"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" Director on Making the Quirky Film that Became a Sundance Hit

For Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, shooting this funny, intimate film was a healing experience.
Me and Earl

Olivia Cooke as "Rachel," Thomas Mann as "Greg," and RJ Cyler as Earl in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Photo by Anne Marie Fox. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

In the summer of 2014, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon spent 24 days shooting a little movie in Pittsburgh about high school, loss, and love. His father had recently died, and Gomez-Rejon was lost in his own grief. He didn’t care if anyone saw Me and Earl and the Dying Girl when it was finished. He just hoped the process of making it would pull him out of his suffering.

He didn’t care if anyone saw Me and Earl and the Dying Girl when it was finished.

The film is adapted from Jesse Andrews’ novel of the same name. Gomez-Rejon related with the story’s main character, Greg, a senior who hates high school and makes intentionally bad movies with his only friend, Earl, to pay tribute to classic films. The ‘dying girl’ is Rachel, a classmate who is diagnosed with cancer.

The result of those 24 days in Pittsburgh is a portrait of high school that is scathing and hilarious. Gomez-Rejon is sensitive to the emotional intensity of teenage life while at the same time aware that the difficulty of understanding a cancer diagnosis can lead to awkwardness, tears, and humor—occasionally all at the same time.

In the end, audiences did get a chance to see Gomez-Rejon’s movie. And, lucky for him, they liked it. At the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl won both of the festival’s top honors: the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award.

I sat down with Gomez-Rejon in April during the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. He commented on how much he loved the design on the film’s official poster, which hung in the hotel room where we met (it was his first time seeing it), and whether I got to see his movie in a decent theater (he was very happy to hear the answer was yes).

This interview has been lightly edited.

Christopher Zumski Finke: You made last year’s pilot episode of The Red Band Society, so this is the second story you’ve told about young people and cancer. Is there something about such stories that interests you?

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: I had already been developing [Me and Earl and the Dying Girl] a year before The Red Band Society. The movie fell apart, and then came back together. The timing just came out that way. I’m not obsessed with like…

Zumski Finke: You’re not looking out for stories about teens with cancer?

Gomez-Rejon: No. [Laughs]

Zumski Finke: The first sentence of the film is, “I’m not sure how to tell this story.” You portray Greg struggling to tell the story of this woman he cares deeply about. Do you feel a responsibility to tell this story “right,” sort of like what he is trying to do?

Gomez-Rejon: You know, high school is a battleground. I would never re-live those years. I totally understand how difficult high school can be and how you want to coast through it without making enemies but without making friends either.

I knew I wanted to portray high school in a way that was realistic.

I knew I wanted to portray high school in a way that was realistic. It wasn’t going to be this shiny high school with a jock and cheerleaders. That was not my experience at all.

And when we dealt with cancer and all that, I wanted to get the details and nuances right. Because of The Red Band Society, I had already done a lot of research at the cancer treatment centers at UCLA, including the Stephen Daltrey and Pete Townsend Wing. Those places are designed for teenagers and make it a point to treat teenagers like adults, not like infants.

I also talked to a really wonderful doctor at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh who gave me beautiful and specific insights into what it’s like to be a teenage girl with cancer. I learned about the cycles of chemo and what happens when you are [in the hospital], and I incorporated that into the script.

Olivia [who plays Rachel] and I had a chart of where we were in the cycles of what she was going through. We looked at how she was feeling, and what had just happened. When she makes the decision to stop treatment, we wanted to know what would follow and what that would be like. It’s about getting the sentiment right, to make sure her choices came from an honest place.

That’s a very long answer. 

Thomas Mann and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon on the set of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Photo by Anne Marie Fox. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Zumski Finke: Yeah, but it’s a good one. I like what you said about that hospital treating teens as adults. I think that one of the things that your movie succeeds at is not condescending to its characters. We don’t see Rachel in a lot of treatment but we do see the characters dealing with grief and pain—things that are very serious. The movie allows space for that and doesn’t provide a lot of direction for them.

