Brian Eno, whose score plays a significant role. 
Clearly hiring a budding novelist to adapt his own novel can work. Another model was “The Fault in Our Stars,” which was also about teenagers dealing with death, and scored more than $300 million worldwide. Sundance hit “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” is based on a graphic novel. These films are able to retain an authentic writer’s voice and strong POV. Approached by producer Dan Fogelman (screenwriter of “Cars,” “Bolt,” “Tangled,” and “Crazy Stupid Love”), Andrews had never written a script and had to acquire Final Draft. “Terminal illness is so hard for adults to process,” Andrews said at the Sundance Q & A. “And for adolescents it’s impossible.”
I talked to Andrews on the phone.

Anne Thompson: I’m going to see the film for the second time tonight.  

Jesse Andrews: The kind of movie I was hoping to make rewards repeat viewing!

How did you get to write the screenplay?

I wrote the book, but didn’t have any expectations to write the screenplay, or to hope to write it. My agent was shopping the film rights. Dan Fogelman the producer had the insane idea: “Hey, do you want to, if I was helping you, shepherding you, would that appeal to you?” I was sleeping on a couch at time.

It wasn’t published yet?

This was before it was published. He read galleys. He liked the book. Indian Paintbrush responded positively to Dan, and the writing/talent combination excited them. I’m sure if I had turned in something horrible, Dan goes in and writes it. He made himself available. I just wanted to be free to make mistakes. It was an organic process. Some mistakes needed to be fixed, some mistakes might be the reason the screenplay was distinctive and worth making. You’re not going to know until you make them.

I had no reason to believe the book would do all that well. It was a debut novel from an unknown author. It delivered some good reviews. It wasn’t on any bestseller lists. It was the sort of book that went deep into the young adult world. Barnes and Noble promoted it with displays in March 2012.

Did any of these things cut close to you in real life? 
I’m lucky enough not to have had the loss of someone so close to me. It wasn’t my story. I started writing when my grandfather was terminally ill, thinking about exchanges my mother and I were having with him. I was watching her and others go through it. You never say and do the things you wish you had said or done when someone close to you may not be around in awhile. Closure is impossible, that’s the heart of the grief you will carry with you for the rest of your life.
Did you study screenwriting?
No, nothing. I never took creative writing. I had to read a lot of screenplays to get familiar with the form. I read a number of Fogelman’s, I liked his style, discipline and economy, the seamlessness of it, the combination of art and craft, he doesn’t show the seams of the story as he’s putting it together in a deft way to build to reveal inevitable and surprising things. I learned a lot from reading the scripts and talking to him. He would pitch me an idea or two to set my mind on fire. Everything he said opened me up to possibilities.

How did you function together?

I did a bunch of drafts, and we’d talk 4 1/2 hours on the phone. It was trial and error, with a couple of inflection points, like realizing that while the book was first person, a film can never be in first person, it’s from the outside, you see the main characters as you see them, not as he sees them. That allows the movie more access to those characters, you had to know and show more about them. In the book, it’s the story of Greg learning to pay attention, which he hasn’t learned until the end, that without the other people in his life, he’s incomplete. It’s a much richer portrait in the movie, where Rachel (the dying girl) is the subject of a lot of attention.

What are the differences between the book and the movie?

Discipline, economy, collapsing exchanges into shorter more focused dialogue. A lot of profanity got lost along the way for obvious reasons, but that didn’t change much at all. 

Once Alfonso came on board I had to be willing to make changes and really focus on making myself useful. He filled in the animation, like the image of a moose stomping a chipmunk—a stop motion set piece that recurs, it captures the tone of what I wrote. 
I was writing the script with a set tone, but I didn’t want to legislate how he achieved it. Alfonso asked me questions, made the characters richer. He’d go through previous drafts and asked me to put back things he liked and make them work. He brought film knowledge to the project, for the films they make within the film, which are a more interesting collection of work than they otherwise would have been. I let him educate me to give him what he needed.

What changes did the actors bring?

The actors fill it out, add so much, not changing the feeling but the color and nuance, things you can’t legislate from the page. A good writer is trying to give opportunities to the director and actors to make their contributions.

Where do you live?

Right now I live in Boston, where I lived much of of the writing script. I’ve been in LA the last 2 years until August when I went back to Boston. I was editing for a textbook educational publisher for quite a while, which was meditative work.

Are you getting assignments now?

Yes, I have written a couple assignments and adaptations and wrote a spec, which quixotically I will attempt to direct in a year, “Empress of Serenity,” set on cruise ship, which may be a huge mistake I am going to regret. I have another young adult book coming out in the spring, “The Haters.” 

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