Nine years ago, Little Miss Sunshine debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and forever altered the indie film landscape. The ensemble dramedy, about a dysfunctional family that embarks on a cross-country road trip to see their daughter compete in a child beauty pageant, was acquired by distributor Fox Searchlight for $10 million—a Sundance record—and eventually grossed over $100 million worldwide. It also took home two Academy Awards, including Best Original Screenplay. That Oscar went to Michael Arndt, who began his career working as the personal assistant to Matthew Broderick.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Most of the buzz at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival has concerned Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a moving film based on a novel by Jesse Andrews. Bidding for the film reached as high as $12 million, thus eclipsing the record Little Miss Sunshine set in 2006. It was eventually acquired by Fox Searchlight (again), for a sum in the high seven figures. And like Sunshine and Arndt before it, the film’s director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, got his start as the personal assistant to a few people named Martin Scorsese, Nora Ephron, and Alejandro Inarritu.
“There are no words to describe it,” Gomez-Rejon tells The Daily Beast of his journey.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl tells the tale of Greg Gaines (Thomas Mann), a high school senior in Pittsburgh who’s made it his mission to graduate as anonymously as possible and sans any “mortal enemies.” The only person he’s close to aside from his kooky parents, played by Connie Britton and Nick Offerman, is Earl (Ronald Cyler II), a black kid from a rough part of town. Due to his intimacy issues, Greg refers to Earl not as his friend but as his “co-worker”—since the two spend their days obsessing over idol Werner Herzog’s film Burden of Dreams and secretly directing their own inventive twists on arthouse classics, e.g. A Sockwork Orange (starring sock puppet droogs), and Breathe Less, a take on the Godard classic—but with asthma inhalers. They’ve helmed 42 in total.
One day, Greg’s mom—“the LeBron James of nagging”—convinces him to hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl in his class who’s been diagnosed with leukemia. And Greg, ever the self-loathing loner, puts up a big fight but reluctantly gives in. It marks the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as Greg sees himself opening up to Rachel in ways he never knew possible, and Rachel cherishing Greg’s youthful naïveté, distracting her from the travails of chemo through humor and escapism. Buoyed by Greg's insightful stream of consciousness-style narration, it's an inventive cross between Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep and The Fault in Our Stars, and had its audience laughing and crying in equal measure.
“It all has to do with Nora Ephron,” says Gomez-Rejon.
Gomez-Rejon’s journey to Sundance stardom is a long and windy one. The 42-year-old filmmaker was inspired by Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee to move from his native Laredo, Texas, to New York to attend NYU Film School. After three years of odd film jobs, including line producing, story supervising, craft services, and driving a truck, he got a job as Scorsese’s second assistant. Then, Scorsese introduced him to Nicholas Pileggi, the writer of Goodfellas, who was married to Ephron. She then hired him as her assistant.“Nora treated me like a colleague immediately,” says Gomez-Rejon. “For her next movie Lucky Numbers, she forced Paramount to put me into the guild as a second unit director, because I was going to be her assistant. It’s because of Nora that I can call myself a director.”
Gomez-Rejon eventually worked as an assistant to Alejando Inarritu on 21 Grams, and then served as a second unit director on Babel. It was a tremendous learning experience that saw him working on the project for 11 months, including casting many of the unknown international roles and shooting a lot of second unit footage. He soon hooked up with Ryan Murphy, helping to cast and shoot second unit on Eat Pray Love, and was eventually hired to direct several episodes of Murphy’s television series’ Glee and American Horror Story, earning an Emmy nomination for the latter.
Despite positive reviews, Gomez-Rejon’s feature directorial debut, the slasher flick The Town That Dreaded Sundown, went straight to video. So for his follow-up, he decided to heed the advice of his mentors and tackle a more personal project.
“Scorsese and Nora were making movies about personal feelings and what they were going through, and I really started to learn what it felt like to be a real director when I began incorporating myself, and processing feelings visually,” he says.
Andrews’s adaptation of his novel somehow leaked and made its way to Gomez-Rejon, who was immediately hooked. He courted it aggressively, but was told by the film’s production company Indian Paintbrush that there were several bigger-name directors interested in the project, and that every one of them needed to be vetted before they took him into consideration.
“While they did that, I cut a mood reel together of how I saw the film,” says Gomez-Rejon. “It was a montage of visuals and tone—a lot of Herzog and Burden of Dreams, and it ended on Cat Stevens’s ‘Trouble,’ and the last sequence. By the time it was my turn to come in months later, my presentation killed, and it was very personal. A few months later, I won the job.”
Gomez-Rejon was going through a very tough time personally, too.
“I had to process my own personal loss of my Dad, who passed away quite suddenly about a year before I read the script to Me and Earl,” Gomez-Rejon says. “Nora also passed, and one of my best friends committed suicide. Luckily, TV saved me. It got me out of bed, and I was experimenting with the camera constantly. But with TV you inherit scripts, so I desperately needed to do something personal; I needed to go deeper.”
The process of making Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was therapeutic for Gomez-Rejon, who was struggling to cope with his father’s passing. He saw hope in the character of Greg, who sees past the darkness of disease through his disarming sense of humor.
“At the end, if I’m able to incorporate that loss into my life and move on in a positive way with humor, then I think I would have also come of age—like Greg,” says Gomez-Rejon. “It’s a personal movie that’s not about me, but an emotion that I was going through, and I buried myself in Greg. To me, it’s about incorporating loss as a part of life and then moving on with humor and optimism, and that’s something I was very much struggling with. I was not a happy human being, but it was the making of the movie that allowed me to transform.”
He pauses. “When I saw the reaction after the premiere I had a feeling of, ‘OK, I’m starting to move on.’”