When Jesse Andrews wrote a screenplay based on his 2012 Young Adult novel “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” it wound up on the Blacklist, the annual insider Hollywood poll of the best yet-unproduced scripts. The job of transferring it to the screen fell to Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, a former assistant to Martin Scorsese who’d worked his way up the ladder by doing second-unit work on films like “Argo” and directing episodes of TV series (“American Horror Story,” “Glee”). The result was acclaimed at the 2015 Sundance Festival, where it won both the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for Drama and the Audience Award for U.S. Drama.
Now audiences can see what all the fuss was about: the picture opens nationwide in June, and Gomez-Rejon and his young stars Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler and Olivia Cooke visited Dallas recently to talk about making it. Mann plays Greg, a high school senior who tries to remain detached apart from his friendship with childhood pal Earl (Cyler), and Cooke plays Rachel, a classmate diagnosed with leukemia with whom Greg begins a halting friendship at the insistence of his mother, a relationship that evolves into a trio with Earl. An important element of the story is the cinephilia Greg and Earl have long shared, which involves them making little movies with punning titles that spoof classics they’ve seen, and their decision to make a film celebrating Rachel as they grow closer to her.
“I didn’t know about the book before I received the screenplay,” Gomez-Rejon said, “and then after I got the job—which was a month of hustling to get it—I went back to the book.” What drew him so strongly to the project was the fact that it spoke to him personally: he’d recently lost his father—to whom the film is dedicated—and was trying to deal with the grief. He pointed in particular to one passage in the screenplay, in which a teacher, eventually played by Jon Bernthal, talks about life. “[What hooked me was] Mr. McCarthy’s lesson about people’s lives continuing in full—you just have to pay attention, which is literally in the middle of the screenplay,” Gomez-Rejon said. “I’d had a lot of success in television, but deep inside I was not dealing with some major stuff. There’d been years of avoidance. So when I saw that, it was such a beautiful thought, so simple. And I said, I want to believe that—maybe that’s true. So the movie became very much a personal journey for me, if I could work through this with Greg. I really identified with him. I had no intention of making a YA novel adaptation…[it was that] I could make a personal journey with him. Like he’s making a movie for Rachel, I was making a movie for my dad. It was really made from the heart.”
But despite the hoopla over the script, getting the film made was no easy matter; in fact, another movie intervened before the director was able to shoot this one—a horror flick called “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” a sort-of sequel to the 1976 picture of the same name. “I had this one [‘Me and Earl’] before I had ‘The Town That Dreaded Sundown,’ and this one fell apart. And Ryan Murphy [producer of ‘Glee’ and ‘American Horror Story’]—he’s been so good to me—took me out to dinner and said, ‘I know you’ve been trying to make your “Citizen Kane,” but I think you may have to start with a “Boxcar Bertha.”’ And he had a point, because sometimes you don’t get a chance to make a movie because you haven’t made a movie before. And as difficult as that process was, it [‘The Town’] was a wonderful shoot, and the cast was amazing. While that one was finishing, this one came back. So I literally went from the mix and jumped on a plane for Pittsburgh. This was supposed to go, but then it didn’t, and I had a window all of a sudden.”
Gomez-Rejon had early settled on two of his three stars—Mann and Cooke. But the important role of Earl remained unfilled until the last moment. “It [the character] was very specific in the screenplay and the book,” Gomez-Rejon recalled. “He was weird and short and small. We were trying to find that character, and nothing quite worked. The movie almost fell apart again, because it was three weeks before shooting…and there’s no Earl. And then RJ just happened to send a video. He had this confidence, and reinterpreted the character, and I had to reinterpret the character. What happened was, the three of them worked well together—that was it. The chemistry had to be great in every direction, and they had wonderful chemistry, the three of them.” Among the people who went along with the change was Andrews. “I had a different version of certain characters and how I saw the movie, and he was very respectful of that,” Gomez-Rejon said. “He was on set off and on. This is all very new to him, and he wanted to observe how it all worked.”
Another change from the book involved the list of short movies Greg and Earl had made, which in the filmography provided in the press notes include such titles as “Senior Citizen Kane,” “The Prunes of Wrath,” “The Seven Seals” and “It’s a Punderful Life.” Gomez-Rejon recalled, “They were different. ‘A Sockworth Orange,’ I think, is there. And then it became a little too popular for my taste and I wanted to go more obscure. For me, those are my favorite films, those [filmmakers] are my heroes, and I’ve been lucky to have some of them as mentors. So it was about personalizing the movie—you start to interpret it and make it your own…. It was a really fun project,” he noted, one that involved not only Mann and Cyler but imaginative animators Nathan O. Marsh and Edward Bursch.
