FIND­ING HIM­SELF THROUGH ‘ME AND EARL’

Direc­tor Al­fonso Gomez-Re­jon, 42, was trans­formed by the Sun­dance win­ner.

Los Angeles Times - - SUNDAY CALENDAR - By Mark Olsen Mark.olsen@la­times.com Twit­ter: @IndieFo­cus

In the novel “Me and Earl and the Dy­ing Girl,” writ­ten in the voice of a teenage boy, the lead char­ac­ter notes that “when you con­vert a good book into a film, stupid things hap­pen. God only knows what would hap­pen if you tried to con­vert this un­stop­pable barf-fest into a film. The FBI would prob­a­bly have to get in­volved.”

Au­thor­i­ties of a kind did get in­volved, but the movie adap­ta­tion went on to win both the Grand Jury Prize and au­di­ence award when it pre­miered at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val this year. Adapted for the screen by the book’s au­thor, Jesse An­drews, the film is di­rected with an earnest warmth by Al­fonso Gomez-Re­jon.

Gomez-Re­jon is both a fresh voice and some­thing of a vet­eran. At 42, he has been work­ing his way up from pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant to direc­tor over 20-plus years. Hav­ing done sec­ond-unit and tele­vi­sion di­rect­ing, he made his fea­ture film de­but with the lit­tle-seen 2014 hor­ror film “The Town That Dreaded Sun­down.” But it is with“Me and Earl” that he has fully, fi­nally found him­self.

“There is this ver­sion of ev­ery­thing I’ve done be­fore, which is a very, very long story, and then there’s this,” said Gomez-Re­jon in Los An­ge­les. “To me, even though it’s my sec­ond film it re­ally does feel like I restarted my ca­reer, my life. I found my­self as a man and a film­maker. Ev­ery­thing changed with this par­tic­u­lar film. So it is a very long story and a very short one.”

In the film, now­play­ing in Los An­ge­les, Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann) is a high school se­nior with a care­fully cul­ti­vated anonymity that falls apart when he strikes up a friend­ship with Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), a class­mate di­ag­nosed with ter­mi­nal can­cer. Greg and his best friend Earl Jack­son (RJCyler) have long se­cretly done short par­ody re­makes of clas­sic films and they even­tu­ally set out to make a movie for real for Rachel. The film is haunted by the specter of death while mov­ing through the joys of life.

Gomez-Re­jon in­fuses the film with both a play­ful en­ergy and a heart­felt, emo­tional heft. It’s a spe­cific kind of movie, which makes use of the home video com­men­tary track to a Pow­ell and Press­burger movie and a clip from Les Blank’s doc­u­men­tary on Werner Her­zog. The Gaines-Jack­son movies within the movie — with ti­tles such as ‘A Sock­work Or­ange,” “Scab face” and “Pooping Tom”— are witty and af­fec­tion­ate, and the film is lit­tered with ref­er­ences to movies and film­mak­ers.

Qual­ity teach­ers

Orig­i­nally from Laredo, Texas, Gomez-Re­jon moved to New York for col­lege and im­me­di­ately also started work­ing on film shoots as a pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant. He worked as an as­sis­tant to Martin Scors­ese, which cre­ated con­nec­tions that led in turn to work­ing with Nora Ephron and Robert De Niro.

“To this day, I used to be Martin Scors­ese’s as­sis­tant, and that gets you some cred,” Gomez-Re­jon said with a proud smile.

For a time he was back in Texas sell­ing phones and run­ning a cof­fee shop with a friend. Then he was Ale­jan­dro González-Iñárittu’s as­sis­tant on “21 Grams,” di­rected sec­ond unit on Ephron’s “Julie& Ju­lia,” and González-Iñárittu’s “Ba­bel.” Di­rect­ing sec­ond unit on Ryan Mur­phy’s “Eat Pray Love” in turn led to di­rect­ing episodes of “Glee” and “Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story.”

“One thing led to an­other, and even though Iwas di­rect­ing sec­ond unit on movies that got big­ger and big­ger an­dit gave me an op­por­tu­nity to di­rect, I was still not telling my own sto­ries,” said Gomez-Re­jon.

When his fa­ther, a psy­chi­a­trist, passed away un­ex­pect­edly, Gomez-Re­jon threw him­self into more work. When he got an early copy of the script for “Me and Earl” he pas­sion­ately pur­sued the project, mak­ing a mood-reel vis­ual pre­sen­ta­tion to give pro­duc­ers an idea of what hewanted to do with the project.

