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I’ll Come Running: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and Jesse Andrews on Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Olivia Cooke and Thomas Mann in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Those are people who died, died!

They were all my friends, and they died!

— Jim Carroll

Do you remember your first experience with death? Most likely it was a grandparent passing. Or maybe a parent? Or, quite possibly, someone you knew at school, whether or not that person was a close friend.

I remember mine — the younger brother of an elementary school classmate. He’d always prank on his older brother in the line to get into school each day, sneaking up on him from behind and then grabbing his lunch bag. A tug of war would ensue, the result being a shredded sandwich and mangled fruit strewn on the sidewalk. We’d all laugh. Mostly, his brother would, too.

But this crazy little kid was born with a heart condition, and it needed surgery to correct. We all knew when that surgery was scheduled, we all remembered him the day prior… and then he just wasn’t there anymore.

Of course, people closer to me have died since, but that kid, who I barely knew, he was the one who introduced me to the concept.

Death — or, more specifically, one’s early encounter with its possibility, is the subject of Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, based on the celebrated book of the same name by Jesse Andrews (and adapted for the screen by him as well). It’s the story of high schooler Greg (Thomas Mann), whose calculated mode of self-protection is to keep emotions at bay and live in the spaces between cliques, becoming low-key pals with all, while never claiming an identity that could make him the object of another’s aggression.

Greg’s other survival strategy is the movies — and not whatever’s playing at the local Pittsburgh multiplex, but the latest reissue from Criterion. He and his pal Earl (RJ Cyler) imbibe filmmaking wisdom from Werner Herzog (via Les Blank’s Burden of Dreams) and, with their iPhones, make spoof-y shorts of arthouse classics: Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom becomes Pooping Tom, and Truffaut’s first-film inspiration for filmmakers everywhere becomes The 400 Bros. When a classmate he barely registers, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), is diagnosed with leukemia, Greg is given emotional homework by his mom (Connie Britton) — to be her friend. It’s to the credit of all involved that this scenario is registered as deeply cringeworthy to both of these resolutely unsentimental kids as it is by you right now.

Of course, a relationship between Greg and Rachel forms — a beautifully modulated, sensitively performed and notably non-romantic one. There’s moviemaking, too, with Greg working toward a final short that can capture some of what’s inchoate inside him. And while the “film-loving teen” and DIY moviemaking aspects of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl may remind you of films like Rushmore and Be Kind Rewind, they actually function quite differently. Greg and Earl wear their cinephilia as a badge of honor. It’s what separates them from the crowd, and it’s what expands their knowledge beyond the borders of Pittsburgh. Indeed, readers of this magazine will find the romanticism of the Me and Earl world, where perfect days can consist of Eno-soundtracked ice cream dates and browsing Tarkovsky laser discs, nearly as moving as the story of a friendship with a shelf life.

Shot by Chung-hoon Chung, whose credits include Oldboy and other films by Park Chan-wook, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl bristles with wide-screen invention, including unexpected pans and tilts and warped frames. It has the un-self-conscious brio of a first-time filmmaker, someone unafraid of being bold and, most importantly, being emotional. (A veteran distributor used to say, when going to Sundance, “If I cry, I buy” — a sentiment that explains the film’s record-breaking Sundance acquisition by Fox Searchlight.) But, as you’ll read below, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is not a film by a recent film school graduate, but by a dedicated filmmaker getting his break after being in the production and TV trenches — most recently directing American Horror Story — for 25 years. (And Me and Earl is not even Gomez-Rejon’s first film; a horror picture, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, was shot shortly before this.)

