ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL a Sundance breakout film this year just hit movie theaters in wide release. I got to sit down with the director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and actor Thomas Mann and discuss this gem of a movie. It's quirky, sophisticated, fun and wildly creative. Like all great storytelling the log line never explains the whole story. There is a lot going on. I love the references to great classic films. I always enjoy interviewing first time directors. I like getting inside their head and soaking up the process. First up: Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.
MD: Tell me about Greg the main character and the story behind this film?
AGR: I'm bad at this but what I like about Greg is that he's this outsider young artist who's trying to coast through his last year of high school and he's very guarded and probably overly sensitive. He doesn't trust anyone, his mom (Connie Britton) is always telling everyone how handsome he is and how smart he is but he knows he isn't. He's coasting through life trying not to make any enemies yet trying to fit in every single club but not wanting to be a member of any of them it's that kind of thing. And as a result you don't make a lot of friends. Then his mom forces him to hangout with this girl who just got diagnosed with cancer, leukemia who he doesn't really know that well and that friendship ends up changing his life.
MD: I felt that the heart and soul of this film was Earl. I fell in love with him. He got it from the beginning. There is a scene where I thought Greg was really selfish he made it all about him. Earl was the opposite. I often find that when someone is sick we tend to forget about the patient and what they might be going through. What are your thoughts about that and Greg's behavior?
AGR: I think when you are in high school when you're a teenager you think everything evolves around you. And you need someone like an Earl to remind you that it's not about you but I get where Greg is coming from. I've been there maybe I am still there I don't know but when you're a teenager getting pushed to get outside of yourself that's not easy.
MD: I read in the press-notes that you made a mood reel after you read the script before you started shooting. Tell me about that process?
AGR: What I was feeling was so specific and I didn't know how to communicate it. I could do storyboards, which I've done before, and I love photography but this was a different way into the story. And because it's a movie so much about movies I thought that it could be used as a tool to express myself. And so I put together this reel about seven minutes long with images from Werner Herzog's Burden of Dreams, Hearts of Darkness, Harold and Maude and The Graduate- mainly because of Bud Cort and Dustin Hoffman because there is some connection to Greg Gains the main character in the film. All of those films filtered through me. It forces you to start thinking about how do I communicate this? And sometimes the way I communicate doesn't always start with words. It's drawings it's sketches it's images and eventually throughout this process you have to start learning how to verbalize these kinds of things and then you start making decisions right then and there. That's when the directing starts. You start choosing colors, fonts and sounds and ultimately when you see the reel it's not that different from the film as far as a sensory thing.
MD: Did you go to film school?
MD: Did you ever read a screenplay before you went to film school?
AGR: Never did, actually Jessie Andrews who wrote the screenplay based on his book had never read a screenplay. I starting reading them when I got to school. I was reading as much as I could about the process Scorsese on Scorsese there was a Coppola book too but I had to drive to San Antonio to find the books or Austin. We didn't have any good book stores. We had a little bookstore at the mall but it had just sold. It had these kitten calendars.
MD: I'm always in awe when I see a great movie. I think how did they do that? How did the director take those words and make it look like this? I know it's a collaborative process but how did you do that?
AGR: I was a very slow reader. I always have been because I just start imagining things and then I realize two hours later I've read a page but I already have the entire movie in my head. I know what it's going to look like so I have to be very disciplined and keep a certain pace or otherwise I would just drift but that's who I am. So yeah you read things then you start to imagine them and you start pushing yourself. And certainly for this film you go there and immedialty think is this cliché? For instance this one sequence has people in a room and I know what that looks like but how do you keep it fresh? How do you keep it moving? How do you keep it playful? How do you design your shots in a way that it doesn't suggest a love story?
MD: It looks like we have to wrap up this ten-minute interview. Is there anything you would like me to ask you?
AGR: Why is it only ten minutes?
MD: I don't know.
AGR: Sometimes I leave interviews and I'm like I didn't talk about this person or that person or the costume designer. I mean we did this together. I'm a PA at heart. I will always be a PA. I know what it's like to be a part of a crew and I want them all to be recognized but sometimes it's not that easy to fit it in a ten-minute interview but I made this film with them.
Next Up: Thomas Mann who plays Greg Gains the leading role in the film.
MD: I'm going to ask that annoying basic question: What is the film about? Only because I like the different answers I get from the filmmakers and it's a good starting point for the audience.