“Even though this is a script writ­ten by Jesse I found a way to in­ter­pret it that felt like it was mine,” he said. “I was go­ing to tell a per­sonal story through this script, so it feels like I fi­nally made a movie where I dis­cov­ered my own voice while mak­ing it.”

Of his con­nec­tion to the ma­te­rial, he added, “It felt very funny, very hon­est and au­then­tic. I iden­ti­fied with them in the way you iden­tify with the kids from ‘ The

Break­fast Club.’ There was some­thing very beau­ti­ful about the way they all spoke.”

Be­sides the cen­tral trio of roles, the film has an im­pres­sive sup­port­ing cast that in­cludes Nick Of­fer­man and Con­nie Brit­ton as Greg’s par­ents, Molly Shan­non as Rachel’s mother and Jon Bern­thal as a sym­pa­thetic teacher.

Cooke was cast be­fore the pro­duc­tion found its Greg, and she read against a few other po­ten­tial young ac­tors for the male lead. When she read with Mann, ev­ery­one in the room knew it was right.

“Their chem­istry was per­fect. It was a chem­istry be­yond sex or any­thing like that,” said Gomez-Re­jon. “It maybe could go there some­day but didn’t read that im­me­di­ately. They re­spect each other. They get each other.”

The film was shot in Pitts­burgh, where An­drews grew up. Though it is no longer in use, the Schen­ley High School where An­drews grad­u­ated from — Andy Warhol is also an alum— was used as the school in the film. Greg’s fam­ily’s house is in fact the house where An­drews’ par­ents still live and his room was Greg’s room.

“It re­ally did feel like a Gaines-Jack­son film and your par­ents were next door,” said Gomez-Re­jon of the pro­duc­tion’s homey feel.

That feel­ing cre­ated by Gomez-Re­jon spilled over to the ac­tors aswell.

“He just wanted to be in it with us, he wanted to feel ev­ery­thing we were feel­ing,” said Mann, sit­ting along­side Cooke and Cyler. “A lot of times he was just out­side the frame, he was right there in the room with us. He wasn’t some­where where you needed a walkie-talkie to ask the direc­tor a ques­tion.”

“I felt like we were the peo­ple by the end of it, we were those char­ac­ters,” added Cooke.

‘A baby of ours’

It was at the Sun­dance pre­miere, sit­ting with his mother, where Gomez-Re­jon first sawthe film pro­jected with the end-cred­its ded­i­ca­tion to his fa­ther. The deep emo­tional re­sponse from au­di­ences there was tremen­dous and un­ex­pected, and the cast was caught off-guard by the waves of good­will.

“Itwas good to see peo­ple get a feel­ing close to what it meant to us,” said Cyler, who makes his act­ing de­but in the film. “It’s a baby of ours, and it’s great to see that peo­ple love your baby.”

Within days of fin­ish­ing shoot­ing on “Me and Earl” last sum­mer, Gomez-Re­jon was back at work on an episode of “Amer­i­can Hor­ror Story.” He hasn’t been on a set since and ad­mits he is ea­ger to get back to shoot­ing some­thing soon. Build­ing off the buzz for “Me and Earl,” there are a num­ber of projects that could go for­ward as his next film.

Though he is no twen­tysome­thing Sun­dance kid, the ex­pe­ri­ence of mak­ing “Me and Earl and the Dy­ing Girl” marks a turn­ing point in his ca­reer no mat­ter what comes next. It freed him to move for­ward both emo­tion­ally and pro­fes­sion­ally

“I be­gan to see my­self as Greg,” said Gomez-Re­jon. “You’re such a child when you lose some­one and you don’t know how to han­dle it. See­ing his de­nial and his con­fu­sion and his anger, I got him. And see­ing at the end that he ex­pressed him­self with a movie was the only way I thought maybe I could do some­thing, so I would make a movie for my dad.”

“EV­ERY­THING changed with this par­tic­u­lar film,” said Al­fonso Gomez-Re­jon.

Michael Robin­son Chavez

Michael Robin­son Chavez

HIGH SCHOOL FRIENDS Earl (Ron­ald Cyler, left), Rachel (Olivia Cooke) and Greg (Thomas Mann) in the film “Me and Earl and the Dy­ing Girl.”

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