We are all a joke away from hysterical laughter and a moment removed from devastating despair. In between these extremes is where most of life happens, and where most of "Me and Earl" occurs as well. To survive "the best of times and the worst of times" we have to walk the rest of the road that connects them and separates in fluctuating patterns
Laughter can turn to tears and sadness can be channeled through comedy. It's the ups and downs, the successes and failures, our horrible mistakes and our ability for redemption, the things we did and those we didn't, the regrets and the memories, all building blocks of a longer experience that resembles just what Rachel is feeling.
And while Greg is on his way to learn that, Dir. Alfonso Gomez-Rejon already knows a few things about the bittersweet journey, one that has had no short cuts and has been 25 years in the making. Tainted by personal loss but coated with determination, or in Spanish determinación, every step has revolved about cinema and and a love for it that only the greats can exude.
I felt head over heels for "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" at an 8:30 Am screening that I almost didn't make. I wasn't in the best of shapes to sit through a film. Hungover, sleep deprived, and barely standing after almost ten intense days of Sundance. The film played and I was skeptical, but it took mere minutes for it to lure me into it's magic. About 100 minutes later a big part of the theater, myself included, wept in the dark. We had laughed, we had felt for Greg, had had a riot with Earl (Rj Cyler), rooted for Rachel, and at last we cried. We, had, in the length of what seemed like just a movie about teenage filmmakers and a heroine with leukemia, lived.
It was difficult to tell anyone if what I had watched was a comedy or a drama. I was stunned. It was laughing and then hurting, like falling and getting back up again, and it was about movies, and love, but not romantic love, but a purer one. It was about friendship and being afraid of it. It was about growing up and about compassion. It was about me, and about the woman three rows in front, and about the programmers who picked it, and about that Hollywood buyer who surely saw it and lost composure. I needed to know who was behind this and why I couldn't take a certain non-verbal scene and Brian Eno's music out of my head.
See, when you write about film you see tons of them. You get to see some great ones, some forgettable ones, and some you wish you could forget. But it had been a long time since a film caught me by surprise this way. It took me back to a midday screening in 2002 at a theater in Mexico City, where I watched a little French film titled "Amelie" for the first time. At 13, I was elated. Though Jeunet's film is extremely different from Gomez-Relon's Sundance champ, that feeling of having witnessed something special and beaming with passion was the same.
Soon after, during my first interview with the filmmaker from Laredo, Texas, I would learn that his love for his deceased father was the most potent fuel to make this project, and not only to make it, but to make it his own even if he hadn't penned the screenplay. That fact is testament to a talent forged out relentless and aggressive strives to learn from and work with the best. From Scorsese, one of cinema's greatest, to recent Oscar-winner Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu.
During that initial interview the focus was, of course, the film that would go on to win big at the prestigious festival. Months later, just after the trailer was released, I had the chance to see the film once again at the Fox lot. I needed to know if here in L.A., away from the Park City hype, the film would still be as much of revelation for me. In a tiny screening room accompanied by only 3 other people, I found myself discovering new things in each frame, but again reacting as strongly, both in laughter and tears, as the first time around.
For the Los Angeles press day my exchanges with Alfonso were limited as I was part of a round table with a handful of other eager journalist, but I was just as impressed with his sincere answers. June 12th came around, and I flooded my social media with pieces about the film: a review, an interview with Jesse Andrews, and my first chat with the filmmaker published in Spanish. It was my mission to make anyone that wasn't yet aware of the film, nit just aware, but excited to see it. Championing films is occasionally part of the job, but I was, and still am, under this film's spell in a much more personal manner.
Last weekend the National Association of Latino Independent Producers (Nalip) Media Summit came around, and among the numerous panels focused on the Latino presence in audiovisual media in the U.S, there was one that included Gomez-Rejon entitled "A Filmmaker's Guide." I had no doubt that he would be insightful and eloquent during this conversation, and he was. Still, I felt like I needed to use the opportunity to write something not specifically about "Me and Earl," but rather on the journey to it and the person behind this film that had shaken me.
