The Rumpus Interview with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
On June 17, 1994, two things happened: the police chased O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco down an LA freeway, and I met Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. I was staying on the couch of a friend of Jeff Sommerville, a close childhood friend, and she threw a party one night. Jeff arrived with Alfonso, his friend from NYU film school. I was modeling at the time, and my French actor boyfriend was visiting from Paris. He and Alfonso spent hours talking movies while the rest of us speculated about whether O.J. did it over cocktails while listening to Björk and The Orb. Jeff and I were twenty-four. Alfonso was twenty-one. A year later, the three of us got an apartment together in Los Angeles. Jeff temped for a while before getting hired to work on Polish Wedding, Alfonso enrolled at AFI, and I started college. Twenty years later, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, co-produced by Jeff and directed by Alfonso, won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at Sundance. Here’s how it happened.
The Rumpus: What was your role as co-producer of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl?
Jeff Sommerville: My role was mostly on the development side of things: having the book submitted to me, fighting to buy it, and then the long development process when we worked with Jesse [Andrews] and Dan Fogelman on the adaptation from book to screenplay.
Rumpus: How did you get involved with this project?
Sommerville: I was working at Indian Paintbrush and I had known Dan Fogelman, one of the producers, for a long time. He had fallen in love with this manuscript that he had gotten from his agency and had wanted to produce it and potentially direct it. The book was submitted to Indian Paintbrush and I read it and fell in love with it. And Dan had this plan that he wanted Jesse to adapt his own book into a screenplay even though Jesse hadn’t written a screenplay before. He was also a first-time novelist at the time, so it was an unusual circumstance, but the voice of the book was so special and funny and poignant that Dan’s plan of mentoring Jesse through the process and guiding him through how to write a screenplay was really enticing because Dan has a ton of experience and is a produced screenwriter himself. Because the voice of the book was so great, Dan felt that only Jesse could capture that in screenplay form. So we decided to make an offer and got it, and then the process started from there.
Rumpus: What made you fall in love with the book?
Sommerville: It made me laugh out loud over and over and made me cry at the end. I think there’s something very universal about the high school experience, about feeling like the outcast, about not fitting in that was incredibly relatable, not having been particularly popular myself in high school. It captured some very big picture, poignant lessons about life, but it was also laugh-out-loud funny. And you fell in love with these characters. There was this voice that was super authentic—the way that teenagers think, the way that teenagers talk. And there was something that was so honest and quirky and unpredictable about it. It never became sentimental even when it became emotional. It was honest and messy around the edges the way that real life is.
Rumpus: What was the process of getting Jesse to write the screenplay?
Sommerville: After we closed on the book deal, we flew [Andrews] out to LA and he stayed for a week. He came, I remember, on a Monday with Dan [Fogelman], and we talked through the things about the book that we really loved and what we thought a screenplay might look like. Then he and Dan went off and he spent the week at Dan’s house kind of getting screenwriting boot camp—watching movies and talking about process—and then on Friday of that same week they came back to Indian Paintbrush and Jesse pitched his version of what the screenplay was going to be. I knew right then it just felt so right. You could tell he understood storytelling on a deep level and understood the need to create more of a three-act structure because the style of his book is very stream of consciousness and a movie has to operate by more traditional three-act rules. So he really came in with a shape to the movie, and then he went off and started writing.
Rumpus: How long did it take him to write the screenplay?
Sommerville: Probably two or three months. He and Dan had their own process because Dan was mentoring him throughout as he was writing. And when they had a draft that they were ready to show us, we read it and we wrote notes from Indian Paintbrush, and then he went off and wrote another draft. That’s just a normal part of the developmental process. You just keep shaping the script until you get it where you want it to be.
Rumpus: How different was the final script from the novel?
Sommerville: It was fairly different. Because of the nature of a movie, we had to change certain parts of the novel, but what didn’t change is the spirit of the characters and the spirit of Jesse’s voice. It all felt very organic to what the source material was. I think that’s what’s most important, and he did that with flying colors.
Rumpus: Was the bedroom scene at the end written into the script?
Sommerville: That wasn’t in the original script. That was something Alfonso and Jesse worked on together. I think everyone’s favorite scene of the story was the Mr. McCarthy speech when he talks about how people’s lives keep unfolding even after they die, and [the bedroom scene] was really a great way to punctuate Greg’s journey and accept growing up. The Mr. McCarthy scene was in the first draft of the original script, but the whole thing about the cutouts with the scissors was something new because Alfonso wanted to find a more visual way instead of just through narration to show Greg learning something about Rachel.