One final note: Even though the below interview with Gomez-Rejon and Andrews focuses heavily on their journeys as artists, it reads a bit spoiler-y in parts. Truthfully, what’s discussed is what you’ll read in reviews and even, in less detail, in the film’s own press notes. There are characters, relationships and plot twists not even touched upon here. Still, you can file this for after you see the film, if you want. But, if after reading the above you’re wondering suspiciously if the makers of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl have the love of film and depth of feeling to honestly steward so many cinema references, to say nothing of over a dozen of Brian Eno’s best songs, into a film that will play in malls all summer, well, read on.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl opens in June from Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The film has the word “dying” in the title, yet it’s also very much a film about beginnings. Jesse, this is your first screenplay and the book it’s based on is your first, too. What was your path to both the novel and the screenplay? ANDREWS: I grew up in Pittsburgh, and I started out wanting to be a novelist. I didn’t take any creative writing courses or do an MFA. I just kind of dived stupidly into it and worked a bunch of other jobs to stay afloat and pay rent.

What kind of jobs? ANDREWS: I worked at a magazine, taught music for little kids. And I wrote two [novels] before Me and Earl that, in retrospect, were both pretty terrible. There were both very difficult — very literary and ambitious. [Laughs] A friend who edited young adult fiction said to me, “You know, you’re not bad at writing stuff that’s funny. Why don’t you try to write a funny book? And why don’t you try to write for teens?” And so, [Me and Earl] came out of that exercise. Also, I wanted it to be about something real. Writing something funny but frivolous was not interesting to me.

Did you have a personal connection to this story? ANDREWS: This is not my story in that I did not have a classmate who was terminally ill. But, I was thinking a lot about terminal illness and about my grandfather, who was very sick at the time and not going to be with us much longer. I was thinking about how difficult it is to process that. You know how when you’re with someone who’s very sick, you never say the things that you wish later that you had said, and you never do the things that you wish later you had done, no matter what those things are that you said or did? You just recriminate yourself, no matter what, because that’s part of the regret of losing someone. I was thinking about how crazy it is that there are books about teenagers struggling with [losing someone], and they’re very tidy, in a way. There’s all this radiant sunshine-y wisdom that comes from this tragedy. I wanted to make something that paid a little more attention to the difficulty and ambiguity of it. If I could make something funny about that, that wasn’t cruel or stupid, then that would be an accomplishment I could be proud of.

One thing producers always say is that you should never have a novelist adapt his or her own work. And the character of Greg says in the book, “You should not make this into a movie.” So how did this happen? ANDREWS: Yeah, I mean, Greg is an idiot, so of course [he’d say that]. [Laughs] Shortly after getting the okay from the publisher, I landed at William Morris Endeavor, and they have people who specialize in book to film. Anna DeRoy became my book to film agent, and she had the idea that maybe I would write it. She managed to package the book with this producer, Dan Fogelman, who is a hugely successful and awesome screenwriter, and, recently, director. He also felt that the voice was unusual enough that maybe [I] could write the script. At the time, I was also trying to make a music career happen. I had a couple of weird bands that no one was really all that interested in, although we were awesome. [Laughs] This was going to be a lot of work, but it was clear to me it was a once in a lifetime type of opportunity. And so, I was like, “If you guys want to take that kind of risk with me, I will do my best to not horribly disappoint everyone.”

How did you acclimate yourself to the screenwriting process? ANDREWS: Dan sent me some scripts. I hadn’t really read a script at that point. I’d seen a ton of movies, but now I tried to bring a more scholarly approach to it and just figure out how these scripts worked, how they differed from a book in terms of pace — how long a scene can be and how you keep the momentum going, which was the biggest lesson I had to learn. Dan is very patient, and he suffered through a first draft that really did not resemble the movie. He said, “This is great. You’ve done amazing work,” and then we talked for four and a half hours on the phone. He had notes on every single page. But he’s a great communicator, and [his notes] were very easy to learn from. And then when Alfonso came on, he had amazing notes, and the script took another couple of jumps. Alfonso helped me think a lot about how every single role should be something that an actor really wants to play. It shouldn’t just be a component for the other characters. If you begin thinking of every single role as its own world for that actor to live in, for the duration of the production, then you have something much richer.

