Weakened by chemotherapy, Rachel (Olivia Cooke) sits quietly next to Greg (Thomas Mann) in one
of many masterfully nuanced scenes in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon‘s “Me and Earl
and the Dying Girl.” Hoping to lighten the solemn mood of the moment,
and as the only defense mechanism he has mastered, our protagonist
appeals to humor. It momentarily works. and a smile is briefly drawn on
the dying girl’s face. But soon she complaints that the very act of
laughing causes her pain. That which is meant to be a source of joy is
quickly transformed into anguish. Pleasure and hurt, for a moment, as
one, but eternally part of a fascinating continuum.
are all a joke away from hysterical laughter and a moment removed from
devastating despair. In between these extremes is where most of life
happens, and where most of “Me and Earl” occurs as well. To survive “the
best of times and the worst of times” we have to walk the rest of the
road that connects them and separates in fluctuating patterns
can turn to tears and sadness can be channeled through comedy. It’s
the ups and downs, the successes and failures, our horrible mistakes and
our ability for redemption, the things we did and those we didn’t, the
regrets and the memories, all building blocks of a longer experience
that resembles just what Rachel is feeling.
while Greg is on his way to learn that, Dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon already
knows a few things about the bittersweet journey, one that has had no
short cuts and has been 25 years in the making. Tainted by personal loss
but coated with determination, or in Spanish determinación, every step
has revolved about cinema and and a love for it that only the greats can
felt head over heels for “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” at an 8:30
AM screening that I almost didn’t make. I wasn’t in the best of shapes to
sit through a film. Hungover, sleep deprived, and barely standing after
almost ten intense days of Sundance. The film played and I was skeptical, but it
took mere minutes for it to lure me into it’s magic. About 100 minutes
later a big part of the theater, myself included, wept in the dark. We
had laughed, we had felt for Greg, had had a riot with Earl (RJ Cyler), rooted for Rachel, and at last we cried. We, had, in the length of what seemed
like just a movie about teenage filmmakers and a heroine with leukemia,
It was difficult to tell anyone if what I had watched was a
comedy or a drama. I was stunned. It was laughing and then hurting, like falling and
getting back up again, and it was about movies, and love, but not
romantic love, but a purer one. It was about friendship and being afraid
of it. It was about growing up and about compassion. It was about me,
and about the woman three rows in front, and about the programmers who
picked it, and about that Hollywood buyer who surely saw it and lost
composure. I needed to know who was behind this and why I couldn’t take a
certain non-verbal scene and Brian Eno’s music out of my head.
when you write about film you see tons of them. You get to see some
great ones, some forgettable ones, and some you wish you could forget. But
it had been a long time since a film caught me by surprise this way. It took me back to a midday screening in 2002 at a theater in Mexico
City, where I watched a little French film titled “Amelie” for the first time. At 13, I was elated. Though Jeunet’s film is extremely
different from Gomez-Relon’s Sundance champ, that feeling of having
witnessed something special and beaming with passion was the same.
after, during my first interview with the filmmaker from Laredo, Texas, I
would learn that his love for his deceased father was the most potent
fuel to make this project, and not only to make it, but to make it his own
even if he hadn’t penned the screenplay. That fact is testament
to a talent forged out relentless and aggressive strives to learn from and
work with the best. From Scorsese, one of cinema’s greatest, to recent
Oscar-winner Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu.
that initial interview the focus was, of course, the film that would go on to
win big at the prestigious festival. Months later, just after the trailer was released, I had the
chance to see the film once again at the Fox lot. I needed to know if
here in L.A., away from the Park City hype, the film would still be as much of revelation for me. In a tiny screening room accompanied by only 3 other
people, I found myself discovering new things in each frame, but again
reacting as strongly, both in laughter and tears, as the first time
the Los Angeles press day my exchanges with Alfonso were limited as I
was part of a round table with a handful of other eager journalist, but I
was just as impressed with his sincere answers. June 12th came around, and I flooded my social media with pieces about the film: a review, an
interview with Jesse Andrews, and my first chat with the filmmaker
published in Spanish. It was my mission to make anyone that wasn’t yet aware of the film, nit just aware, but excited to see it. Championing films is occasionally part of the job, but I was, and still am, under this film’s spell in a much more personal manner.
