Interview With the Cast of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

By Diego Voss (Own work)

An exclusive interview with the director and cast of the hit coming-of-age film.

Q: One of the themes of the film is how the three main characters focus on art as an emotional outlet. For you guys as actors, could you relate to these characters using craft or art like they did as a coping mechanism?

Thomas Mann: I relate to Greg in the sense that he’s an outcast- I wasn’t necessarily an outcast in high school, but I was more creative and into theater, and I made parodies of movies, like the Matrix and Saw- we did Spoon instead. And so I really related to that and just the pure joy of being creative when you’re that age and discovering what you like and your taste in things is really interesting. I hope people can relate to Greg and see that it’s okay to be artistic and creative and weird in high school, that’s not the end.

Olivia Cooke: Yeah, I think with Rachel, there’s a lovely little detail of her with scissors and with her dad’s books. I’m not creative, otherwise apart from acting, but I definitely feel like when I’m going through something personally, different scripts appeal to me, whether it be more dramatic or comedic, it just depends what I’m going through and what I want to say.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: One of the many things I liked about the script was that it is about young artists and when you’re a young artist, as I was, you start in elementary always painting and drawing, but it’s hard to start sharing. You are different, you are a bit of an outsider and depending on your community, you might not be in very progressive or artistic elementary schools and high schools. It takes a while for you to start opening up and showing your work and eventually find your voice. Films were my calling, so I really understood why Greg and Earl were making these films for themselves and this journey about them learning to make something for someone else. I can see how painful it is for Greg, and even when he hands her Monorash, that is a big moment in a lot of ways. I really responded to the idea of making something to express your feelings. Otherwise they can take over, so in the end, he’s able to make something and be able to have some distance from it.

Q: One of my favorite devices are the movies that you guys are making. We only get to see little bits and pieces of them here, but I was curious if there were ones that you wanted to showcase but weren’t able to for whatever reason. And also if we will get to see all of those on the eventual DVD release?

AGR: Sometimes the version that exists in the movie is maybe the best version of them. Some of them were quite long, and for a reason, Ed Bursch and Nate Marsh shot them. Pittsburghasqatsi, that was a favorite of mine; the thing is that clip doesn’t really work without the Philip Glass music, and we were using The 400 Blows music to kind of give that little montage within the film structure, so without the Philip Glass music, the clip just looks weird. No one was going to get it, you need that engine. That one was one that worked out of context, but in context, we tried so many versions of the movie with longer pieces, because they’re just so good. But then sometimes just the detail, complete lack of conversation- there’s a very, very long, very beautiful zoom that’s very much like the Coppola movie, but I’d basically have to stop the movie for two minutes. It’s just the detail and the texture that kept their handmade films and the handmade quality of the film alive, but a lot of that credit goes to Ed and Nate.  

TM: I don’t really remember which ones weren’t used, but that was one of my favorite parts. We shot most of those in one day; the first day of shooting was just travelling around in a van with Ed and Nate. It was very guerilla style, just shooting on a Bolex camera.

Q: One of the biggest things I noticed about the film is that there were a lot of familiar characters within their own narrative. You guys definitely create your own world, despite the comparisons with the Fault in Our Stars... What do you guys think you bring to the table that makes your story original?

TM: It’s not like we set out saying, “We’re going to be different from this one and this one...” This movie is just so unique in its voice and that’s why I responded to it. I liked the fact that romance wasn’t the driving force of the movie, it was something deeper and more complex than that. It’s just really interesting, it sort of lives in all these grey areas. It’s weird and specific and the voice of Greg is very unique, very self-aware and sort of self-deprecating, and just all very modern, like this is how teenagers speak today, just sort of disjointed and almost simpler.

OC: It’s how humans speak. In a lot of movies, the characters are saying the perfect things in the moment, and that’s not how we speak. It’s disjointed, it’s discombobulated.

AGR: Not that ours is more complex because it’s not romantic, obviously that’s its own complications, but for me it was so entirely different. Thematically, I really responded to it. I wasn’t going out to make a young adult movie. I really saw myself in Greg and wanted to take that journey. The only reason I was concerned about the Fault in Our Stars, and it came out while we were shooting, was that they shot in Pittsburgh so I had my friends go out and watch it just to make sure we’re not shooting the same places. But they were doing Pittsburgh for another city, and we were very much Pittsburgh for Pittsburgh. I still think they’re so different, just because they’re two kids and there might be a cancer element, the spirit of it is so different.

OC: It’s about so much more than just cancer. You can take that out of the movie, and it would still be…

TM: It’s almost like a background.

RJ Cyler: Just like an extra nugget... “Hmm, cancer.”

AGR: It’s about discovery. One of the best things someone said is that after they saw the movie they wanted to go out and make something. So it’s very much a different kind of romance, a different kind of connection.

