The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.
Can you talk about adapting your own book for the screen?
Jesse Andrews: They initially approached Dan Fogelman, who’s a very established screenwriter. And he actually flipped it back to me and said he thought I should do it. At that point I just assumed I was talking to someone who was insane, and that this would be a terrible mistake. But I thought, if he wanted to help me do it, then yeah— sure. The arrangement was that he’d shepherd me through this process and he turned out to be an unbelievably patient, generous, guy. There were a lot of drafts of this script— I had never even read a script before setting out to work on this one! So I read a bunch of them, got the software that makes it look really good on the page… But still, I wrote a draft of it, and sent it to him, and we had a phone call. And the call started out with him saying, “Jesse this is so good, you’ve done such a great job… I have a few notes.” And then it was about four and a half hours of notes! Like, every single page… “it’s really good, but it’s completely wrong and you can’t use any of it… but you’ve done a great job, so you should feel good about this totally unusable thing.” That was every page. And you know, he ended the call with, “you’ve done a wonderful job and I can’t wait to see what’s next.” But the second draft of the script actually did look like a script. It was just this long process that I can’t believe I got to be a part of.
“Alfonso choreographed this shot, and I thought, ‘we are f*cked. This guy is insane.’ “
When did you realize this was going to be something special?
Nick Offerman: The first shot we did was me sitting on the couch in the living room, and the camera was on a dolly looking out the window, over a cat, at two eight year olds coming up the walk. And in the shot, the cat had to jump out of the window, the kids had to come up the stairs and speak to the cat while the camera spun around to me, I had to say something to the kids while the camera continued to spin, and the camera had to land on the two kids. And [Alfonso] choreographed this shot, and I thought, “we are f*cked. This guy is insane.” And by the third take I thought, “this is going to be an amazing motion picture.” I’ve never worked with anybody who used the camera so ambitiously. But it was like a calligraphy, black ink paintbrush: he just slapped and dashed it, and so pretty quickly, I felt like if I didn’t [mess] it up, it’d be OK.
Can you talk about shaving your head for the role?
Olivia Cooke: It was never said to the actresses who were auditioning for the role of Rachel, “well, you’ll have to shave your head.” I just sent Alfonso a panicked email two weeks before shooting started saying, “bald caps look terrible!” There’s never a realistic bald cap in a movie no matter how great the makeup artist is. We actually tried on a bald cap, just to be sure, and it looked terrible. And then we decided to film shaving my head in character, because maybe it’d be in the final film. After messing around a bit, just for fun, I shaved the front bit, and gave Thomas the razor and he finished up the back. Feeling my scalp for the first time was very powerful— I was just trying not to cry! The whole point was to take control of the cancer before it takes control of her. But then I was holding back all this emotion, and this sort of bubble of scream-crying came out, and I just started crying, and Alfonso helped me through that. And the next day we shot the scene where I tell Greg that I feel so ugly. So it was the best thing I did for the role, really— I wouldn’t have been able to get there if I had one of those stupid caps on my head.
Thomas Mann: And it was definitely helpful for me as well, to see her go through that. It was real for her, even though of course we’re acting through it. But all her hair was on the floor by the end of it— it was so helpful for me as Greg to be affected by that.
One particularly powerful scene takes place when Rachel tells Greg that she’s stopping treatment. The camera behaves very differently in that scene. Can you talk about how you approached that scene, from both an acting and directing perspective?
TM: We had lived with that scene since our first audition together. And it hadn’t really changed at all since then. It was the kind of thing that was so ingrained in us, it was such a major turning point for both characters in their relationship, that we didn’t want to overthink it, or over rehearse it, or any of that kind of thing. We knew the characters so well we wanted to lay it all out there. And it ended up being one of the quickest scenes to shoot, since we didn’t rehearse it at all— we just did four takes and that was it. At the time we didn’t know it was just going to be covered in one shot, which I’m actually glad about! I think if we had known we may have tried to do too much. Anytime a director trusts you to be in a space for that long without interruption it’s so gratifying. It’s probably the scene that I’m most proud of.
Alfonso Gomez-Rejon: We wanted the beginning of the film to be very playful, but still, it was storyboarded very specifically and formally. We were always having fun with coverage, because I was afraid that the movie would look like a regular love story if we went into traditional coverage; I was afraid you’d feel like you’d seen it before. So we had a lot of fun coming up with compositions that looked playful, pushing the actors to the edges of the frame so you wouldn’t expect a love story. By the time the movie turns in that specific scene, we knew the movie was going to be still, as Greg was learning to pay attention and be quiet for a while. The movie would also start to be quieter. So we found that angle — with her as this gigantic figure in the foreground, and him like a child behind her — and then I was going to go in to do two close ups after that, since it seemed like the logical thing to do, as it’s a six minute scene. But it felt so true, their performances were so honest, it felt so emotional that I could barely say cut! It just felt so right that I wasn’t going to try to chase that emotional high again. I felt that the shot told the story, and this was going to be the big turning point in the film. It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time, and everyone felt it was the right thing.