In 'Me And Earl And The Dying Girl,' Director Pays Homage To His Mentors In the film, two teenagers — who make parodies of classic films — are tasked with making a film for a severely ill classmate. NPR's Audie Cornish speaks with the director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon.
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In 'Me And Earl And The Dying Girl,' Director Pays Homage To His Mentors

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In 'Me And Earl And The Dying Girl,' Director Pays Homage To His Mentors

In 'Me And Earl And The Dying Girl,' Director Pays Homage To His Mentors

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ALFONSO GOMEZ-REJON: It's no accident that next to Greg Gaines' computer there are two scripts. It's "Casino" and "Heartburn."

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon told us he completely identifies with his movie-obsessed protagonist. Those two scripts, "Casino," directed by Martin Scorsese, and "Heartburn," written by Nora Ephron, placed just so, are among the many Easter eggs, or subtle tributes, placed throughout "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl." Gomez-Rejon worked with both Scorsese and Ephron at the start of his career.

GOMEZ-REJON: I love the script on so many levels, and one of them was it was a chance for me to pay homage and celebrate the films of all my heroes and some of the mentors I've been lucky to have in my life. And so we had these lists of films we're going to parody, and Ed Bursch and Nate Marsh, who were these incredibly talented young filmmakers, would then go out and make them in the style of what two 17-year-olds could actually make - nothing too over-produced. Every costume that they use would have to be something they could've pulled from their parents closets. So it was a very kind of handmade thing, but there was a lot of thought and love that went into every one of these parodies of these classic films. I wanted to hopefully inspire other people to go find them.

CORNISH: In this clip that we've heard about this not being a love story in the way that people expect, what was it like trying to basically walk that line as a director - right? - because it seems like it is very easy, with a glance or a certain cut, to all of a sudden have two teenagers in love.

GOMEZ-REJON: Yeah. That's - what I loved about the script was that it wasn't conventional in that way, and I wasn't really interested in making a love story.

CORNISH: But why not?

GOMEZ-REJON: Because I thought this angle was - when you're that age - and it reminded me of that beautiful relationship in "Harold And Maude." It's just about a deep understanding. You just want someone to get you, all of you. And I like that quite a bit, and I thought that was original.

CORNISH: It seems that people are still very drawn to stories about high school and the taxonomy of high school - the high school cafeteria, you know?

GOMEZ-REJON: Oh, sure. That's terrifying, isn't it? I hated the cafeteria. I hated that whole part of my life, but...

CORNISH: You can see that in the film. People leap by, as though they're actual animals, from table to table (laughter).

GOMEZ-REJON: Yeah, that was a really - that was an exaggerated...

CORNISH: It wasn't that exaggerated, thinking back to high school.

GOMEZ-REJON: The emotion is right. I mean, I wanted to capture the high school in the way that I remembered it, the feeling that I remembered. And then when we walked in there, it really looked like an institution. It looked like a prison, and that was perfect. It really captured that fear.

CORNISH: It's a very, very funny movie, and it is still, at the end of the day, about grief. Rachel is grieving over her diagnosis. Greg and Earl are also trying to process it. It's a bunch of people who don't really know what to do with this cancer diagnosis. What was it like trying to show that through the eyes of young people?

GOMEZ-REJON: Well, I didn't think of it in those terms. This feeling is hard, and it's new for anyone, whether you're through it a a 17-year-old or as a 40-year-old. You know, I dedicated the film to my father because shortly before reading the screenplay, I had lost him. And I was really struggling with this idea that, here is this bottle of water, and then you blink, and it's not there anymore, and what happens? What is this? How can this be? So I wanted to take this journey with Greg. And Greg is going through all those stages that I went through, but I stop short of the end in learning how to integrate and move on and incorporate it in a way that was positive.

And so when I read the script, I was quite comforted by the idea that, when people die, by talking about them and celebrating them, you keep them alive. And I wasn't doing that. I was avoiding it altogether because it was too painful. So this film made me believe that that is possible. And I wanted to walk away with at least something that showed my great love, and hopefully with time, it becomes less about the loss and more about the love.

CORNISH: That's director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. His film "Me And Earl And The Dying Girl" is out in select cities today.

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