Frank J. Avella Film Column
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"
and the Dynamic Director and the Crazy-Good
Opposite Photo: Thomas
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
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!
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.
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
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.
J. Avella: Speaking of “American Horror
Story,” as a Stevie Nicks fan I had to ask
you what it was like working with her?
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
J. Avella: What drew you to wanting to make
“Me and Earl?”
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.
J. Avella: What is your process like, working
with the actors onset?
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.
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
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.
J. Avella: Are you happy with the film?
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.
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?
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.
J. Avella: How did the project come to you?
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.
J. Avella:Had you seen a lot of the films
that are parodied in “Me and Earl?”
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
J. Avella: What was your process like before
Alfonso and how do you think it’s changed?
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.
J. Avella: Is acting something you always
dreamed of doing?
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.