Rumpus: What was it like working with Alfonso on this project?
Sommerville: We went to NYU together and met interning for a producer at the Tribeca Film Center, so I’ve known him for a long time. We’ve always been friends but have never had an opportunity to work together, so it was really a dream come true. He had a connection to the material that was very profound because of the recent loss of his father, so he really connected to the script and Greg’s journey in a very meaningful way. On top of that, he’s a cinephile and knows more about film history than probably anyone I know. So the material was so incredibly well suited to him at that time that I felt so fortunate that our paths crossed on this project when they did.
Rumpus: You went to film school at NYU and then at AFI. Describe your directing career since then.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: It’s been a slow climb, like super slow climb. It’s been long and hard. I always felt I was moving up, but part of me wishes I could have been here twenty years ago. But then this movie wouldn’t exist, had it not been for everything that’s happened in those years.
Rumpus: You worked on Scorsese’s Casino while you were still an undergrad at NYU. How did you get that job?
Gomez-Rejon: No one believes this story, but it’s a true story. I was obsessed with Marty as a kid. I discovered his movies on VHS, and they all really spoke to me. And he introduced me to a whole league of directors because he’s always talking about other directors. He went to NYU, so I said I’m going to go to NYU. Film school was popular, but not for Laredo, Texas, on the border in the ’80s. It was a very far-out thing. But I applied to one school. My dad was always, “Do the best, do the best, do the best,” so I tried to succeed. “Achieve excellence” was his big thing. So I applied early admission and I got in.
My first morning in New York, I was at Weinstein residence hall. I had to cross Washington Square Park to get to Hayden Hall to eat, and they were shooting Sesame Street in Washington Square. And I never made it to Hayden Hall. I just could not believe there was a set. And looking back, it was like a camera on sticks. It was the tiniest little live action thing for Sesame Street, but the line producer saw me there for hours, asked me my name, what my story was, and I think she liked the fact that I’d literally landed yesterday and I was a very young-looking seventeen-year-old. She put me to work blocking street traffic, and I had a credit. The next day she asked me back as a PA for a music video for Benny King and Bo Didley and the week after that, a music video for Father MC at the Palladium. So when I started school, I had three things on my resume. And I just kept parlaying that—storyboard artists, working on senior theses, independent films, independent shorts. I don’t know how I got through school because I was always working. I didn’t have a lot of friends. All my friends were in production. They were older than me—old, like 29.
And then, eventually there was a woman named Bonnie Palef that I worked for and Jeff [Sommerville] also did—that’s how I met him—and then eventually someone knew someone that knew Scorsese’s second assistant, who was looking for an intern and who knew about me. You couldn’t know about me and not hear the word Scorsese every hour, so they recommended me for the internship and I got it the summer before my senior year and started working there.
They keep you away from Marty at first to see if you’re the real deal, so you’re in the Xerox room filing and stuff and then eventually they let you out and then I guess I was not annoying—or I was a ninja, I was invisible, I don’t know—but we liked each other. I think. I’ll speak for myself. I liked him.
Rumpus: After NYU, you went to AFI. What was that like?
Gomez-Rejon: I thought AFI would change a lot of things and it did in its own way because of everyone I met. And I wrote a script there that got me my first agent at CAA and that was a big deal, and then you just think you’re on your way. Big agent too, huge agent who’s no longer there.
Rumpus: What was that script called?
Gomez-Rejon: It was called Connected. It was about Frank Cullotta, a gangster that I met (working on Scorsese’s Casino), and I had done a few versions of that script. At AFI I changed the name to Frank: A Life in Four Chapters. The structure was loosely inspired by Mishima, the Paul Schrader film. Then I moved to New York and I was PAing after getting my Master’s.
Rumpus: Where did you PA in New York?
Gomez-Rejon: This is so embarrassing. Through [Nick] Pileggi, [the screenwriter of Casino], I got a job as a PA on a Sidney Lumet movie called Gloria. It was quite humbling because I had to get up at 4:30 every morning and hose down the outside of the 14th Street Armory, where a lot of homeless people hang out, and they would leave their evacuations if you know what I mean. So I had my Master’s and I’m hosing this down, but it was a great job because I’m always going to be a PA at heart, and I loved meeting all the guys that were building the sets and Mel Bourne, who had done all of those great Woody Allen movies, was in his 80s, and that was ultimately his last movie.
