By Paul Risker.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s journey into the spotlight with Me, Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) began with his directing second unit photography for master filmmaker Martin Scorsese (Casino, 1995) and working alongside contemporary star directors: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (Babel, 2006), Kevin Macdonald (State of Play, 2009 and The Eagle, 2011) and Ben Affleck (Argo, 2012).
Following his feature debut The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014), a remake of the 1976 original, alongside additional horror work on FX’s American Horror Story (2011-14) that was preceded by musical-comedy Glee (2009-15), his sophomore feature Me, Earl and the Dying Girl is one that truly encapsulates the concept of a personal film. “It was a film that I was making to sub-consciously grieve for the loss of my father,” explains the director. “But it’s also an opportunity to say thanks to the people that really touched me and shaped me as filmmakers, which is a very rare combination that will not repeat itself.” Me, Earl and the Dying Girl represents a meeting point between the personal and the professional by way of the artist and film as a medium for personal and cathartic expression.
In a conversation with Film International Gomez-Rejon reflected on the personal and communal language of cinema, the importance of understanding film history and how the uncertainty of the creative process is a humbling force. He also discussed the creative process and the themes that served to shape one of the most personal films of 2015.
Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
Yeah, I pretty much declared that I was going to be a director when I was twelve years old. It was a combination of a friends older brother lending me a VHS of Apocalypse Now (1979), which did something to me, but that was also roughly tied to the VHS revolution. This was the only way I had access to movies in my hometown on the Texan/Mexican border. I think it was when I discovered Scorsese’s films, especially Mean Streets (1974) that something stirred in me. I realised then that not only could it be a fine art – composition, editing patterns, shots and freeze framing – but it could also be personal, and that tapped into something deep within me. And within his body of work as well as in interviews, he would usually reference other filmmakers and the other masters that had influenced him, which led to Michael Powell etc. And so that then became an obsession.
You talk about the importance of being inspired as a filmmaker. There is a school of thought within storytelling that you should stay away from creative influences, the reason being that they can intrude on the creativity or work of the individual. But having interviewed filmmakers there is the counterposition of film as a communal language.
I think if anything else this is a language, and it is how you use the language and make it your own. I don’t want to copy a kind of style, but you learn about how one shot can connect to another shot to create a third movement. You learn about the specificity of Hitchcock or the way Powell and Pressburger made the camera dance. But it’s how you interpret the language and make the world your own; how you break down those walls and use them to express what you are personally feeling as a filmmaker, and that’s how I think you standout. But to not want to know your history because you are afraid it might corrupt your own art doesn’t make sense to me. I get great joy out of learning about the personalities of other filmmakers and the way they use the camera – how they use sound or how they embrace the silence. But ultimately it comes down to when you are in the moment in any particular scene then where do you put the camera, and what is it that you are trying to convey. I love the history of film and I love learning. I love being surprised and I love learning of other people’s personalities through how they make films, and how they use that language. So I am certainly more the latter and that’s how I discovered movies. Then when I ended up working with some filmmakers they only turned me onto more and more movies, and how you speak from your heart today is out of respect and fascination for what has gone before. But what do you think?
When I write or talk about film I often use the metaphor of the artist’s palette and how the filmmaker is borrowing from similar themes and ideas. Stories are being retold and each individual through their life experiences and creative interpretation creates something unique. But it is borrowing from a language that has been used a thousand times before, and you cannot separate yourself from your brethren; you cannot separate yourself from the language. Rather it is the responsibility of any artist to embrace it.
Right, and Scorsese wrote something about Me, Earl and the Dying Girl for Variety a month ago. It’s called Directors on Directing and he wrote something about the history of film and how important it is, in which he tied it into Me, Earl and the Dying Girl.
Is the fascination with the creative process whether it be film, art or music the fact that it is learning a language which will never fully reveal its secrets to us, but one which we can’t help but pursue?
I think so. I think that the medium and the mystery of the process is that I could wake up one day and not know where to put the camera. Not that I know where to put the camera now, but you walk in with a certain sense. But what if I lose that sense because it is bigger than me and there is a mystery to it that is somewhat why you have to be so humble, because you never know why, and it can go away. So like any great art it is bigger than you, and it is like looking at a blank piece of paper or a blank canvas. It is the same thing when you walk onto the set and there are an infinite number of places where you can put the camera. But there is only one right place and that is always going to be a mystery.
On the subject of adaptations, they have to exist as a version of the original source material and not as a replica copy. On this film Jesse Andrews is adapting his original novel and so I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the process of adapting literature to film, two mediums that are fundamentally very different.