Friday, immediately following his panel with Lucas Smith from Endgame Entertainment and Tilane Jones from Affrm, I got a chance to talk one-on-one once again with the director. He recognized me from our previous encounters along the way, and was, not surprisingly, incredibly friendly, personable and humble. We ended the conversation speaking in Spanish, which he speaks not only fluently but perfectly, and I left the W Hotel with a new kind of inspiration and even more reasons to champion the film, which, honest to God, I rewatched that same night with a friend who hadn't experienced it.
For those who are still reading, please excuse the length of this introduction, but as my personal journey with the film continues, I felt compelled to explain why this interview felt crucial. The film, like few, keeps unfolding itself to me even now.
"Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" is now playing across the U.S
Aguilar: Often times interviews happen prior to the film’s release, but “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is out there now. How are you doing now that the film is in theaters for more people to see?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: The work isn't over. There is "Jurassic World," " Inside Out," and "Ted 2," so we just have to survive. We are a little movie. The work isn't over and that's why I’m glad we are talking about it because we still have to remind people that it’s out there. We need to remind young teenagers that there is another movie to watch. We need to keep the dialogue going or we are going to be forgotten.
Aguilar: The panel you were a part of was about the filmmaker's journey. Tell me about the beginning of your journey. Was it a crazy idea to want to be a filmmaker being from a small town?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: Yes, it was crazy but I was determined. When I was 12 I decided that I was going to be a director, that's a long time ago. Then when I got to New York I was vey, very shy. Incredibly introverted. I showed up to Nyu two weeks early for orientation, and our cafeteria wasn't opened in my residence hall, which was Weinstein, and you had to cross the park to get to this other place called Hayden Hall. I was terrified.
You are that new kid, no one is talking to you because you are so shy, and the idea of walking through the cafeteria was terrifying. Is like the shot in [“Me and Earl”], that's exactly the feeling. You had to cross Washington Square Park to get to the other place. As I was walking I saw they were shooting “Sesame Street” in the park, and I never made it to the cafeteria. I stayed there all day until the line producer called me over and asked me for my information. I told her who I was and she put me to work. Stopping people, like traffic. Two days later she asked me back for a music video, and the next week another music video. So before school started I already had three Pa credits. That's how I started and I kept using those credits to get more work, and more work, and more work.
Aguilar: At home, was your decision to become a filmmaker something that everyone was Ok with? I feel that perhaps for someone coming from a Latino background filmmaking can sometimes seem like a farfetched idea. I speak from experience.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: They were of course nervous because it was such a new idea to become a filmmaker. Even though my father was a physician, they always encouraged the arts. Both of my parents always exposed us to the arts. We would go to museums or the theater in San Antonio, Mexico City, or Nuevo Laredo. There were a lot of cultural events on the Mexican side, the Texas side not so much. But Nuevo Laredo always had cultural events: opera, ballet, and music. My uncle was a composer and my dad was always reciting poetry. My dad only became a physician because when he was on his way to sing at the radio station, while his sister played the piano, he was hit by a streetcar. It sent him to the hospital for a year or a year and a half. That changed his life because he was deeply mentored by a doctor. That changed him, but he was always still an artist.
My older brother became a musician, so there goes one, and then my sister becomes a fine artist –a sculptor and eventually a chef. Now she has a company called artbites.net, where she teaches art history with hands-on cooking classes. We are all two years apart, so every two years my parents got hit with something. By the time I said I was going to be an artist they had softened a little bit because my brother and sister had kind of paved the way. But I was still the hope that maybe I would be the doctor. Then I told them that I knew I wanted to be a director, and that not only did I know I wanted to be a director, but I knew exactly what school I wanted to go to, and that I was so determined, I was going to apply for early admission and if I got in that was it.