Gomez-Rejon: That was the big goal for me, to make an authentic experience, to make something I could relate to. I made this movie for personal reasons. I just wanted to feel what Greg was feeling and not try too hard to be funny...

Zumski Finke: It is very funny.

Gomez-Rejon: It is funny and that’s very important to talk about. There are these emotional currents that are always fighting. That’s what life is. There’s humor, and sometimes out of despair comes great comedy. There’s so much truth in humor.

There’s so much truth in humor.

I think that’s one of the reasons Rachel lets Greg in so quickly. His first line to her is, "I’m only here because my mom is making me."

I’m sure she got 30 calls that day saying, "Oh I’m so sorry, are you going to be alright?" And then this kid show up and is honest, she’s like, "Okay, let’s keep talking. Let’s explore this."

Zumski Finke: How do you marry humor and tragedy? Because it’s very easy to sink into melodrama.

Gomez-Rejon: That was my biggest fear. How do you keep it from getting too sentimental? It started with the casting. Olivia, Thomas, and RJ had a really wonderful way with [author and screenwriter] Jesse Andrew’s words. They didn’t try to be too funny. They were very honest and very authentic.

Olivia has a wonderful gift. She’s able to sell these very dramatic moments in a very grounded way. It never felt like melodrama it just felt honest and sincere.

Zumski Finke: I think people expect a teenager with cancer movie to be weepy. We just went through that last year with The Fault in our Stars . There's an expectation that such a movie that would produce a lot of emotion at the end.

Gomez-Rejon: Hopefully! That’s the goal. But there’s a lot of laughter throughout too. There’s a joke right at the very end. It was very important to me to have something that was very lifelike. That you can go through these emotions but at the end not be devastated.

It’s ultimately about life, humor, and details you find even after someone’s gone. The big idea of the movie—I don’t wanna ruin it for people who haven't seen it—SPOILER ALERT— is that if someone dies the story can continue to unfold.

I think it's very touching. Hopefully it’s life-affirming and not too cheesy.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon on the set of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Photo by Anne Marie Fox. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Zumski Finke: A lot of the film also feels like an homage to the past. There’s all the classic films, there’s also the dedication to your father. The film feels very nostalgic while being very current. Teens can see it and relate to it but it also looks backward fondly.

Gomez-Rejon: The whole movie is a memory. We had 24 days to make it. The idea of paying homage to all the classics, absolutely. Why not celebrate the movies that inspired me and my heroes and some of the mentors I’ve been lucky to have?

But, looking at the big picture, the entire movie, for me, was my version of Greg’s movie for Rachel. The whole thing was for my dad. A way to express my love and gratitude. And the only way that I could process love was through making a movie that was about love and hiding in the character of Greg.

Making the movie was a healing process.

Ultimately, the dedication is for my father who I lost shortly before I read the script. I was so confused and lost, I was basically Greg. I really identified with him and I wanted to take this journey so I could put myself back together and process all of it the way he does. 

Zumski Finke: Do you feel like you accomplished that?

 Gomez-Rejon: Making the movie was a healing process. We were laughing all the time. We had wonderful producers and we made it on a very small crew. There wasn’t a video village with 40 people texting behind the monitor. There were no monitors!

It was just us and the cast. It was a very intimate shoot. We had a good time making it. That in and of itself, even if no one had seen the movie, helped me integrate loss into my life and do it in a way that made me stronger.

The reception at Sundance was completely unexpected and everything that’s come since with Fox Searchlight was completely unexpected and it just continues that beautiful process. 

Zumski Finke: I think that teens are really going to love it. Those scenes in the high school feel so right, the way you view it as a battleground. What does he say, it’s like Crimea and Kashmir...

Gomez-Rejon: Yeah, right. [Laughs] But it should be comforting, the thought that you’re not alone. Not only that you’re not alone in the sad stuff, but that you’re not alone in what you’re going through in high school.

Zumski Finke: High school is the worst.

Gomez-Rejon: It’s the worst. I don’t understand any high school movies. Except the John Hughes movies. He got it right.