TheKnocturnal had the opportunity to participate in roundtable interviews with the wonderful cast and creatives behind “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” out this Friday. For more background, check out our review here.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Director) / Jesse Andrews (Screenwriter/ Novelist)
What drew you to this project?
Alfonso: It spoke to me. I don’t think you ever forget your high school years, especially if you hated them. If you were terrified. And I was. They’re as fresh today as they were twenty years ago, or whenever it was. They’re the most terrifying years of your life, because you feel every decision you make will determine the rest of your future. And you’re not wrong. You know, who your friends are, where you go to school… there are some key things there. I mean, obviously you can change your plans. Reading this script, for the first half, he really got that teenage angst, but it felt so fresh to me, and it spoke to Thomas Mann in the same way, and so I knew Jesse had captured something very universal there. And then the second half, to me, was what I was experiencing today – experiencing loss, trying to give that shape… it’s so abstract. The denial, and anger and regret that comes with it. So I saw myself in it. I saw it as, finally, an opportunity to really make a personal movie. And sometimes the most personal stories are the most universal. I mean, I had found this script, I didn’t even know why they sent it to me… and all of a sudden I was so incredibly moved by something. I wasn’t trying to make a cancer movie, I wasn’t trying to make a high school movie. I could just take this journey, and, at the same time, pay homage to movies.
You had recently lost your father.
Alfonso: That’s exactly it… I was trying to avoid it. It’s so public now, which is great, because I get to talk about it. That’s exactly what happened. And so, I was a mess. I lost a sense of who I was. Watching the film recently, from beginning to end… I had to do some commentary, and we had to stop twice. I realized who I was when I started making the movie, and who I was when we had finished. The physical experience of working on the movie has changed me so much that it was very emotional, watching it. My approach at the start, and then my approach in the hospital scene. The hospital scene was the last day, so it was very much about me starting to heal, and healing by making a movie, which is what Greg does.
Jesse, you’ve expressed that part of your intention of writing the novel was to present this story in a non-stylistic, de-aestheticized sort of way. What was your first impression of the look Alfonso had in mind for the film?
Jesse: The first time I saw it, I was overjoyed. On fire. That high school is the one I went to, which was shuttered six years ago. It’s going to be turned into condos, but they haven’t begun that process yet, so it feels a little zombie-fied from this period of quarantine. It was clear, just shooting it, that this was going to look like a real high school. A lot of kids that go to public schools, they look like that, and you don’t really get to see that on the screen. It’s odd, because it’s a very visually rich environment.
Alfonso: At first I was thinking, like: “How do I shoot this kid walking down a hallway in a way that doesn’t feel like every other high school movie?” The key to that, though, was the extras. There was so much thought put in to what they were wearing, what they were doing. I didn’t want any jocks in letterman jackets. I don’t know that guy. That guy lives in the CW. Who is this guy? And then Greg, Earl, and Rachel had to come out of that world. Everyone had to be as invisible as the next person, as normal. Not necessarily in a bad way.
Living in a society so defined by social media, being a teenager means that you’re constantly aware and obsessed with the way you’re perceived by other people, which I felt in this film. Did you have any interaction with that theme in this story?
Jesse: I think it’s much older than social media. Teenagers have always worried about how they’re perceived. It’s such a funny time in one’s life, because you’re not a kid anymore, but you’re not really an adult, you don’t look like either one, you sort of don’t really have a face yet. Or a body. You have no control, people are trying to get you to memorize what an aorta looks like and stuff. It’s a nightmare. And your proximity is so intense to all these people who don’t look like you, think like you, dress like you. He’s 17, but inside he’s 13. Up here, she’s 21. Everyone’s at radically different stages of development. Everyone’s just trying to pass by.
Alfonso: But then if you’re a young artist, trying to show that part of yourself, you become even more of an outsider. To be an artist you have to show your work, but you’ll probably be humiliated or rejected. That fear of rejection, compounded by the idea of being turned down if you just want to ask somebody out on a date… as a young outsider, I understand what that’s like.
Thomas Mann (Greg)
This was only your third film. What was working on this one like?