That led to Nora [Ephron] and You’ve Got Mail and all that. And then I rewrote the [Cullotta] script, it didn’t sell, rewrote it, then I flew out to meet my new agent, and he sat me down and he said, “I represent Michael Mann. I represent Michael Bay. I represent Barry Sonnenfeld, what the fuck am I going to do with you?” And that was it. I walked out without an agent.
There were a lot of hurdles, but I was always working. I was always creative. I was PAing on movies, and then I opened up a coffee house in Texas and I also sold phones for a bit, but I was always writing. Sometimes people write you off and that’s quite painful, but eventually I finished another script that got me another agent at UTA and then Nora forced Paramount into getting me into the Guild to direct second unit for her. And that was a big game-changer. All of a sudden I had my director’s card. I had also been Alejandro [Iñárritu]’s assistant on 21 Grams, so when he called me for Babel, I was second unit director, and then one thing led to another. I was always being creative, but it was never easy.
Rumpus: Fast forward twenty years. How did you end up directing Me and Earl and the Dying Girl?
Gomez-Rejon: I read the script, and I was very moved by the material. I thought it was very, very funny and I was laughing and I was seeing the film, and in the film you celebrate other movies, and I thought I could really go nuts with that, but it wasn’t until the Mr. McCarthy scene about learning about people after you die that I was really touched. I had lost my dad the year before and I was a mess. And when you lose a parent, you always feel like a child in a lot of ways. That relationship never changes. I was forty and Greg Gaines is seventeen when he may or may not lose Rachel. That confusion, the denial, the regret, the guilt, the “How can this be here and now it’s not going to there tomorrow?” and then you have to move on. It’s so abstract and I’m not a person of any deep faith, and I envy those that are. But the movie had this very hopeful and very comforting quality to it in that there is some kind of continuum but not in the traditional sense. And I wanted just to believe that. What I had done is shut down. I couldn’t even see my Dad’s photographs. When people wanted to bring up the subject, I just kind of created a barrier because it was too painful. And the process of making the movie was quite transformative for me because I was letting go while making the movie—laughing a lot and crying. I had had a horror movie that had come out the year before that was a very kind of sobering experience and you think you’re not going to work again and all of a sudden you’re here, within a year. It’s schizophrenic.
Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, and Olivia Cooke play “me,” “Earl” and “the dying girl” respectively. When I met them, the three were huddled around an iPhone listening to some pop song, like you’d expect young twenty-somethings to be doing. Cooke’s hair was cropped short and she had a Manchester accent that surprised me. All three were professional and unpretentious.
Rumpus: What was it about the script that made you want to play Greg Gaines?
Thomas Mann: I read a lot of coming-of-age scripts, and this was the first one where I wasn’t annoyed by the characters. It was really funny and reminded me of the way I might have dealt with a situation like this when I was in high school because it’s awkward and uncomfortable. They don’t see it as a beautiful time in their lives. It was more honest than that. So yeah, it was just the writing and then with Alfonso being involved, it was going to be not just a teen movie, so that was exciting.
Rumpus: You’ve been out of high school for a few years now. What was it like playing a high school student?
Mann: It wasn’t that different. It’s not like I had to go study high school kids. I still very much relate to Greg, and I saw a lot of myself in him, so I didn’t really think of it like how do I pretend to be a teenager. I still look like a teenager.
Rumpus: Do you play many high school roles?
Mann: I do, yeah. Hopefully this is the last time.
Rumpus: What was it like working with Alfonso?
Mann: Amazing. I’ve never worked with someone who is so involved in every aspect of the movie. He was very sensitive to what we each individually wanted as actors, and he just trusted us and made us feel like everything was our idea and we could do no wrong. I think he just loves actors, and we felt very safe around him, which was very important for this kind of movie because I’d never had to dig that deep emotionally, and he was very helpful with that.
Rumpus: What about you, Olivia? What made you want to play Rachel?
