Me and Earl and the Dying Girl Interview with Writer Jesse Andrews

If you haven’t already had a chance to see Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, the teen dramedy that won the two most significant awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival (and which we gave a 9/10 review!), it’s going to expand into more theaters over the coming weeks giving you more opportunities to check it out. 

Based on Jesse Andrews’ novel, which he adapted into his first screenplay, the movie stars Thomas Mann as Greg, a less-than-ambitious high school senior who tries to stay under the radar by not being labelled into one of the school’s typical cliques. He suddenly finds himself out of his already miniscule comfort zone when his parents urge him to spend time with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl who has been diagnosed with leukemia, so Greg hangs with her, putting his own studies and interests on hold.

The movie, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (“Glee,” “American Horror Story”), also stars newcomer RJ Cyler as “Earl,” Greg’s collaborator on a number of satirical DIY films, Nick Offerman and Connie Britton as Greg’s parents, Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mother, and Jon Bernthal as his offbeat history teacher. had a chance to sit down with Andrews for an interview a few weeks back and we share now both for those who have already seen it and for those who will start to have an opportunity to see it this and the following weeks. I liked this movie a lot, and honestly, I think you’re going to get an Oscar nomination for the screenplay, although it’s still very early to make that call. 

Jesse Andrews: Well, that’s incredibly kind of you to say.

CS: I tend to know what the writers in the Academy go for and this is an incredibly good screenplay. Let’s go back in time. You decided to write a book. Had you always had an idea that you thought it would make a good movie and you wanted to adapt it?

Andrews: No, it came together in a very surprising way. I started out just wanting to be a novelist, and that’s all I wanted to do coming out of college and wrote books that were not publishable before “Me and Earl” and spent six years doing that before trying it a third time and trying it very differently and this time writing something less experimental and ambitious and grandiose and terrible and instead just write something funny that rewards people’s attention. But it’s also about something, something kind of difficult, about something not funny at all. As I wrote the book, I did not have any sense of wanting to turn it into a movie, even though it’s about a moviemaking main character and even though some passages in the book are written in the format of a screenplay. That just felt like some of little formal experimentation and quirk that I wanted to do to make this book different and just because that felt right, because that’s my style, that’s how I like to write. I’m influenced by Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, writers who are often not content to just stack paragraphs and have to break out of that. 

The process came together in a kind of unusual way. I had an agent who went about selling the film rights and she wanted to package the film rights to this book with someone who makes them a little more valuable, so she put the book in front of a number of writers, directors, producers. One was Dan Fogelman, who read the book, wanted to be a part of it, but had the insane idea that I would adapt it. He felt that this book had a strong voice and maybe the author could make that happen in the screenplay form as well. So they came to me and they said, “Is this an opportunity that interests you at all?” I thought of course, but it was a new, strange thing. It was very exciting. I just wanted to not screw it up too bad, you know?


CS: I spoke to Dennis Lehane, who had a lot of his books adapted by other people including “Gone Baby Gone” and “Mystic River.” He recently adapted his own short story “The Drop” into a movie and he said you have to approach it completely differently and you have to set aside the fact that you spent all that time writing the book. Was that the case with you? What was the process for this adaptation?

Andrews: Having written an entire book about these characters and about this story made this a much easier first screenplay than I think a first screenplay usually is, because I already had answered a lot of the questions that you have to answer for yourself when you write anything. My attitude, especially after Alfonso came on, was that I’ve already told this story on my own once and I’ve already got to do it just so. So there’s no need to do that again, there’s no need to cling to this thing or that thing, however big or small, this conception of a character, this line, this scene, this sensibility. If others want it a different way, if there’s reason to do that, I just want it to be of service and to facilitate other people with this, and give them the richest territory that I could to make their art—director, actors, production design, costume design. So with that, it became about learning the conventions of a script and especially the economy that’s required. Paring it down, giving it a few more story elements, and then just listening to notes, listening to what people had to tell me. I just had the insane good fortune to be surrounded by really smart, thoughtful funny generous people—the producers and then Alfonso. 100% of what they were telling me was really useful and deep and cool and I used most of it. Yeah, I really almost never had the instinct to push back or defend—it was all about opening up to these incredible people that I got to work with.

As a writer and a novelist, you get kind of sick of being so alone. It’s just great to be a part of a team and to pass the ball to someone and know they’re going to do something amazing with it. That felt great! It’s such a high. Writing a book is its own kind of high but this, the team high, there’s something almost indescribable about it. It’s just such a good feeling.

