'Me And Earl' Director Traces Path From Scorsese's Assistant To Sundance

'Me And Earl' Director Traces Path From Scorsese's Assistant To Sundance

5:55pm Jun 23, 2015

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross who's off this week. The new movie "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" was the breakout hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It tells the story of two high school outcasts, Greg and Earl, who love movies and secretly make movies of their own. Their films, which parody movies they love, are given funny titles like "My Dinner With Andre The Giant," "Senior Citizen Kane," and "Scab Face." But when a high school classmate, Rachel, is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg and Earl are pressured into making a movie for her. "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" won the audience award and the grand jury prize at Sundance. It's directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who, like his characters, became obsessed with movies as a teenager. He grew up in Laredo, Texas near the Mexico border, but after he saw "Mean Streets" in high school, he decided to move to New York and study film at NYU. He later became an assistant to Martin Scorsese and went on to work on other films and directed for TV shows including "Glee" and "American Horror Story." "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" is his second feature film. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon spoke to FRESH AIR guest contributor Anna Sale, host of "Death, Sex and Money," a podcast from WNYC.

ANNA SALE, BYLINE: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, welcome to FRESH AIR.


SALE: I want to start with a clip from the film which shows the beginning of Greg and Rachel's friendship. It starts at the insistence of Greg's mom who makes Greg visit Rachel because she's just been diagnosed with leukemia. And in this scene, Greg, who's played by Thomas Mann, is standing in the foyer of Rachel's house at the foot of the stairs that lead up to Rachel's bedroom, and she's come out to see who's there - Rachel, who's played by Olivia Cooke - but she does not come down, and she tells him from the top of the stairs to go away.


OLIVIA COOKE: (As Rachel) Look, I don't want you hanging out with me. I don't need your stupid pity. It's fine. You can just go.

THOMAS MANN: (As Greg) No, no, hey. You got it all wrong. I'm not here 'cause I pity you. I'm actually here just 'cause my mom is making me.

COOKE: (As Rachel) That's actually worse.

MANN: (As Greg) Yeah, I know.

COOKE: (As Rachel) Look, it's OK. Honestly, I'm fine. Just go.

MANN: (As Greg) OK. Rachel, just listen to me for a second. My mom is going to turn my life into a living hell if I don't hang out with you. OK, I can't overstate how annoying she's being about this. She's basically like the Lebron James of nagging. Lebron James plays basketball.

COOKE: (As Rachel) I know who Lebron James is.

MANN: (As Greg) OK.

SALE: (Laughter) I love this scene because you capture both the exasperated bluntness of being a teenager alongside this extreme self-consciousness. How much did you talk with your actors about what it was like to be in high school?

GOMEZ-REJON: Oh, we talked about it a lot. You know, I'm always curious to see who they were. What subgroup did they belong to? And I was very open about the subgroups that I belonged to because I changed quite a bit, and I think it was always like Greg. He wanted to get - he wanted passports to every society, every club. But I love this scene. I think this scene is one of the - it's - you know, it's five, ten pages into the script, and I just loved how honest he is. He's literally just telling her I am only here because my mom is making me, and that's so refreshing for someone like Rachel who you know she's gotten 100 calls that day saying, you know, sweetie you're going to beat this, one of those...

SALE: Yeah.

GOMEZ-REJON: ...Those things, and all of a sudden you have this kid who's just being so honest and then goes on to just entertain her and distract her.

SALE: So you said you charted Rachel's character?


SALE: Five phases?


SALE: We don't want to give away the end of the movie, but it's interesting that you're charting what the process is of going through sickness.

GOMEZ-REJON: Both Olivia and I did a lot of research at the Mattel wing, the pediatric wing at UCLA and at the Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh. And what was beautiful about that is that these are teen wings, and they treat these young adolescents like adults, and that was very important, and they have - sometimes the teenagers even have a say in the design of the space. They're not treated like infants. They could walk around. They could use the Internet. They have lounges, and we wanted all the details to be clear and specific so that we didn't fall into some kind of cliche accidentally, you know, and Olivia and I had a chart that broke down her character before her first chemotherapy treatment and the five that followed and where she was after. And plus where she was in her chemotherapy stages also influenced not only her physicality and kind of interior life but also a lot of the other departments, too. Clothes - you know, the sicker she gets, the more vibrant her patterns get, and so everything - everybody was working together, and hopefully it was in sync.

