Summer 2015

How Alfonso Gomez-Rejon went from Scorsese’s assistant to Sundance

The directors’s unlikely journey from a Texas border town to NYU film school, to working as an assistant to Nora Ephron and Martin Scorsese, pays off with his sweet-sad indie hit, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.


Lucky So-And-So: Gomez-Rejon's story is about what happens when determination and talent meet good fortune. (Photo: Howard Wise)

The first time Alfonso Gomez-Rejon saw a final cut of his film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl with an audience was in competition at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Because of technical problems with the digital files and some last-minute music changes, the movie wasn’t locked until three days earlier. "I was very, very scared," says Gomez-Rejon. Surrounded by friends and family who’d flown in from his hometown of Laredo, Texas, he had no idea how people would respond to his funny-sad adaptation of Jesse Andrews’ novel about a Pittsburgh-based loner named Greg (Thomas Mann) and the platonic friendship he forges with a classmate (Olivia Cooke) who is diagnosed with leukemia. Then his mood began to lift. "People were laughing in all the parts that we thought were funny," says Gomez-Rejon, who ended up taking home the Sundance Audience Award, as well as the Grand Jury Prize for dramatic feature. "I could tell it was catching on in the room."

Given Gomez-Rejon’s background—his official directorial debut was the high school musical series, Glee, of which he has helmed eight episodes—it’s no surprise that he has an effortlessness when it comes to directing noisy hallway scenes teeming with young actors, or that he knows how to make a mumbled exchange between two shy teenagers seems touching instead of lazily inarticulate.

If you focus, however, on certain other aspects of his filmography, Gomez-Rejon might seem like the least likely director to inject such sweetness and humor into a sob-inducing teen film. His directing credits include FX’s fright-fest anthology series, American Horror Story, and a 2014 debut feature, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, a meta riff on, and quasi-sequel to the 1976 horror film. But, in fact, Gomez-Rejon owes much of Earl’s bouncy visual flair to his American Horror Story days, when he used the series’ determinedly twisted storylines and ultra-vivid characters as a film laboratory about camera movement, cinematic composition, and developing his own original style.

"I wasn’t directing these episodes to play it safe—I’d try stuff and often I’d fail," says Gomez-Rejon. "But I always took on every one with the thought that I wanted to experiment with something stylistically. Like how far can I take a 6 mm lens before it overstays its welcome and then people get used to it and it becomes cool? So the goal is to know when to do something and when not to do it, and horror certainly gives you the freedom to work that out."

Indeed, part of the charm of Earl is how confidently Gomez-Rejon throws everything into the mix: There’s stop-motion animation, shots that focus on a single actor then surprisingly angle sideways, and films within the film. That last ingredient owes to the fact that Greg and his best friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), are high school cineastes who spend their downtime shooting mini-homages—homemade shorts with names like "A Sockwork Orange" and "It’s a Punderful Life"—to giants of the craft such as Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog, and Stanley Kubrick.

One of the biggest obstacles Gomez-Rejon and his cinematographer, Chung-hoon Chung, faced was having too many wild concepts and no funds to spin them into reality. "Sometimes we’d forget that we weren’t a $100 million movie," says Gomez-Rejon of a shot that he and Chung devised where Greg discovers mid-class that he’s accidentally eaten marijuana cookies. "We sketched out an elaborate moving platform where to get across the idea of him being stoned, the other kids were going to be spinning around him almost like a Ferris wheel. It would have taken two weeks to shoot and we only had two hours." Instead, they took a simpler route, cutting off the legs of classroom chairs, mounting them on apple carts set on top of track, then having grips very slowly sliding the front and back rows of seated students from side to side. Meanwhile, Greg sits in the middle row, stationary and wide-eyed at the realization that he’s high. "It’s as low budget as you can get but the effect was the one we were trying for," says Gomez-Rejon of a shot that’s subtly surreal without drawing undue attention to itself.

Alter Ego: Gomez-Rejon, directing Thomas Mann in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, related to his hero's love for all things cinema. (Photo: Anne Marie Fox/20th Century Fox)

Despite all of its many moving parts, Earl still feels like a deeply personal film. Gomez-Rejon relates to Greg’s preoccupation with all things cinema, but when he was growing up in the tiny border town of Laredo, his access to classic movies boiled down to whatever was showing on late-night television or, when he got older, VHS cassettes of films like Apocalypse Now. Instead he traces his childhood inspiration to become a director to the home movies that his mother would project in his bedroom. "What a quiet and communal experience," says Gomez-Rejon. "It was magical watching her load the projector, turn the lights off and watching things moving on a white wall."

In his quest to educate himself in the world of movies he read and re-read books like Scorsese on Scorsese, and tried to seek out the work of anyone the influential filmmaker mentioned. When he applied to college, Gomez-Rejon’s only choice was Scorsese’s alma mater, NYU’s film school. During his first week in Manhattan, Gomez-Rejon spotted a tiny crew in Washington Square Park filming an episode of Sesame Street. "It was just a camera on sticks, but I was enthralled," says Gomez-Rejon who hung around for so many hours that the production coordinator called him over and offered him a job directing traffic. By the time school started at NYU, he had three credits on his professional résumé. "I tell this story all the time and nobody believes me, but it’s true."

The rest of Gomez-Rejon’s story is about what happens when determination and talent meet good fortune: His PA job on a short film led to him landing a position as a personal assistant for Scorsese, which took him to the Las Vegas-based set of Casino where he bonded with legendary editor Thelma Schoonmaker. After spending two years at the American Film Institute, Gomez-Rejon went looking for work and found it through Nora Ephron, the wife of Casino screenwriter Nick Pileggi, who took him on as her personal assistant, asked him to direct second unit on Lucky Numbers and helped him get into the DGA. Word spread. By the time Alejandro González Iñárritu hired him to be his personal assistant on Babel, the position came with not just second unit directing duties but also street casting, something Gomez-Rejon was so good at that director-producer Ryan Murphy wanted him on his team for Eat Pray Love. Murphy, who’d just gotten an order for nine more episodes of his series Glee, gave Gomez-Rejon his first real directing gig. The show was perfectly suited to Gomez-Rejon’s always-moving camera style. The day before production began, he came to the set and distributed books, storyboards, and DVDs to the already time-strapped department heads so that they’d understand his visual references. Whatever head-shaking Gomez-Rejon’s over-prepped A-student antics caused probably vanished on the day that Murphy wandered onto the set and said to him, "Saw your dailies. Love your compositions," specifically referring to a shot where the camera dollies toward a singing student then rises up to reveal a microphone hidden in the ceiling. "That was all the encouragement I needed," says Gomez-Rejon.

It was while directing episodes of American Horror Story: Freak Show that his agent sent him the script for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It was shortly after his father had passed away. "I don’t want to get too heavy [but instead of grieving], I lost myself to the work," says Gomez-Rejon who identified with Greg’s journey to express himself through film. But Earl was also his way of paying tribute to his mentors. "There’s [a photo] of Thelma on her K-E-M in 1969. Next to Greg’s computer are two scripts—Casino and Heartburn. Marty’s voice is in two commentaries. I say thanks to them all over the film. They’re everywhere."

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