This was whole different thing. I’d never done anything that required me to lay all of myself out, to be so emotionally available. It was a great opportunity, and so I just wanted to throw myself into it. It was an emotional experience, and I went to places I wasn’t sure I could go as an actor. It was really eye opening. I feel like I grew a lot as an actor, like I can’t go back to playing high school. This was my essential coming of age movie. I have to graduate.
I saw a lot of myself in Greg. I like that the script embraces sort of the stubbornness and selfishness of teenagers. I like the lesson that the world is not just about you. It’s about learning to be selfless, and appreciating the people around you. It was a journey I wanted to take.
Talk a little bit about Greg’s relationship with Earl.
You kind of get a sense that Earl doesn’t have a home life. They’re not the kind of freinds that always have to be like, ‘Oh, you’re my best friend, I’d do anything for you.’ It’s more of an unspoken bond, I think. I think Earl admires the home life that Greg doesn’t appreciate enough. I love that they share this love of obscure movies that not a lot of other teenagers would get. I was really drawn to that. I had friends like that. Sometimes your best friends are the ones where you don’t have to talk about it.
You’re going into your mid-20’s now. Was it difficult to go back to that level of discomfort that you have in high school?
No. I think because you’re constantly coming of age in different ways and at different stages of your life. Even now, I live in LA, and I’m put in all these situations where you feel like you’re the youngest person in the room, that you’re not equipped to deal with certain things. You still feel like a child. I still feel like I’m 18. I wasn’t having to play a character, just lean into those parts of myself, and try to work through them with Greg.
You have some emotional scenes later in the film, particularly one that’s an extremely long single- shot. What was filming that like?
It’s probably the scene I’m most proud of, in my career. It’s rare you get a director that trusts his actors enough to just film for six minutes, and let that be the scene. Especially for Alfonso, who loves to use the camera as much as he does. It’s a big turning point in the film. It’s where Greg learns to listen for the first time. There’s Rachel in the foreground, who’s very much the adult, who’s made this very grown-up decision. And Greg is still the child in the background, who can’t come to terms with the fact that it’s not his decision, it’s not about him. We had been living with that scene for so long, since the first audition Olivia and I had done together. We didn’t want to waste anything, we just wanted to lay it all out there, so we didn’t rehearse it. It ended up being one of the fastest scenes we shot… I think we did four takes.
Olivia Cooke (Rachel)
What made you want to play Rachel?
You’re playing a girl that likes herself, she’s self-confident, she’s very strong, despite the illness, and you don’t really get to read that. The breakdowns I get from casting agents are all like: ‘Beautiful, but doesn’t know it. She loves Jane Eyre… the boys at school love her but she doesn’t notice.’ If boys liked me at school, I would be on it. I would know every single one. These characters just do not exist. She was a real girl. And I didn’t want her to be portrayed as a victim, as a tragic character, because she wasn’t on the page, and I thought I could bring her to life, do something different with her.
What research did you do for the role?
I went to the Matell ward at UCLA to meet a girl who had the same leukemia as Rachel. She was sixteen. She went through rounds of chemo, and they hadn’t worked, so she was waiting for a bone marrow transplant. I spoke with her and her dad, who had had the illness two years prior, which is unheard of; it’s not supposed to be hereditary at all. I spoke to her team of doctors who informed me of other patients that they’ve had. How, when a cancer patient turn eighteen, then you do have the right to make your own decision, you’re legally an adult. How that is for them, and their parents as well. And then we charted out stages of chemotherapy and stages of cancer so that I would know how to emotionally and physically prepare for scenes.
What went into the decision to shave your head?
I just thought it would be so disrespectful not to. Bald caps look so bulky, and weird. We tried some on, just to make sure that it was the right decision. The TV show [Bates Motel] had to be informed. Although, if they had said no, I probably would have gone rouge, and just done it.
This was RJ’s first movie. Did you feel like you were mentoring him at all through the process?
Not at all. We rehearsed the scenes, because we all needed to rehearse, but he was always so prepared, so ready. We were all trying to catch usp, to be as grounded as he was. He was already in that space. He was wonderful.