The ‘overnight success’ is a familiar enough narrative in the movie business. Actors are plucked from obscurity and set on the road to stardom. Directors offered major movie deals after one of their shorts goes viral on YouTube.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, on the other hand, has worked his way up through the ranks of the film industry, culminating in his latest movie, Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, a moving and very funny drama which won a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Before that, Gomez-Rejon began as an assistant to the likes of Martin Scorsese and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu before moving up to the role of second unit director on movies including Babel and Argo. His work on TV commercials led to directing episodes of Glee and the hit American Horror Story.
Last year, Gomez-Rejon made his big-screen debut with The Town That Dreaded Sundown, a short, sharp horror movie which showcased the director’s similarly keen visual style. But it’s Me And Earl that is likely to introduce the director to a wide audience. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Jesse Andrews (who also wrote the screenplay) it’s a poignant and incisive drama about a gawky, film-obsessed teen, Greg (Thomas Mann) who strikes up an awkward friendship with a desperately ill childhood friend, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), and how their friendship affects the odd little movies Greg makes with his “colleague”, Earl (Ronald Cyler II).
Me And Earl is therefore a film about filmmaking, and about finding an individual voice as an artist – all chewy, interesting stuff for a smart and talented director like Gomez-Rejon to get his teeth into. The breadth of his experiences and knowledge of movies is such that we could happily have spent all afternoon chatting to him, but regrettably, we had just 20 minutes. Here’s what he has to say about making Me And Earl, how it relates to his own experiences, his time spent on Glee and American Horror Story, and much, much more.
Congratulations on the film. I was really taken by Greg’s character. Is he part of the reason why you were keen to direct this?
Yes, I saw myself in him. That’s never happened to me before. I mean, you see yourself in different films. I saw myself as a 12-year-old, when I saw The Breakfast Club. I was this little Mexican kid from the border between Texas and Mexico and quite shy, but all of a sudden, when you see Anthony Michael Hall in that movie, saying everything you’re feeling, there’s a connection to that. In Mean Streets, it was the same. Even though I had nothing to do with that world, there was something in Charlie and his relationship to Johnny Boy that I felt was very similar to someone close to me and my relationship to him.
It’s interesting, how you find these connections. But it’s rare. Sometimes you want to see connections and they’re not really there, but when I saw Greg, he’s very funny. I’m not funny. He’s smart, I’m not smart. But the way he was coasting through high-school was really [similar], on a superficial level, really.
Then, because I had lost someone close to me when I read the script, those emotions were quite raw, and still are. There’s Greg’s interaction with Rachel, and his journey to the end, how he’s making a film those abstractions, which I was doing as well by making this movie. I was making a bigger movie about the same thing. I saw a lot of connections to Greg and the way he was facing the possibility of losing someone, and how he begins the process of incorporating that.
I wasn’t there yet, you know? Now I’m there. I’m talking about it. But it was definitely Greg, and that was why it was so hard on [Thomas Mann]. When Thomas got the part, a lot of thought went into that, because I had to trust this young actor with a lot of myself, and open up about what I’m feeling.
With Thomas, I found that wonderful connection. Not only was he a brilliant actor, with a beautiful chemistry with Olivia, the right kind of chemistry, but he’s an amazing human being. I was able to open up to him and have these very private conversations, because the whole thing about losing my dad was very private. It’s public now, because there’s a dedication at the end of the film that forces me to talk about it, but the journey wasn’t just about taking a journey with Greg – it was about taking a journey with Thomas as well.
As a result of that, me and Thomas became quite close. We became good friends.
One of the things I saw in the film as well is that it’s actually about becoming a filmmaker. Greg starts by imitating the things he loves, and then he makes something personal.
That was exactly my reason for wanting to make the movie. I always assumed as a kid that I would make films like my heroes, which tended to be personal films. And I was so far from that path when I saw this, because of where I was in my life. I was doing so much television, which had been wonderful to me – it really gave me an outlet for my creativity, because of American Horror Story and Ryan Murphy. It really allowed me to be expressive in my filmmaking.
That doesn’t necessarily translate to personal filmmaking, but it gave me the tools, I think, to handle that and incorporate it, to personalise it. So the bigger journey for me is starting to make personal films.
One of the big discussions that Jesse [Andrews, novelist and screenwriter] and I had when I got involved in the film is that the film for Rachel was written as a montage of all of Greg’s earlier, bad movies. I didn’t think that would be enough. What if it doesn’t work? What if it isn’t funny? What if we’ve seen so many of them at this point that the joke is stale? It’s funny on the page, but I’m very nervous about that. But then I pitched to my producers: “What if the final film was an experimental film?” He gives these abstractions a shape, so the film’s story is about Rachel becoming energy. I pitched it and we talked about all these experimental avant-garde filmmakers, so what if it’s about the evolution of his voice as a filmmaker? It’s up to him to finish this movie on his own.
