Last January, Me and Earl and The Dying Girl, based on Jesse Andrews novel of the same name, created quite a bit of buzz at Sundance. It was met with a standing ovation, was acquired by Fox Searchlight Pictures hours later, and won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic feature. The film’s story is simple: Greg (Thomas Mann) and his friend Earl (RJ Cyler), are high school cinephiles who spend most of their time making parodies of classic films. Life gets a little more serious when they become friends with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a classmate who has been diagnosed with cancer.
We sat down with the film’s director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon to talk about adapting Andrews’ story to the screen, the delicate balance the film strikes between tragedy and comedy, and how to avoid cliches while telling a high school coming-of-age story.
Having worked mostly in horror the last couple years, what was the best part of pursuing something like this?
Well it was a personal film. I hadn’t done that before. I hadn’t looked into myself and tried to make something out of what I was feeling, and that was a new experience. It could have taken the shape of a different genre, a different horror film or something, but this one was like a gift that appeared and I was like I get this on so many levels, I can do something with this that will represent who I am right now.
Even though we only get very brief glimpses of the film parodies, did you get the cast to watch the original films?
I was hoping that they’d watch every one of them, and that was the deal, that they’d watch every movie before the movie came out. I don’t know if they have, it’s a lot of movies to watch, but they certainly have them. They either have DVDs or I had a library in my office that you could just take whatever you want. I’m not going to question them. Thomas has done a pretty good job, he’s made dent into the films.
Were there any parodies you shot that didn’t make it into the final film?
A couple, like Pittsburghisqaatsi, that was actually really good but it didn’t work without the Phillip Glass music. In putting the montage together we scored it to 400 Blows and it was just a bit confusing. My Dinner With Andre The Giant seemed like it was quite clear, but Pittsburghisqaatsi was just kind of fast motion Pittsburgh shots that were quite funny with the Phillip Glass score and without it it’s just weird. I was okay with being obscure but at some point if it starts to hurt the movie then it’s just a little self indulgent.
There are a lot of nods to the Criterion Collection, did anyone from the company ever visit the set?
I used to do research for Criterion when I was at AFI and I also babysat Criterion’s producer’s kids when I was at AFI and would get DVDs for free. Jeremy Dawson, our producer, has a relationship with them as well, so we got a lot of stuff from them for free, also from Faber and Faber but they never paid a visit to the set. We purposely didn’t have a video village on set so we had no visitors. They would just come and they’d get bored a leave. Like an agent would come and be like ‘what do I do?’ and they’d leave. It was great.
What was the casting process like?
You need the names to get the movie financed. Connie Britton I knew from American Horror Story, she read the script and called me while I was directing a pilot and said she’d love to play Greg’s mom. So I said of course, and once you have Connie now you have a real movie, when you go to Nick Offerman you can say ‘do you want to play Connie Britton’s husband?’ It’s easier, it just becomes real. The kids already had the movie by then. Olivia was in first and then we did screen tests with three Gregs, three very different interpretations of Greg. I just wanted to test it and see how it worked with Olivia, what the chemistry was like. Thomas’s chemistry was perfect, it was not romantic in any way. The movie almost fell apart because we had no Earl, RJ submitted his tape at the very last minute and then we had him.
How did you balance the comedy with the more dramatic elements?
It’s a challenge and you’re messing with it and tweaking it until they literally take it away from you, pull it out of your hands and say it’s gone, it’s done! I was still tweaking sound volume level two weeks ago, and that was the last possible change I could ever make. But yeah, you know a slow push into a close-up will give you a very dramatic beat, it could be playful, you have to just feel it, it’s intuitive. I knew that the beginning was going to be very playful and the compositions were going to be unconventional. To not suggest a love story, even though he’s telling you it’s not going to be love story it doesn’t matter, if you linger on a close up a little too long you’ll just go there. So it was about keeping that playfulness. And then, like Greg, the movie calms down and settles down a bit and then you just trust that the audience is with you, they’re not expecting a different movie, they get it, and then you can linger on these close-ups and these two-shots. And then of course the music is a big cue, you can get tears like that when she takes her hat off and shows her bald head, but the idea is to earn it, keep it dry, keep it silent.
Jesse Andrews adapted his own novel into screenplay, did you feel a need to depart further from the source material?
When I got the script there were already large departures from the book and then the movie of course takes on its own shape. Jesse was very respectful of that. Usually the rule is to not have the writer on set because his ideas may be different from yours and it just confuses it a bit. He was just so respectful, even when we were shooting in his house, sometimes he didn’t even show up because he was just like you do your thing and interpret it. He was open to new ideas and certainly the end of the movie was the biggest departure from both the screenplay and the book, and he was very open to that. Translating something to film is very different, the weight of the hospital scene on the page is very different than when you experience it and bring your own narrative to it. Even though there’s a great talking scene after that with a few jokes, which there were, it just didn’t belong anymore, so the movie kind of shakes it off.