So, Alfonso, what was it about the script that directly spoke to you? GOMEZ-REJON: Well, first of all, the dialogue and the voice. There was something so refreshing about these kids saying exactly what they were feeling in a way that wasn’t ironic in that “movie way” people speak. And I liked these kids. I wanted to hang out with them. I obviously loved the way [the script] celebrated movies. And then, the McCarthy scene, when [the teacher] tells [Greg] that people learn about people after they die, that really did something to me. I latched onto Greg at that point. I almost found myself not a witness to these kids but almost a subject. I could become this kid, and I understood his confusion because I had recently been through a loss, and this movie gave me a wonderful structure in how to process it.

How long did it take for you to actually win the job from the time you first met on it? GOMEZ-REJON: Maybe six months or so.

Were there multiple meetings during those six months? GOMEZ-REJON: There were about four or five meetings. I got the script [from my agent], and it came from a company called Indian Paintbrush. An old roommate of mine from NYU, a good friend, Jeff [Sommerville] was working there, so I assumed I had an in. I called and the first thing he said was, “How did you get this?” It was so cold! The script had gotten released without Indian Paintbrush knowing, and they [already] had a list of directors they wanted to go out to. So, I took Jeff out to dinner, and I just kind of laid it all out: this is why I need to make this movie, this is what I love about it. I prepared, I had notes, and he said, “Well, there’s a list of directors already who have shown interest. It’s going to be a tough road. But why don’t you work on some kind of presentation because it’s going to be your first film?” So, I worked on a mood reel. It was impressionistic, about five or 10 minutes long, and used clips of films — a lot of Hal Ashby, Mike Nichols, Werner Herzog — that relayed the way I saw the film. It had a narrative arc, a flow to it. Eventually, Jeff got me a meeting at Indian Paintbrush with Mark Roybal [its president at the time], and that meeting went really well. That was followed by a couple of meetings with Dan Fogelman, and then, I had to drive to meet Steven Rales, the owner of Indian Paintbrush, at his house in Santa Barbara and play the reel for him. He would stop at every new image and say, “Why this?” He’d play it for five more seconds, the image would change, and he’d pause it. “So why this reference?” That meeting took a while, but it went well.

Alfonso, you were an intern on Alex Rockwell’s In the Soup, worked on Scorsese’s Casino, and you worked with Alejandro González Iñárritu and Nora Ephron. And that’s all before Ryan Murphy, Glee and American Horror Story. But I didn’t know any of this when I saw the film. I thought it was a 24-year-old’s first feature. GOMEZ-REJON: You can still say that, though — that I’m 24. [Laughs]

Okay, we’ll fudge that in the piece. Can you talk about your 20-year trajectory and what you learned along the way? GOMEZ-REJON: One of the curses of knowing exactly what you want to do is it may be a very long time before you actually get to do it. I was 12 when I decided this is what I’m going to do with my life. I applied to one school, NYU, because Scorsese went there. I knew the second I went there that I was going to meet him and work for him. I started p.a.’ing the first morning I was in New York. I had never seen a movie set before. It was orientation week, and we had to cross Washington Square to a different residence hall where the cafeteria was. As I crossed the park, they were shooting a live-action Sesame Street [piece], and I just stayed there. It was just a camera and sticks — nothing, you know? — but it was so exciting. The production coordinator noticed me and put me to work stopping people on the sidewalks. She called me the next day for a Bo Diddley music video and then three days later for a Father MC music video. And this is before school started. Of course, everyone now hates me because I have a résumé. I parlayed that into doing storyboards for a short film, and that’s where I met most of the people who are still in my life now, like Mark Friedberg, who went on to design all those wonderful Wes Anderson and Julie Taymor movies. It was his first design job. I was his intern on In the Soup, and that ended up winning Sundance. Part of me doesn’t even know how I made it through school because I was working constantly. Jeff Sommerville, who is a producer on Earl, I associate produced his thesis — and that’s when that credit meant something! By the third year, I knew so many people outside of NYU in the assistant circle. Eventually, someone told me, “We just heard that Scorsese’s second assistant is looking for an intern.” I interviewed and got it, and my world just expanded after that.