Brianna Cajic: I noticed the film had a certain rawness and realness to it. Did you find that since the movie was a smaller production, the smaller budget contributed to that raw quality?

AGR: We weren’t conscious of the money, we knew how much we had to work with everyday and designed the script cutting down so we didn’t have too much to do, it was manageable, but sometimes, when you have those kind of constraints, sometimes there are a lot of creative solutions that come out of that. I just didn’t want the cast to feel rushed, ever. In pre-production, there are very specific, big moments that you don’t want to rush. The worst thing for a director, for me, is to have an actor feel rushed. Some things we could design a day where we work quickly and you compromise other stuff without the actors knowing, so they have time to play.

OC: We didn’t add any extra days on, though.

TM: The raw quality... we shot in Jesse’s real house, the writer’s actual childhood home was Greg’s house. So Greg’s bedroom was Jesse’s old bedroom, which really gave it this very lived in, authentic quality.

AGR: And everything the actors wear were all things that they could have pulled from their parents’ closets. It all had to feel very real. If the film were all of a sudden really well-produced and effects-y just to make it shine a little more, then it would take you out of the movie. So in theory, the imperfections are what you have to embrace.

Q: Do you guys know anybody or do you have any real experience with people with cancer or illnesses that you could draw from?

RJ: Yeah my grandma on my dad’s side passed from cancer, and also her husband passed from cancer too, so that was one of those things that I was able to pull from when it was time to be emotional. Which I don’t really do, so that’s what made my challenge more attractive to me. It’s like, “Okay RJ, we can get past that, but now we have to go back to it.” It was something, but it worked, I think.

OC: At the time, researching and prior to the film, I didn’t know anyone, but then I met a girl in the Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. She had gone through all the rounds of chemo that she could and it hadn’t worked and she was having a bone marrow transplant and so I spoke to her. It’s hard to meet someone that’s going through it and not feel like the biggest phony ever.

AGR: Even though I was doing this film because I lost someone very close to me, and it wasn’t to cancer and it wasn’t a 17-year-old girl, but that journey, that emotional, the denial, the confusion, the anger, all that stuff, this was an opportunity to process it. But to be respectful about the cancer process, especially how it relates to a 17-year-old and a 18-year-old girl, there was a lot of research that was done. I had done a lot of research at the Mattel Pediatric Wing at UCLA for a pilot I did last year or two years ago called Red Band Society, it was about kids in the hospital. And then for this one, we featured the Children’s Hospital at Pittsburgh and I did some research there. The wigs, those colored wigs that was something the doctor told us, because the most traumatic thing for teenage girls is losing their hair, much more dramatic than for a boy, they’re so attached to it. Luckily because of fashion now, these colored blue, red wigs is now a statement. Now it’s very important for girls to have wigs, and we incorporated that into the story, so hopefully the details were honest.

Katelin Mason: I was diagnosed with cancer when I was five, luckily I beat it twice and so I’m in remission for the past six years. This movie really captured something that I don’t see a lot in TV and in movies about how real it is and how much it means to us- people who have cancer. And I wanted to ask, did the filming of this movie change your perspective or outlook on life at all?

TM: Yeah, definitely. This movie opened me up emotionally in a lot of ways, I’ve grown up a lot just in the process of shooting this film. I feel like now it’s going to be hard to go back to another high school movie, I feel like I’ve grown up now and I can’t go back to that person before. Yeah, I feel incredibly close to it.

OC: I feel like it’s prepared me somewhat, like if that happens or if that’s going to happen it’s okay. Well it’s not okay, but it’s better. Before shooting the movie, I was so terrified of death and being away from home, because I’m always away from home. I feel like it’s just so out of your control, just to live as well as you can.

RC: It made me more appreciative of the life I do have, just seeing the process of what could happen... And there’s people who do go through that and it really opened my mind to like, “okay RJ, it could always be worse.” So now I’m just more of an optimist, if you will.

AGR: It’s hard not to sound like a cliche when you say these things, but life is so short. Whether you’re a 17 or 18-year-old, or you die at 90, it is so short and you have to kind of appreciate everybody around you. It was also an opportunity to start a dialogue and get some comfort that you’re not alone in feeling this way. If you portray what Greg is going through emotionally in a way that is honest, I find comfort in him and answers to what I was going through by making the film. And it’s a new way of seeing death as not a final thing, but as something that continues in different shapes. That’s what the film in the hospital was, it’s becoming energy and she’s everywhere. Rachel is everywhere, down to the color of Earl’s house is the yellow, the rubberbands on Greg’s wrist when he’s typing, we picked that color for her, as a kind of a cycle of sunrise, so she’s everywhere, and the green in his jacket. And in the end, by discovering these new things that she created, you realize that it doesn't really end when that person is no longer physically there, it takes on different shapes, you just have to pay attention.

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