Me and Earl and the Dying Girl writer Jesse Andrews has had one of the rarer Hollywood trajectories. A first-time novelist, he was invited not only to adapt the book himself, but to do it under the guiding hand of producer Dan Fogelman, a seasoned screenwriter himself (Cars, Tangled, Crazy, Stupid, Love and Danny Collins).
Despite his inexperience, Andrews managed to retain the surprisingly assured, idiosyncratic, and funny voice of his 2012 debut, which follows two high schoolers who make awful movies together as they reluctantly embark on a new epic for a dying female friend, an effort that has consequences both comic and tragic.
Andrews’ thought-provoking and moving young-adult novel took readers by surprise with a truly contemporary coming-of-age story, packed with smart original dialogue and fully realized teen characters and the film, directed by Gomez-Rejon, won the coveted Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
The story’s offbeat humour, rare sensitivity and unique worldview, chronicles a young man’s journey into adulthood as he learns what it means to be truly selfless. It tells is the uniquely funny, moving story of Greg (Thomas Mann), a high school senior who is trying to blend in anonymously, avoiding deeper relationships as a survival strategy for navigating the social minefield that is teenage life. He even describes his constant companion Earl (RJ Cyler), with whom he makes short film parodies of classic movies, as more of a ‘co-worker’ than a best friend. But when Greg’s mom (Connie Britton) insists he spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke) – a girl in his class who has just been diagnosed with cancer – he slowly discovers how worthwhile the true bonds of friendship can be.
It all began when Rejon, who had directed episodes of hit series Glee and American Horror Story and the horror re-boot The Town That Dreaded Sundown, wanted his next project to be something more personal. He found that in Me And Earl And The Dying Girl.
“The script was funny in an unusual and unpredictable way, as well as refreshingly honest,” says Gomez-Rejon. “At first, it reminded me of the wonderful John Hughes movies I grew up on, but then it very gently took an unexpected turn and became so much more than just a comedy. I had just lost my father and I felt that if I could make this film, it would be a way for me to express my own personal losses and transform them through humour.”
When the book became a critical sensation, Andrews’ agent, Anna DeRoy, approached Dan Fogelman to see if he would be interested in adapting it for the screen. Instead, Fogelman came back with an intriguing offer for Andrews.
“When I read the book, I realized that I’d never heard this voice before,” says Fogelman, who eventually became a producer on the project. “It’s young and self-aware and engaged and so touching. My instinct was that Jesse should write the script and I would help him do it. He just needed to understand how the form works. When we started, he didn’t even know how to write ‘EXT’ or ‘INT’ on a screenplay, but he did a remarkable job. It evolved from this little novel into a film that got a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival.”
“Dan is an incredible teacher, a really great artist and a great craftsman who thought I should write the script and offered to mentor me through it,” says Andrews. “He really took me under his wing because he really cared about this project.”
The producing team at Indian Paintbrush, the company behind such auteur-driven prestige films including 2015 Best Picture Oscar-nominee The Grand Budapest Hotel, Young Adult and Jeff, Who Lives At Home, was impressed by the finished script.
“Jesse has fresh and original writing style,” says Steven Rales, the company’s founder and a producer on the film. “We responded to the sense of honesty and humility he instilled in this story. He did a great job of capturing the cacophony of emotions that most of us feel as we move through high school.”
“We are always looking for work that is unique,” adds Skinner. “We like stories that will resonate and endure. Jesse has such an amazing, singular voice and this is a coming-of-age story unlike anything I’ve ever encountered: funny, dramatic, moving and really truthful.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, now working as a novelist and screenwriter with several more adaptations in development and revisions in the works on his next novel, The Haters, due Spring 2016, Andrews currently lives in Boston, Massachusetts.
At a press conference, Andrews spoke to about the “hidden infinity” inside everyone and how it peeks out no matter what we do to conceal it.
Q: The film starts with Greg in voice over saying, “I have no idea how to tell this story.” Did you run into that challenge when trying to translate your novel into a workable screenplay?
Jesse Andrews: The process would have been a lot harder if I didn’t have the help that I did. In particular, Dan Fogelman was instrumental. I hadn’t even read a script let alone tried to write one before he had the insane idea that I could try to adapt my own book. But he made himself available to guide me through the process as a mentor. He was very generous and put a big emphasis on the value of making mistakes — some mistakes are ones you have to fix, but some, if you leave them in the script, they’re actually not mistakes, they’re the reason the script is distinctive and worth turning into a film.
Q: There is a huge love of movies woven through your story. First of all, it must have been fun to brainstorm the titles for all the funny parodies Greg and Earl make.
JA: Oh, hell yeah. They’re in the book, but they’re not as clever, and they’re not really the right kind of movies. So for the movie, I came up with a bunch, and animators Nate Marsh and Ed Bursch, who helped realize the films within the film, came up with a bunch that are really good. “The 400 Bros” is tied with “Eyes Wide Butt” for the title that I’m proudest of. I wrote one that was in the script for a while but we had to replace it because it wasn’t working: “The Billing of a Chinese Cookie.”
Q: What’s the thematic weight of Greg’s making of the movies? How does that fit in with how he views the world or this relationship with Rachel?
JA: His desire to make movies is completely at odds with his desire to be invisible, his desire to skate through life without really exposing his true self, without becoming vulnerable, taking a risk, connecting to someone. He doesn’t want to do any of that, but you can’t make movies alone. It’s caused him to really connect to Earl in a way that he otherwise would never let himself do. It was an expression of how you think you want one thing but your heart really wants the opposite. We’re so often thwarted by our desires. They’re stronger than our fears. And also, with movies you leave yourself behind in this way that has so much life. You see someone walking around, you hear their voice, you see how they move — it’s a real record of someone. Leaving behind evidence of yourself and of your life is what this movie is about, too.
Q: Once you saw the final film, did you find yourself feeling that the theme or what the story was about had changed?
JA: It felt a lot richer, deeper to me, because so much personality and tone and texture had been added. It’s one thing to write the scene of Rachel watching the movie that Greg has made for her, and how that feels to her. But it’s quite another to see Olivia Cooke actually embody that. It makes it alive, you know?
Q: You have Werner Herzog pop up in different ways throughout the film. What’s your connection to him and his work?
JA: I’m a big admirer of his work, and his honesty, and the comedy that can come out of that honesty that isn’t even intended. I have an older sister, and when I was a kid there was some rivalry, some friction, and she thought I was a big dork. (And I was.) But at one point, she was like, “Hey, you should check this out,” and it was “Aguirre, the Wrath of God.” I watched it, and beyond loving it and connecting to it I realized that my sister is a much more interesting and complex person than I thought. So it became shorthand for me for the fact that anyone you meet, anyone you know, is always capable of surprising you. Everyone’s got this hidden infinity that you only get glimpses of. They’re always more complex than your conception of them will.”