Last weekend the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP) Media Summit
came around, and among the numerous panels focused on the Latino
presence in audiovisual media in the U.S, there was one that included Gomez-Rejon entitled “A Filmmaker’s Guide.” I had
no doubt that he would be insightful and eloquent during this
conversation, and he was. Still, I felt like I needed to use the opportunity to
write something not specifically about “Me and Earl,” but rather on the journey
to it and the person behind this film that had shaken me.
Friday, immediately following his panel with Lucas Smith from Endgame Entertainment and Tilane Jones from AFFRM, I got a chance to talk one-on-one once again with the director. He recognized me from our previous
encounters along the way, and was, not surprisingly, incredibly friendly, personable
and humble. We ended the conversation speaking in Spanish, which he
speaks not only fluently but perfectly, and I left the W Hotel with a new kind of inspiration and even more reasons to champion the film, which,
honest to God, I rewatched that same night with a friend who hadn’t
For those who are still reading, please excuse the length of this introduction, but as my personal journey with the film continues, I felt compelled to explain why this interview felt crucial. The film, like few, keeps unfolding itself to me even now.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is now playing across the U.S
Aguilar: Often times interviews happen prior
to the film’s release, but “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is out there now. How
are you doing now that the film is in theaters for more people to see?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: The work isn’t over. There is “Jurassic
World,” ” Inside Out,” and “Ted 2,” so we just have to
survive. We are a little movie. The work isn’t over and that’s why I’m
glad we are talking about it because we still have to remind people that it’s out
there. We need to remind young teenagers that there is another movie to watch.
We need to keep the dialogue going or we are going to be forgotten.
panel you were a part of was about the filmmaker’s journey. Tell me about the
beginning of your journey. Was it a crazy idea to want to be a filmmaker being
from a small town?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: Yes, it was
crazy but I was determined. When I was 12 I decided that I was going to be a
director, that’s a long time ago. Then when I got to New York I was vey, very
shy. Incredibly introverted. I showed up to NYU two weeks early for
orientation, and our cafeteria wasn’t opened in my residence hall, which was
Weinstein, and you had to cross the park to get to this other place called
Hayden Hall. I was terrified.
You are that new kid, no one is talking to
you because you are so shy, and the idea of walking through the cafeteria was
terrifying. Is like the shot in [“Me and Earl”], that’s exactly the feeling.
You had to cross Washington Square Park to get to the other place. As I was walking
I saw they were shooting “Sesame Street” in the park, and I never made it to
the cafeteria. I stayed there all day until the line producer called me over
and asked me for my information. I told her who I was and she put me to work.
Stopping people, like traffic. Two days later she asked me back for a music
video, and the next week another music video. So before school started I
already had three PA credits. That’s how I started and I kept using those credits
to get more work, and more work, and more work.
home, was your decision to become a filmmaker something that everyone was OK
with? I feel that perhaps for someone coming from a Latino background
filmmaking can sometimes seem like a farfetched idea. I speak from experience.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: They were of
course nervous because it was such a new idea to become a filmmaker. Even
though my father was a physician, they always encouraged the arts. Both of my
parents always exposed us to the arts. We would go to museums or the theater in
San Antonio, Mexico City, or Nuevo Laredo. There were a lot of cultural events
on the Mexican side, the Texas side not so much. But Nuevo Laredo always had
cultural events: opera, ballet, and music. My uncle was a composer and my dad
was always reciting poetry. My dad only became a physician because when he was
on his way to sing at the radio station, while his sister played the piano, he
was hit by a streetcar. It sent him to the hospital for a year or a year and a
half. That changed his life because he was deeply mentored by a doctor. That
changed him, but he was always still an artist.