TM: This is the hardest part because I think that it's selling it short in some way because it's about the details. But it's about this kid named Greg who is an outcast by design and sort of keeps everyone at arms length to protect his own feelings. And so he makes these homages to classics films with his friend Earl who he doesn't even call a friend but calls him a co-worker. And so to get him out of his own shell his mom forces him to become friends with this girl who has just been diagnosed with cancer.
MD: You're right it is about the details. There are a lot of layers in this film. I got a little teary eyed. But it's also very funny and full of humor.
TM: Yeah this film will do that to you.
MD: Tell me about working with RJ Cyler who plays Earl. I love this character, he hadn't had a lot of acting experience.
TM: Yes this was his first film. It was really amazing to actually watch him come out of his shell and discover himself as an actor. I think he accomplished things in this movie he didn't even know he was capable of and it was inspiring to be apart of his enthusiasm. He lifted everyone's spirits on set. He is a very positive person. I felt like I was working hard to be as natural as he already is...
MD: I just had a short but interesting conversation with the director. What was he like to work with?
TM: This was the most effortlessly collaborative relationship I've ever had with a director. He just made me feel like everything was my idea. He uses the camera like a paintbrush. He always has something in mind but I never felt like it hindered my performance. He was always sensitive to what we needed as actors. He wanted to go through the experience with us.
MD: How long have you been acting?
TM: I started in theatre in middle school but my first film job was when I was 18 and so like five years now.
MD: How did you find your way? To get a role like this and to be so evolved in your acting? It's rare in young people.
TM: It's all about having the right kinds of roles. I never really had to pour as much of myself into a role before as this it was a really heavy experience very emotional for a lot of reasons. I saw a lot of myself in the character even the less admirable parts of him. I like that he was selfish and stubborn and I wanted to grow out of that with him.
MD: I was talking to the director about this scene that bothered me. It's the part where she feels like giving up because the treatment takes a toll on her. But...
TM: He makes it all about him yeah that's exactly what I loved about him. That's probably the way I would have dealt with that situation in high school. It's to uncomfortable and abstract to deal with so I think in Greg he just had to lash out. But deep down inside he knows he's wrong.
MD: You don't want perfect behavior.
TM: No that's what I love about the script it's full of imperfections and the characters are all imperfect people. Someone asked me why Earl smokes? What is that about-you want kids to smoke? No were not trying to put a bow on everything and every character. There are good qualities and bad ones.
MD: It can be frustrating to watch film with people when they bring their moral compass into a fictional story. It's about the experience. That sounds a bit like a film snob but it's annoying.
TM: No it's true! It's what makes it interesting and relatable.
MD: What are some films that inspired you before you knew this was going to be your career?
TM: I think I was thirteen. I remember watching Little Miss Sunshine and I really related to Paul Dano's character. He's silent for most of the movie and it's such an incredible performance. There is this climatic scene where he just sort of blows up it's so powerful. I was really moved by that the fact that you could be so moved by mostly a silent performance.
MD: Molly Shannon. One of my favorites. And in this role she is so different.
TM: I know she's just a really incredible human being. Apart from being a great actress and comedy legend she's able to give all these different layers in her performance. And she is so genuinely nice. I feel like a lot of people that are funny especially now have this snarky, jaded quality to them. Molly has not a mean negative bone in her body. She wants to love and be loved. She was asking us all these personal questions and you wanted to tell her just to be close to her because she is so genuine.
MD: What advice would you give young actors?
TM: I don't know I am so grateful to get a role like this I mean it's so rare that there are roles like this for young people. Even though the character is very immature it's the most mature role that I've ever played if that makes sense. I don't know I guess...
MD: How about this, overacting? A lot of younger actors and plenty of adult actors want to do film acting and they over do it. And I know especially with film acting you have to deliver it in teaspoons.
TM: It's not about showing and that's what took me a long time to realize that you are not showing people things. You have to experience it for yourself and so people will pickup on it. You have to trust that whatever you're feeling is enough and the audience will respond to that and see that and hopefully see themselves in you.
MD: That was really well said all they need is that note.
TM: And you can read all these acting books that all kind of say the same thing but at the end of the day it's about experiencing something real and feeling something it's not easy. Even in this film I struggled. I never had to be so emotionally available and what if on the day of I can't deliver? And they realize that they made the wrong choice casting me? But it was something I had to let go of .If you love the character enough hopefully it will come naturally. It's being able to open yourself up and being able to react to the people around you.
Me And Earl And The Dying Girl is out in theatres everywhere. If you're having trouble deciding on a film to see in the theater then this is your answer. Next Up: My interview with Maya Forbes on her directorial debut Infinitely Polar Bear starring Mark Ruffalo.