Yeah, almost three mediums because it’s the adaptation of the screenplay, which shouldn’t really exist on its own. It should be a blueprint for the actual final version of the film that is rewritten again in the cutting room. I was working with Jesse who had already adapted it in a way that had broken away from the shape of the novel. It was his own novel and he was creating new rules and it had a new structure. So when I became involved we started to then interpret it as a director. I found a very close connection to it thematically – myself and Greg (Thomas Mann’s character). Then it’s about bringing it together and realising what scenes I am not in synch with, and what movie references we could put in there to pay homage to the masters and the people that mean so much to me on a personal level, which allowed me to now grieve for my father for instance. But it’s also an opportunity to say thanks to the people that really touched me and shaped me as filmmakers, which is a very rare combination that will not repeat itself. And structurally, the end of the movie was the most radical departure both before in the pre-production, and then in the editing, which is really the last act of the movie. What is that final film? Through the breaking of abstract filmmaking to give shape to an abstraction, which is what Greg’s going through and facing – the possibility of losing a friend and then the confusion and anger, and learning that he can give back to somebody else. Then I removed two key scenes later on and by the end it also becomes a silent film. He learns to be quiet and he ends up finding his own voice and learning more about her (Rachel). So I think they all exist on their own, and you have to let them live and dictate what it needs to be at some point.
Though the Greg character the film taps into a fundamental aspect of human nature, which C.G Jung addressed – both the desire to belong and retain ones individualism. It is a conflict between our introvert and extravert natures, which is a conflict each generation is forced to confront. Is this one of the reasons why it is an enduring theme in narrative fiction?
My mom identifies with Greg, I identify with Greg and Thomas Mann identifies with Greg. Most people identify with him because we all have this common bond that is our teenage years. They can be some of the most brutal of our lives because we feel that every decision that we make is probably going to affect our future. And speaking of Greg specifically and my connection to him, when you are not only a teenager but you are also a young artist, it adds another layer to you wanting to belong. Obviously you want to be liked, to fall in love – you want somebody to like you. You want to go to great schools and you want to have friends and all of that, but at the same time when you are beginning to see the world a certain way then you realise you are different. As an artist you are an outsider by nature because you see the world in a different way. You might feel more sensitive to the highs and lows of everyday emotion that makes you who you are. But as a young kid unless you are much more developed in the Mozart way, then it takes a while to hone and find your voice. It takes a while for you to learn how you can express your point of view in whatever art you decide to focus on. And so I think that adds another layer to someone like Greg and Earl, and even in Rachel when you consider the ending of the film, which is that it takes a lot of courage to show that part of yourself. There is the fear of being judged not only as a person, but also what you have to offer the world. I think the journey of this kid from trying to be invisible, to trying be someone for every sub-group, and then learning to not only be quiet, but to also have this courage to show himself at his most vulnerable takes a lot of courage. And so I admire that about him.
Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Would you agree with this idea of change and if so how has the experience of Me, Earl and the Dying Girl impacted you both personally and professionally?
Well I don’t think I fully believed it or understood it until I made this film – that I could change enormously. I continue to change because of it and because it was a film that I was making to sub-consciously grieve for the loss of my father, which I had not done. I found this was an opportunity while making the film, and the last scene of the shoot was the hospital scene with Rachel. So it was incredibly cathartic going through making the entire film and then ending on that note. I felt like I had changed and I’d had something that was very private and I’d brought other people into my process. But it was kind of why I was making the movie and so by the time I finished the film I had learned in a lot of ways to feel.
I had also learned what it was like to make a movie where my voice and my vision was being supported a hundred percent, as opposed to making it while looking over my shoulder. I learned what it felt to make a personal film and to work through those demons, and to confront them as an individual. And then the dedication to my father didn’t screen until Sundance. So that was months after we finished the movie and I thought that would be the end of a journey. But when it screened it encouraged or it begged the question for me to talk about my father to journalists, and that became a whole new part of the process for me. I was talking about him when I had not talked about him for years because of the pain associated with the loss. And as I was talking about him it revealed stories from other people that knew him, and so I then started to learn about him.
Then I’d almost began to live with the end of the movie, but to this day and in my everyday life I am kind of in the comic book sequence of the film. So there is a direct correlation between making the movie and me changing as an individual, and starting the process of integration – integrating loss and becoming whole again. So maybe it is directly tied to how personal a film you are making; how close you are to the theme of the movie and how much you want to learn by making it. And that was the purpose of this one, and it definitely changed me.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is out now on Digital HD and on DVD 11th January.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.