I got in and I was off. They saw that I was determined. By the time I came home for Christmas after the first semester I had already worked on a handful of productions, I was already getting paid to storyboard short films, and I was P.A.’ing in a film that went on to win at Sundance called "In the Soup." They saw how aggressive I was. By senior year I was already working for Scorsese. I was very determined.
Aguilar: That's an amazing journey.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: But the thing is that I was still the shy kid who had no friends at Nyu. When I made my shorts all my friends were in production outside of school, and they were all older because I was driving trucks, I was craft service, or I was storyboarding. I was very comfortable in a set, I was not comfortable walking into a classroom or walking into a cafeteria. It was quite terrifying, to this day [Laughs]. I sweat before I go to one of these things, but production; forget about it, I love it.
Aguilar: I think my cinematic epiphany happened when I was around 12 or 13 and I watched Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Amelie." I grew up watching lots of film, but that one blew me away and I knew film was the one thing that I wanted to be involved with forever. What film was it for you?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: There were like one, two, three, maybe four sequential films. The first movie that I became obsessed with was Richard Donner’s "Superman," but then the big moments were after -this is the early 80's on the border so it was the beginning of the VHS revolution. My older brother was into music so all the movie knowledge I got was through my friend's older brothers. One of them lent me a copy of "Apocalypse Now," so that was a big deal.
Then I started to watch all the movies I could on VHS, but when I discovered "Mean Streets" that's the one that changed me forever. I had seen "Raging Bull," I'd seen "After Hours, " and I'd seen a few other things by [Martin Scorsese], and then I found my way back to "Mean Streets." I remember looking at the box. It was white with a gun and all this stuff. That's when I realized how personal it was. As a fine artist I was drawn to composition and technique. I would count the cuts. Like the scene where the keys are thrown out the window, and you can count those 7 cuts. I enjoyed the craft, but "Mean Streets" was also very personal. I was really startled by how much it was about me even though I was from a completely different world. That was the first time I had seen Catholicism or catholic iconography being documented in a very contemporary way and I was questioning things.
That led to his work becoming an obsession. I revisited all his movies and I realized where he went to school, and that's where I went. The summer before I went to Nyu - I had already been accepted, - I was very nervous because I was 17 from a small town. Everyone was scared for me. That summer "Do the Right Thing" came out and I saw it. I was in Corpus Christi where my parents bought a place on the beach in the 60s. My mom still has it, which has always been like a refuge. The best investment anyone ever made. [Laughs] If you needed a getaway it was right there. Every summer we would go there, and I would go to the movies by myself, first feature, and I saw "Do the Right Thing" and that was huge. He had also gone to Nyu, so then I felt comforted, "I'm going to the right place."
Aguilar: The eternal debate between film school or no film school? You went to film school and also learned a lot p.a.'ing for the greats. What's your take?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: It's hard for me to tell you about film school because in film school in 1990 there is no internet. Nyu Film School was the way to learn about film, to be exposed to film, to go to repertory houses, to be exposed to New York and see films. I would go to the library and see one, two or three movies a day. You have YouTube now, but in this library they had little tiny TVs with a headset and you could pick what to watch from thousands of movies. That's how you would learn film history. To me film school was film history because there weren't a lot of books out there that I had access to. Except Scorsese on Scorsese, the first edition.
Aguilar: It's in the movie. Greg has it in his room.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: It's in the movie! It was a big thing for me because I was trying to watch every movie he referenced. Nyu was good for me in that regard. It was also good for me because it throws you in a competitive atmosphere. That's when you know what you are made of, because you might be intimidated by people's attitudes and looks - they have their fucking hats and their manicured things, and the hair - and then when their movies don't work or they don’t have a vision, you are less intimidated as opposed to...
Suddenly we were interrupted by someone from Nalip who asked me to go with him to do some photo session or something of the sort. I thought he was kidding until we realized he thought I was Alfonso, who was, of course, the one that had to go get some photos taken. The confusion was funny and strange, and after it was decided that the request could wait, we continued.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: Where were we?