SALE: The first credit at the end of "Me Earl And The Dying Girl" is a dedication to your father, Julio Cesar Gomez Rejon. He died in 2010. How did losing him shape the way you approach this film?

GOMEZ-REJON: Well, it's (laughter).

SALE: You can take your time.

GOMEZ-REJON: No, no. I'm just trying to - it's a big question, you know...

SALE: Yeah.

GOMEZ-REJON: ...Because when that happened - when I was having - I was - the reason why I identify with Greg so much is because I really was acting like a child in a lot of ways and maybe one does because whenever you lose your father or your parent, that relationship is always going to be that of a child to his parents, and so I was just in deep denial so I threw myself into my work, and I was so fortunate to have so much work thanks to Ryan Murphy and the "Glee's" and "American Horror Story's."

SALE: You were working in television.

GOMEZ-REJON: Yeah, and it was a chance to experiment, and I was being quite bold with the camera and assuming I was going to get fired immediately and just experimenting. But I didn't - I couldn't look at his photograph, and I didn't want to hear stories about him because the pain was so acute, and then people just assume it's time to move on. A year goes by, a second year, but you're not there yet and everyone takes their own time.

So it just - it was just emotional block and a barrier that I think I put up in order to survive but what was happening is that you sometimes don't think about him as much. And that's - you feel terrible about that because he was your best friend, and how do you move on? And he encouraged the arts and supported you and encouraged you to achieve excellence in what you were doing, and so when I read the script, I found a way to give all those emotions a shape, and it was an opportunity to go deep and to finally make something that expressed my deep love for him and gratitude the way Greg does for Rachel.

So if the message of the movie or the theme of the movie or the lesson that Mr. McCarthy played by Jon Bernthal teaches Greg is that even if someone dies, their life can continue to unfold, their story can continue to unfold. You just have to pay attention. And it's something I wanted to believe but didn't. And physically making the film, I started to believe that and be transformed by it and started to feel again and started to talk about him. And then by dedicating the film, it made that very public. And so Sundance was, to me, kind of what I thought would be the conclusion of a phase in my life, and the film was done, and now I was going to move on, and I put it aside and finally have something that showed my deep love.

But what it did, it started - it's new dialogue when you're forced into - you're asked questions point-blank about him, just like you did now, and then you start talking about him, and then you start seeing him everywhere again, and I needed to make this movie to work through those feelings and doing it in the only way that I knew how was to do it through images and by making a film as a way to express that gratitude.

SALE: You grew up in Laredo, Texas, right along the Mexico border. How did you discover movies?

GOMEZ-REJON: I was always a fine artist. I was always drawing constantly drawing and drawing and drawing and drawing. And HBO was new, and I was watching that, and MTV was new, and I just responded to that medium. And then the VHS revolution started in the early '80s, and they opened one down the street from me.

SALE: A video store?

GOMEZ-REJON: Oh, yeah. It was called Video Hut, and the first thing I bought was "The Making Of Michael Jackson's Thriller," and - which I will dance for you now, with your permission.

SALE: (Laughter).

GOMEZ-REJON: No, but you finally saw John Landis directing, and that was always exciting. You never saw that happen before. I think - there was - I think there was one little one about the making of "Temple Of Doom," and Spielberg was there. I mean, you can see Spielberg deciding the shots. I still didn't understand it. Then a friend's older brother - my brother was into music, so I knew everything about Russia and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but I knew very little - and then Iron Maiden - and but I knew very little about anything else. My friend's older brothers would sometimes lend me their VHS of "Apocalypse Now," and I was struck by the size and the scope of it. But - and then I started to discover Scorsese, and that changed my life because I think I might even - I started out of order. So I think "Raging Bull," which I had heard of, and the craft and the boxing sequences and how, you know, and how simple some of the dialogue sequences are and how magnificent. I mean, it's just a perfect movie. But "Mean Streets" was a game changer for me because it was deeply, deeply personal to me. It was the first time I saw that kind of Catholic - the kind of religious iconography documented in a very contemporary setting. I was questioning that, and I was a kid going to Catholic high school. I had never seen that before, and I saw in some ways myself in Charlie. In some ways, I saw my brother in Johnny. For some reason, it made a connection to me, and I realized that that was something that was happening that I had never been witness to before. And that started me on that Scorsese journey in watching his films and then learning about the history of movies through him and through his movies and interviews, what little I could find.