Olivia Cooke: A lot of the reasons that Thomas said, and also Rachel wasn’t a stereotypical teenage girl written by some fifty-year-old man somewhere who probably has lots and lots of money. She was written by an incredible writer who just really gets what it’s like to be a young adult. She’s confident; she really likes herself. She’s not riddled with lots of insecurities like a lot of girls are written, and she’s not completely the other way where she’s beautiful but mysterious and quiet. I think it was really important to play someone like that because I’d been getting so frustrated with the material that was being sent and also because it was really, really funny. It was really honest. It was the way people spoke. No one was trying to say the perfect thing or the most profound thing in the moment. It was really, really real.
Rumpus: Was it difficult portraying an intimate relationship with Greg without any romance?
Cooke: No. Romance is more difficult than playing a friendship because there’s more pressure to have this spark. There was no, “Now we’ve got a sex scene, or now we’ve got a kiss scene coming up.” Then you sometimes get nervous around each other. It was so easy. We were already really good friends anyway, so it just worked.
Rumpus: You were friends from?
Mann: Just from the audition process, which lasted forever.
Cooke: Six months.
Mann: I think we were the first Greg and Rachel to read together, and we met the night before just to talk about stuff. We had an actor’s blind date sort of to talk about the script, which I’d never done before, but it was incredibly helpful.
Cooke: Yeah, it worked.
Rumpus: Did you have any hesitations about shaving your head?
Cooke: No. It was never suggested that the actors reading for Rachel had to and then I don’t know what we thought we were going to do because I’ve got so much hair anyway. It was always going to be a bald cap, but then two weeks before I went to Pittsburgh to start shooting, I sent Alfonso all these really panicked emails saying, “Bald caps look awful. Even if you have the best makeup artist in the world, you can still tell they’re wearing a bald cap.” The movie’s so honest. I didn’t want anything that I was doing to take anyone out of the movie. And I just thought it would be disrespectful as well because by that point I’d already met a girl who had the same leukemia as Rachel and spoken with a lot of doctors. I just thought it would be really disrespectful if I didn’t.
Rumpus: RJ, this is your first movie. How do you feel now that it’s had so much success? Were you expecting that?
RJ Cyler: Nope. I was just expecting to make a movie. I didn’t really know the process of making an indie film. I just thought it was like any other movie—you shoot it, it comes out in theaters, people either like it or they don’t like it. I didn’t know what Sundance was, really. I thought it was like an outside festival with everybody dancing in weird ways.
Cyler: Yeah, that sounds just like Coachella. And then we got into Sundance and I found out how big that was, and I was just happy with that. I’m like, “Hey, I made it to this movie that made it to Sundance. I’m happy. My career is ohhh—and then it was a like a snowball going downhill. Now it’s like an avalanche—but it’s a good avalanche—and I’m just happy. A little old, but happy.”
Rumpus: How old are you?
Cooke: He’s twenty years old.
Rumpus: So you’re the youngest of the three of you.
Rumpus: What would you like to do next?
Cyler: Right now I’m doing an HBO show called Vice Principals with Danny McBride and that’s a comedy, so my next project I want to be another drama or an action movie. Drama and action—both will give me a challenge. Comedy is just RJ.
Rumpus: So you’re a natural at comedy.
Cyler: Yeah. Other than me just looking funny, that’s what I was raised up on. Funny people. But I like challenges, stuff that’s going to piss me off but in the end I’ll get it.
Rumpus: Are there any particular actors you’d like to work with?
Cyler: Yeah. I would really love to work with Will Ferrell, but not even just on a comedy point—even though he’s hilarious—because he can be a serious person. Kevin Hart. I don’t know why, but I would really, really love to work with Arnold Schwarzenegger also.
Rumpus: What about you guys, do you have any dream roles?
Mann: It would be cool to play some musician from the ’60s or ’70s or something.
Cooke: I would love to play the lead in a band.
Mann: Yeah, like a Lou Reed– or an Iggy Pop–type, somebody really cool. It would just be fun.
Cooke: Yeah, it would just be fun.
Mann: To do a biopic of some sort, I haven’t done that yet.
Cooke: I’d like to play an Olympian, someone who’s at the epitome of health. That would be nice as well. Someone that’s wielding a machete. I’ll be Arnold’s sidekick with you, RJ.
Mann: You’ll have to go save RJ, who’s trapped in the jungle.
Cooke: I’m the Amazonian tribal fighter with a machete.
Cyler: With a whole sleeve tattooed.
Cooke: Yeah. Shaved head again.
Mann: What’s the girl version of Rambo? Ramba?
Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight.