Alternative-movie fans who’ve been quirk-starved lately will appreciate the unusual pedigree of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. The consistently surprising film, opening here next Friday (June 19), concerns a high-schooler played by Project X’s Thomas Mann. His goofy Greg is a would-be filmmaker whose self-absorption gets tested when he reluctantly befriends a schoolmate (Olivia Cooke) dealing with cancer.
Spoofing classic cinema while exploring coming-of-age tropes, this is a seemingly unlikely second feature for director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, born on Texas’s border with Mexico and best known for directing TV shows on opposite ends of the entertainment spectrum: Glee and American Horror Story. His first big-screen effort was a low-budget slasher flick called The Town That Dreaded Sundown. So how did he get matched up with this big-hearted teen comedy?
“We weren’t matched up as much as I aggressively went after it,” explains Gomez-Rejon, calling during a visit to Toronto. “I felt very close to Greg and his journey. I also loved the fact that the story celebrates movies, and that I could make something personal—finally! After so much television work, I wanted to turn inward and do something from the heart.”
The young director cut his industry teeth as a personal assistant to veterans like Martin Scorsese, Nora Ephron, Ben Affleck, and Alejandro González Iñárritu, all of whom eventually let him direct second-unit photography for their films. Unfortunately, nothing on his résumé indicated to the producers at Indian Paintbrush that he was the right fit for their Earl-y effort.
“Oh, it was clearly that,” he adds with a laugh. “And they said so. I broke it to them that their script had leaked. And in return, one of them gave me a heads-up that I should put together a visual presentation if I wanted the gig.”
He got it, and the resulting film, shot over less than a month in off-kilter Pittsburgh locations, is itself an eclectic show reel, combining highly stylized imagery, stop-motion animation, colourful set design, and clips from old movies, as well as fake ones made just for the story. The cinema-obsessed Greg and best bud Earl (RJ Cyler) haunt a magical book-and-DVD store that appears devoted to the celluloid work of Max Ophuls and Akira Kurosawa. (Criterion Collection president Peter Becker recently told us, “We loaned our whole library to those guys for their movie!”)
This emphasis on high style suited the film’s main producer, Jeremy Dawson. He handled the last five Wes Anderson flicks, netting him a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination for The Grand Budapest Hotel. But he has an unexpected background for an indie money-wrangler. He was also the visual-effects supervisor for some of Anderson’s flicks, and did that for other features, including Black Swan and Across the Universe. He designed Noah’s opening titles, for God’s sake.
“Jeremy is the reason this movie exists,” Gomez-Rejon asserts. “He had my back at all times, and everything ran like clockwork because he was the man behind the curtain.”
It turns out that Dawson was raised in Vancouver, mostly around Kits–Point Grey, before heading east, to attend Harvard at age 18.
“I saw most of my foreign films at the Ridge,” recalls Dawson, on the line from his long-time Brooklyn base. “But despite the fact that I went on to art school, I was always into math and science. Other kids at U-Hill [University Hill Secondary School] thought I’d be an engineer or something like that.
“I’ve always liked being around lots of people and having to react quickly under pressure, and I’m very much a hands-on filmmaker. I’ll make a drawing for a set, or find a location myself. The part I like best is helping someone get a vision on-screen that’s better than it would have been if I wasn’t involved.”
He and Gomez-Rejon certainly accomplished that with Me and Earl, which won top prizes at this year’s Sundance festival.
“It’s been extremely gratifying so far,” Dawson concludes. “But I’m really proud that I finally made it into the Georgia Straight.”