When I got my driver's license, I would drive to Corpus Christi but mainly to San Antonio and they had - there was a theater called The Crossroads there. It was an art house theatre so you can see a lot of movies. I'd go on a weekend, see six movies and come back. And I applied to NYU because he went there, and I got in, and that let me to that journey because he just - he opened me up to a world of film history, and that is - be kind of different - a new kind of obsession.

SALE: Did you make movies when you were a teenager?

GOMEZ-REJON: Not very many. I was always drawing storyboards before I knew they were storyboards. And my parents thought it was a phase, so they wouldn't buy me a camera and plus, they were very expensive back then when they first started coming out. So my friend, Gina, lent me her camera, and we used to do little projects for her. It was - because I was so intensely shy, I loved the fact that I could make a project for French class or English class and have that be my way of doing the work, so I didn't have to, like, stand in front of the class or anything like that. But it really wasn't until NYU that I realized that maybe I wasn't awful, because I enjoyed it so much and I enjoyed film history so much. And I was so intimidated by everybody in my class because of where I had come from - where I came from and my limited experience in production.

SALE: When you announced your intentions to go to college at NYU to study film because you wanted to follow in the footsteps of Martin Scorsese, how did that go over at home?

GOMEZ-REJON: It went great. Well, my parents always encouraged the arts, but, of course, they wanted us all to be doctors, probably.

SALE: Your father was a psychiatrist.

GOMEZ-REJON: Yes. And he - but more than a psychiatrist, he dedicated his life to reducing the stigma of mental health and started the first mental health/mental retardation center on the border. It dealt with multiple personality, schizophrenia. He was really - and with deep, deep compassion and humanity, just an incredible - and humor, which is so important - that this film is so funny. You know, I think, because of that, my brother became a musician. My sister became a fine artist. And I was the third and the last, and I always wanted to be a filmmaker, so I think they helped break down those walls. They made it easier for them, but it was frightening for them, as it - and it was frightening for me. And I'd be scared, too. I was 17, going off to New York. But after I made that decision and it was clear that I was serious about it, all they did was support me.

DAVIES: Filmmaker Alfonso Gomez-Rejon speaking with guest contributor Anna Sale. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to guest contributor Anna Sale's interview with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. His new film, "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl," won the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

SALE: Right after college, where you went to film school at NYU, you got a job working in Martin Scorsese's office.

GOMEZ-REJON: Yes. It was during my last year, as a senior.

SALE: So as a senior in college, you get this job at Martin Scorsese's office. What was that like?

GOMEZ-REJON: At first, it was torture because I guess his office - his assistants wanted to make sure that I was worthy of having around. So I'd come into the office and start doing filing or whatever. And then when Marty would show up, they'd send me off to the Xerox room.

SALE: (Laughter).

GOMEZ-REJON: And I wasn't allowed to see him. They weren't - they weren't ready to introduce me or introduce a new element into his life until I was - they were certain that I was worthy of that. Or I'd be - Marty's coming, so they'd ship me off to his incredible mom's house, and I'd hang pictures for her, run errands for her or whatever.

SALE: You would help his mom.

GOMEZ-REJON: Oh, yeah, you know, it would just be she needs someone to hang pictures on her wall or whatever it was - run errands. They just didn't want me around for a while, and they were just getting to know me. But I guess they started to like me and thought I was good enough to have around for a bit longer. And then, little by little, you were let out (laughter), and you'd see him and he'd nod at you. And then - it was incremental. And then you'd cover the phones, and then you'd watch a movie. Or you'd go with him and accompany him as he introduces the - I don't know - the "Apu Trilogy" at the Lincoln Cinemas or something. And then you get comfortable, and then he gets comfortable. And - but all along, there's always - you're always being introduced to film, and you had access. We had 25,000 or 30,000 videos on laser disk. You could check everything out - your own private video store. And so if you reference something obscure, you can probably watch it that night.

SALE: You were Martin Scorsese's assistant during the filming of "Casino"...