My older brother became a musician, so there goes one, and
then my sister becomes a fine artist –a sculptor and eventually a chef. Now she
has a company called artbites.net, where she teaches art history with hands-on
cooking classes. We are all two years apart, so every two years my parents got
hit with something. By the time I said I was going to be an artist they had softened
a little bit because my brother and sister had kind of paved the way. But I was
still the hope that maybe I would be the doctor. Then I told them that I knew I
wanted to be a director, and that not only did I know I wanted to be a
director, but I knew exactly what school I wanted to go to, and that I was so
determined, I was going to apply for early admission and if I got in that was
got in and I was off. They saw that I was determined. By the time I came home
for Christmas after the first semester I had already worked on a handful of
productions, I was already getting paid to storyboard short films, and I was P.A.’ing
in a film that went on to win at Sundance called “In the Soup.” They
saw how aggressive I was. By senior year I was already working for Scorsese. I
was very determined.
Aguilar: That’s an amazing journey.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: But the thing is that I was still the shy
kid who had no friends at NYU. When I made my shorts all my friends were in
production outside of school, and they were all older because I was driving
trucks, I was craft service, or I was storyboarding. I was very comfortable in
a set, I was not comfortable walking into a classroom or walking into a
cafeteria. It was quite terrifying, to this day [Laughs]. I sweat before I go
to one of these things, but production; forget about it, I love it.
Aguilar: I think my cinematic epiphany
happened when I was around 12 or 13 and I watched Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s
“Amelie.” I grew up watching lots of film, but that one blew me away
and I knew film was the one thing that I wanted to be involved with forever. What
film was it for you?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: There were like one, two, three, maybe four
sequential films. The first movie that I became obsessed with was Richard Donner’s
“Superman,” but then the big moments were after -this is the early
80’s on the border so it was the beginning of the VHS revolution. My older
brother was into music so all the movie knowledge I got was through my friend’s
older brothers. One of them lent me a copy of “Apocalypse Now,” so
that was a big deal.
Then I started to watch all the movies I could on VHS, but
when I discovered “Mean Streets” that’s the one that changed me
forever. I had seen “Raging Bull,” I’d seen “After Hours, “
and I’d seen a few other things by [Martin Scorsese], and then I found my way
back to “Mean Streets.” I remember looking at the box. It was white
with a gun and all this stuff. That’s when I realized how personal it was. As a
fine artist I was drawn to composition and technique. I would count the cuts.
Like the scene where the keys are thrown out the window, and you can count
those 7 cuts. I enjoyed the craft, but “Mean Streets” was also very
personal. I was really startled by how much it was about me even though I was
from a completely different world. That was the first time I had seen
Catholicism or catholic iconography being documented in a very contemporary way
and I was questioning things.
led to his work becoming an obsession. I revisited all his movies and I
realized where he went to school, and that’s where I went. The summer before I went
to NYU – I had already been
accepted, – I was very nervous because I was 17 from a small town. Everyone was
scared for me. That summer “Do the Right Thing” came out and I saw
it. I was in Corpus Christi where my parents bought a place on the beach in the
60s. My mom still has it, which has always been like a refuge. The best
investment anyone ever made. [Laughs] If you needed a getaway it was right
there. Every summer we would go there, and I would go to the movies by myself,
first feature, and I saw “Do the Right Thing” and that was huge. He
had also gone to NYU, so then I felt comforted, “I’m going to the right
Aguilar: The eternal debate between film school or no film school? You went to film school and also learned a lot p.a.’ing for the greats. What’s your take?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: It’s hard for me to tell you about film
school because in film school in 1990 there is no internet. NYU Film School was
the way to learn about film, to be exposed to film, to go to repertory houses,
to be exposed to New York and see films. I would go to the library and
see one, two or three movies a day. You have YouTube now, but in this library
they had little tiny TVs with a headset and you could pick what to watch from
thousands of movies. That’s how you would learn film history. To me film school
was film history because there weren’t a lot of books out there that I had
access to. Except Scorsese on Scorsese, the first edition.
Aguilar: It’s in the movie. Greg has it in his room.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: It’s in the movie! It was a big thing for me
because I was trying to watch every movie he referenced. NYU was good for me in
that regard. It was also good for me because it throws you in a competitive
atmosphere. That’s when you know what you are made of, because you might be intimidated
by people’s attitudes and looks – they have their fucking hats and their manicured
things, and the hair – and then when their movies don’t work or they don’t have
a vision, you are less intimidated as opposed to…
Suddenly we were interrupted by someone from NALIP who asked me to go with him to do some photo session or something of the sort. I thought he was kidding until we realized he thought I was Alfonso, who was, of course, the one that had to go get some photos taken. The confusion was funny and strange, and after it was decided that the request could wait, we continued.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: Where were we?
