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Springboard: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon on Moving From TV to Owning Sundance With ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’

Springboard: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon on Moving From TV to Owning Sundance With 'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl'

Indiewire’s Springboard column profiles up-and-comers in the film industry worthy of your attention.

No filmmaker left their mark at this year’s Sundance Film Festival quite like Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, whose “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” emerged as the major discovery of the event, winning both the Grand Jury Prize (U.S. Dramatic) and Audience Award, just like “Whiplash” did in 2014.

The film is Gomez-Rejon’s first major breakout, but he’s no novice. Prior to directing the teen weepie, he worked as a personal assistant and directed second unit for Martin Scorsese, Nora Ephron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. He also worked extensively with “Glee” and “American Horror Story” creator Ryan Murphy on his hit two shows, earning two Emmy nominations for “American Horror Story: Coven.” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” marks Gomez-Rejon’s sophomore feature following his remake of the cult classic “The Town That Dreaded Sundown.” The film was produced by Murphy and Jason Blum (“Paranormal Activity”).

Fox Searchlight opens “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” on June 12. Watch the film’s trailer and hear from the in-demand filmmaker below:

[Sundance] didn’t feel real. I even look back at it and I still don’t understand it entirely and how it happened and why it happened. I’ve been PA-ing since 1990 and slowly crawling my way up to features, so I had very little expectations. I think what worked in my favor was that I had the flu and I was incredibly sick and didn’t have a voice, barely.

I’ve been around for a while, but now everyone’s sort of able to hear my voice as a filmmaker.

I think I’ve done some good work on television, I’m not sure, but sometimes in TV you can kill yourself making something and sometimes people dismiss it because you’re just part of the machine. That’s hurtful for someone who really wants to have a voice in the medium.

Personally, the film was born out of what I was feeling and struggling with the grieving process with my father. To have the film screen at Sundance — that was the first time with the dedication to my father at the end — that can be very public. Talking about that became part of a healing process as well because I’m keeping him alive by talking about him and how much he meant to me. It changed me on so many levels as a son, as a man and obviously as a filmmaker.

Everything starts with [Martin] Scorsese. He was the way into, oh god, everybody.

The second VHS I bought was “Blue Velvet.”

Nick Pileggi came in and saw the film in the cutting room and was very moved by it. We both felt the same thing, that we hoped Nora [Ephron] could have seen it. Nora meant so much to me in really treating me like a colleague. She was the reason I can call myself a director: She forced Paramount and studios into hiring me as her second unit director, and getting me into the DGA on her film.

Marty was very proud of the film. He’s very proud of me. He called me from a mountain in Taipei after it won Sundance; he’s up there shooting a film. And that means the world to me.

Thelma Schoonmaker came in and saw a cut of the film, and Alejandro [Gonzales Innaritu] just saw it a couple of weeks ago and wrote me the most beautiful email. Maybe it means that they’re starting to see my voice shine through in my work, and maybe that makes them happy. I don’t know. All I know is that their support and their words mean so much to me.

If people discover our film because of “Fault in Our Stars,” then maybe they’ll appreciate that we’re so different, and understand it and hopefully be moved by the movie as well. We are very different movies, and if people want to put us in a box and label then that’s fine. I was the horror guy before I was able to make this, and before that I was the musical theater guy because of “Glee.” So I get it. But “Fault in Our Stars” reached so many people, and we could only dream of that kind of success. If they do that, they’ll also discover Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and Truffaut and Herzog. So we all win. 
I have to give Ryan Murphy so much credit because from the very first episode of “Glee” that I shot in the first season, he said, “Shake up the style. Do whatever you want. If someone says, ‘You can’t do it,’ tell them that I wanted it.” He let me be very creative and gave me a lot of creative freedom as a director.

I was lucky that in “Glee” and “American Horror Story,” it really was a director-friendly environment where you could put your stamp on it and you could experiment and you’d never have to stick with the rules of the pilot. Especially with “American Horror Story,” you kept breaking those rules and going bolder and bolder in the design. That was great fun for me.

The joy of film is that you have time to prepare and you have the opportunity to tell a personal story. That’s the biggest difference with this film.

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

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