Aguilar: Film school, you were telling me about Nyu and why was it good for you.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: Oh yeah, that's film school in 1990. I don't know what it’s like today because you have access to everything now. It's crazy! You can watch anything on YouTube. But I still think that being thrown in a very competitive environment where you really have to see what you are made of - certainly when you come out of nowhere - was god for me. Then there are the relationships you make. All of the friends I made in grad school are the closest ones that I have now. But back then I made maybe one or two good friends at Nyu and a very strong relationship with my teacher David Irving, who really, really mentored me. He is the one that went to the cutting room even on this one. He came out here for the premiere and for the one out here. But I think film school is important, I don't know. What do you think?
Aguilar: I think sometimes it's mostly a matter of financial constraints.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: I took out loans and I think I finally finished paying them off like two years ago. But it gave me the opportunity to be surrounded by these people. It's a very realistic microcosm or a mini reality of what the industry is like, because you are up against these people that can be sometimes very intimidating, very Loud, very type A, and I'm not the opposite, but ultimately is only the work that matters and you get to know different people. That process is very hard sometimes when you fail over and over again, then there is the part when you succeed and what that feels like. But more than anything going there allowed be to work in New York City in production, that’s what really made me.
Aguilar: Did being Latino ever play a role or were there other Latinos going to film school with you? Or maybe it was never anything that concerned you?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: The thing is that I don't remember. Because I grew up in a Mexican environment, in the Texas side but it was like Mexico. It was an environment where we only spoke Spanish. We weren't allowed to speak English. My parents were very protective of being from the border but not forgetting Spanish or English and turning it into “Spanglish,” or becoming a different culture. They were very, very protective, but it was a very small border, we would practically just cross the street and it was Mexico. All of my family is on the Mexican side, my grandparents, my cousins, and half my friends, because I went to school on this side and that was one half, but the other half was in Mexico. It was half on both sides.
I was never a minority, I was there and then I went to New York. So you are never aware that you are less or more than anything else. I just went there because I wanted to be a director. That's it. I just wanted to make movies, but I never though about, "How am I being perceived because of my culture or my skin?" It never occurred to me. Sometimes you are reminded of that elsewhere. I made a couple of commercials in Mexico City and there, when they know I'm from the border they think less of me or they say something about me being less. It's funny but that's the only town I've felt discrimination.
Aguilar: I'm from Mexico City. Apologies, I think I know what type of people you are referring to. [Laughs]
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: From Mexico City? Well they say things like "Chicano" or other things like that, and that's quite hurtful because they say it in a very derogatory way. And Chicano is not my culture. That's "a" culture from the border, and they have a way of dismissing everyone from the border. There are Mexicans, there are Texans, there are Mexican-Americans, there are Chicanos, there are all these things that happen in the border and that’s what makes it such an interesting environment.
I was at a dinner party in Mexico City once, and they said, "Any Mexican that's from the United States is Chicano," they made this very broad generalization and they were talking me down. I got into a very heated argument because when you are from [the border] it never happens, but outside of that there are those random experiences that I've had later in my life. I was only driven to be the best and it was very disheartening sometimes that it took me so long to start getting my voice heard. That certainly started with television, but it was never because of where I came from, it was because people saw something in me.
Aguilar: Would you ever make a film in Spanish or with Latino characters?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: Yes! I want to. I'm developing like two of them right now. One of them is mainly in English but it takes place on the border so there are like three languages: Spanish, Spanglish, and English.
Aguilar: It's interesting that you list Spanglish as a language on it's own.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: There are different levels of Spanglish [Laughs]. The border is very interesting because there are so many levels of so many different kinds of languages that are spoken. You have Texans that speak better Spanish than Mexican-Americans, and you have Mexicans that Never learned English who are prospering or who are millionaires on the Texas side. It's so complicated and it's very unique. But I was always raised appreciating all of it and recognizing why my parents fought so hard to maintain our language at home. It defines you, but because you are in the border you always have to redefine who you are to anyone outside of the border. It’s so complex.