Film school, you were telling me about NYU and why was it good for you.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: Oh yeah, that’s film school in 1990. I don’t
know what it’s like today because you have access to everything now. It’s
crazy! You can watch anything on YouTube. But I still think that being thrown
in a very competitive environment where you really have to see what you are
made of – certainly when you come out of nowhere – was god for me. Then there
are the relationships you make. All of the friends I made in grad school are
the closest ones that I have now. But back then I made maybe one or two good
friends at NYU and a very strong relationship with my teacher David Irving, who
really, really mentored me. He is the one that went to the cutting room even on
this one. He came out here for the premiere and for the one out here. But I think
film school is important, I don’t know. What do you think?
Aguilar: I think sometimes it’s mostly a
matter of financial constraints.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: I took out loans and I think I finally
finished paying them off like two years ago. But it gave me the opportunity to
be surrounded by these people. It’s a very realistic microcosm or a mini reality
of what the industry is like, because you are up against these people that can
be sometimes very intimidating, very LOUD, very type A, and I’m not the
opposite, but ultimately is only the work that matters and you get to know
different people. That process is very hard sometimes when you fail over and
over again, then there is the part when you succeed and what that feels like.
But more than anything going there allowed be to work in New York City in
production, that’s what really made me.
Aguilar: Did being
Latino ever play a role or were there other Latinos going to film school with you? Or maybe it was never anything that concerned you?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: The thing is
that I don’t remember. Because I grew up in a Mexican environment, in the Texas
side but it was like Mexico. It was an environment where we only spoke Spanish.
We weren’t allowed to speak English. My parents were very protective of being
from the border but not forgetting Spanish or English and turning it into “Spanglish,”
or becoming a different culture. They were very, very protective, but it was a
very small border, we would practically just cross the street and it was Mexico. All of my family is
on the Mexican side, my grandparents, my cousins, and half my friends, because
I went to school on this side and that was one half, but the other half was in
Mexico. It was half on both sides.
I was never a minority, I was there and then
I went to New York. So you are never aware that you are less or more than
anything else. I just went there because I wanted to be a director. That’s it. I
just wanted to make movies, but I never though about, “How am I being
perceived because of my culture or my skin?” It never occurred to me.
Sometimes you are reminded of that elsewhere. I made a couple of commercials in
Mexico City and there, when they know I’m from the border they think less of me
or they say something about me being less. It’s funny but that’s the only town
I’ve felt discrimination.
Aguilar: I’m from Mexico City. Apologies, I think I know what type of people you are referring to. [Laughs]
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: From Mexico City? Well they say things like
“Chicano” or other things like that, and that’s quite hurtful because
they say it in a very derogatory way. And Chicano is not my culture. That’s
“a” culture from the border, and they have a way of dismissing
everyone from the border. There are Mexicans, there are Texans, there are
Mexican-Americans, there are Chicanos, there are all these things that happen
in the border and that’s what makes it such an interesting environment.
was at a dinner party in Mexico City once, and they said, “Any Mexican
that’s from the United States is Chicano,” they made this very broad
generalization and they were talking me down. I got into a very heated argument
because when you are from [the border] it never happens, but outside of that there
are those random experiences that I’ve had later in my life. I was only driven
to be the best and it was very disheartening sometimes that it took me so long
to start getting my voice heard. That certainly started with television, but it
was never because of where I came from, it was because people saw something in
Aguilar: Would you ever make a film in
Spanish or with Latino characters?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: Yes! I want to. I’m developing like two of
them right now. One of them is mainly in English but it takes place on the
border so there are like three languages: Spanish, Spanglish, and English.
Aguilar: It’s interesting that you list
Spanglish as a language on it’s own.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: There are different levels of Spanglish
[Laughs]. The border is very interesting because there are so many levels of so
many different kinds of languages that are spoken. You have Texans that speak
better Spanish than Mexican-Americans, and you have Mexicans that NEVER learned
English who are prospering or who are millionaires on the Texas side. It’s so
complicated and it’s very unique. But I was always raised appreciating all of
it and recognizing why my parents fought so hard to maintain our language at
home. It defines you, but because you are in the border you always have to
redefine who you are to anyone outside of the border. It’s so complex.
