Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s earned two Emmy nominations for the New Orleans-set “American Horror Story: Coven.” His first feature film, 2014’s well-received, Shreveport-shot “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” is in the horror vein, too.
Gomez-Rejon, a native of Laredo, Texas who’s based in Los Angeles, very much enjoyed directing those 12 episodes of “American Horror Story.” He loved working with the show’s great cast, featuring Oscar winners Jessica Lange and Kathy Bates, and living in New Orleans. Nonetheless, “American Horror Story” took him away from the feature film work he wants most to do.
“As exhilarating as the experience was,” Gomez-Rejon said a few weeks ago, “I really needed ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ to express my inner self. That’s why it was so important to me.”
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” is a drama-comedy about a high school student, Greg (Thomas Mann), whose mother (Connie Britton) insists he spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl at his school who has cancer. It doesn’t matter to Greg’s mom that Greg barely knows Rachel.
“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” which opens Friday in Baton Rouge, won the 2015 Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award.
“It was an absolute dream,” Gomez-Rejon said of the film’s Sundance success. “It was more exciting than the best version of it I dreamed of when I was a kid. It still doesn’t feel real.”
This year was also Gomez-Rejon’s first trip to Sundance.
“In the last few days of the festival, when the press quiets down, all you get to do is see movies,” he recalled. “Then you really feel like you’re part of a community of filmmakers who are trying to get their voices heard. You start to befriend these other directors and be humbled by their work. That was the best of it, when it was less about trying to sell your film and more about supporting everyone else.”
As for selling, Gomez-Rejon did sell himself to the “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” producers. At the time, he’d directed only a few episodes of “American Horror Story” and a single episode of “Glee.”
“I fought for the job,” he said. “I was the last director on the list of people they were going to meet. It took a lot of convincing and a lot of meetings. Eventually I won.”
Gomez-Rejon — whose previous work then included being a personal assistant for directors Martin Scorsese, Nora Ephron, Robert De Niro and Alejandro González Iñárritu as well as directing second unit for Ephron’s “Julie & Julia” and Ben Affleck’s Oscar-winning “Argo” — doesn’t know why he finally got picked to direct “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.”
“There’s that saying that truth has its own frequency,” he speculated. “You feel it or you don’t. Maybe that’s it. I felt deeply that I was the guy to make this story. I also put a visual presentation together that they found useful.”
Backing up a bit, Gomez-Rejon’s agent sent the “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” script to him. Jesse Andrews, the author of the novel the film is based upon, wrote the screenplay. Gomez-Rejon loved it. Also, the director had recently suffered a personal loss in his own life and he hoped that putting Andrews’ story on film would help him get through that.
“By burying myself in the character of Greg and taking that journey with him,” the director explained.
Gomez-Rejon also felt connected to the script’s Greg character, a high-school senior who makes movies with his friend, Earl (RJ Cyler).
“I love the way the characters speak and the way the story deals with adolescence,” Gomez-Rejon added. “Jesse captured a universal feeling. I hadn’t seen it on film before, or certainly not since those great John Hughes movies (‘The Breakfast Club,’ ‘Pretty in Pink’).
Gomez-Rejon and his crew filmed “Me and Earl the Dying Girl” in its writer’s city of origin, Pittsburgh.
“It’s steep and lush but, more than anything, it was the people, the crew, the history of the city, the food,” he said. “I put on 20 pounds. And I love the city. We moved scenes that were supposed to be in bedrooms out to DVD shops and beautiful streets. Pittsburgh became a character.”
Gomez-Rejon lived in Uptown in New Orleans when he shot “American Horror Story.”
“Every corner has another story, every corner has another sound,” he said of New Orleans. “Culturally, it’s probably the most interesting city in the nation. It’s so layered and rich, you can never get tired. It’s constantly revealing itself to you.”