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'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl': How the director's personal loss connects with the film

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When we first met the director at Sundance, he’d just completed the movie and we were one of his first interviews. The film's dedicated to his father, and he let us know what that meant.

The film “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" set off a bidding war at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film’s protagonist, Greg (Thomas Mann) meets high school classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) after his parents force him to hang out with her because she has leukemia.

The film is directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who previously made the 2014 horror film "The Town that Dreaded Sundown." Gomez-Rejon has mostly worked in television. Perhaps it was the teen cred he acquired from “Glee” that put him in a position to direct “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” — a movie based on a young adult novel of the same name by Jesse Andrews, who also wrote the screenplay. 

The last time we talked with Gomez-Rejon about the death of his father

Gomez-Rejon’s biggest hero was his father, to whom he dedicates the movie. When we first met Gomez-Rejon at the Sundance Film Festival in January, he’d just completed the movie — and we were one of the first interviews he did after its world premiere. Almost a half a year later, we picked up where we left off from that conversation.

"The fact that I had lost my father was something that was very private, that had been a secret of mine and kind of the engine getting me through this movie, that I only shared with a few people close to me," Gomez-Rejon says. "I was going to bury that dedication at the end of the film, and my producer Jeremy Dawson actually encouraged me to make it the first credit we see at the end of the film, before my 'directed by' credit."

Gomez-Rejon conceded, and it ended up creating an emotional moment for the director.

"What I didn't expect was, to me, that screening at Sundance was so cathartic, because just getting the film out there and letting it go, and all that anxiety and the fear that goes into that, and thinking that that was going to be the end of this journey. But what happened was, it began a whole new journey that I wasn't expecting, because now that loss was very public. And you were the first interview to ask me to talk about my father, and who he was. And I wasn't prepared for it."

Talking with the Frame about his father was the first of many interviews where he's talked about his father since. He says he's thankful about being asked about his dad to begin with.

"There's guilt associated with it, because sometimes you're not feeling as much as you want, and you want to feel more. But then sometimes you feel, when you least expect it, you just break down. And that's all part of the journey, because it began this process of integrating a loss into your life and moving forward. But it was very unexpected, and I didn't really understand it until you made me talk about it, and then the connection, this beautiful cosmic rhyme, just appeared, and I hadn't really planned for it. I was a taken aback by your question, but I felt very good about it, and it began a process for me, so thank you."

Leaving a legacy and being inspired

In the film, a teacher says, "Sometimes when people die, their stories continue to unfold. You just have to pay attention." That line is something that meant a lot to Gomez-Rejon as the son of a man he truly admired.

"It was a line that I wanted to believe, but did not believe before taking on the movie. And then, the making of the movie, I started to believe that. And now I really do believe it. That there is some sort of continuum. Not in the traditional sense, or a religious [one], because I sadly think I lost my faith a long time ago."

In the story, the characters of Greg and Earl make amateur movies inspired by their cinematic heroes. Gomez-Rejon has some real life heroes beyond his father who also influenced his directing on this film. In his career he’s worked with Martin Scorsese, writer Nick Pileggi and Nora Ephron.

"As a filmmaker, obviously we spoof a lot of movies within the movie, or they watch movies within the movie," Gomez-Rejon says, "like 'The Tales of Hoffmann' by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, or 'Peeping Tom' that they spoof as 'Pooping Tom.'"

Gomez-Rejon says that by making what could be obscure references for younger people, it encourages young people to seek out these films.

"By them seeking out these movies and discovering these directors, you keep them alive as well, and their story continues to unfold. And that, as a filmmaker, is a way to give back to the heroes that either mentored you, or the filmmaking, the director heroes that shaped me as a filmmaker, or the people that I aspire to be, or hopefully when I die have a body of work that comes close to something of theirs, but it never will, obviously."

He credits Scorsese's work with inspiring him to go to New York University and eventually getting the opportunity to work with him directly. He also introduced Gomez-Rejon to his longtime editor, Thelma Schoonmaker, who Gomez-Rejon describes as his "guardian angel" ever since.

Meeting the people who inspired him led to him meeting other inspiring people, he says.

"One begat the other, and little by little, they began to change my life and start nurturing me, and having such faith in me, even when things weren't going well. So this film is an opportunity for me to thank them — almost directly, with references. Thelma Schoonmaker is Greg Gaines's screensaver. Two scripts on the desk were 'Casino' and 'Heartburn,' and that's Nick [Pileggi] and Nora [Ephron]. Marty's everywhere, on posters and T-shirts."

How making a real film and a fictional film connect

The book the film is based on drove home the idea that Greg is challenged by the obligation and opportunity to make a film for dying girl Rachel, with the responsibility weighing on him. As a filmmaker, Gomez-Rejon had to go through something similar, which he says made his story and the character's story inextricably linked.

"They become linked before you know it. Because I knew, and Jesse and I spoke about this a lot, that the film that he makes for Rachel originally was a montage of all the bad films that they've made throughout the film, but I knew that it had to be something different — that it was him dealing with these abstractions in a way that he had to do so without relying on his words or parodies. It had to evolve in some way. But deep down, I was trying to do the same thing with the big movie."

Gomez-Rejon says that he was overwhelmed on the last day of production, when they shot Greg screening his film for Rachel.

"That little film within the bigger film was a summary of everything I wanted the big film to feel like. And it became very clear at the end — it was very hard that last day, very emotional, because we had had such a beautiful experience together, and we're also saying goodbye to everybody, and at the same time this abstract film within the film was a summary of everything I was feeling inside. And then seeing it realized by our actors was quite magical and overwhelming."

The director says he knew he was responding to the project originally because he connected with Greg, but he didn't initially realize how literally he was modeling himself after Greg.

"I was going through the exact same journey as Greg by physically, in the editing room, trying to finish my movie, was exactly what he's doing through the second half of the film. He's trying to finish his movie for Rachel — I'm desperately trying to finish this movie for my father and get it ready for Sundance. It was completely unexpected, but beautiful nonetheless."

The movie is about how people deal with an unexpected event in their life. Gomez-Rejon had to deal with his own unexpected moment — how much Sundance has changed his life.

"People are listening to me now. Actors want to meet with me. Old scripts that I've been wanting to make for a decade or more are now in active development, that I may actually get to shoot. Just a lot of opportunities come your way — deals to develop your own material on television. But I am such a twentieth century guy, and I love feature film and exhibiting films in theaters, and hopefully shooting film one day before it goes away forever. I love that process of putting something out that has a beginning, middle and end, and then you move on to something else, and you leave it behind, and hopefully as a document in the future that would reveal a little about who you were at that point in your life."

“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” opens in theaters this Friday, June 12.

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