Can a new friendship bring something new to your life, when you think there is not much time for it? What if one day you find yourself diagnosed with leukemia, where you think of just preparing yourself for your last journey, with no hope for a miracle? Will it happen or not is another story told in many of my books and films. But what you never saw is when someone`s life can be as rich as if that person lived a hundred years, full of ups and downs. ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL is not about love, or living hundreds of years, but it`s about moments you live; opportunities you must not miss, and true friendship that can start at any stage of your life, when you least expect it to happen. The film directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is a film that will truly fascinate you and make you believe that a whole life can be lived in a moment, in a moment that no way should be missed. I`ve had the pleasure of sitting down with Alfonso Gomez-Rejon on the roof of the Thomson Hotel, where we talked about his Sundance winner film, ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL which opened this week across Canada.
MOVIEMOVESME: How did you envision Greg, Earl, and Rachael to transform their character into film and how was it different from just the Jesse Andrews point of view?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: I think we should ask Jesse, but I think Racheal was a bit more of a square, Greg was fat, like chubby, and Earl was tiny, like a really small guy. And we tried, to the very end trying… in fact Derek, Bobby J. Thompson, who plays Earl’s brother- Derek, came close to getting the role actually, because physically, he is that guy as scripted. He is little, he’s funny, he’s really funny with words, but the problem with Bobby J., he’s a year younger than RJ, but give him a close up, he looks older than RJ and he looks older than Thomas, because he’s ripped, he’s jacked, he’s tatt’ed everywhere and it didn’t work, it just didn’t work. It would mess up the energy and it was closer to how it was pictured. You just had to go with your gut and the energy and RJ had this confidence that was very youthful and very good and it work so well with the other two.
MOVIEMOVESME: I really love the architecture of the film. The way you have managed, like despite the short videos you have already talked about. The first part of the film, specifically, there was nothing promised for the second plot, even though I’m not talking about whether someone will die or not, but the first part was funny, while the other one was very sad and almost unbearable to handle. How did you manage to plan this?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: You plan, but you don’t know if it’s gonna work. There’s always some humor though, even after that scene, there’s a Julie S Anne’s joke. In the Shiva scene, you have the pirate’s Yakima that enters the shot. You always try to push back a little bit because I was afraid it was going to get too sentimental. So, even though it is sadder, there is some humor there. Earl came by and he turned down some of my Endive sausage. You know, there’s always a little joke in there somewhere to lighten it up until the very end, not that we should talk about that. But, I was hoping that even though it was going to change in that particular scene, that it was always going to bounce back a little bit and not keep it too heavy, cause then it’d be unbearable. But if you engage, and it’s funny, and I thought that was important. So I hope it still feels like one piece.
MOVIEMOVESME: This kind of film not only depends on the story, but also how the actors will feel about the characters. Can you talk about your approach to the story and how you had a discussion with the actors to make sure you were all on the same page?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: That starts almost in the audition process. You start to learn about… when you watch different actors come in and do a scene, you start to discover about the text itself, what’s working, what isn’t working. Oh, we can develop this a little more, this isn’t quite right. The scene when they first meet, when he goes up to her bedroom, used to be very different and in auditions we realized the actors were having difficulty reaching a certain emotional beat in that first scene and realized there was something unnatural about it, so rewrote it. She used to have a laugh attack when he says the masturbation, pillow stuff. And it was unearned, and now he earns a smile and that’s enough, that’s just far enough. That’s when you realize, but you realize with the actors… eventually Olivia and Thomas, you audition these pieces so much that when you actually get to rehearsals that you’re not talking about them at all. You’ve rehearsed them to death and you want to keep them fresh, but you talk about the other scenes or you talk about…. or you take them to their homes, what their house is going to be like to get a sense of the environment, what they are going to be wearing- all that. Because we’ve already been rehearsing and talking about the character for months even though it’s not an official prep. And then Olivia and I made a chart that had her 5 cycles of chemotherapy, so she had about 7 acts in the movie. She had the beginning, then all the 5 cycles, then hospital, then the books. That’s considered another act for her, so I thought that we really shouldn’t talk about that, because you want people to discover that, but we would do these things, and track him when he becomes… his coming of age. How subtle it is and how gradual it is and his physicality you see him crawling on the floor at the beginning and walking upright and more confident at the end like he’s learning to incorporate this. And Earl as well, the way he’s able to not rely on that sense of humor anymore, and you see him get angry for the first time. That was beautiful work that RJ did that day. Those takes are some of the earlier takes. These later takes got so emotional that in context they were too much, but to see RJ discover that side of himself while he’s…. he’s never…. this is his first movie. He doesn’t even know that he had that in him as you’re shooting it, and he doesn’t have the tools yet to hold back and it was quite a beautiful process to see this come out of him as Earl. It was really something. So it’s a conversation that’s ongoing, and sometime the best directing is not saying anything at all because they got it and sometimes you talk and adjust. But sometimes a lot of that work starts before you even start shooting. Just creating a space where they can feel comfortable.
MOVIEMOVESME: Sometimes the way you see the film may not be the way we see it. What do you expect the first thing would be about this film that the audience will remember?
Alfonso Gomez-I’ll tell you what it is. You know who told me what the movie was about? This high school kid in Seattle and I wrote it down. I’m not joking. Something you keep learning about the film through other people. I can tell you right now that’s it’s not a movie about dying, it’s a movie about living, it’s about making something, creativity, and that’s all true, but this is what this kid told me. His friend had just died in a car accident and his teacher said that when people leave their lives, they’re like a stain glass window. Their definition is not as clear, but the beauty of their life is ever more present. That’s a stunning way of seeing the film because that’s true. Without giving away the ending. So, my father’s no longer here, he’s everywhere and we’re talking about him. So that I think, there’s an infinity of layers in all of us. And just because one of them is gone doesn’t mean others remain and you just have to pay attention and find them and listen to them.