Aguilar: In your experience, what's the level of creative freedom in TV compared to film? What did you learn working on TV that helped you once you started making feature films?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: in both of them I'm always liked experimenting. TV is so fast. "American Horror Story," and "Glee" as well actually, but "American Horror Story" really allows you to experiment because the camera is very much a character, and you set a look and a tone, and you keep pushing it. I think you only fail Ryan Murphy if you don't push it enough or if you just do it easy and move on.
He really likes it when you are trying to come up with the images. As a director who loves the camera you learn a lot. When you make these movies - both "Town" and "Earl," which are small movies, I think "Town" was 25 days and "Earl" was 23 days - you have to know how far you and push it and what is the right thing for them. Both of them are, in some ways, celebrating movies. "Town" is about a town defined by a movie, and I like that. It's really fun and we intercut the movie and all that. With all it's flaws, I did the best I could and I think I was somewhat intimidated by the system. But it was the best I could have done.
"Me and Earl" is about a young filmmaker in control of the movie. He is telling you a story and he is seducing you into this story. He is telling you, "This is what high school feels like" and he is very aggressive, but he starts to learn to pay attention and he starts to lose control. Then the movie becomes quite quiet and somewhat handheld. I think TV gave
They were TV shows that were very unconventional, like "How am I going to interpret this musical sequence in 'Glee'?" And if you can make the day, you can do whatever you want. That's how Ryan has it. In "American Horror Story" I had these fever-dream-sequences or nightmare sequences, if I could make the day, then I could do whatever I wanted. That's the kind of atmosphere they create, so then you take that with you and you learn, "How far can I push it on 'Earl' before I have to bring it back into total stillness?" That was the lesson, and TV gives you that opportunity
Aguilar: What was the first thing that came to mind when you found out you were on the cover of Filmmaker Magazine? And also that you are the first ever Latino filmmaker on that cover.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: I thought it was a joke. Some friends of mine, from Texas actually, told me about it. They sent me a link to a website that a photo of it but I though that somebody had photo-shopped it. I asked Fox and the publicist on the movie about it, and they didn’t know either because it was never supposed to be a cover story. It was only going to be an article. They looked into it and they verified it was real [Laughs].
I guess at the very last minute Filmmaker decided to make it a cover story without letting anyone know, so it was a shocked for all of us. It’s so flattering. It’s amazing. I can’t believe it. And it’s also one of the worst pictures in history. It was taken at Sundance, the day before we premiered on a Saturday, I hadn’t slept in three days, and I had a fever. I remember taking that picture for, I don’t know probably Getty or I don’t know whom it was for. I look 100 years old, with the biggest bags under my eyes, but I’ll take it. [Laughs]. But I didn’t know that I was one of the first Latinos on the cover.
Aguilar: As far as I know you are the first and only so far.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: It doesn't make any sense
Aguilar: Was this your first cover ever?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: Yeah!
Aguilar: Did you buy or asked for a hundred copies to send to everyone you know?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: [Laughs] No, but it was funny because when we were on the press tour, every time we’d go to a new train station, Thomas, Olivia, Rj, and I -like if we went from Washington to Philly or Philly to New York - we would always meet a representative from Fox and then they’ll take us through the day.
But Thomas had this habit of the second we’d walk down to the train station he’ll pull out a copy of Filmmaker Magazine and hold it up to make it easier for the representative to find us. It was very funny. It was mostly him trying to embarrass me. [Laughs].