What was it like working for Scorsese? GOMEZ-REJON: I get there [that first day], and they hadn’t told Scorsese that there’s a new intern in the office. Literally, the quote was, “It’s too soon to introduce new elements into his life.” So the second Scorsese would come into the office, I would have to go to the Xerox room. They would throw all these things at me, like, every version of Clockers, that Spike Lee would eventually direct, and I’d transfer all of Marty’s handwritten notes. Or, I’d go to his mom’s house and hide. I’d hang pictures on her wall, she’d cook for me and we’d watch Regis Philbin or something. And then, I’d get the call, “Okay, it’s time for you to come back.”

Then, little by little, I was let out of the cage. Scorsese would nod at you in the hallway, and that was like a big deal. Little by little you’re covering the phones, and then, by the end, you’re watching movies together. It was the greatest. He was the most generous person, the most humble, and he was constantly making you see movies. We had a library of 25,000 VHS and laser discs, in addition to film prints. Every Saturday, we’d watch movies together, sometimes just the two of us — random movies, obscure movies, like Wake of the Red Witch, where John Wayne is wrestling an octopus. And I was archiving for [critic and current New York Film Festival director] Kent Jones, who was working there as well. Kent was such an important figure in my life, especially during those formative years. I don’t think he knows how much I looked up to him. He taught me how to talk about film; he’s so eloquent and knowledgable and would constantly be turning me on to new filmmakers, or at least who were new to me. Olivier Assayas and Abel Ferrara were as important for me to watch as SCTV’s “Jerry Lewis Live on the Champs Elysees.”

And then how’d you connect to all those other filmmakers? GOMEZ-REJON: [The Scorsese job] led to Nick Pileggi, who wrote Casino, and then Nick Pileggi [introduced me to his wife], Nora Ephron. I worked for her for a number of years. One thing led to another. Assistant jobs led to second-unit directing. Nora actually forced Paramount to get me into the [DGA] as a second-unit director because she had a lot of faith in me. That changed everything. I had already assisted with Iñárritu, so when he called me back for Babel to be his assistant, I said, “Well, I’m already directing second unit.” He said, “Come and do second unit, then.” The reel off of that movie got me my first directing agent at Endeavor. That led to bigger and bigger movies. One of those jobs was Eat Pray Love, which was directed by Ryan Murphy, and he gave me my first TV directing assignment on the first season of Glee. That led to American Horror Story and a number of other things.

Today it seems as if every independent filmmaker wants to do TV. You cracked that world, yet you’ve now made an independent film that is suffused with the belief that only cinema can provide certain types of experiences or emotions. How did you keep that ambition, that aspiration, while being successful in television? GOMEZ-REJON: I think it had a lot to do with the way Ryan Murphy let me work. When I got my first [episode of] Glee, I was such a formalist. Scorsese had turned me on to the Powell-Pressburger films and Bob Fosse, and I had studied Scorsese’s script of The Last Waltz and saw how he designed shots to certain phrases of the song. The crew thought I was insane because I had storyboarded the musical number, which was “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy, and had time codes for every shot with camera moves [on specific phrases]. It was quite insane because they were used to three cameras going at the same time and cutting to the beat. Even though directing television is a wonderful career and a very noble profession, I never wanted to lose that sense of discovery or love of filmmaking. I didn’t want to just make it fast and easy and come in on budget so I could get the next gig. I always treated every episode like my last. That [first] episode turned out really well, and then I got more and more. Ryan really let me do my thing. He would always say, “Do whatever you want. If they say you can’t do it, just tell them I want it.” But, to answer your question, I just wanted to go back to that high of making a film in film school — that idea of people having your back and understanding your vision and helping you realize it. So, I was very patient. When it’s 20 years and you’re not making a movie, it’s quite difficult. I was still working, still directing, but I don’t think I ever lost faith.

