Many a filmmaker shows up at the Sundance Film Festival dreaming of becoming the next Martin Scorsese. But only Alfonso Gomez-Rejon can claim to have crashed on the legendary director’s sofa, retyped his script pages and learned at his side.
Unsurprisingly, the “Taxi Driver” auteur is everywhere in Gomez-Rejon’s Sundance grand jury prize-winner “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” which Fox Searchlight opens in limited release June 12. Greg Gaines, the movie’s cinephile protagonist, has a “Mean Streets” poster tacked to his bedroom wall, a first-edition copy of “Scorsese on Scorsese” on his desk, and a photo of the filmmaker’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker as his computer screensaver.
And those are just some of the homages that crop up throughout the second feature by Gomez-Rejon, who learned some of his craft at Scorsese’s elbow, as the director’s production assistant on the Las Vegas shoot of “Casino” in 1995. Now, he’s parlaying his Sundance success for a step up in scale -— directing the drama “Collateral Beauty,” with Hugh Jackman and Rooney Mara attached to star.
Indeed, while Gomez-Rejon may be this year’s breakout Sundance kid, he’s anything but the new kid on the block. The 42-year-old filmmaker, who has steadily worked his way up through the ranks of an industry that rarely functions as a meritocracy, could almost be considered an eminence grise by the standards of Sundance alumni like Damien Chazelle (who was 29 when he directed “Whiplash”) and Steven Soderbergh (26 at the time of “Sex, Lies and Videotape”). But he apprenticed with the best — not just Scorsese, but also Nora Ephron, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Ryan Murphy, on his way to directing “Me and Earl,” which Fox Searchlight is already envisioning as an awards-season hopeful.
In the movie, the acerbic but emotionally immature Gaines (Thomas Mann) prides himself on his ability to move easily among all the disparate social cliques of his Pittsburgh high school while belonging to none. Greg’s only true friend is Earl Jackson (RJ Cyler), with whom he spends his spare time making lowbrow movie parodies of classics like “A Clockwork Orange” (rechristened “A Sockwork Orange”) and “Rashomon” (here, “Mono Rash”). But Greg’s sense of cool detachment is challenged by his encounter with Rachel Kushner (Olivia Cooke), a leukemia-stricken classmate whom he reluctantly befriends at the behest of his mother (Connie Britton).
It sounds like a recipe for sentimental schmaltz — as many inferred from “Earl’s” unappealing description in this year’s Sundance catalog. But Gomez-Rejon and screenwriter Jesse Andrews (who adapted his own novel) keep the film consistently surprising, tartly funny and authentically moving, fueled by superb lead performances and the dozens of Gaines-Jackson mini-movies, which suggest the Criterion Collection as hijacked by the Zucker Brothers.
The project struck a deeply personal chord with Gomez-Rejon, who read Andrews’ script shortly after the death of his father, Julio Cesar. At the time, Gomez-Rejon was segueing from a career as a second-unit director to helming episodic television and, unable to cope with the loss, he hurled himself into his work. “I had to be on the set, with people, with a structure,” he says over a recent lunch, tucked into a booth at Little Dom’s Italian restaurant in Los Feliz. When he read “Earl,” he says, “I felt I could make it personal, I could make it about me without making it (directly) about me. I just wanted to capture some of the emotion that I went through, and hopefully come out better at the other end.”
First, though, Gomez-Rejon would have to beat out a number of more established directors who were also chasing the script, which had landed on the Black List in 2012. Drawing on a connection from his NYU film school days, he was able to get a pitch meeting with producer-financier Steve Rales’ Indian Paintbrush, where he dazzled the room with a “mood reel” of his visual ideas for the film, including clips from “The Graduate” and “Harold and Maude,” and behind-the-scenes filmmaking exposes like “Burden of Dreams” and “Hearts of Darkness.” When the meeting was over, he’d won the job.
Gomez-Rejon grew up in Laredo, Texas, where Julio Cesar, a psychiatrist, had opened a practice after emigrating from Mexico in the late ’60s. “You’d cross the street, and that was technically Mexico,” the director says of the fluid border town. His earliest exposure to movies came via the golden-age Mexican cinema classics his parents would screen for the family, and Hollywood films caught on the late, late show (which he stayed up to watch because he was afraid of the dark). At age 12, a VHS copy of “Mean Streets,” rented from a neighborhood video shop, turned a passing interest into a veritable obsession. “I saw myself in (Harvey Keitel’s character) Charlie,” he says.