SALE: ...Which came out in 1995. What did you learn about filmmaking from watching him that you hadn't learned by watching all of these movies?

GOMEZ-REJON: You - that's the dream - to see the master at work. You know, you're sitting back, and you're watching, you know, da Vinci or somebody - Jackson Pollock. Whoever it is, you're watching them work and seeing that creative process and how - what music he was listening to and the sketches that he's making on the page and how he's realizing those and making them real and communicating his vision and how uncompromising he is, but how generous he was and humble he was throughout.

Sometimes, I would do something really silly. Every morning, you get the sides, which is the day's work, in, like - I don't know - like, postcard-sized sheets of - you know, it's like they reduce the script into, like, a postcard size, and you have that as a reference. So I'd always sketch my own version of the storyboards. Like, how would I approach the scene today? And I would sketch them, and I would usually put them in my pocket with the drawings facing out, hoping that he would ask (laughter). Never did. Why would he? You know, he's making a movie. But I would always then compare what what my approach would be to his approach and then learn from that and realize that I know nothing and understand why his approach was this because it's going to connect to the next scene and the one that comes before because he plans it out so carefully, like this beautiful puzzle.

But more than that, I just learned to just be quiet, be a ninja and just be there - be there for whatever he needs and be invisible when you're not needed, but soak everything up and hoping that, in the future, you're armed with some of that knowledge. But ultimately, the way he sees the world will be different that the way I do, and that's important, as well. The last thing I would want - him to see a movie and I think all I did was his style 'cause I see other directors copy his - copy his style, and I'm very upset about that.

SALE: Does he know that you would put the postcards in your pocket face-out?

GOMEZ-REJON: No, I don't think so. I don't think so. I may tell him at some point, but (laughter) it's so silly, too.

SALE: It's sweet.

GOMEZ-REJON: It is sweet. I was young. I was (laughter) - I was 21, but it was quite a very young 21.

SALE: I wonder if you could describe growing up in Laredo, Texas. What were you like as a teenager?

GOMEZ-REJON: It's Laredo, Texas, but it's also - Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, on the Mexican side, was - it was really one city. And my existence - I lived on both. Even though I was raised on the American side, all my family was on the Mexican side. My grandparents were on the Mexican side. So you'd go back and forth daily. My parents - they didn't let us speak English at home so we wouldn't forget the language. They were always encouraging the arts and taking us to see musical theater in Mexico City or San Antonio - wherever it was - always museums. They were very unusual, very progressive for that town, as well - very liberal.

But as a kid, I think it was - and I only can answer this question because I've been thinking about it because of the nature of this film. I was kind of a straight A, very square kid. And I was always a year, year and a half younger than everybody else, and that gap is enormous. It's like a generation when you're still 12, and your friends are turning 14 or 13. And you're still so young, and you're a late bloomer. And that's when I started to feel quite isolated because everyone was moving on and having girlfriends and everything, and I'm not. So that - I don't even know how I got through those few years, but movies got me through them. I experienced so much life through them. And I was afraid to sleep in the dark, so I'd stay up all night. And then Letterman, of course - and I was just kind of a bit of a hermit. And then once I started to catch up with my friends, I started to get my confidence back. And at that point, because of those tough years leading up to that, I'd already decided that I was going to be a director - applied early admission. So I finished strong, and I think I was vice president of the class, right? Then I became, like, popular. I finished as a popular kid, so I think I transformed a few times.

SALE: You were afraid of the dark?

GOMEZ-REJON: Yeah, it was awful.

SALE: So you watched movies...

GOMEZ-REJON: ...To stay awake. And then when I couldn't stay awake any longer, I'd sneak into my sister's bed or sleep in the back of the chaise lounge in my parents' bedroom. And then when my mom's alarms clock would go on, I would race back to my bed and then wait for them to wake me up, so I was acting I guess.


GOMEZ-REJON: I did this for a while. I don't know. Yeah, I did. That explains the bags under my eyes.

SALE: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is the director of "Me, Earl And The Dying Girl." Thank you so much for talking with me.

GOMEZ-REJON: Thank you so much for having me.

DAVIES: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon speaking with guest contributor Anna Sale. Sale is host of Death, Money and Sex, a podcast from WNYC. Coming up, John Powers reviews a reworking of Albert Camus' novel "The Stranger." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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