Aguilar: In your experience, what’s the level of creative freedom in TV compared to film? What did you learn working on TV that helped you once you started making feature films?
Gomez-Rejon: in both of them I’m always
liked experimenting. TV is so fast. “American Horror Story,” and
“Glee” as well actually, but “American Horror Story” really
allows you to experiment because the camera is very much a character, and
you set a look and a tone, and you keep pushing it. I think you only fail Ryan
Murphy if you don’t push it enough or if you just do it easy and move on.
He really likes it when you are trying to come up with the
images. As a director who loves the camera you learn a lot. When you make these
movies – both “Town” and “Earl,” which are small movies, I
think “Town” was 25 days and “Earl” was 23 days – you have
to know how far you and push it and what is the right thing for them. Both of
them are, in some ways, celebrating movies. “Town” is about a town
defined by a movie, and I like that. It’s really fun and we intercut the movie
and all that. With all it’s flaws, I did the best I could and I think I was somewhat
intimidated by the system. But it was the best I could have done.
and Earl” is about a young filmmaker in control of the movie. He is
telling you a story and he is seducing you into this story. He is telling you,
“This is what high school feels like” and he is very aggressive, but
he starts to learn to pay attention and he starts to lose control. Then the
movie becomes quite quiet and somewhat handheld. I think TV gave
were TV shows that were very unconventional, like “How am I going to
interpret this musical sequence in ‘Glee’?” And if you can make the day,
you can do whatever you want. That’s how Ryan has it. In “American Horror
Story” I had these fever-dream-sequences or nightmare sequences, if I
could make the day, then I could do whatever I wanted. That’s the kind of
atmosphere they create, so then you take that with you and you learn, “How
far can I push it on ‘Earl’ before I have to bring it back into total
stillness?” That was the lesson, and TV gives you that opportunity
Aguilar: What was the first thing that came to mind when you found out you were on the cover of Filmmaker
Magazine? And also that you are the first ever Latino filmmaker on that cover.
Gomez-Rejon: I thought it was a joke. Some friends of mine, from Texas
actually, told me about it. They sent me a link to a website that a photo of it
but I though that somebody had photo-shopped it. I asked Fox and the publicist
on the movie about it, and they didn’t know either because it was never
supposed to be a cover story. It was only going to be an article. They looked into it and they verified
it was real [Laughs].
I guess at the very last minute Filmmaker decided to make it
a cover story without letting anyone know, so it was a shocked for all of us.
It’s so flattering. It’s amazing. I can’t believe it. And it’s also one of the
worst pictures in history. It was taken at Sundance, the day before we
premiered on a Saturday, I hadn’t slept in three days, and I had a fever. I
remember taking that picture for, I don’t know probably Getty or I don’t know
whom it was for. I look 100 years old, with the biggest bags under my eyes, but
I’ll take it. [Laughs]. But I didn’t know that I was one of the first Latinos
on the cover.
Aguilar: As far
as I know you are the first and only so far.
Gomez-Rejon: It doesn’t make any sense
this your first cover ever?
Aguilar: Did you
buy or asked for a hundred copies to send to everyone you know?
Gomez-Rejon: [Laughs] No, but it was funny because when we were on the
press tour, every time we’d go to a new train station, Thomas, Olivia, RJ, and
I -like if we went from Washington to Philly or Philly to New York – we would
always meet a representative from Fox and then they’ll take us through the day.
But Thomas had this habit of the second we’d walk down to the
train station he’ll pull out a copy of Filmmaker Magazine and hold it up to
make it easier for the representative to find us. It was very funny. It was
mostly him trying to embarrass me. [Laughs].
Aguilar: Now that you mention Thomas, filmmaking is very personal for his character, Greg. He uses films to express his love for those around him and to relate to them very uniquely. Was this part of what attracted you to the film?
