The Writer Behind the Breakout Movie of 2015
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
This awkward, witty teen drama is about to launch some Hollywood careers.
A few years ago, Jesse Andrews was a freelance proofreader struggling to get anyone interested in the novels he spent most of his time writing. Then, in 2012, his first book was published, a young-adult novel titled Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Critics praised the novel, and Andrews adapted it into a screenplay — the film, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to an opening-night standing ovation. The film went home with the festival’s Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award and a hefty distribution deal from Fox Searchlight. Jesse Andrews is about to become a star.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
OZY: Is the story autobiographical at all?
There are a lot of elements from my life, like being set in Pittsburgh, where I’m from, but the story itself is not from my life. It takes a lot from my worldview: I was someone who, like the main character, Greg, tried to be on good terms with everyone. I really couldn’t bear the idea of anyone not liking me at all. And I also had friends I’d made movies with.
It’s a funny movie that’s about something that’s not very funny at all.
Greg (played by Thomas Mann) is a senior in high school, 17 years old, and he’s carefully constructed this life for himself where he’s friendly with everyone at school but doesn’t have any real friends. He’s basically trying to be as invisible and invulnerable as possible. What he does in secret with his only friend, Earl — who he actually doesn’t even call his friend but his “co-worker,” because Greg is a weirdo — is make films together. That’s his life, and he doesn’t really let anyone in or let anyone see the films.
UPDATE: Fox Searchlight just announced that “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” will open on July 1 in limited release.
Greg’s mother (played by Connie Britton) forces him to befriend a girl at his school, Rachel (played by Olivia Cooke), who it turns out has serious, pretty advanced cancer when he meets her. It’s awkward and difficult, and it’s this huge terrible thing that just blows up his life. It’s a funny movie that’s about something that’s not very funny at all.
OZY: Chapters in the book are written as if they were dialogue from a genre movie. Did features like that help it translate into a screenplay?
It probably gave the producers the idea that I could write the script, specifically the producer Dan Fogelman. His idea was that I at least be approached about writing the script. Part of that approach was his offer to mentor me through the script process.
OZY: Fogelman had written scripts for …
Oh, just massively successful movies: Crazy, Stupid, Love; Cars; Bolt; Tangled. He’s a massively accomplished and talented screenwriter, almost like the best possible version of a thesis adviser. He gave me a ton of scripts to read, and he said something amazingly generous, which I took to heart. He said, “All those screenwriting books are out there, and if you feel the need to page through one, then go ahead — but I’m certainly not going to require you to. The reason why is that you’re so new at this, you’re going to make a ton of mistakes. Some of those mistakes will be legitimate mistakes that we really have to fix. But some of those mistakes might be the reason why this script is unique, distinctive and good. I want you to feel as free as possible to make them and start from a place of freshness and blissful ignorance.”
OZY: So the movie was a huge success here at Sundance. What’s that been like?
I’m someone who keeps his expectations low, so this has been completely off the map. The awards were incredible, but just the screenings and being able to talk to people after they saw it was almost more incredible. We saw that we’d been able to get those feelings across to the audience and make the movie that we wanted to make.
The movie doesn’t have a trailer yet, but you can watch and listen to the director talk about making the film here: