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Frank J. Avella Film Column
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" and the Dynamic Director and the Crazy-Good Lead Actor

Opposite Photo: Thomas Mann
Photo Credit: Frank J. Avella


It’s very rare for a film to come out that one can argue even semi- significantly changes the language of cinema. It’s all so subjective and each decade or so cinephiles like to come up with a new list.

What may be easier to measure is when a filmmaker places such a fresh, assuredly personal stamp on a movie, that it elicits a kind of infectious elation. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who has mostly worked in television (“American Horror Story,” “Glee,” “The Carrie Diaries”), takes a done-to-death story and gives it an invigorating rethink with “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” It certainly helps to have a bracingly witty and charming screenplay (by Jesse Andrews, based on his novel) to work from.

An additional boon is the extraordinary young actor Thomas Mann who plays the films lead in such a painfully realistic way, I felt like I was back in high school again. Mann manages to give Greg a host of nuances, all in keeping with the world of the character. He’s instantly launched into the pantheon of terrific new talent that should be nurtured and celebrated.

This unique indie tells the tale of a high school senior, Greg (Mann), trying desperately to not call attention to himself, who is asked, by his mother (Connie Britton), to befriend a classmate who has been diagnosed with leukemia (Olivia Cooke). Greg and his buddy Earl (RJ Cyler) spend their free time making parodies of classic films. The unexpected relationships forged and the knowledge acquired, via Greg’s entirely apprehensive journey, is a wonder to behold.


Thomas Mann and Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

I was fortunate enough to sit down with both director and actor recently.

Below are excerpts from each interview. Both were amazing to speak with. Gomez-Rejon has such a love for film that I could have spoken to him for a week!

ALFONSO GOMEZ-REJON

Frank J. Avella: I loved this film. I found it entertaining, insightful, clever, intelligent, and moving—I think it’s profound. It’s obviously made by someone who knows the medium. It’s an homage to the medium. When did your love for film start and tell me about the evolution.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: I’ve had to think about that. (Note: Gomez-Rejon was born in in the border town of Laredo, Texas in 1972) We weren’t allowed to speak English at home. We were very Mexican. My parents wanted to protect us from the TexMex culture—really protect our identities. Our city had a fourplex so you saw the mainstream movies and that was it. But my mom loved showing Super 8 home movies to us. And there was something about the ritual…of the projector, loading the super 8 films—of when it started to burn and splicing it. I loved the ritualistic aspects of that and also the experience of watching it together…there was something quite beautiful about the silent experience. And I think that’s where it started.

I was also deeply afraid of the dark and sleeping alone. So I’d stay up and watch TV as often as I could and movies were quite comforting to me. And then it was the beginning of the VHS revolution in the early 80s and I was finally able to get access (to films)…My older brother’s friend introduced me to “Apocalypse Now” and that really did something to me…All of a sudden I started to find something in the craft of film that I loved. And I would start counting shots and counting edits, like in “After Hours,” when he throws the keys out the window there’s like 7 cuts.

My sister went on a school trip to NY and came back and said you know you could be a director. That is a career. And they teach it at NYU. And it just clicked. And I started watching more movies and more movies. It was all I would do.

Then somewhere in that journey, early on, I found “Mean Streets.” And that was a very pivotal movie for me. “Mean Streets” was the first time that Catholic iconography was documented in a contemporary way. And I was questioning a lot of that being a Catholic school kid…and I saw myself in the characters. I started to see how personal that film was because it was speaking to me. Then I started being obsessed with Scorsese and Scorsese led me to film history…so I basically decided I was going to be a director very early on. Applied to NYU because Scorsese went there. (He was accepted). All I would do was go to Bobst Library and watch movies…and it began this obsession. I love film history. And eventually I started PAing and that led to Marty’s office. And he, of course, led to more film history. He has a library of over 25,000 videos and laserdiscs in his office. So you could just take out anything you wanted to watch…so it’s been a very long road to get there—25 years—and finally I’m making a personal movie.

The experience in television helped me hone my craft and experiment. To me television was experimenting…“American Horror Story” had such a Baroque style that you could never go too far. Finally there was a way to personalize the journey and this was it.

Frank J. Avella: Speaking of “American Horror Story,” as a Stevie Nicks fan I had to ask you what it was like working with her?

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: Very interesting. She was amazing. I learned a lot because she’s been in show business for however many decades and she was very honest with me. She told me this experience was so foreign because she has a schedule. She doesn’t act. She’s been in music videos (mostly performance). (Her average day) She gets picked up, does a sound check, changes, goes onstage at 8:13, there s a car waiting for her afterwards, she goes to the hotel, goes to sleep at 3AM—there’s a structure to her days.

And all of a sudden she’s going to a set and having to wait in her trailer for a few hours, because we’re not ready. And then to hit a mark and turn and say a line, it was such a different medium for her. You’d think because she’s been in show business and around actors—but it’s a very different set of tools and to be in the moment, as a character, within the reality of a TV show. We got there, but it was interesting how foreign it was even for someone who’s been in show business for such a long time.”

Frank J. Avella: What drew you to wanting to make “Me and Earl?”

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: I had lost my dad about a year before and I had become almost catatonic, almost a shell of a person…I was afraid to feel, because that bond with my dad was so intense. He was so funny and he was my best friend and he was no longer there. It was very abrupt and I didn’t understand how to deal with it so I didn’t. I avoided it. I couldn’t look at photographs. I didn’t want to hear stories. The pain was so intense that I worked non-stop…but I wasn’t telling personal stories. I was getting far from the person I was.

So when I read this—first of all it’s hysterical. It’s so beautiful, specific. Obviously it celebrates movies and that’s exciting…then when I got to the Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal) scene about how people’s stories continue to unfold. I was very moved by that and I wanted to believe it but I didn’t. But then I saw myself in Greg, that confusion, that denial and the fact that he has to make a film to express himself at the end. I thought, I could own this and transform this into something deeply personal. And maybe at the end I’ll start believing this idea. And physically by making the film I did start to believe McCarthy’s lesson and I do believe it now.

And by dedicating it to my father at Sundance, which was the first time it screened with that dedication, it became a dialogue about him that I wasn’t expecting…and then you start to hear the stories that you didn’t want to listen to before. And he comes back as a very vivid memory.

Frank J. Avella: What is your process like, working with the actors onset?

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: There was a very intimate, safe environment that the producers create for me and I always try and create for them (the actors). It’s a safe place to be creative and fail and have a lot of laughs. We kept the set intimate and small…it was quite beautiful and I trusted them so much and they delivered in such a beautiful way.

Frank J. Avella: Looking at the film now, can you see some filmmakers that influenced you that you might not have consciously thought of while making it?

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: All those filmmakers that I watched over and over again become a part of your DNA over the years. You hope that you didn’t purposefully go out and copy someone’s work. You hope that it’s through your eyes. I think the spirit of Hal Ashby is there--a direct homage to him (“Harold and Maude,” in particular). Also, “The Graduate,” look at the adults in “The Graduate,” they’re like aliens—in (Benjamin’s) world…and you can’t do anything without wondering whether Scorsese would like it (laughs). The economy of Woody Allen for certain sequences.

Frank J. Avella: Are you happy with the film?

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: I’m very proud of the performances and I appreciate the people that are responding to it but I’ll always see the mistakes.

Gomez-Rejon might see mistakes, but that’s the mark of a true artist. I simply see one of the best films of 2015.

THOMAS MANN

Frank J. Avella: Greg tries to be part of every group in high school so he pretty much goes unnoticed. How much did you draw from your own life for that?

Thomas Mann: A lot of it was just recognizing yourself and recognizing other people in the characters. I read a lot of coming-of-age scripts and so many of them reduce teenagers to one thing or one type of person, but what I love about Jesse is he writes people and they’re messy and they’re not perfect--the way that the writing embraced the selfishness and stubbornness of teenagers. It’s when you read something and it makes you look at yourself differently…I’m 23 now but I still, very much, related to Greg. He’s so smart. Very intelligent. A lot of teenagers are. They have all the answers but they’re just too stubborn to make use of them. He (Jesse) was tapping into the untapped potential of a lot of young people. And the way they kind of stifle themselves. It’s so complex to me. I saw a lot of myself in it. I knew it was something I could throw myself into and live with this character for a while. And just as an actor there are so many opportunities, to be funny and dig deep emotionally. It’s so rare that a role like this comes a long and I just wanted it so bad.

Frank J. Avella: How did the project come to you?

Thomas Mann: Through my agent. And when I found out Alfonso was doing it I got very excited because I was up for his first film (“The Town That Dreaded Sundown”) He started sending me DVDs. We talked about movies and different actors. When I found out he was directing, I knew it would be deeper and more meaningful than a regular teen movie. And his visual style is so interesting. The process was really long to get the part. Everyone wanted to be a part of it.

Olivia and me met before our chemistry read the night before. We had this bond from the very beginning. It always came back to us. Alfonso sensed that we had this connection.

Frank J. Avella:Had you seen a lot of the films that are parodied in “Me and Earl?”

Thomas Mann: I was familiar with “Mean Streets,” “Midnight Cowboy” but so much of my homework was watching these films. I wanted to adopt that cinephile quality. And a lot of it was Alfonso’s infectious love for filmmaking. You just want to educate yourself any way you can. And I wanted to be able to hold my own in conversations with him. About movies. He was great about educating me and sending me movies all the time. He still does every day.

Frank J. Avella: What was your process like before Alfonso and how do you think it’s changed?

Thomas Mann: I think I realize the importance of having conversations about characters and not dwelling on lines here and there on the day. It’s doing all the homework before so when you get there on the day you can let everything go and just really be in the moment--and the importance of trusting your director and that relationship. It’s got to be very open and collaborative. You have to feel safe around the people you are working with if you’re going to really dig deep. It’s so easy to get self-conscious when you have to go to these emotional places and that’s something that I wasn’t really comfortable with. I had never been asked to go there before. Alfonso just brought it out in me in the most effortless way. I feel like I’ve reached a new point of empathy now. It really opened me up emotionally. So I’m much more confident as an actor than I was before.

Frank J. Avella: Is acting something you always dreamed of doing?

Thomas Mann: Since I was in High School, yeah. It’s not like I woke up one day and said I want to be an actor. It was more like people told me I was pretty good at it and once someone tells you you’re good at something it makes you want to do it more. It’s something I fell in love with and now I’m addicted to it.

 




 

 

 


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