The picture’s often flamboyant style also depends on the work of its cinematographer, Korean Chung-Hoon Chung, who worked on pictures like “Oldboy” in his homeland before making his U.S. debut with the extravagant “Stoker.” Gomez-Rejon explained the choice: “[He’s] like me—I was the horror guy, I was put in a box, which they love to do. Before that, I was the musical theatre guy, from ‘Glee.’ I met with a lot of DPs, and I was already in Pittsburgh and didn’t have a cinematographer, and he was hysterical. His translator would just break up and start laughing. His English is actually quite good; he uses a translator more as a crutch than anything. And we both love the camera, we’re both stylists. He loved John Hughes, and he loved comedy, and he wanted to show that side of himself. He just had the right sentiment.”
The sets—not only Greg and Rachel’s rooms but the school—also give the picture a distinctive look. The campus scenes were shot in an abandoned Pittsburgh high school with a distinguished past. “Andy Warhol went there,” Gomez-Rejon said. “It’s been there since 1916 but has been abandoned for five or six years—asbestos problems. I’d been scouting high schools in Pittsburgh, and they all kind of looked the same. We got the keys from a handyman. It wasn’t like we had permission. We went into the basement and worked our way up. It was like Chernobyl. As you’re walking, ceiling panels would fall on your head. But the scope and the scale were so beautiful. You couldn’t clean up the entire school—this was a massive school, with a thousand kids. So we had to be very surgical in the direction. That was very exciting: at least it’s not going to look like another high school movie, because the architecture’s not going to let it.”
Gomez-Rejon talked excitedly about the film’s reception at Sundance, but he said that the real test was whether it would strike a chord with young people of Greg, Earl and Rachel’s age. “Is it going to work for them?” the director asked rhetorically. “The next day after Sundance we had a screening for just high school students in Salt Lake City—500 kids from high schools like an hour away from Salt Lake. This was the real test, because they’re not going to get all the [movie] references. But they ate it up, and afterwards they all were excited to go back and discover the movies, and that was the ultimate [joy]—the fact that the movie worked emotionally and was funny [was great], but that they also were inspired to go discover some of these old movies, that was very rewarding.”
Mann responded to the movie references, too, and to the craft that Marsh and Bursch put into the spoof films they shot. “They’re just really, really talented artists, and we were so lucky to have them, because so much of the aesthetic of this movie is because of them. I’d seen some of the [films being parodied], but a lot of them are really obscure—I hadn’t heard of them before. Alfonso was informing us all about them, and his enthusiasm is so infectious that now I’ve sort of adopted it. He’s still sending all of us DVDs.”
Like their director, neither Mann nor Cooke had read Andrews’ book beforehand, but both were immediately attracted to the script.
“I thought the voice of Greg was a very specific voice that I hadn’t read before,” Mann said. “It reminded me of the kind of person that I was in high school—and sort of the modern teenager, very honest and self-aware. The dialogue felt really natural, sort of messy and jumbled, the way teenagers talk”
Cooke added, “No one’s saying the perfect thing in the moment. No one does that.”
And Mann continued, “He doesn’t have the right thing to say, so he’s kind of projecting that insecurity.”
Cooke noted, “I feel it’s the closest I’ve ever played to myself.”
Mann agreed: “I feel that every character I’ve played is at least a version or some extension of myself. It’s just the most honest way to approach any character. It felt like the character I was in high school. I understood Greg.”
Coming from Britain, it wasn’t quite so easy for Cooke: “It’s so different in America, because you all wear your own clothes, so you’ve automatically got your own identity—you’re defined and put into groups by the way you dress, whereas in England we all wear uniforms, so that takes that pressure away.”
But she added that there were common elements transcending nationality: “Teenagers are more self-aware now and seem much older than they actually are, but when it comes to dealing with tragic events, you still can’t comprehend it.”
