'Me and Earl and the Dying Girl' Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon on "Cancer Movies," Scorsese and Oscar Buzz

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival; AP Images

"I can't listen to any of [the awards chatter]. I'm trying to savor every moment because I've never been through this journey before."

A version of this story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon grew up using movies to chase away both his loneliness and his fear of the dark. It paid off: His cinephile flag flies proudly in his funny-sad cancer drama Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which was a breakout hit at Sundance, winning both the U.S. grand jury prize and the audience award.

Growing up in Texas, Gomez-Rejon loved the films of Martin Scorsese so much that he went to NYU only because he wanted to follow in the auteur's footsteps. He ended up working as an assistant for Scorsese and several other great directors including Nora Ephron, serving as a second unit director before branching out on his own to direct TV shows like American Horror Story and his first film, 2014's The Town That Dreaded Sundown.

Ahead of the release of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl on June 12, the 42-year-old director spoke to THR about why this story of a high school student who befriends a teen with cancer was so personal to him, and how Scorsese helped him with the film.

How did you get involved with the project?

I read the script and instantly loved the humor in it. I really started to love Greg [Thomas Mann] and understand him. It reminded me of who I used to be. You never forget those high school years, and mine were some of the hardest of my life. And there’s this scene about how when people die, their lives can continue to unfold, you just have to pay attention. That really moved me. After my dad passed away, it was a very, very difficult time, and that scene hooked me.

Was it easy for you to get the job?

I called a friend of mine who was my roommate at NYU and he was working at Indian Paintbrush. He was very honest with me and said there were a whole list of directors, and that I’d only done television. He said I should put together a visual presentation that might make me stand out.

What was in the presentation?

I put together this montage that was very much in the spirit that the movie ended up being. It was a lot of Hal Ashby, Mike Nichols, Bud Cort as Harold [from Harold and Maude] and Dustin Hoffman as Ben Braddock [from The Graduate], and it ended on the "Trouble" sequence from Harold and Maude. It had a lot of Burden of Dreams and Klaus Kinski. It was a mood reel more than anything.

We’ve all seen the "cancer movie" genre before, but this feel very fresh. How did you do that?

I really saw it as a personal film. I was feeling so much at the time and I found this as an opportunity to let it out. I honestly felt what he was feeling and felt this was an opportunity to give what I was feeling a shape — but with comedy, because my dad was one of the funniest people on the planet.

Why was high school a tough time for you?

It’s funny because I’ve been telling my cast some of these stories from high school and two of them started to cry. (Laughs.) I was a year and a half younger than everyone else. I had some very, very good friends but as they got older and I was still tiny and so square, I started to be left alone. It’s tough when you feel that you don’t really belong anywhere and no one really wants you to be a part of their group. It took me a while to catch up, and the catching up period was quite lonely. And I was afraid of the dark, which is so embarrassing to say, so I would just stay up all night and watch movies. Eventually I finished strong: Scorsese transformed me, so I wanted to go where he went to school, and I got into NYU.

You apprenticed for Scorsese. Did he see Me and Earl and the Dying Girl before it was done?

He saw the film because I used his commentary twice in it. He saw a rough cut of it and signed off and liked it very much.

Did he give you notes?

No, but [Scorsese’s longtime editor] Thelma Schoonmaker did. I was an intern for her and Marty in 1993. She’s always been so supportive and nurturing. She saw a rough cut of it in New York. We took her out to dinner at Gallagher’s Steak House and she gave me notes. And then Marty called from Taipei after the film won at Sundance.

There are so many film references in the movie. Were those all from the book or did you add in some of your own?

I wanted to personalize the film from my own experience. The film references in the book got maybe a little too popular so I immediately gravitated to the films that really shaped me. Some of them have a loose connection to the theme of the movie and some of them are just fun and visual. Like Blue Velvet was the second VHS I ever bought and that changed me. And of course Mean Streets changed my entire DNA.

There was already some awards buzz for this film after Sundance. How does that make you feel?

I can’t listen to any of that. I’m trying to savor every moment because I’ve never been through this journey before. I just want people to watch the movie, and have the movie have a life. It would be fun if people are discovering Powell and Pressburger because of this, and then they discover Powell and Pressburger and all of a sudden they’re alive too. That’s important to me.