This is a question for both of you. How much do you view the cinephilia expressed in Me and Earl as a kind of romantic gesture that’s inspired by your own passions, versus something present in the behavior of a subset of actual teenagers today? GOMEZ-REJON: You know, there was a push early on to make the movies more accessible. But one of the many jobs I had while I was at AFI was babysitting for Criterion producers’ kids and also doing research for them, and I loved that world. I thought it was important to be obscure with the movies because we’re celebrating movies, and maybe kids or adults who aren’t aware of these movies will discover them. It was also a way for me to thank Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, who have been such mentors to me, and to continue their tradition of honoring the masters that came before them.

ANDREWS: Growing up, I certainly wasn’t any kind of film scholar, but I watched plenty of movies, and I would come into contact with unlikely movies and books for a teenager to see. But, everyone is into unexpected stuff. When you assume something about someone’s taste, what they’re into, and, by extension, their interior life, you’re probably going to be wrong, at least on some level. So, I think [the characters’ tastes in movies] is one way of expressing that idea. And the notion that today’s future Werner Herzog is only making Vines I think doesn’t give enough respect to the longevity of the form. There’s a reason we like movies that are 100 minutes long and that have these conventions, these tropes. It’s a form that’s proven very satisfying, very durable. The same goes for the novel, which has been around hundreds of years.

The scene in the movie where Greg and Rachel spend the day at a used vinyl store with all those DVDs and laserdiscs — I was really moved by that. I mean, I download and stream now like everyone else, but days like that were something I used to do. And there was an Andrei Rublev laser disk right in the front of the frame! Not a DVD! GOMEZ-REJON: [Regarding that scene], I was nervous that there’s so much talking in the script. I didn’t want this movie to just be masters and overs and people talking all the time. I thought, what is the environment [for any given scene]? Thelma Schoonmaker had lived in Pittsburgh for a while after Woodstock and before Raging Bull, because Scorsese couldn’t get her into the guild to make his studio movies. She was doing short documentaries about the Supreme Court in Pittsburgh, and she made a lot of good friends. I had dinner with some of them, and one told me about this shop in Polish Hill that sold LPs, comic books and DVDs. So, [setting a long dialogue scene there] was a really fun way to break up the scene and create this new environment. We enhanced it by putting in all the posters and laserdiscs and making it look like Kim’s Video on St Marks, where you’d discover all these filmmakers because they had them by sections. And that became a way to start planting the seeds of what would become [Greg’s] final film. That’s where Brakhage and the avant-garde films are.

You said earlier that there was a push at one point to make the film references a bit more commercial. Was there a similar push when it came to the score? Did someone want a Maroon 5 song? Where did the decision to score the movie largely with songs from Brian Eno’s first four albums come from? GOMEZ-REJON: There was never a push to make it a Maroon 5 score or anything like that. I didn’t want the score to have popular songs because by the time the movie is released, they’d already be dated. [Eno’s] “The Big Ship” became the structure and kind of the sound for the short film. Because I knew I wanted to project that film [during the shooting], it needed to be finished by the time we shot that scene. Maybe we could have just green-screened it and figured out later in post what that film was going to be, but it was important for the actors, I thought, to go through that moment [of watching the film] together live with us. After listening to “The Big Ship” and seeing it play in the room in that scene, we found that song absolutely necessary. I called my editor, David Trachtenberg, and I said, “Something really magical is happening with Eno here. You should download Another Green World and try playing with it.” I had to go back to New Orleans to do one more episode of American Horror Story, so we had about three weeks off. When I finally saw the editor’s assembly, he had already laid in a handful of Eno, and it worked amazingly. So we downloaded everything we could find that Eno produced. By the time I was screening [the cut], I had about 16 to 18 cues [by him]. And then, it became a conversation with [music supervisor] Randy Poster about composers. I thought, “Well, it really should be Eno. If we can’t get all of this Eno, maybe he’ll score for us.” Eventually, Brian Loucks at CAA, who represents Eno, got him to see the film, and he loved it and became a champion. He wrote me this amazing email that’s up on my wall. He said he thought I responded to his music because he always tries to make it up of different and mixed emotions.