Aguilar: Now that you mention Thomas, filmmaking is very personal for his character, Greg. He uses films to express his love for those around him and to relate to them very uniquely. Was this part of what attracted you to the film?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: Yes it did, because I saw it as an opportunity to make a personal film as well. Just like he was making a film and trying to find his voice, I was trying to do the same. He was making a film for Rachel, and I, very secretly at first, was making a film for my father. That became a very public thing after I dedicated it to him, and it started a whole new round of questions about him that I wasn’t prepared for. I started to talk about it, and the more I talked about it the more alive he was. He is everywhere now, just like Rachel is everywhere. I’ve been living the lesson of the movie. That’s what attracted me to the film, because I identified with Greg and I wanted to take his journey. It was very personal for me.
Aguilar: At what point in the process did you decide to dedicate the film to your father? It must have made an already emotional film even more emotional for you.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: It was a very private thing, not a lot of people new why I was making it. At the very last minute I wanted to add a dedication to my father, but I wanted to bury at the end of the film. Just to put it very quietly and privately at the end of the credits. Then my producer Jeremy Dawson said,” Make it the first credit,” and I said, “Are you sure?” He said, “Yes! Make it the first credit.”
The language, “For my father,” I took from Scorsese’s film “The Age of Innocence, “ which he dedicated to his father. It says “For my father.” When I saw that in 1993, I thought, “I hope I’m never in that position.” Then here I am. I wasn’t prepared to talk about it at Sundance. It caught me off guard. It was hard during the first few interviews, then you get used it.
Aguilar: Has the film premiered in Laredo?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: Wednesday July 1st
Aguilar: Are you prepared for the experience of watching the film in your hometown?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: I’m trying to go but I’m still doing some press here. We are doing an event on the 16th of July there, so I think I’m going to take a week off and hang out there. We are trying to raise money to save this beautiful art deco movie theater called The Plaza, which is a movie theater downtown Laredo. It’s a beautiful building that’s been abandoned and we are trying to renovate it. We are starting a new campaign to restore it and hopefully make it a venue for independent film and maybe a local festival. They are starting that campaign with a screening of “Me and Earl” and I’m very excited. It’s quite humbling.
Aguilar: Is perseverance the most important quality to make it and to stay focused even when it took several years to start making features?
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: It is perseverance, but it's not always easy. I'd lost my way over time but I realized that I want to tell personal stories. What I did with "Me and Earl" was to do something personal with it, what I was feeling. That allows your voice to be heard. Like Greg's little movie within the movie, I felt like I was coming into my own.
It's been really invigorating, but it's been a process. Some people have been lucky to find it very early. I took my own path and it led to this, as long as I try to not forget that and not to get seduces by other things for the wrong reasons I’ll Ok. Yeah, maybe is perseverance and listening to that voice inside so you don't get seduced by other things.
For a period of time, for like a year, I had written something with a friend of mine that was very specific and hysterical. Then all of a sudden we were seduced by chasing writing jobs because of the money and other reasons, and these projects were all this broad comedies. We spent a year taking meetings until we realized, "We'll always lose those jobs to the people that do those jobs well." Like the talking parrot movie or the talking dog movie. We had something very specific and lost a year of our lives. I haven't done that in directing, but at some point I knew that it was time to go from television to more personal filmmaking, and then in the future come back to TV but overseeing projects and doing pilots, and expressing myself that way.
Our time had come to and end, and I couldn’t help but shyly asked if he would sign my “Me and Earl” poster, which I had been dragging around the city like a treasure. Alfonso kindly agreed and signed it Spanish, which made it all the more special. While truly grateful I wish I would had mentioned how I discovered Scorsese watching a Spanish-dubbed version of “Taxi Driver” on Mexican television, or how mad I was when I couldn’t get in to see “The Last Temptation of Christ” when it finally opened in Mexico City after being banned for over 15 years – I was to young to see it according to the theater - and many other anecdotes I’m sure he would understand. But there could always be another interview.
It’s clear to me that a film this personal could only come from someone that loves film so deeply. A cinephile in the director’s chair is the perfect scenario for brilliance and honesty. Can’t wait to see what comes next, as I’m sure Alfonso Gomez-Rejon will keep on making cine con el corazón.