In 1990, he followed in Scorsese’s footsteps by enrolling at NYU. Walking through Washington Square Park during orientation, he came upon a crew shooting scenes for “Sesame Street” and was so transfixed by the sight of his first real-life set that he stood there staring for hours, until one of the producers took pity on him and put him to work as a PA. By the first day of class, he already had three professional gigs on his resume.
In his senior year, he landed an internship at Scorsese’s Manhattan office, though it was months before he actually got to meet the master. “I think they were testing me to see if I was going to stick around, so every time Marty would show up, they would escort me into the Xerox room,” he remembers. Eventually, he passed the test, and was allowed to join Scorsese in his screening room to watch classic films. When he was offered the chance to work on “Casino,” he deferred his acceptance to grad school at the American Film Institute to take the job.
“Alfonso has always loved movies, and he’s always been a quick study,” Scorsese says by email from the Taiwan set of his forthcoming film “Silence.” “When he was working in my office and then on the set of ‘Casino,’ it was great to watch him absorbing everything, very quietly — you could see how closely he was paying attention. And when I finally got a chance to see what he’d been doing, I saw the results: Here was someone who had learned how to make movies.”
In person, it’s easy to understand why Gomez-Rejon makes such fast friends. He possesses a guilelessness that’s rare in a business of so many smooth-talkers and careerist schemers, and while he doesn’t lack ambition, it’s buried deep beneath an awestruck self-effacement, as if he still can’t quite believe he gets to make movies for a living.
“He’s a classy guy, and he’s always positive,” says Gonzalez Inarritu, who hired Gomez-Rejon as an assistant on “21 Grams” and, later, to shoot second unit on “Babel.” “I’m talking about his human qualities,” he adds. “I always feel they’re almost as important as talent.”
But “Glee” creator Murphy, suggests there’s more to Gomez-Rejon than meets the eye. “He’s very polite and very mild-mannered, and he’s super gentlemanly,” Murphy says. “But when you get him behind the camera, he becomes a killer. He will talk your ear off until he gets that one shot that he has in his head, and nobody’s going to stop him from getting it.” Murphy was so impressed by Gomez-Rejon’s second-unit work on his 2010 Julia Roberts feature “Eat Pray Love” that he offered him the director’s chair on an episode of “Glee,” and later made him the lead producer-director for the third season of “American Horror Story.”
When “Earl” suffered a couple of false starts before finally getting the greenlight, Murphy gave Gomez-Rejon the chance to direct what would become his first feature film, last year’s “The Town That Dreaded Sundown,” a low-budget horror remake he had set up at MGM. The meta-movie that resulted was a bit too ambitious, it seems, for MGM, which wanted a more conventional slasher pic, and forced Gomez-Rejon to make extensive editorial changes before quietly dumping the film in a limited theatrical and VOD release.
Like Scorsese’s own early experience directing the Roger Corman gangster drama “Boxcar Bertha,” Gomez-Rejon’s cinematic trial-by-fire only redoubled his conviction to make meaningful films in his own voice. It’s a journey that parallels the smitten Greg in “Me and Earl,” who evolves from parody and pastiche artist to personal storyteller as he sets out to make a film for the dying Rachel that will convey, in images, all his unarticulated feelings for her.
As he pondered an appropriate style for Greg’s ultimate film-within-the-film, Gomez-Rejon moved away from narrative filmmakers altogether and toward avant-garde artists like Stan Brakhage and Pittsburgh’s own Andy Warhol, who embraced cinema for its non-narrative qualities.
“It just felt like going abstract was the only way to express this unique kind of love,” says the director. When he saw the result, created by local animators Edward Bursch and Nathan O. March (who also designed the film’s Gaines/Jackson parodies), he began to weep uncontrollably.
For many audiences, “Me and Earl” should trigger a similar response, but the movie is euphoric, too, in its sense of the boundless possibilities of the moving image, and the ability of art to endure long after the artist is gone. As he rushed to finish the film for Sundance, Gomez-Rejon added an end-credits dedication to his father, to signal that his own healing process was complete. “Part of me didn’t want to go there because it’s private, but once it was out there, being forced to talk about my dad constantly has been good for me,” he says. “Even more beautifully, my dad’s story was now unfolding for people who never had the chance to know him. I thought that was a wonderful extension of the movie’s theme.”
Then he gathers himself to consider the future, like those who survive in both film and real life. “Now,” he declares, “it’s about moving forward.”