CS: Not all authors can handle that aspect of filmmaking because they know that things will change and it might not live up to the vision they had in the first place. In your case, you were able to be more involved and Alfonso mentioned you wanted to direct eventually as well. So did you want to be on set to learn those skills as well?

Andrews: Certainly that but even if I didn’t have any ambition to direct, if I want to continue being a screenwriter, I have to know more about this world and how this stuff works. I’m very proud of the script, but I wrote it without ever having been on set or seeing how this stuff works, so you can always learn new things and pick up new things. I just want to make myself better at providing directors and actors with the raw stuff, the ingredients, that they can turn into a meal. Just like generating stuff that they can use. The more you see the process you get at that. I’m just at the beginning of that really.

CS: Were the homemade movies in the original book? I’m not sure if I mentioned this, but when I first saw the movie, I thought it was such an original idea that I was surprised it was based on a book. I wasn’t sure how you get that type of visual humor into writing.

Andrews: Yeah, it’s in the book. The movies are described in the book, not in enormous detail, and in the book they appear as Greg’s reviews of them so they end with one star or two and a half star and little capsules, the way they appear in magazines or the New York Times, just listings with the “directed by” and the year. They’re in there although the movies are a little different. They reflect a somewhat more haphazard diet of movies. Here, it’s very much about masters of cinema past and present, lot of foreign directors in there, lots of Criterion Collection and in the book, you’ve also got “Star Wars” and James Bond movies and stuff.

me and earl and the dying girl

CS: Were there rights issue when they made the movie or were they allowed due to parody rights?

Andrews: Jeremy Dawson (the film’s producer) was very on the case about making sure that stuff fit under the parody law. I don’t think there was a ton of issues, but I was insulated from all of that, too.               

CS: Having really become familiar with these characters from writing the book and the screenplay, which character became something different in the movie that surprised you?

Andrews: It’s a good question. The character of Rachel became much more than who she was, especially in the book, but that’s a function of the book being in the first person, so Rachel and everyone in the book is presented to you by this narrator who hasn’t yet learned to pay attention. He does so by the end of the story but for most of the book he’s presenting very partial portraits of these people in his life, so there’s a lot to Rachel that we don’t see in the book. We see much more of it in the movie, because necessarily can’t be in the same way in the first person. We just see Greg from without and we see these other characters through our eyes and not his own, and so Rachel just becomes much more interesting and there’s so much to her and we see much more of it. She has this strength and this toughness that Olivia saw in the character and brought out in this very skillful and beautiful way, the magic that actors have that makes them actors. That was wonderful to see and something that I think about a lot when I think about the things that actors bring to a movie that the writer just can’t generate. You give them an outline and they fill it in in this unexpected marvelous way. It’s wonderful.

CS: Is it tough to work in the high school realm, because especially at Sundance, there seems to be a lot of movies set at high school and cancer is also something we see a lot as a subject of movies so is it hard to find new ideas in those realms?

Andrews: I don’t think you can write from a reactive place. I think you just write the thing you want to write about and if other people are writing about it, that doesn’t really come to bear on what you want to do. In a way, there’s nothing new under the sun, so anything you write about has been written about by other people. All you can do is bring yourself to it, bring as much honesty as you can to it. If something is being written about a lot, there’s a conversation there, there’s a dialogue there. There’s probably a reason for it that it resonates deeply in some way. Cancer is sort of the modern disease, the slow terrible, sudden, often inexplicable thing.

CS: Right, because people don’t know how to deal with it, because everyone deals with it differently on both sides.

Andrews: Exactly. It’s a common villain but a difficult one to get a purchase on. We’re all trying to find a way to do that.

CS: Where do you go from here? You have a lot of options. You said you’ve already written another book and that’s coming out?

Andrews: It hasn’t been announced just yet but I think it will be pretty soon, maybe at the Book Expo. It’s another teen book. It’s got three kids. No one dies this time. They’re musicians on the road. I had a lot of fun writing that one. I’ve also written some scripts.

CS: Just writing straight for the screen?

Andrews: Yeah, a couple adaptation jobs for some producers and then I did write my own script that’s not based on anything and that’s the one I’m hoping to direct, maybe as soon as next year.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is now playing nationwide. You can watch an interview with director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon here and another with actor Thomas Mann here.