Alfonso Gomez-Rejon started his Film career as a Production Assistant in 1990. Twenty-five years later he is being showered with unanimous praise for his second feature as a Director, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. “The response is so beautiful because it’s recognition for everyone who worked on the Film,” he says when asked about the critical and audience reaction to the Film. “It feels great.”
The Film tells the story of high school student Greg (Thomas Mann), who befriends Rachel (Olivia Cooke) after he learns of her being diagnosed with Leukemia. In his spare time, he likes making short Parody Films based on mainstream hits and obscure Foreign Films. He makes these shorts with his friend and “co-worker” Earl (RJ Cyler), and realizes that he needs to make a Film for Rachel.
While Mann and Cooke are industry veterans despite their youth, Cyler is making his Feature debut in Me and Earl. Gomez-Rejon tells us, “I’ve always loved discovering talent. I like when you have the opportunity to find new talent. People take chances on me all the time.”
It is no wonder people are taking chances on him; his credentials more than speak for themselves. He acted as a Casting Director on Babel, Eat Pray Love and an unrealized Terrence Malick Film, as a Second Unit Director on The Eagle and Best Picture Oscar-winner Argo, and has directed multiple episodes of Glee and American Horror Story. His Feature debut, last year’s Remake/Sequel The Town That Dreaded Sundown, only came to fruition when pre-production on Me and Earl fell apart. “Ryan [Murphy, the Creator of Glee and American Horror Story] said ‘You keep trying to make your Citizen Kane, why don’t you make your Boxcar Bertha?’ And so I did,” Gomez-Rejon explains. “Luckily this movie came back together and I jumped right into this.”
Me and Earl is Gomez-Rejon’s first “personal” Film and he found its intimacy to be “so refreshing” to work on. Drawing on the style of Classics like Harold and Maude and The Graduate, he says he wanted this Film “to be kind of like Greg: very playful, and big and exciting and energetic at the beginning, and then it calms down and becomes more intimate and still and quiet, quiet, quiet.” Despite the drama and emotion that comes later in the Film, he intended to “always [have] a little joke in there somewhere, to lighten it up until the very end.”
In discussing a pivotal scene late in the Film between Mann and Cooke, Gomez-Rejon notes that the shot “was going to be the master and then I was going to do two close-ups. But after [the first take] it just felt so good that I walked away from it. It only works because they’re brilliant in it.” He is even more enthusiastic talking about Cyler: “It was quite a beautiful process to see pure emotion come out of him as Earl. This is his first Movie, and you’re watching him and he doesn’t even know that he had this in him.”
While he is coy about his next project, Gomez-Rejon hopes to continue his work in feature Films: “I love the beginning, middle and end of it – it’s a journey you go through and it finishes, and you put it aside, and that’s who you were at that point. Scorsese has a body of work that reveals who he is. And I’d like in the next fifty years, if I’m still making Movies, being able to leave behind more and more of Films that I think will show who I am at that particular time.”
Echoing the sentiments of his Cast, Gomez-Rejon’s feels that Me and Earl is “not a Movie about dying. It’s a Movie about living.” But the Film was summed up even more eloquently for him by a high school student from Seattle. They had been grieving from the loss of a friend in a car accident and told him at a screening of Me and Earl that “When people leave their lives, they’re like a stained glass window. Their definition is not as clear but the beauty of their life is evermore present.”
Gomez-Rejon was so touched by the words of this student that he made sure to write them down, and take them with him everywhere he goes. “There’s an infinity of layers in all of us, and just because one of them is gone doesn’t mean that others remain,” he says. “We just have to pay attention and find them, and listen to them.”.
Fox Searchlight release ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL on Friday, June 12, 2015.