Tell me about the process of making the final film with animators Edward Bursch and Nathan Marsh? GOMEZ-REJON: All through prep, and even when I was fighting for the job, I was very open to what that final film was going to be. It had to be Greg finding his voice. How do you express love, in a way, or make a film that’s a tribute to Rachel, and to their friendship, and make it quite moving? I didn’t know. Shortly before we went out to Pittsburgh, I thought, it has to be abstract. It was important that it be a silent expression of his love, respect, admiration. This isn’t a romance, and it was very important for me that it didn’t become a love story. I didn’t want Greg to rely on words, jokes, spoofs… he was going to have to express himself with color and shape and sound. He is beginning to find his voice as a young filmmaker. It’s one of Rachel’s great lessons: “It’s okay to by quiet for a while.” And he is, for the first time. He’s “coming of age.”

You say, “This isn’t a romance,” and that’s one of the more striking aspects of the film, its depiction of a platonic yet very deep relationship. In terms of the filmmaking, how do you keep elements of romance out of the film? GOMEZ-REJON: It was very important to me that not even glimmers of romance enter the story. If the audience expected a love story, the film would have been a failure. I, personally, was trying to process grief through humor. I wasn’t interested in dealing with heartache in the traditional sense; that’s not the movie I wanted to make, although I’m sure that could’ve been a great version. Thomas and Olivia had a very honest, easy rapport — even as strangers, when they met in the first chemistry read. Both are attractive but also very accessible. In five to 10 years, this could have been a great love story… but not now. What [these characters] need now from each other is transparency, honesty and acceptance. Another way we kept the romance out is how Chung-hoon Chung and I shot their scenes. We played with composition, wide lenses… Separating the two. And then in the editing, David and I were very careful when we used a two-shot and how long we stayed on it. You can never underestimate the power of the close-up; a gaze that lasts half a second too long might suggest a “desire,” or whatever. So we were very judicious. We kept those first scenes moving and playful and awkward, so by the middle-to-end of the movie, I could be free to hold on two-shots, often without cutting away, for five and six minutes at a stretch and trust that the audience now understood the story I was telling.

So to go back to the short film Greg makes for Rachel, how, and when, did the making of that film happen? GOMEZ-REJON: After wrap [each day], Ed and Nate would come over to my house in Pittsburgh, and we’d have a few drinks and just talk about it. That forced me to verbalize what I was feeling. It was [originally] going to start as a deconstruction of the student testimonials [to Rachel] and just end on abstract images, on colors. Or, Greg would find a doodle on her desk, and we would just do an insert of the doodle and we’d hold on that. And then, we started watching a lot of experimental films, and it just started to take shape. They would go off and do these stop motion things, email me clips, and we’d talk about them. Little by little, they started to come together. It was two days before we shot that scene that I went to the Warhol Museum with my prop master, Beau Harrison, and we saw Warhol’s Screen Tests. Maybe we should do screen tests for these kids? Of course, they would be exposed to Warhol because they’re in Pittsburgh. The deconstructed student testimonials didn’t work, so the next day we set up a camera at Rachel’s house and started shooting the screen tests. It was the morning before we shot the [hospital] scene that I finally saw the final film. I’d woken up early to time my shots to [the film], and when I saw the whole thing with the [Brian Eno] music, I just started crying my eyes out because it achieved exactly what I wanted it to achieve. It was really this journey of hers, and you can interpret the end of that journey and the end of the film however you want, depending on where you are spiritually in your life at that point. To me, at that point, she was becoming energy, and it was all done through film and shape. That’s the only way you could really express those feelings, those abstract feelings, to make them into color — something as simple as that. Anyhow, it ended on the color yellow, which was the color that we had assigned her. And so, it was an evolution. But [Ed and Nate] were brilliant filmmakers, and they were able to, in a very abstract way, tell the story of the entire film, which was that this is [Greg’s] film for Rachel in the way this bigger film was for my dad, you know?