Mann added, “It’s not that they shut down, they’re just kind of standoffish when it comes to real emotional things. I saw that in Greg Jesse Andrews sort of owned up to the selfishness of teenagers, the awkwardness of not knowing how to handle a situation that heavy.” And that affected his uncertainty about playing Greg: “I wasn’t confident in my ability to be emotional, and was just really stressing about it. But by the time that we got to those [big] scenes, I think Alfonso opening up to me as I needed it and relaying his own experiences—the loss of his father whom this movie is dedicated to—took me to extreme places I’d never been to before. It was really eye-opening, and opened me up emotionally. Once you turn on this valve it’s hard to turn it off. You don’t understand what you’re capable of until you have to push yourself into it. Your mind doesn’t want you to go there—it wants a safer place—but once you let go, it got me there.”
Cooke had her own difficulty with one aspect of the role. “When I auditioned for the movie, it was never suggested that I’d have to shave my head,” she said. “Then two weeks before shooting we decided there’s no way we can get by with a bald cap, there’s no special effect in the world that can make a bald cap look good.” She opted to do what was required for realism’s sake, and found the experience liberating in her own life.
Asked whether she’d felt the pressure that might come from playing a character comparable to the heroines in other adaptations of Young Adult novels, however, Cooke bristled a bit at the suggestion. “Hollywood looks to compare and put people in boxes,” she said, “but I always thought that’s stupid. You wouldn’t compare ‘Battleship’ and ‘Titanic’ because they’ve both got ships. I don’t feel that I approached the character differently because I was aware it might be compared to somebody else. If you do that, you put so much pressure on yourself that you do things that don’t feel authentic. I’m trying to be authentic and honest and true to the character. I think that’s all that matters.”
Discussion turned to the relationship between Greg and Earl, who on the surface might seem unlikely friends.
“I think they complement each other really well,” Mann suggested. “Earl is sort of the parent in their relationship. Greg is always like the child, always the more immature one.”
“It’s one of those situations where opposites attract,” Cyler added. “Earl didn’t have that parental support. So he had to grow up and be a man. But he found that in Greg’s dad and mom. He looked at Greg’s dad as a father figure.”
As the member of the trio who came to the project late—and a newcomer to acting as well—Cyler initially felt some trepidation. “It was a challenge to make the character,” he said, “but to connect with the character was really easy. Jesse Andrews has a way of knowing how a teenager thinks even though
he’s not a teenager. So the voices of all these characters were so real that I’d think, ‘That would be something I’d say.’ I could see myself saying exactly the same thing that’s on the paper two days later if I were in the same situation. And working with Thomas and Olivia, we were very in synch with each other. It just felt very instinctual. They would give me nuggets that I would pick up, and they were always supportive. I’d feel that I was messing up, and they’d just be like, ‘Calm down—you’re thinking about it too much. Have a Fresca and chill.’ It was a big blessing for me to be able to work with them for my first project, because my first day on set I was a little nervous, and everybody else around me was so calm, and I said, why am I nervous right now?”
Cooke interjected, “But rarely did you ever mess up. You’re so on it all the time.”
“I don’t think that way!” Cyler said.
Mann, Cooke and Cyler all agreed on how great it was to work with co-stars like Molly Shannon (who plays Rachel’s mom), Nick Offerman and Connie Britton (who play Greg’s dad and mom).
“Molly is the funniest woman I’ve ever met,” Cooke enthused. “And also she’s just generous and kind and interested in what you have to say. She’s amazing.”
Cyler added, “With me, working mostly with people that I see on TV was a crazy experience. You’re kind of star-struck but you have to keep it to yourself and not look weird. I got to learn at the same time as I was having all this fun—it’s like going to school but actually loving to go to school.”
Mann continued, “When I was cast, I was so excited to find out who all these other characters were going to be. I actually pictured Nick Offerman, and maybe I said something to somebody about it. Then we met with Alfonso, and he said it would be Nick Offerman as dad and Connie Britton as mom—it was just amazing. Everyone was so nice, and so excited to be on the movie. It’s not like they were just showing up to do their scenes—they really wanted to be great for Alfonso and for us. They wanted to leave a lasting mark on the film, and I just felt so honored to be the lead in this and to have these great people supporting me that I really, really look up to. I wrote Nick a thank-you note at the end and sent it to him. He’s just a really smart, smart guy, and Connie as well. She did so much with her scenes. It’s really fun to watch them work.”
Mann closed by emphasizing that the mixture of comedy and drama in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” would be key to what he hopes will be its success.
“When you’re laughing and crying in equal measure, it’s just so powerful,” he said.