Gomez-Rejon: Yes it did, because I saw it as an opportunity to make a
personal film as well. Just like he was making a film and trying to find his
voice, I was trying to do the same. He was making a film for Rachel, and I,
very secretly at first, was making a film for my father. That became a very
public thing after I dedicated it to him, and it started a whole new round of
questions about him that I wasn’t prepared for. I started to talk about it, and
the more I talked about it the more alive he was. He is everywhere now, just
like Rachel is everywhere. I’ve been living the lesson of the movie. That’s
what attracted me to the film, because I identified with Greg and I wanted to
take his journey. It was very personal for me.
Aguilar: At what point in the process did you decide to dedicate the film to your father? It must have made an already emotional film even more emotional for you.
Gomez-Rejon: It was a very private thing, not a lot of people new why I
was making it. At the very last minute I wanted to add a dedication to my
father, but I wanted to bury at the end of the film. Just to put it very
quietly and privately at the end of the credits. Then my producer Jeremy Dawson
said,” Make it the first credit,” and I said, “Are you sure?” He said, “Yes! Make
it the first credit.”
The language, “For my father,” I took from Scorsese’s film “The
Age of Innocence, “ which he dedicated to his father. It says “For my father.”
When I saw that in 1993, I thought, “I hope I’m never in that position.” Then
here I am. I wasn’t prepared to talk about it at Sundance. It caught me off
guard. It was hard during the first few interviews, then you get used it.
Aguilar: Has the
film premiered in Laredo?
Gomez-Rejon: Wednesday July 1st
Aguilar: Are you
prepared for the experience of watching the film in your hometown?
Gomez-Rejon: I’m trying to go but I’m still doing some press here. We are
doing an event on the 16th of July there, so I think I’m going to
take a week off and hang out there. We are trying to raise money to save this
beautiful art deco movie theater called The Plaza, which is a movie theater
downtown Laredo. It’s a beautiful building that’s been abandoned and we are
trying to renovate it. We are starting a new campaign to restore it and hopefully
make it a venue for independent film and maybe a local festival. They are
starting that campaign with a screening of “Me and Earl” and I’m very excited.
It’s quite humbling.
Is perseverance the most important quality to make it and to stay focused even when it took several years to start making features?
Gomez-Rejon: It is perseverance, but
it’s not always easy. I’d lost my way over time but I realized that I want to
tell personal stories. What I did with “Me and Earl” was to do
something personal with it, what I was feeling. That allows your voice to be
heard. Like Greg’s little movie within the movie, I felt like I was coming into
It’s been really invigorating, but it’s been a process. Some
people have been lucky to find it very early. I took my own path and it led to
this, as long as I try to not forget that and not to get seduces by other
things for the wrong reasons I’ll OK. Yeah, maybe is perseverance and listening
to that voice inside so you don’t get seduced by other things.
For a period of time, for like a year, I had written
something with a friend of mine that was very specific and hysterical. Then all
of a sudden we were seduced by chasing writing jobs because of the money and
other reasons, and these projects were all this broad comedies. We spent a year
taking meetings until we realized, “We’ll always lose those jobs to the
people that do those jobs well.” Like the talking parrot movie or the
talking dog movie. We had something very specific and lost a year of our lives.
I haven’t done that in directing, but at some point I knew that it was time to
go from television to more personal filmmaking, and then in the future come
back to TV but overseeing projects and doing pilots, and expressing myself that
Our time had come to and end, and I couldn’t help but shyly
asked if he would sign my “Me and Earl” poster, which I had been dragging
around the city like a treasure. Alfonso kindly agreed and signed it Spanish,
which made it all the more special. While truly grateful I wish I would had
mentioned how I discovered Scorsese watching a Spanish-dubbed version of “Taxi
Driver” on Mexican television, or how mad I was when I couldn’t get in to see “The
Last Temptation of Christ” when it finally opened in Mexico City after
being banned for over 15 years – I was to young to see it according to the
theater – and many other anecdotes I’m sure he would understand. But there
could always be another interview.
It’s clear to me that a film this personal could only come
from someone that loves film so deeply. A cinephile in the director’s chair is
the perfect scenario for brilliance and honesty. Can’t wait to see what comes
next, as I’m sure Alfonso Gomez-Rejon will keep on making cine con el corazón.