Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was the breakout hit of the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, following in the footsteps of last year’s Whiplash by picking up both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. It’s the latest feature from Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, a former second unit director with plenty of experience behind the camera on television projects such as American Horror Story, Glee and Red Band Society.
We spoke with Gomez-Rejon briefly during his visit to the Phoenix Film Festival in April, and were lucky enough to get some more time with him during the press tour for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – and as an added bonus, cast members Thomas Mann, OIivia Cooke and RJ Cyler were along for the ride. Check out the conversation below.
One of the themes in the film is how the main characters focus on art as an emotional outlet or a coping mechanism. Were you able to relate to this idea? Do you also use your craft as an outlet?
RJ Cyler: Definitely, all the time. Mostly I use music as my outlet, DJ-ing or [playing] the drums. If I’m extra angry, it’s the drums, and I imagine the face of my brother or something – because nine times out of ten, he’s the one that really pissed me off. So just a nice jam session for thirty minutes, or I’ll mix for an hour or so, and then I’m just calm and happy, like a Chipotle burrito.
Thomas Mann: Yeah, I definitely related to Greg in the sense that he was an outcast. I wasn’t necessarily an outcast in high school, but I was more creative and I was into theater. And I made parodies of movies, we did The Matrix and Saw – but our version was Spoon, instead. So I really related to that, just the pure joy of being creative when you’re that age, and kind of discovering what you like and your taste in things. And I hope people can relate to Greg and see that it’s okay to be artistic and creative and weird in high school.
Olivia Cooke: I’m not creative, apart from acting, but I defiinitely feel like when I’m going through something personally, different scripts appeal to me, whether it be more dramatic or more comedic. It just depends what I’m going through and what I want to say.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: One of the many things I liked about this script is that it’s about young artists, and when you’re a young artist like I was and you’re always painting and drawing, it is hard to start sharing. Because you are different, you are a bit of an outsider. And it takes while for you to start opening up and showing your work, and then eventually you find your voice. So I really understood why Greg and Earl were making these films for themselves, and this journey about learning to make something for someone else. I really responded to the idea of making something to express your feelings.
There have been some comparisons between this movie and The Fault in Our Stars. What do you think makes this movie unique, and makes the story worth telling?
Thomas Mann: Well, it’s not like we set out and say “okay, we’re going to be different from this one and this one.” This movie is just so unique in its voice, and that’s why I responded to it. And I liked the fact that romance wasn’t the driving force of the movie, it was something deeper and more complex than that. It just sort of lives in all these grey areas, and it’s weird and specific. And the voice of Greg was very self-aware and self-deprecating – it just felt very modern, like the way a lot of teenagers speak today.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: And not that our film is more complex because it’s not romantic, because that obviously adds its own complications, but for me it was just so different. Thematically, I really responded to it, and I really saw myself in Greg and wanted to take that journey. But they’re so different – there are two kids and there might be a cancer element, but the spirit is so different.
Olivia Cooke: It’s about so much more than just cancer, it really is.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: It’s about discovery. It’s very much a different kind of connection.
This feels like a movie that people of all generations will be able to relate to. Do you feel that the humor in the film played a big role in that?
Thomas Mann: Well, I think the movie allows you to laugh, and lets you know that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable in darker situations. When you’re young and something tragic happens, you just kind of shut down and you don’t know what to do. It’s just too much and it’s kind of awkward, and I just so much of that in Greg, and it was very honest.
Olivia Cooke: And also, you’re having these comedic moments, and the connection you feel toward these characters and the warmth that you feel, it just feels earned. You’re not being forced to like these characters. Greg is the most selfish character that you could meet, but we can all relate to him. This awful thing is happening to this girl he’s embarked on a lovely relationship with, and all he can think about is how it’s affecting him. But we can all relate to thinking that, and thinking about how this hardship that’s happening to someone else affects us.
Did you have any personal experiences dealing with cancer that you were able to draw from while making this film?