So it begins with a parody, a little joke about Warhol’s screen test, then moves into the Charles and Ray Eames style of animation with pillows, which is more about Rachel. The journey’s going more personal. And then it’s about expressing that love, that friendship and possible loss through abstract shapes, and tying it together with Ryan Eno’s The Big Ship. So it was very much about Greg finding his voice, yeah. And I hope I was finding mine as well.
I understand this was quite a hectic shoot. Twenty-four days, was it?
It was a little less. Twenty-three and a half, I like to say. [Laughs]
Do you think your grounding in TV helped you to get through that?
Yes. Those schedules are absolutely insane in television. Sometimes, you get the script the day before. So you stay up all night and visualise it, and make your sketches, try to understand, try to prepare for the actors in case they have questions. But it is a rush [of adrenaline] when it works!
Certainly, the size of American Horror Story – those shows are so big and complicated, and you have to do them in such little time, it’s difficult to get everything you want. But the pace of TV certainly prepared me for this. At least with films, you have more preparation time, and that’s a luxury, when you get spend some time with the cinematographer, spend time with your actors. Sometimes you and the actors are discovering the scenes at the same time, and it’s hard when you can’t do that in a relaxed setting, and instead you have a ticking clock. With the pace of television, being able to think on your feet, sometimes you have no choice but to do that. It’s a great exercise, having to solve problems on-set.
You’ve done a lot of work as a second unit director and as an assistant. With some filmmakers these days, we see them go from their first indie film to some huge multi-million dollar blockbuster. Do you think there’s some advantage to climbing the ranks in the film industry?
Well, believe me, if they’d have offered me a 100 million dollar movie when I came out of college, I’d have jumped on it! [Laughs] The idea of going on this slow and steady climb has been wonderful now [I look back]. Because Martin Scorsese leads to Nick Pillegi, Nick Pileggi leads to Nora Ephron, and then Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, and then Ryan Murphy… all of the assisting directors and then second unit directing and then television directing and then film.
And I say television and then film because being a film director has always been a dream of mine. But now, television is so cinematic that I want to continue pursuing that as well. It’s been a slow and steady climb, but sometimes it breaks your spirit because you’re so ready and eager to make a movie and you don’t get a short – or your funding falls apart. Of course, all of that has shaped me into the person I am today, but I don’t know if I’d have turned down that opportunity, because that is the dream.
[A lady brings in a plate of fresh fruit on a tray. There’s an ornamental pot plant on the tray too for some reason.]
I’m fine, thank you.
Are you sure? What about this little plant?
I’ll eat the plant. [Laughs]
So yeah, I totally get it. I mean, it worked for Spielberg, right? He went from Sugarland Express to Jaws or something like that? Sometimes it works.
He did Columbo as well, didn’t he.
Columbo. Yeah, yeah, he did do Columbo. I guess there is a little something there. I mean, not years of it!
Francis Ford Coppola said this in the 90s, at the beginning of the digital revolution, that filmmaking is so cheap now that there might be a Mozart out there who will make his own Citizen Kane as a nine-year-old.
If someone self-destructs after a big experience, I think it has something more to do with your DNA. I don’t know. But I’m very grateful, because through all those friendships and masters and mentors that I’ve had in my life, the bar keeps getting set higher and higher. And maybe that’s why it’s so hard to make a first film, because your standards are so high, you want your first movie to be impossible.
I think Ryan Murphy said to me when one of my movies fell apart, he said, “Maybe you should start with your Boxcar Bertha instead of your Citizen Kane,” and that led to The Town That Dreaded Sundown. That was actually quite freeing, because with all its problems, I was able to make a film on schedule and on budget, that had some fun ideas, some interesting visuals, maybe. Maybe ultimately it didn’t work, I’m not sure. But that all taught me how to begin to make this one. You never know.
So many directors and actors start with horror, don’t they? It’s a great proving ground.
It is. Especially if you like the camera. I love the camera, you know? I love being expressive with it. Horror allows me that freedom, because you can be expressive. The camera can be a character. [Me And Earl] was about having the camera be a character in the beginning, because it’s a young filmmaker, Greg Gaines, seducing you with his story. He’s in control of the narrative, so you get to have fun with the compositions and the playfulness of it. And then, as he loses control of the narrative, the film becomes quite simple, so this one was a lesson, for me, in being still.