The color yellow was assigned to Rachel? GOMEZ-REJON: Rachel was yellow. It was a color associated with rebirth. The cycle. The sun comes up each morning. Optimism. A fresh start. Newness every day attached to yellow. Jennifer Eve, my costume designer, pitched me this idea, and I was very moved by it. Greg was green. She and Gerry Sullivan, my production designer, came up with this independently of each other. Greg alone in his bedroom was truly who he was, and every time he left the bedroom he wore a green jacket, like armor, because it made him feel safe; it was an extension of his true self. But Rachel was everywhere, from the color of Earl’s bright canary-yellow house (which I always thought of as the version of Earl’s house from Greg’s memory) to the rubber bands Greg wears on his wrist when he’s writing his college essay that bookends the movie. And the patterns in Rachel’s clothes got brighter and brighter and more contrasty the sicker she gets. Jennifer and Gerry worked closely throughout prep and production to make sure they were always complementing each other’s work. It was important to me that all departments talk and share ideas. For instance, Nate and Ed used a lot of Rachel’s patterns in the final film, and the end of that final film, when we hold on the color yellow for five or 10 seconds… the audience will subconsciously feel Rachel. She’s everywhere now.

You just said you woke up early to storyboard that hospital room scene, but I understand also that you threw the storyboard out. GOMEZ-REJON: The entire scene was storyboarded. I said to my a.d., Jonas Spaccarotelli, let’s do whatever we can to give me enough time to not rush this scene. But when I got to the set, it just didn’t feel right. [The storyboards] were too stylized for this journey that the actors are going through. The last thing I wanted to do was to come up with a sequence that was stylized, technically beautiful, but cold. I was so crushed and so angry at myself. I went away for 15 minutes to another room. I had the entire crew waiting, and now it’s going to be lunch and we haven’t shot anything — I just felt like an absolute failure. What was a wonderful shoot was going to be a disaster. And I just realized that I would have to document [this scene] with a Steadicam. I don’t particularly like Steadicam, but it was the right tool for this because it has a bit of a dreamy quality to it; it’s imperfect. [I thought], I just wanted to document the performances and some of my memories of being in a situation like this years prior. Once we started shooting, it became a very loose process. And very small — just me in the room with the cameraman and the actors. It was very simple — basically close-ups, two shots and that was it. I started to feel again and we ended up finally, I think, getting it. But, it was a very humbling process. You think you’re doing the right thing, you think you’re so prepared and, the mystery of filmmaking, it just doesn’t work.

We’re talking about this scene as the end of the film, but, in fact, the film goes on for several more scenes, which are also incredibly moving. GOMEZ-REJON: After the death scene, there was a very long scene [in the script] that I shot where Greg addresses the entire student body at the school auditorium — a five-minute talking scene, Greg’s big speech. [It was] Thomas Mann’s audition piece. Then there’s the shiva, and then there was another dialogue scene between the two boys that I also shot. And only after that did we go into her bedroom. But something was happening in the cutting room. The film also wanted “to be quiet for a while.” No one wanted to stop and hear more words. We just wanted to go on this trip… So, it was a beautiful and happy accident that my movie also became a bigger version of Greg’s final film. A silent expression of love, an overwhelming abstract emotion that is bigger than words. A film that was a metaphor for Greg: spoofs (Warhol’s Screen Tests) lead to more playful Eames-like stop motion using tangible objects (her pillows)… and finally color, line, shapes, music. It was a great way to end the shoot, because the very last shot was just the camera shooting the wall. It was an insert of the movie. So, the entire crew, whoever could fit, went into the hospital room and laid on the bed, on the ground, on the floor, and we just projected the movie, blasted Eno, and for six minutes or whatever the length of the movie, the entire crew just sat silently watching this and crying. And then we all had a drink.n

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