RJ Cyler: Yeah, my grandmom on my dad’s side passed from cancer, and also her husband passed from cancer, too. So that was one of the things I was able to pull from when it was time to be emotional – which I don’t really do – but that’s what made the challenge [of this role] more attractive to me.
Thomas Mann: I’ve lost four grandparents to cancer, and all of the relatively young. As a kid, that’s really hard to deal with, because you get really close with your grandparents and they teach you a lot of things. So yeah, I do relate.
Olivia Cooke: At the time I was researching and prepping for the film, I didn’t know anyone. But then I met a girl at the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles, and she had gone through all the rounds of chemo that she could, and it hadn’t worked so she was having a bone marrow transplant. It’s hard to meet someone that’s going through that and not feel like the biggest phony.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: For me, I was making this film because I had lost someone very close to me. It wasn’t to cancer, and it wasn’t a 17-year-old girl, but it’s that emotional journey – the anger, the denial, all that stuff – and this was an opportunity to process it.
Going into the Sundance Film Festival, was there ever a point where you all realized “hey, we’ve made something really special here,” or were you surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response?
Olivia Cooke: I always knew that this script was the most special script I had ever read. And coming out of shooting it, I definitely felt that we had something really amazing, something that I had never experienced before. But I’m really pessimistic anyway, so to even think anything like that would be so out of character for me. I feel like I think of the worst possible thing happening, just to protect myself.
Thomas Mann: I knew, when we were shooting it, that it definitely felt different from anything else I had ever worked on. Creatively, I grew a lot and I pushed myself past places I didn’t know I could go. I knew we were making something special, but you never know what to expect, and going to Sundance was just overwhelming. It was amazing.
RJ Cyler: It was my first time ever hearing about Sundance, or knowing what Sundance was, so I really didn’t know what to expect. This was my first project, so it’s like a first child: you don’t really know what’s going to come out of it, but you’re gonna try to do your best raising it. So that was my approach: “okay RJ, this is our first baby, let’s try not to make him a bum.” And obviously he grew up to be a nice engineer.
Which scenes were the most enjoyable to shoot?
Thomas Mann: Anything with Molly Shannon.
Olivia Cooke: I was just gonna say that!
Thomas Mann: She’s so hilarious, and just the nicest person. I know you say that about a lot of people…
Olivia Cooke: But she genuinely is.
Thomas Mann: She genuinely cares so much, and I feel like she got so much out of us. I feel like I bared my soul to her.
Thomas Mann: It was really amazing, and she was so funny to work with.
Olivia Cooke: And so giving, as well, so reactive. You went anywhere with her, and she’d be a step ahead of you, ready to play.
RJ Cyler: One of my favorite moments on set was a scene we were shooting at nighttime, with Molly Shannon. Me and Jesse [Andrews, screenwriter] were sitting downstairs, and he just started beat-boxing out of nowhere. So we made this three-minute video of him beat-boxing and me singing really weird songs that don’t make no sense, and it was just a very bonding moment between two very weird people.
After making a film that deals with such emotional subject matter, do you feel like your perspective on life has changed at all?
Thomas Mann: Yeah, this movie opened me up emotionally in a lot of ways. I felt like I grew up a lot over the process of shooting this film, and I feel like now it’s going to be hard to go back and do another high school movie. I can’t go back and be that person I was before.
Olivia Cooke: I feel like it’s prepared me. Before doing the movie, I was so terrified of death, or being away from home and something happening to my mum and not being able to get there in time. And I feel now that it’s so out of your control, [and you should] just live as best you can.
RJ Cyler: It made me more appreciative of the life that I do have, just seeing the process of what could happen. And there’s people that go through that, and it really opened up my mind [to the idea] that it could always be worse. So now I’m more of an optimist.
Thomas Mann: Yeah, just trying to be more open with people, letting people in and kind of embracing whatever comes with that, good or bad.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is now playing in limited release.