I did notice this. The more the film goes on, the more the camerawork calms down. The takes get longer, the shots are locked off, that kind of thing.
See, if I did that at the very beginning, I think people would have expected a love story. So I was having fun with the composition, the close-ups. You know, I love negative space. There’s so much information, even in the first shot in Rachel’s bedroom. The big wides in the bedroom with 10mm lenses. Greg just doesn’t stop talking. So you can have a lot of fun with compositions – keep it moving, keep it playful, and then the audience gets that it’s not a typical love story. Then you bring in the longer takes, which give you the chance to look at whoever you want. Those work because of the performances, which are so strong.
Sometimes you’re forcing the audience to be still and go at your pace. You’re changing the pace and the rhythm of the film because Greg’s learning how to be still. You start to feel uncomfortable. I think you get to feel what Greg’s feeling, and the movie is very much Greg. The whole structure of the film, the style of the film is a way of following Greg’s emotional journey.
So what’s your approach to composing your shots? Are you a storyboard-heavy director, do you find them on the set, or a bit of both?
I used to storyboard myself, all through college to make some extra money. The first episode of Glee I got [Laryngitis], I showed up and I had storyboarded every shot. I had a little book like this [indicates a small notebook], and they looked at me like I was an alien! [Laughs] Because I had these very specific shots and lenses, and the first musical sequence I storyboarded, I timed it – “from second 21 to second 43 it’s a dolly.” And it was so specific, they thought I was an alien.
It was Rose’s Turn from Gypsy, the first sequence I did. Because I liked musicals. I like the way Scorsese approached them, Michael Powell approached them, Tales Of Hoffman. So I treat them quite seriously where some people point a bunch of cameras at the same time and cut it together in the editing room. So I liked that approach.
But with American Horror Story, we were talking about the speed of it. Even in Glee, sometimes you move so fast that you don’t have time to do that. So then you have to improvise a little bit. Then you start being looser with it, which is fun. This movie was a combination of both. The beginning was quite designed, and then when it’s two people in a room, we’d maybe talk about it in the abstract, find a geography to it – what if you’re on the bed this time, and you’re over here.
You know, you don’t want every scene to be just them sitting on chairs. What if now you’re watching TV, but you’re laying down on the floor. Then it’s looser. Then some of the shots are the product of failure because something else didn’t quite work. You get more comfortable finding it on set.
Some, like the hospital sequence, where he plays the film. That was designed carefully in pre-production. Carefully storyboarded, very specific. And then when I got to the set, none of it worked. That’s quite humbling, because there were other things happening that I couldn’t control, like the flare of the lens and the colour of the film bouncing back on their faces. Just the power of seeing them – the power of the faces, right? Realising that my approach had been too stylised. It almost belonged to who I was at the beginning of the movie. Now I had evolved as well, and realised that it was just about documenting this moment.
[I used] Steadicam, which I don’t particularly like. Just trying to be still with the Steadicam starts to give you an underwater, dreamlike quality. The way he would remember that moment. Just the way he remembered high school as a kind of prison. It was documenting this thing, how do I get out of this jam? Because none of my ideas work and I’m running out of time. And I don’t want to rush this. It was simple. The Steadicam had those imperfections, because as you’re moving, the lens flare dances as well. It was out of your control, almost. That was another approach.
So sometimes you’re figuring things out, sometimes you’re prepared and it doesn’t work. Sometimes you have everything prepared and it goes as planned. But that’s the mystery of it – you never know when it’s going to knock you down.
You talked about wanting to make personal films. Do you think there’s the support for that kind of filmmaking that there was when Scorsese was younger?
I don’t know, I don’t know. Scorsese just made Silence, the Shusaku Endo adaptation, which is a very personal film. Time will tell, if Me And Earl‘s a success, I don’t know. It doesn’t have to be about me, it’s not like I’m making All That Jazz or something, which is a brilliant movie. But it can be personal by dealing with a universal emotion. This one’s about finding a voice. You can still do personal stories like that. Maybe my tastes aren’t so inaccessible. I just want to make sure there’s a connection to it – it’s not that I’m making a film about me in Laredo Texas on the border, you know?
Scorsese makes personal films, but he’s been able to do it for many, many years. Sometimes, there’s that saying that someone attributed to him – I don’t know if it’s true. “One for them, one for yourself.” That you can continue playing in the industry if you’re responsible. But I don’t know if I even agree, because even Casino, some say, is one for the studios, but it’s very personal. Age Of Innocence is personal as well. Kundun, incredibly personal. Departed – maybe less so, but there’s a way to keep making films, keep working, keep learning, keep experimenting.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, thank you very much.