Rachel and her mother don’t really have any scenes together, can you speak a bit about that disconnect?
Just look at their worlds. Rachel’s in the top on the third floor, and her mother’s at the bottom. Her world is a nest of pictures and pillows and patterns and her mother’s is like pottery barn, no family photos, everything is white and clean, glass and monochromatic.. There is a disconnect, you can tell from her that she’s a woman who’s been relying on her sense of humour and it’s not working anymore. She’s in deep denial. In her first close up she’s crying and then she’s weirdly flirting. She’s just trying to make sense of this as well. By the end when you see them in the bed together, they’ve come to terms with whatever that is. We don’t have to be a part of that scene, but we just know they’re going to be alright.
Right, that’s a different movie.
That’s a different movie altogether, it was just enough to suggest it, just in art direction sometimes.
You’ve worked as a crew member some of the great directors (Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, Alejandro González Iñárritu), have you applied knowledge you gained from them to your own films?
It’s hard because you’re talking about these legends and you’re with them every day in the course of a film or two, you soak up something every second. How they solve problems, how they get their ideas, how they realize their ideas, how they deal with pressure and time and how they treat their crew. There’s so many things you soak up but it’s still their process, it doesn’t have to be yours. I would hate Scorsese to watch a movie of mine and say ‘all he did was copy me’, there’s nothing in that. This is my voice, but I’m also thanking you with them watching Pressburger and watching your movies. Just the fact that they’re all so humble, all so generous, and always treated me like a colleague, that means the world to somebody that’s starting out, so I try to do the same. The best part of Scorsese, at the end of the night he’d be just telling stories and everybody would be surrounding him, PAs, costume designers… he just loves sharing stories about movies. If he mentioned something to you about a film, you’d get it the next day on VHS at that point, and I try to continue that tradition. Hopefully this film does that as well and inspires young people to go out and find these movies.
The high school you shot in looked a little dilapidated, was it a real school?
In the book and in the screenplay it was called Benson High School, just a generic name that Jesse had come up with. We scouted about eight different schools in Pittsburgh and they all looked the same. That was my biggest fear, how do you shoot a guy walking down the hallway without it looking like every other movie about a high school student? And then Jesse’s sister told us about Schenley High School which is a high school that all the Andrews went to and Andy Warhol went to, this high school has been there since 1916 and it’s like a prison in the middle of Pittsburgh, like this giant monolith. They were about to turn it into lofts, they’d closed down because of some asbestos crisis. We got the handyman to let us in and we literally went up through the basement using our phones as flashlights and it looked like Chernobyl. Ceiling panels were falling on your head, dust everywhere, some old school lessons were still on the blackboard, it was weird, like Pompeii or something. But the size and scope of it was like this is it. This is how you get out of that jam, you just shoot it like an institution and you see the scope of it. But of course I couldn’t be so free with the camera because we didn’t have the money to clean up an entire school like that, so we were quite surgical. Luckily it was summer and two high schools in Pittsburgh had closed down so we were able to get those lockers and some of those tables for the cafeteria and then light it with fluorescents and just make it look like Brazil.
What were some High School coming-of-age movie cliches you consciously avoided?
Background actors. You didn’t want the jock to be 6’2, blond, letterman jacket, playing around with a football… does this guy even exist? Is this guy just on the NBC Thursday night line-up? We had to be really careful when we were casting background actors. Those kinds of details really gave the film a fun texture because the casting kept it real. I wanted to make sure that the details were right. The clothes were right, that you felt the life in there and it reflected a reality. That was important to me. We were always impressed by the background actors in this movie. One bad extra can ruin an entire movie. You go to New York and you shoot something and someone goes like this (shades eyes and points up) to the Empire State building, you’re dead. The whole scene, the whole movie’s a disaster. So we just kept it natural, kept it real, kept it moving and these kids that showed up over and over again worked very long days and very hot days.
And the music. I didn’t want to have contemporary music because it’ll be dated very quickly, so I was looking for a timeless sound. It was going to be originally scored with music from other movies, some of that remains, Ennio Morricone is there, Bernard Herman… a few of those remain, it was going to be wall-to-wall. Then when the (Brian) Eno was introduced, that became the score. That starts the second he walks to her house, that’s the first Eno cue, then it goes to the end for the most part. Originally it was New Order and The Police in her room, because it’s timeless and it still feels contemporary, but then we swapped it for all Eno and just assumed that that’s her sound, that’s what she’s into, that’s what she’s listening to. And then Nico Muhly did the score for the beginning high school piece and it just felt right.
Read our interview with the cast of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl here.