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”).
[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 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.
The second VHS I bought was “Blue Velvet.”
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.
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.